Every salt-miner’s worst nightmare is to find water seeping into the works. Moisture dissolves the salt-pillars which they have left untouched to hold up the roof. The results are, invariably, disastrous.
With this in mind, the United Alkali Company’s staff used every method they could think of to keep their Preesall mine dry. For a time they succeeded – but the best-laid plans eventually proved inadequate.
In 1893, miners started digging and blasting through clay, sand, boulders and solid rock to reach salt 450ft beneath the surface.
A six-feet-wide cast iron tube was lowered inside the timber and brick shaft, and the space in between was filled with waterproof puddle-clay, which is used to line canals.
This kept the initial workings bone-dry.
At the bottom, shafts were blasted out until a vast cavern eventually emerged.
The rock-salt brought to the surface was carted to the Garstang and Knott End Railway by boys employed by a local farmer.
Eventually, a second pit was dropped down to the salt seams – this time to a depth of 900ft, to form the “lower mine.”
The shafts were 20ft apart and the same winding gear served them both.
For safety reasons, miners at the salt-face worked only by candlelight, although electricity illuminated the remainder of the workings.
Rock-salt was said to be harder than coal, so machinery and explosives were used almost from the beginning.
Miners used rotary compressed-air machines to cut underneath a layer of salt, then specialists bored five-foot holes into the surface with air-powered drills.
These were packed with gunpowder, and around 30 tons of salt were brought down by each blast.
Experts then separated out different grades of salt, and “Rock Ferriers” filled special tubs, which were hauled by winches along railway lines to the bottom of the shafts.
The tubs were used to transport both salt and men to the surface.
Some of the miners had to perch perilously on the rims, hanging on to lifting-chains.
The mining was difficult and dangerous, and the men wore long-johns, flannel vests, spats, clogs and long stockings to try to keep the salt from their skin.
They paid sixpence (2 1/2p) from their guinea (£1.10) a week wages to a medical club which met at the Black Bull Inn. Injuries were caused by men being trapped by underground rail-trucks or hurt by explosions, flying lumps of rock, and falling timber and salt.
The worst incident occurred in 1905, when two men were half way down the deepest pit-shaft, clearing rock-salt from the sides.
They were perched on wooden staging, when half a ton of rock loosened by an explosion carried away one end.
Miner Arthur Phillips grabbed hold of the vest of his companion Frederick Daves, but was unable to prevent him tumbling 420ft to his death.
But working underground had its compensations.
Speaking in the 1980s, Preesall’s last surviving miner, Harold Daniels, remembered: “To me the mine, lit by mercury lights, was beautiful. The natural pillars of salt glittered like diamonds.”
In 1906, 140,000 tons of rocksalt were dug – making Preesall Great Britain’s second largest white salt manufacturer. The product was also highly rated for its quality, particularly in Australia and South America.
By this time, a mineral railway had been built to the River Wyre, where steamships of up to 1,600 tons tied up at a jetty to be loaded. Another link was later constructed to the Garstang and Knott End Railway – joining the mine to the national rail network.
During the First World War, women were employed to do some of the work undertaken by men who had been called up. Preesall salt was also used to manufacture chlorine poison gas.
In March, 1919, the unthinkable happened – brine started dripping from the top mine roof. Pumps were unable to keep pace with the flow, and there were fears of a nearby water-softening plant, reservoir, road and railway sidings being lost to subsidence. The problem was traced to one of the earliest brine wells, which was linked by tunnel to a freshwater supply the other side of the village. The company decided to fill in both the tunnel and the well with clay, rubble and cement. This successful operation proved extremely difficult, as only three men at a time were able work in the confined spaces.
Several other landslips occurred – one of them plunging much of Westfield Farm into a “bottomless pit.”
But the death-knell for the mine sounded on June 2, 1930, when, with a roar, water poured into the upper mine. A dozen workers were rapidly evacuated, but the 60-ft square salt pillars supporting the roof started to dissolve.
The mine closed the following year – throwing most of the 300 staff on to the dole.
Only a handful remained to operate Preesall’s brine wells.
Some of the latter remained productive for many years, with the last of the 113 closing in 1993.
n An exhibition on the past and future of the saltfields, based on archive material from Fleetwood Museum and information from Halite’s gas storage planning application, is now on show at Knott End Library. It will continue until mid-September.
n This article has been compiled by volunteers from materials in Fleetwood Museum’s archives.