In A Disappearing Cheshire Town,

the Strange Story of Northwich by Percy L. Parker

The town of Northwich is subject to fits, and the reason is that people like salt. The existence of the fits is proved by a glance at the photos here given, and a few words will explain their cause.

A stranger who knows nothing of the town may well be alarmed as he walks down its streets, for on all sides he sees walls and houses standing at every possible angle. Houses lean against each other in a way suggestive of intoxication; doorways are all awry, and pavements and roads roll like a sea-serpent.

May & Co. photo.][Northwich.

It is not certain that you will find your horse or cow in its stall next morning even if you lock the door at night, for a great gulf may have swallowed it alive. Most people like to see their fireplaces standing above the level of the floor, but such prejudices cannot be tolerated at Northwich, and if your fireplace goes beneath the floor, well, such is one of the privileges of living in the place. It may happen that your house falls over in the night, or that its roof may come crashing down on your head. Even churches are not safe. Two at least have suffered demolition, and one is now closed as unsafe. The town bridge leads a vagrant life, and makes constant settlements, which impede the traffic on the river. Northwich cannot boast a town hall, for it also was a victim of the "moving" spirit of the place.

The details of this state of things are little known even in England, but a graphic description recently appeared in a German newspaper. It declared that so serious was the condition of Northwich that the inhabitants had fled to the neighbouring mountains, and all that could be seen on the site of the ancient town was the funnel of a passing steamer.

Some worthy people at Bradford evidently had a similar idea, for after a certain bank of that town had lent the Northwich authorities £5,000 they heard such alarming things about the place that they sent two directors to see if there was any chance of anything being left of Northwich when the repayment of the loan was due.

It is true that boats have been seen in the streets of Northwich, for every now and then they get flooded. The case of Northwich is serious enough, but there is still dry land, the people have not fled to the mountains, and the bank is pretty certain to be paid. What then is the matter?

T. Birtles, photo.][Warrington.

Northwich has the misfortune to be built on the top of a pie-crust. If you cover some fruit in a pie-dish with a crust and then pump out the juice and fruit through a hole in the crust and place a heavy weight on it, you naturally expect the crust to break and the weight to fall into the dish. The pie under Northwich is made of rock salt, and on the top of the salt is a large amount of juice (or brine), and over it is the earth's crust. But a good many Jack Homers have been at this pie and have pumped the brine away. The heavy buildings on the crust have then broken through it, and in this way Northwich is subject to "fits." Locally they are called "subsidences."

The classic event at Northwich was the upsetting of a house called "Castle Chambers," occupied at the time by a solicitor. At 3 o'clock one morning in May, this house fell back into a large hole which suddenly opened at the rear of it. But not a single brick was moved nor a pane of glass broken, though the chimney was not proof against such antics and fell to the floor. This was due to the way in which the house was built.

May & Co. photo.][Northwich.

For so universal and expected are these subsidences, that the houses are now all built in wooden frames with massive timber beams screwed tightly together. This has revived a style of building common enough more than a hundred years ago, specimens of which are often seen in country places. If the house subsides it falls as a whole and does not necessarily collapse. All you have to do is to use a screw-jack to raise the house, fill in the hole, remove the jack, and sleep as before till another subsidence, when the same operation is gone through. Castle Chambers, however, were taken down and the ground made "sound." Twelve months after another subsidence took place, and the result is shown in the above photograph.

May & Co. photo.][Northwich.

Just opposite Castle Chambers stood the old "Wheat Sheaf Inn." It was built with timber to resist the dreaded subsidence, but to no purpose. Money was frequently spent in making good the damage done. One year it had to be raised no less than nine feet! A year after part of the building disappeared, then the cellars went, and as a climax a horse which was in the stable was swallowed up.

One Sunday morning a neighbouring farmer put his horse—worth £30 with its harness—into the stable, and when he returned after doing his business, he found that the beast had gone down a hole 15 ft. in diameter which had suddenly opened. The house was then pulled down and built further up the street. This shows how owners in Northwich stand to lose both buildings and the sites of them.

Next to the "Wheat Sheaf" was a butcher's shop, which was robbed one day of a sausage machine by the gaping earth. When it is mentioned that a second horse disappeared, and that a minister had a narrow escape from being swallowed, the fun of the following story will be appreciated. The minister one day in a funny mood was making some remarks at a public meeting about the strange disappearance of the horses and the sausage machine. He suggested that when the people below received the first horse they naturally wanted a sausage machine, and hence the disappearance of that useful article. Then so much did they enjoy the produce of the machine that they wanted a second horse, and hence the second disappearance. At this point the chairman of the meeting rose and gravely asked whether on one occasion they did not also want a minister (referring to the funny man's escape), and the story-teller meekly ended his tale.

Another extraordinary subsidence was that which took place in a house in Tabley Street. The family were quietly seated in a room when they heard a tremendous crash, which soon brought the neighbours out to see what was the matter. An adjoining room was found to be minus its fireplace; instead there was a big hole reaching to the cellar beneath. The marble mantel-piece was smashed, and the tiled floor or hearth had fallen to the cellar. The cellar wall of the next house had given way, and there was great danger that the chimney would come smashing down. Soon after the walls cracked and the floors were drawn apart, making the house more breezy than comfortable. This was a peculiarly hard case, for the proprietor had recently spent a good deal of money in putting the property in order. In the end, the house and site were worth nothing.

T. Birtles, photo.][Warrington.

The house of a linen draper in the town sank one-fifth of its height between the years 1881 and 1891, and in the seven years since it has sunk nearly another fifth. One kitchen window looks out on the river, and the water is now but a few inches below the window sill. When I saw it the moon was shining on the water, making the scene singularly effective. At one time the kitchens were lofty rooms, now one can hardly stand upright in them, for the floors and the walls have not kept pace.

Another house I saw had eight steps of one foot each down to the front door. Not many years ago the doorstep was on the road level. An ironmonger's shop floor has sunk six feet in a similar way. One side of the floor is describing a semicircle, and the walls have long been cracked.

The "Crown and Anchor," the chief hotel in the place, had to be rebuilt, for to walk its floors was "like being at sea in a heavy gale." The floor of the dining-room had sunk so much that it was several feet below the level of the roadway, and the windows afforded a beautiful view of passing feet.

A jeweller had the novel experience of seeing his fireplace sink below the level of the floor and his mantel-piece half buried. Even the police station was not safe. It was built at a cost of £2,000, repairs to the extent of £300 were soon needed, but it became so bad that it had to be abandoned.

There are several streets in Northwich where the houses are simply tobogganing into each other, and all over the place are houses which have been condemned and now are closed. One street became suddenly several feet wider than it used to be, for one side was sliding away. It was afterwards found that the houses on that side had moved three feet from their foundations, which were discovered under the kerb stones of the pavement! The Marston Road sank 15 feet in forty years, and at last had to be abandoned owing to a huge chasm many feet in width which formed across it.

It is only fair that even the buildings of the salt works in the town are not exempt from these subsidences, which, indeed, are due to their activity. One photograph is given which shows a pumping shaft in a serious epileptic fit, which ended in its total collapse. Some time ago the curious sight might have been seen of a large wall travelling from three to four feet away from the building of which it was once a part. And in several of the salt works I found the walls parting in all directions, the floors in the shape of an S, and whole blocks of buildings waiting for the house-breaker.

One of the most remarkable features of these subsidences is that no loss of human life has occurred. A girl with a child was passing the "Wheat Sheaf Inn" on the occasion of a subsidence and was nearly swallowed up, but not quite. The only loss of life was that of the two horses already mentioned and a cow. A man was driving a cow through the streets and turned to speak to a friend. On looking round he found that his cow had been swallowed up. He was assured that the animal would be pumped up with the brine at some point, but the beast was never seen again!

The subsidences already mentioned are almost invariably caused by the pumping away of the brine. Other subsidences are caused by the falling in of old and disused salt mines which have not been properly worked, or worked too near the surface. The result of these subsidences is generally seen in the formation of huge lakes of water called "flashes." One of these covers 100 acres, and is 40 to 50 feet deep. They cover what were formerly fields, and the ensuing loss was very great.

One gentleman had to make a new road to his property because 100 acres were under water, and other areas were badly damaged by subsidences; another built a house costing £6,000, and the largest offer he could get for it was £1,500—it had been so much injured by subsidence.

The area over which these subsidences take place is about two square miles. Some years ago the property in Northwich was valued at £311,885, but the depreciation on it was valued at one third, or £102,945—the annual loss being £5,147. When the matter was brought before the House of Commons it was stated that damage had been done to no less than 892 buildings. But the number to-day, if it could be estimated, would be infinitely larger. These 892 buildings comprised five public buildings, 15 manufacturing works, 21 slaughter-houses and stables, 34 ware-houses and workshops, 41 public-houses, 140 shops, and 636 houses and cottages.

In ten years the pumping up of brine had excavated from beneath beneath Northwich a space large enough to form a ship canal from Northwich to Warrington 150 feet wide and 30 feet deep. And a well-known authority declares that the subsidences during the present century form an excavation very much more extensive than was required for the Manchester and Liverpool Ship Canal. For the subsidences correspond with the amount of salt taken from the earth.

May & Co. photo.][Northwich.

Every ton of white salt consumes one ton of rock salt, and a ton of rock salt represents a solid cubic yard. As 1,200,000 tons of white salt are made every year at Northwich it follows that at least 1,200,000 cubic yards of solid foundation are removed from beneath Northwich each year. This is equal to an annual uniform subsidence of 248 acres one yard thick. No wonder that Northwich has fits!

Taking the fits as proved, we will now look more closely beneath the pie-crust of Northwich. The best way to do so is to get into a big tub which will just hold two people and go down the shaft of a salt mine, lowered by a windlass. First of all you pass through 32 feet of soil and drift, and then about 92 feet of what would commonly be called rock. Then below these 124 feet you come to the first bed of rock salt, which averages about 75 feet in thickness. Passing through this you come to 30 feet more of rock, and below again is found another bed of rock salt, which averages in thickness about 90 feet. It is the lower bed of rock salt which is mined. The bottom of the mine down which I went was 330 feet below the surface, but the atmosphere was delightful, being cool and dry and not in the least oppressive. A magnificent chamber, 25 feet high and 17 acres in extent, had been dug out of the salt, and its extent could easily be gauged by the help of the candles which had been lit all round the mine. Massive pillars of salt of 10 or 12 feet square are left at intervals of 25 yards to support the roof.

The rock is got largely by blasting. A hole is drilled, and into the bottom of the hole a small powder ball is put. Loose powder is placed in a piece of straw and the straw is lighted. In a few seconds it burns down to the powder ball, and the rock salt which has lain so quietly in its bed for æons breaks up, and in process of time may find itself in any quarter of the globe.

T. Birtles, photo.][Warrington.

No damage is done to the surface by the mining of this lower bed of rock salt. It is too deep for that. The subsidences are all connected with the upper bed of salt. These upper beds used to be worked because the lower beds were not known, and when they were neglected they fell in, and in this way the large sheets of water of which I have spoken were formed above the earth's crust.

T. Birtles, photo.HOUSES WHICH
T. Birtles, photo.][Warrington.

But the mining of the upper bed of salt by man does not account for the subsidences here recorded. The name of the dangerous miner is "water." When water reaches the upper bed of salt it dissolves it as water does snow. Water can take in 26 degrees of salt and no more, and then it is called brine. Underneath Northwich is a sea of brine which lies on the top of the upper bed of salt rock. From this brine white salt is made by a process of evaporation, and that is why all over Northwich you see numbers of pumping stations which pump up the brine as fast almost as it is made. As the brine is taken out fresh water flows in and takes up its 26 degrees of salt. In this way the great cavities under Northwich which cause all the subsidences are made; they will grow bigger and bigger as long as the pumping up of brine is continued.

Truly Northwich lives and moves and has its being in salt, and promises to be buried in it too.

Brine pumping is the source of a terrible injustice. A man may buy a piece of land large enough to erect a pumping station, and if on that spot he can tap the brine there is nothing to prevent him from drawing brine from any part of Northwich. And though his neighbour's house is engulfed in the process, and though he is ruined thereby, he can secure no compensation. If you were to mine salt or coal under your neighbour's house you could be brought to book, but not if you take water, salt or fresh.

Such was the law till a few months ago. But after a tremendous fight a bill has been passed which gives a Compensation Board power to levy not more than three-pence a ton on all brine pumped at Northwich. This levy is to go to the compensation of those whose houses and property have suffered. But at present not a penny has been paid and in no case will a penny ever be paid for all the damage done before the passing of the Act. Such is the tragedy of salt getting.


Northwich has been called the salt metropolis of the world, and as becomes a metropolis it is unique. It has a Salt Museum, the only one in existence, which contains the finest collection of Indian and American salts in the country. It also contains some very interesting exhibits. Among them are a pair of boots and an old broom-head which were left in an old salt mine for fifteen years. They had not much beauty when they were left, but Nature has made them exquisitely beautiful, for they are encased in salt crystals which were formed upon them in those fifteen years.

No one can go down a salt mine without asking, How did this salt come here? And no one can fail to be impressed by the answer. Æons before the footfall of man was heard upon the earth there stretched across Cheshire a great salt lake; and under the hot sun of a semi-tropical age the salt crystallised out of the water and rested at the bottom of the lake. How many years it is since the first layer was deposited can hardly be imagined, for it was formed under deep waters, while now it is over 300 feet beneath the earth's crust. But there are few finer fields for the exercise of the imagination than in trying to conceive the vastness of time and change which have elapsed since then. And when one does realise something of the eternity of that time one ceases to wonder that Northwich has fits when its heart of salt is taken from it.