South Shields Local History Group

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The Salt Pans of South Shields

Making salt by boiling sea water in pans was practised in both North and South Shields probably from early medieval times up until the 1820s. The salt produced was good quality white salt and the trade in salt was so profitable that monied adventurers were drawn to the towns from all over England, as presumably, were the labourers to work the pans. This note traces the history of salt making in South Shields. There are three main sources – The Borough of South Shields by George B Hodgson (Hod); The Art of Making Common Salt by William Brownrigg (Brow); and Water Trades on the Lower River Tyne in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries – Peter D. Wright (Ph D. Thesis) (Pdw).

A map of South Shields and surrounding areas of c 1650 is shown below – this is the basic layout of the town until the mid 1700s.

Map of South Sheels Westoe and Harton 1650 (He Wears a Blue Bonnet by John Orton, drawn by Dave Kerr)


Fisheries on the South bank of the Tyne were first mentioned in a Charter of 1154 granting to the Bishop and Convent of Durham, ‘All their liberties and possessions, the latter including ‘Girum’ (Jarrow)with the church and the fisheries of the Tine, the church of St Hild, and the vills of Wiuestou, Hertedunam, Prestenum etc.’ (Westoe, Harton and Simonside).[i] Thus began the rule of the Palatinate of Durham over all the lands in this area until the 19th century.

The earliest record of the ‘Vill’ of South Scheles is a rent roll of the Bishop of Durham 1235, ‘in which rent roll under the title Scheles are recited by name twenty four tenants holding at the time diverse tofts or tenements..’. One of the tenants was a William, son of Roger, who held a tavern on lease and paid one mark (13s 4d) in rent.[ii]

Over the years, South Scheles developed as a shipping and fishing town with quays and ships, as evidenced by the payment in 1303 of 10s tithe to Jarrow Church for a ship by a John Scott of Shelys.[iii]

The production of salt by boiling seawater is recorded in Blyth in 1236, and also at Tynemouth in the 13th century.[iv] Given that fishing was undertaken from Scheles, then it is highly likely that salt production took place there as well, probably initially on a small scale and using lead pans which were normally heated over wood fires.

Coal was being mined and exported to London in the 13th century and it was noted in 1256 that the approach to Newcastle after dark was dangerous because of abandoned coal pits.[v]The presence of shallow, easily exploitable mines near the Tyne at Elswick, Winlaton, Heworth and the City’s Town Moor, helped to establish Newcastle as a major exporter of coal. It is estimated that by the end of the fourteenth century as much as 15,000 tons of coal each year was being shipped from Newcastle, exported mainly to London and other East coast ports.

Much of the coal would have been transported from Newcastle by keels to ships waiting further downstream and at the river mouth. As well as producing the best quality ‘sea coal’ for export, poor quality small coal, which would otherwise been tipped as waste, was suitable for burning in furnaces. It seems likely therefore that coal would have been available as a fuel for salt pans in the 13th and 14th centuries. Lead pans would melt or crack over the intense heat of a coal rather than a wood fire, and therefore iron pans would be required if coal was to be the usual fuel. The first actual reference to iron pans at South Scheles occurs in 1489. ‘Lionel Bell of Sowth Sheles took a lease of 60 years of a parcel of land near St Hild’s Chapel. Ten years later he surrendered the lease together with two iron salt-pannes constructed by the same Lionel within the said plot of ground, and obtained a renewal.’[vi] The salt industry then grew in importance over the next fifty years, and the stretch of foreshore from the Mill Dam to Jarra’s Lake, (now Jarrow Slake) became known as West Panns.

The fisheries at Scheles would cater for the demands from the monks and priests of Jarrow and Durham who liked their fish! The large quantities involved and the desirability of preserving the fish inevitably led to a thriving salt industry.

Weights and measures

From Medieval times onwards many goods such as grain and salt were sold by volume rather than weight and the standard measure was a bushel, (8 gallons); a quarter was 8 bushels (64 gallons); and a wey was 8 quarters or 40 bushels (320 gallons). Salt was generally sold to householders in boulls (bowls) or in a bushel tubb – those after a smaller quantity would no doubt have purchased it from a street hawker.  A bowl is thought to have been a little smaller than a bushel but both bowl and bushel tubbs had to be stamped by the town’s chief cooper who kept the brazen town measures. It wasn’t his responsibility alone, the town had three salt measurers. (see Regulation of salt production.) These were probably honorary posts, like the ale and bread cunners, who were appointed annually by the Leet or Vestry Court.

Coal was measured by the chaldron – the name of the wagons which were filled at the coal pit, and then hauled along wagonways to the staithes, drops or quays where they would be emptied into the keels. The normal load for a keel used to transport coal to seagoing vessels was 8 Newcastle chaldrons (a chaldron being c 2 1/2tons) and weighed c 21 tons 4 cwt. (Slightly smaller boats called pann-keels carried the coal to the salterns and these carried 6 chaldrons.) ‘As taxes were raised on the basis of a keel load of coal weighing 8 chaldrons or 21 tons, they were measured on a regular basis by being loaded with a known weight; a mark was then made with a nail on the water line, to ensure the accuracy of their load capacity.’[vii] It is worth noting that the London chaldron was about half the weight of a Newcastle chaldron.


Salt production continued to develop in the 16th century and there are two references to it in the Durham Monastery records.

The Durham Monastery’s Household Book for 1531/32 records numerous transactions for the purchase of ‘bools’ (bowls) or bushels of salt. Altogether that year the monastery bought nine quarters of salt at 3s 4d per quarter, and a certain Thomas Bell rendered, on March 4th, two and a half quarters of salt in tithe.[viii]

The last rent roll (1539) of the Durham Monastery before its dissolution showed a render of £12 17s 4d from the vill of Sheeles, excluding the town brewery and the salt pans, of which there were nine; each pann rendered a quarter mark totalling £1 10s.[ix] It is likely that the panns in what was known as West Panns are not included, but accounted for separately.


Hodgson[x] cites the Northumberland MSS (Brand’s Antiquities of Newcastle upon Tyne) as asserting that by 1605 there were 153 salt pans on both sides of the Tyne employing 430 salters, with 120 keelmen carrying the coal by water. ‘The value of salt produced would be between £7653 to £8418 and of the coal consumed over £6000 per annum.’ (These figures must be regarded as being only approximate. Assuming an average total difference between income from salt and cost of coal of about £2000 – divided by 15O gives annual income of £13 and does not take into account excise, wages, and other expenses – so these figures must be treated with extreme caution.)

The profitability of the salt production on the Tyne did however came to the attention of King James I: ‘Its profits did not escape the attention of James, for in the State Papers, under date July 3, 1605, we have particulars of a proposed grant of tax on the sale of salt in the river Sheles or Tynemouth Haven.[xi].

The growth of the salt industry probably reached its peak in the early 1600s with monied adventurers being drawn to the town. There were not only salt houses in Shields on the Low Way which ran from the fisher’s houses to the High Way or Street, but there were also salterns all along the river banks from Mill Dam to Jarra’s Lake in the district of West Panns. The thick smoke billowing from the hundreds of chimneys would lie like a pall over the town. Sir William Bereton who visited the town in 1635 and whose description of the salt works appears later in this note (The process of salt making) wrote, ‘here is such a cloud of smoke as amongst those works you cannot see to walk.’[xii]

In an undated note in the early 1600s the Durham Chancery Court commissioned an enquiry into the damage caused to Westoe Leyby ye salt pans’. Possibly pursuant to this an action in 1618 by nine lease holders of Westoe ‘who paid the ancient rent of £3 each’ was taken out ‘against Nicholas Cole and Christopher Mitford for damages caused by the salt pans on the West Side of the Great Pasture of Westoe. So great was the nuisance that the grass was destroyed and ‘not a green leaf was left upon the hedges.’’ After a commission of enquiry the farmers’ case was proved and the pan owners ordered to pay £13 6s 8d annually to be divided amongst the leaseholders.[xiii]

This action did nothing to stop the chimneys belching out smoke and 150 years later in 1768, on his journey to the North, Daniel Defoe could see the smoke clouds of the Shields furnaces when four miles south of Durham, itself 16 miles away from Shields. He was also able to see the smoke clouds over the Tyne when on top of the Cheviot Hills some 40 miles away.[xiv]

The quantity and quality of the salt being produced in North and South Shields was such that the fishing fleets of Iceland and Westmony, of some 200 vessels, would call in to the Tyne to buy salt for their fishing voyages. The profitability of salt resulted in covetous looks, not only from monied adventurers but also from King Charles I, who appears to have granted a monopoly in 1535 to a company of Shields salt makers who would supply the entire country with white salt at a price of £4 per wey (2s per bushel) for home consumption, and £3 10s for fishery use. Their proposal was to pay the King 10s per wey of fine salt and 3s 4d a way for fishery salt. Later that year another company was incorporated with the intention of establishing salt works on the rivers of Tyne and Wear.[xv] Others also sought monopolies and it is not entirely clear how salt production was managed, but it was obviously highly profitable. This is demonstrated by the fact that Sir Thomas Horth, with others, was paid £9000 per annum to farm the salt duties on salt for the King.[xvi] If the figures given above for the amount to be paid to the King of 10s and 3s 4d per wey (respectively for fine and fishery salt) are accurate, and with no knowledge of the exact proportions, then Horth and his friends clearly expected to sell somewhere in the region of between 25,000 to 50,000 weys a year – if this is an accurate assumption then they were expecting total sales of at least £100,000. Whatever Horth’s assumptions he made a loss in 1640 on the tax-farm of £2893, and the town’s salt makers had also lost thousands of pounds which they blamed on the problems they had encountered in incorporating their company.

The creation of the salt monopoly was among the grievances against King Charles I listed by John Pym in his famous speech to the ‘Short Parliament’ on April 17th 1640:

‘The third general head of civil grievances was, the great inundation of monopolies, whereby heavy burdens are laid, not only upon foreign, but also native commodities. ……. The impairing the goodness, and enhancing the price of most of the commodities and manufactures of the realm, yea, of those which are of most necessary and common use, as salt, soap, beer, coals, and infinite others.’

Civil War and the Commonwealth

When Civil war broke out in 1643 the Tyne towns remained loyal to the King but were all taken by General David Leslie’s Scottish Covenant Army who were supporting the Parliamentarians. The South Shields fort on the Lawe was captured by the Scots in March 1644. Hodgson quotes from the ‘Narrative Concerning the Salt Trade’, apparently a memorial prepared for presentation to Charles II, which stated that after the Scots took Newcastle and Shields ‘they dispossessed divers of the salt workers of their pans by reason of their loyalty to his Majesty, and pulled down and destroyed many others….to the end that they might lessen the trade of salt in England and augment that of Scotland.’[xvii]

The departure of the Scots in 1646 did not lead immediately to the return of the good times – Parliament dissolved the Palatinate and those who had previously leased land from the Bishop, including the pan owners, now had to purchase it from Parliament at ‘a very dear rate’[xviii] – and in 1648, Sir Arthur Haslerigg, Governor of Newcastle arbitrarily imposed a levy of 4s on every wey of salt for use of the garrison – Hodgson adds ‘as he pretended’[xix]Haslerigg was notorious for taking advantage of his position to line his own pockets. After the battle of Dunbar (1650) he was responsible for ‘selling’ those Scottish prisoners who had survived the death march as indentured servants – hundreds went to the colonies and 40 to the salt pans of Shields. This implies that the salt pans were once more in production and fresh manpower was needed.

More trouble was to come when Cromwell’s Protectorate in 1564 formally proclaimed the Act of Union between England and Scotland. This meant that Scottish salt imported into England paid no customs dues. Although said to be of not so good quality as Shields salt, the entry onto the English market of Scottish salt at the same or lesser price hit the Shields trade hard. The Commonwealth’s war with the Dutch in 1652/54 limited the export, as ships carrying salt, and of course coals, were easy prey to the Dutch fleet.

There was much distress in the town and the earliest minute book of the Select Vestry of St. Hild’s in May 1660 gives details of monies dispersed to the poor – not just like that of a payment of 1s 3d for a ‘poore boy at Robt. Twaddle’s’, but there are also records of arrears of monies due from men whose estates were ruined and were either in prison or absent; and also the arrears of 4s ‘By Geo. Harle, whose panns are in decay..’[xx]

The restoration of Charles II in 1662 brought both good and bad fortune for the salt panners. As Scotland and England were now once more separate Kingdoms, Scotch salt was again subject to customs dues and Shields salt became more competitive. However, the Dean and Chapter of Durham had retaken all the lands from which they had been dispossessed and now demanded heavy fines for renewals of the leases which the tenants had purchased from the Parliament only a few years before. Petitions were made and the matter was finally resolved.[xxi]

The salt trades fortunes appear to have prospered again in the first few years after 1662, and in 1664 the Court of Quarter Sessions at Durham issued, on complaint by the Court Leet and Vestry, an order that the salt pans were working as usual on the Lord’s Day ‘to the great dishonour of God and the constant profanation of the Lord’s Say. All and every the salters, their workmen and servants to forbear their working on the Lord’s Day, and their fires about the salt pans may soak upon every Sunday from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, and that they shall not draw their pans, nor burn brine nor put in coals.’

But some salters could not resist the temptation and in 1673 there is an entry in the Churchwardens’ accounts for 5s – ‘charges on getting and serving a warrant on ye salters yt frequently used to work on ye Sundays.’[xxii]

The process of salt making

For over 400 years the South Shields salt trade flourished, and was a trigger for the development of other industries, such as glass making and production of chemicals on which the town’s industrial foundations were laid. Yet today there is no trace left of the salterns. West Panns, from Mill Dam to Jarra’s Lake, became the densely populated dockside area of Holborn, and the salt houses between Mill Dam and the Toon End ceased production by mid 1770s as the river frontage developed to house all the river trades that supported the port.

The methods of salt making would have no doubt changed over the years as different processes were tried. In the absence of any archaeological evidence, the available sources are first the written records which are all covered in Hodgson including a first-hand account by Sir William Brereton, of June 23rd 1635: ‘At the Shields is more salt works and more salt made than in any part of England that I know, and all the salt here is made of salt water; these pans, which are not to be numbered, placed in the river mouth and worked with coals brought from Newcastle pits.’

It is likely that he visited a well-equipped saltern set up by the monopolist corporation as he describes a works containing 24 pans set up in 6 ranks. The pans were of iron, being 15 ft long, 10 ½ ft broad and 2 to 3 inches deep, each costing £100. They were set upon brick walls in pairs, a higher and a lower pan with a furnace under the higher pan only, so that the heat was conducted to the lower pan where the brine which had first been boiled hard in the first pan was then simmered gently in the lower pan to produce salt. Brereton states that two men and a woman tended the pans – the woman to rake out the ash. The men were paid 14s a week, although this did not apply to the man who pumped the sea water into the cistern. Each pan was said to produce two bowls of salt worth 2s – a modest yield when compared to the more traditional methods described below. An intriguing side product is also described. The bittern which drained from the freshly drawn salt was mixed with the ashes from the furnace creating lumps of hard black salt ‘which are sent to Colchester to make salt upon salt, which are sold for a greater price than the rest, because without this at Colchester they cannot make any salt.’ (I have found no other reference to this and the Essex County Record Office has no knowledge of it either.)

Brereton goes on to say ‘There are, as I was informed, about 250 houses,’ (that is in both North and South Shields) ‘poor ones and low built, but all covered with boards. In each house is one pair great iron pans.’[xxiii]

This is a snapshot in time of one process commenced when the monopolists were seeking ways to increase their profitability. The use of two pans taking advantage of conductivity was certainly a known method, but the much more common process was to use a single pann, in a single or double saltern. The process is described in detail in The Art of Making Common Salt by William Brownrigg published in 1747 (Chapter II Sect. I. Of salt boiled from sea water.)

The traditional salt houses, in England and Scotland, consisted of a boiling room which held the pan or pans and a fore-room where the coal was kept and the furnace stoked. It was crucial that no coal dust contaminated the show-white salt, and there was a wall between the fore-room and the boiling house with a door to give access. The roof of the boiling house was plank built and wooden nails were used as any metal would corrode with the condensation. There were openings in the roof to allow the vapour to escape and small windows that could be opened if the salters needed light to see what they were doing. A wooden walkway about 6’ wide allowed workers access to the pan. The following illustration (based on a drawing of a Scottish saltern suitably modified) shows the probable set up of Shields salterns.

Drawing by John Orton

Some of the houses had two pans, one at either end of the fore-room. As shown in this artist’s impression:

(From He Wears a Blue Bonnet by John Orton)

In Shields the water was drawn from the Tyne at high tide by pipes that fed wells from which water was pumped into cisterns standing beside the salt house, and from which water was used to fill the pans when needed. Small ponds with rock and mud walls called sumps held back the tidal water so that it would still flow at low tide. The pumping was mainly done by hand but in some cases a donkey gin might have been used to feed several salt houses in the same ownership.

Pans were between fifteen and twenty feet long and 10 to 12ft wide with a depth of 14 inches and would each cost about £100. The pans were made up of plate iron sheets about 4½ ft long, 1ft wide and 1/3 inch thick, joined together by nails and a strong sealing cement, strengthened with iron bars along their length and sides. The furnace was divided into two parts by a brick structure called the feather that was wider at the bottom than at the top which helped to spread the heat and reduce the amount of coals used. The pan was supported at the corners by brickwork and at the sides and in the centre by cast iron pillars called taplins which also conducted the heat to ensure an even spread to all parts of the pan.[xxiv]

Some salt-makers set the coals on an iron grid so that the ash would fall into the pit below, but Brownrigg notes that the furnaces in the Shields salterns were set on hearths.

The process began with sea water being drawn from the cistern to fill the pan with about fourteen hundred gallons, with the furnace at full heat. As soon as the water was starting to warm then the whites of three eggs were mixed with a gallon or two of sea water and then thoroughly stirred into the water in the pan. (Brownrigg notes that in all the salt houses on the Tyne, beast or sheep’s blood was used in place of egg.) As soon as the water was boiling rapidly, a thick black scum of impurities would form on the surface. The scum was removed by means of ash-wood skimmers which were held by the salters on either side of the pan to meet in the middle. The clear water was then boiled hard until there was only a very strong brine at the bottom – this normally took about 5 hours. More sea water from the cistern was drawn into the pan for the second boiling. When the water was halfway up, then the scratch pans at each corner of the main pan were lifted out and the scratch removed. These small lead pans were used to collect the ‘scratch’, a white chalky residue, and were emptied at the start of each new boiling. The pan was then filled, purified again with egg or blood and the process continued. At the fourth boiling the heat was lowered to a slow simmer for between nine to ten hours until the brine granulated. ‘The salt is said to granulate, when its minute crystals cohere together into little masses or grains, which sink down in the brine and lie at the bottom of the salt pan.’[xxv] With four boilings the salt could be ready in about 24 hours – (it is not clear whether this assumes 24 hour working).

Brownrigg comments that in the Shields salt houses they draw the pans 5 times in a fortnight, boiling the sea water seven or eight times and producing 56 bushels of salt at a draught. ‘They reckon that, in making a ton or forty bushels of salt they consume three chaldrons of small pit coal, which cost them 15s 6d, and pay to the salt boilers for their labour four shillings.)

When all the brine had evaporated and the crystals granulated then the salt could be drawn. The salt was raked to one side of the pan, allowed to drain awhile, and then shovelled out into barrows or other containers and taken to the salt store. This would have been a shed near to the salt house. The salt which was still hot was then put into drabs to cool and dry. The drabs are described as being like horse stalls, but with the front side having sliding boards which allowed salt to be put in or taken out. The boards at the bottom of the drab were highest at the back and sloped down so that any brine left would drain away. The King’s excise men would no doubt have been present and when the drab was filled it would have almost certainly been sealed to ensure that none was spirited away. The briny residue was the bittern, which did have some other uses, and could be stored in cisterns or just disposed of. The boiling process would leave some briny residue on the bottom of the pan, which would harden like cement. This needed to be chipped away with iron picks every eight to ten days when the pans were empty.[xxvi]

Once the salt in the drabs was dry it could then be transferred into containers for sale. This would have to be done in the presence of the excise man as excise duty was payable once the salt was ready for sale. The salt was sold in bowls which would be sealed by the excise man who would keep a tally of the number of bowls filled. The town’s cooper kept the brazen measure and seal, to ensure the correct weight – (see Town’s Byelaws later in this note).

Larger quantities would be measured by the wey and it must be assumed that there were wooden containers or barrows that had been calibrated to take a wey exactly and could then be secured and sealed by the excise.

Regulation of salt production

The Court Leet, which was re-established on the Restoration in 1662, and which sat in the manor house at Westoe, exercised jurisdiction over the local vills, including South Sheeles and had brought up to date its byelaws. The clauses that relate to the salt industry are set out below:


            X. If any owner or farmer of Salt Panns or any other inhabitant on both sides of the Damm do att any time hereafter lay any rubbish or ashes ypon the top of the bank, uless they leave a way of three yards broad to be spredd level for people to pass, fyne 3s.

            XI. That no inhabitant in the Sheeles or the Panns shall either goe themselves or send their seruants or children in the night time to the panns for to get coales or sinders upon payne for every offence 6s 8d, and in the day time , for every default 12d…..

            XIV. No salt maker of this shore ot any sea venturer or any of their servants shall sell any gray salt upon payne 10s.

            XV. No man shall sell anye salt by anye measure or boule tun unsealed and allowed by the measurers for the time being under payne for every bowle soe solde 10s.

            The said bowle tubb to be sealed with the accustomed mark. Three of the said measurers at the least to be at the measuring of the bowls tubbs or bushel tubbs, and see the same marked with the usual seal belonging to the towne.

            And if the Cooper appointed for the keeping of the brazen measure and the seale do make any new bowle tubb or do mend any owld tubb and do not bring the same to an appointed place and call upon three or more measurers aboue said to see the same bowle measured and sealed before he deliver the bowle or bushell tubb to the owner thereof, he shall pay to the lords for every bowle tubb or bushell tubb so delivered 3s 4d.

            XVI. Upon any complaint or suspition of deceit vsed by any person in measuring of salt the bayliffe with any two of the sworn men shall take the tub or vessel soe complained of or suspicted, and make tryall of the same by the standard bowle tub or gallon provided and kept for the purpose, upon payne of 6s 8d.

For euery default of the said officers and of like payne of every person that shall not vpon demand deliver his said bowle tubb or vessel so to be tried, and if any offence or wrong be found in any of the said measures, the owner therof to forfeit 20s, for every such offence and the vessel to bee reformed at the sight of the sworne measurers, or to be broken….

            XX. That no scales, sinders, or rubbish or ashes be cast from any salt pans staythes, or any dwelling house in Sheeles, or the panns into the river there, upon payne of 6s 8d. [xxvii]

Salt Pan Owners

The chapelwardens’ books of St Hilda’s for 1667 give the first complete list of salt pan owners with their assessments for rates. There were 121 pans in total which indicates that the salt trade was recovering and becoming prosperous once more. The names that recur in these assessments are Lawrence Blythman, Robert Linton, Thomas Pattison, Michael Coatsworth and Lewis Frost. Coatsworth with 12 had the most pans, others held 5 and less. By 1696 there were 143 pans of which J & W Coulson held 16.[xxviii]


It seems that the salt trade was in decline at the beginning of the new century and in 1701 and 1702 petitions were presented to the Commons complaining that the decay in the salt trade was causing great distress among the workers who were becoming a burden on the local townspeople. The concerns of Newcastle related to the fact the salt panners were no longer buying the great quantities of small coal for which there was no other outlet. The situation was not helped by the fishers of Shields who were buying salt in Scotland, where excise was only levied when it was eventually sold, but were in fact using it to cure their fish and were then returning to Shields, where presumably any surplus was used again.

Despite this inauspicious start to the century, salt production took up again and by the 1740s the excise records show that South Shields was producing some 74,574 tons of salt.[xxix] In 1760 there were 140 pans in Shields mostly located in West Panns – the salt pans to the east of Mill Dam in Shields proper seem to have ceased to operate by the middle of the century. This is evidenced by a lease of land from the Dean and Chapter of 1765 to Elizabeth Hodgson, widow, ‘certain waste ground and site of salt pans which William Blythman Adamson had held and on which twelve cottages and two shops had been erected. From internal evidence this lease applied to land on the south side of the street running from the Mill Dam to the Lawe.’[xxx]

The description of the town given in the Universal Magazine 1748 states: ‘South Sheeles, as it is commonly pronounced, on the south bank of the Tyne… a large village in which there are 200 pans for boiling seawater into salt, of which such quantities are made here as not only furnishes the City of London, but all Towns between the Thames and the Tyne…’[xxxi]

In 1760 the rates assessed on the salt pans and glass- houses for East and West Pann ward raised £17 15s 3d whilst the rates for the Middle and East Wards of Shields township raised £9 10s 6 1/2d.[xxxii]

The Ballast Hills

In the days of the sailing ship, ballast was carried to give stability to ships empty of cargo and was discharged before loading. It was usually, sand, gravel or rubble. In busy ports like Shields there were particular wharves where ballast was discharged and then carried in wains or waggons to the ballast hills. In Fryers Map of the Tyne 1773 nine hills are shown to the east of the Market Place to the south of the low way that ran along the riverside. Eighteen were shown to the south of the West Panns way between Mill Dam and Jarrow Slake.

Ballast Hills Fryers Map of the Tyne 1773 (detail)[xxxiii]

The ‘ballast’ hills, in what was to become Holborn, were composed in great part of the waste from the salt pans, comprising ash, cinders, imperfectly consumed coals, and also waste from chemical and glass making production. In the latter part of the eighteenth century and onwards, underground fires would break out in these hills, by internal combustion, or some other means, causing a serious nuisance to the town. On 7th December 1793 the Dean and Chapter paid £20 to a Mr Hargreaves ‘towards the extinguishing the fire in the rubbish hill at South Shields.’[xxxiv] These fires continued even after the rubbish hills were built over to form the streets, alleys, and courts of Holborn. The photo below (courtesy of South Tyneside Historic Images) shows the aftereffects of an underground fire at Hill Street which damaged Basham’s School (top of photo) in 1872.

Ballast Hill 1872 (South Tyneside Libraries, Willits, STH0000427)

The ballast/rubbish hills were not just a nuisance but also a source of some old-fashioned sporting rivalry between the fishers, the original habitants of the town, who still lived in the toon-end, and the panners, the salt pan workers, who were still regarded in the seventeen hundreds as unwelcome newcomers even when their pans had been boiling for at least two centuries before. The ballast hills in the town were separated by a chasm in the hill where a way used by wagons bringing ballast from ‘Fairless Crane’ (in what came to be Wapping Street at its junction with Ellesmere Road). The fisher and the panner lads, including the ‘sons of the upper classes’, (according to Thomas Salmon a former combattant), would tear down and then run up the hills to attack the other side, hurling missiles of all sorts and sizes which they had picked up from the ground – and not as Salmon remarks ‘smooth stones from the brook such as those with which David Slew Goliath.’[xxxv]

The salt industry had declined severely in the 1780s and had all but died out by 1820 when only 5 pans remained. The annual salt shipments out of Newcastle in tons averaged about 9,000 from the 1660s to the 1770s but by 1781 were down to 1,873, and by 1789 to 951. (J. M. Ellis The Decline and Fall of the Tyneside Salt Industry 1660-1790.)

The cheaper salt produced in Cheshire in large quantities had all but killed off Shields salt.Another factor was the increasing use of coal for domestic purposes which gave the coal mine owners another outlet for small coal and put the price up. According to Hodgson writing in 1903[xxxvi] the last salt pan was owned by the Harton Coal Company in West Holborn near the Hilda Drops, and was worked until about 1870 by a Mrs Cassidy who dissolved Cheshire rock salt in sea water.


The salt making industry undoubtedly left its mark on what was originally a small fishing village at the mouth of the Tyne. The salt pans brought investors to the town as well as the salters who worked the pans, and who were a ready work force when glass, chemicals, and ship building and repair became the main riverside trades in the nineteenth century. But there are no archaeological remains of any sort – all the salt houses were re-used or more likely demolished, and all the iron pans would have been scrapped and the metal re-used. The history of the trade as set out in this note relies solely on written records, and is therefore only as accurate as those records themselves. The trade is, though, remembered in the name of one of the many quays that cluttered the riverside before it was all redeveloped, namely Pan Ash Quay pictured below courtesy of South Tyneside Historic Images.

Pan Ash Quay 1900 (South Tyneside Libraries STH0000043)

The Quay, at Wapping Street, undoubtedly has a historic connexion to the salt trade but what exactly is uncertain. Pans were no longer in use in this area of the town after the 1770s, and so the name is no doubt an ancient one. Ash may have been shipped from there, either for sale for the manufacture of soap, or to be disposed of at sea – the latter unlikely as the ballast hills were close by.

The salt houses, the keels, and the smoke clouds are all long gone but they were all there to stamp their mark on life around the mouth of the Tyne from the 13th to the 19th centuries.  

[i] Hod 89

[ii] Hod 40

[iii] Hod 47

[iv] Hod 61

[v] J L Bolton – The Medieval English Economy

[vi] Hod 61

[vii] Pdw 98-103

[viii] Hod 64

[ix] Hod 65

[x] Hod 68

[xi] Hod 75

[xii] Hod 79

[xiii] Hod 75

[xiv] Hod 115/116

[xv] Hod 78

[xvi] Hod 79

[xvii] Hod 86

[xviii] Hod 87

[xix] Hod 87

[xx] Hod 95

[xxi] Hod 94

[xxii] Hod 112

[xxiii] Hod 78/79

[xxiv] Brow 54

[xxv] Brow 60

[xxvi] Brow 61

[xxvii] Hod 108/109

[xxviii] Hod 96/97

[xxix] Hod 116

[xxx] Hod 116

[xxxi] Hod 120

[xxxii] Hod 129

[xxxiii] Hod 128

[xxxiv] Hod 128

[xxxv] Hod 128

[xxxvi] Hod 135n

Written by John Orton author of “He Wears a Blue Bonnet” a tale of five Highland Scots sent to the South Shields salt pans in 1650.


South Tyneside Libraries


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