Mike Royden's Local History Pages

Salt and the Rise of Liverpool
The Dungeon

The Dungeon

[Quay Wall]

The discovery of rock salt in Cheshire in 1670 was to be the catalyst in the development and improvement in commmunications from the Cheshire salt fields and the Lancashire coal fields to the River Mersey and Liverpool. The town of Liverpool was opened up to the hinterland and the rise in the port swiftly followed. This article looks at those developments in detail, from the initial discovery of rock salt, to the effects on the port of Liverpool, including the role played by the small fishing hamlet of Dungeon.

The Dungeon lies on a small bay between Oglet and Hale Head on the foreshore of the Mersey. An intriguing name, it conjures up images of nooks and crannies and deep pits, with stone walls covered in green slime and the constant dripping of water. Well, it did for me living nearby, whenever I went there to play as a youngster! It was an unusual place, with its inclined approach road sloping down to an overgrown grassy platform, with sandstone blocks and masonry rubble strewn around. There were also those strange pyramid shaped stone blocks, piled high against what looked like a quayside. And not a manacle to be seen.

In fact, much of the stone work and raised areas were the visible remains of a salt refinery erected by early industrialists in the late 17th century.

The name Dungeon is most likely derived from the Old English Dunge or Denge, meaning land of, or next to, the marsh. Denge Marsh and Dungeness in Kent are the most obvious examples, but a local occurrence exists less than a mile south of Thurstaston on the Wirral. There the name was given to a small enclosed area, again of boggy marsh-land, and the spelling is identical to the Dungeon concerned here.

A ditch running alongside Dungeon Lane, which leads down to the shore from Hale Road, once formed part of the ancient boundary line between the townships of Speke and Hale.(1) At the point where Bailey's Lane links Dungeon Lane to Hale, a more direct route to Hale Road originally ran from this point. Known as Ashton's Lane, after a one-time owner of the salt-works, this was once part of the main access road from Old Hutte, formerly the Manor House of Hale. The junction of Ashton's Lane at Hale Road formed a cross roads, with Old Hutt Lane continuing straight across to Halewood. Heath Farm stood on the corner of this crossroads diagonally opposite the modern Dove and Olive public house.(2) This direct access from the Hutt may point to an importance of the Dungeon as a small harbour for fishing boats and even as a minor localised trade route. Its use as a ferry point must also not be discounted, although the main crossing was upstream at Hale at the end of Within Way.

Hale Tithe Map Hale tithe map shows the dungeon buildings in the 1840's and the 'officers houses' (the HM Customs houses) bottom left.

Bailey's Lane and Ashton Lane were also boundaries to Hale Heath, on which a windmill was situated, shown on William Yates' map of 1786. (Direct access to the mill from the Hutt being yet another reason for the Ashton's Lane route). Numerous 'Heath' field names were given to the enclosures in this area which were centred around the mill. The mill site today lies under a small area of wasteland on the north side of Bailey's Lane.

On the earliest known plan of Speke, Addison's map of 1781, two field names within the township boundary relating to the Dungeon are shown, namely Dungeon Hey bordering the foreshore, and Dungeon Field, a large enclosure bordered by the Dungeon Lane and the shore. On the Hale side, all the plots between Bailey's Lane and the river were also related names; Dungeon Croft behind the Fishermen's cottages, Dungeon Field, Great and Little Dungeon, Dungeon Bank and inevitably, Dungeon Marsh.(3)

A few cottages lined Dungeon Lane, some of which remain in a dilapidated condition. Although known as fishermen cottages, they were also occupied by salt-workers before the closure of the refinery. Fishing continued here until around the turn of the century, when local men returned to the occupation dominant before the construction of the salt-works.

A few paces down the sloping lane towards the shore is a disused lane on the left. Now overgrown, but still lined with pollarded trees, this once led to a small chapel. Below the site of the chapel, in what is now an enclosed area of dense undergrowth, lay a pond, together with a circular feature shown on 19th century maps. This land was part of Ashton's refinery estate and was almost certainly the site of a reservoir which once provided the water supply for the salt-works.(4)

Salt has always been a necessity of life, not only for seasoning but also as a preservative for meat and fish, and as population increased, the growing demand for the commodity made its preparation on a large scale essential. It is known that even from the Bronze Age, salt was prepared in the eastern Mediterranean by the evaporation of sea water. It was an extensive industry in this country from about the 14th century, which also relied on sea water as its main source, although inland brine springs were occasionally used.

Not many recognisable remains are to be seen now, beyond the salt-ways by which salt was carried inland(5), and a few small harbours that owed their importance to salt, coal and lime. It is for this reason that the Dungeon site is potentially of national importance, as it has avoided development and complete destruction.

During the medieval period, sea water was usually left to stand in shallow pools through the summer months until the gradual evaporation increased the concentration of brine. Finally, the brine would be evaporated in small lead pans over a wood fire. Coal was not generally used until the 16th century, as the sulphur tended to corrode the pans. (Later they would be replaced by iron). It took huge quantities of coal to refine salt(6) and many industrialists saw the need to migrate to the estuaries of rivers like the Tyne and Wear which flowed through or near coalfields.

It has been estimated by Nef that by the end of the 17th century more than 300,000 tons of coal a year were burned in England and Scotland in the production of salt.(7)

The economic importance of salt had been recognised by Liverpool merchants and commentators on the growth of the port as early as the first half of the 17th century. According to John Holt,

'The Salt Trade is generally acknowledged to have been the Nursing Mother and to have contributed more to the first rise, gradual increase, and present flourishing state of the Town of Liverpool, than any other article of commerce'.(8)

By the early 1600's, salt had become the major export product of the port of Liverpool. It was, for example, an essential commodity of the Newfoundland cod fisheries, from where the salted fish was taken to the West Indies and sold or exchanged for sugar, coffee or fruit. In the coastal trade it was of great importance; it was taken to Cornwall where in return came china clay for the pottery industries of Staffordshire and Liverpool. It was also necessary in other Liverpool industries such as metal and glass working, where it was used as a flux, and later, of course, it became integral to the basic growth of the local chemical industry as an ingredient in the manufacture of soda.

The discovery of Rock Salt by John Jackson of Halton while prospecting for coal on behalf of William Marbury on the latter's Great Budworth Estate in 1670 was to change the nature of the industry completely. The newly found deposit was, "of the nature of strong sea- salt without any sal nitre or alum in it; good to season such things with as need very strong salt".(9) According to Barker, it was in fact an excellent substitute for the French salt which the refiners of Bristol and the West Country had been in the habit of importing. In consequence, a steady coastwise trade in Rock Salt developed from Liverpool.(10)

It was now a simple matter of transporting the raw material to more economically sited factories where it could be refined. Previously, due to the difficulties posed by moving brine, refining tended to be carried out on site, and in the case of the Cheshire wiches their remoteness from coalfields presented serious problems. After the discovery of 1670, three refineries sprouted (after a short delay), on or near to the Mersey; at Frodsham Bridge (c.1690-4), Liverpool (1696), and Dungeon (1697); all attempting to benefit from their closer proximity to the Lancashire coalfields.

Such closer proximity did not solve the coal supply problem immediately however, as difficulties were being encountered with the tides and the silting up of the upper Mersey. In tandem with the re- locations, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1694 to make the River navigable to Warrington.

The earliest documentary evidence regarding the Dungeon works was in a letter written in 1697 by Thomas Johnson to Richard Norris of Speke Hall, 'Doe not forgett to move the Commrs of the Customs to settle an officer on the Establishment at Dungeon. It's a great charge and trouble to us as the matter now is'(11)

Thomas Johnson was known to be a salt refiner and was probably the founder and original owner of the Dungeon works. His comment appears in a letter concerning the problems of Customs Duty, as a temporary tax had been imposed on salt in 1694 to help fund the French wars. Two Cottages, still standing just off the south side of Bailey's Lane, were erected for the use of the Custom's and Excise.

Further expansion of the salt trade was hampered in the early 18th century by the poor communications into the salt fields of Cheshire. The agitation for a navigable short-cut stemmed from the commercial centre of Liverpool. The problems of freeing this trade from the restrictions of packhorse trains which moved both salt and the coal needed to refine it, had been annually growing more urgent. The Weaver Navigation into the salt fields, completed in 1733, was only a partial solution to the problem.

To the Liverpool Council it became obvious by the early 1750's that the potential of the salt industry would not be realised, (in addition to its beneficial effect on the industrial economy in general in south west Lancashire), if the problems of fuel supply were not solved swiftly and successfully. The logical solution was to be found by complementing the Weaver Navigation supply route with a similar operation to the coalfields; the navigation of Sankey Brook, which was to develop into an artificial canal and not merely a river improvement. After preliminary surveys, Liverpool Council petitioned Parliament for the necessary Act. Support came from two areas; the merchants and industrialists of Liverpool; and the proprietors of the salt works of Northwich and Winsford.(12)

It is notable that the chief petitioners were John Blackburne, owner of the Liverpool refinery, and John Ashton, now the owner of Dungeon. Ashton, in fact, provided just under half of the capital, owning 51 of the 120 shares in the Navigation, and the completion of the project was mainly owed to him. The canal opened in November 1757 and its effect on the production of salt was quite remarkable; 14,000 tons in 1752, 40,000 by 1783, 100,000 by 1796 and 186,000 in 1820.(13)

The Liverpool refinery, owned by Jonathan and John Blackburne, was situated close to the Town's second wet dock, the Salthouse Dock, which opened in 1753. The Dungeon works was probably acquired by John Ashton in, or shortly after, 1746 (14) as they were put up for auction on 29 December of that year. An advert regarding the Auction appeared in Adam's Weekly Courant on 9th December 1746,

'To be sold by auction to the highest bidder at the Merchants' Coffee House in Liverpool on Monday the Twentyninth of this Instant December at Six o'clock that Evening:- A SALT WORKS called the Dungeon, consists of four Pans, situated in Hale in the County of Lancaster on the River Mersey about Six Miles above Liverpool near opposite the Mouth of the River Weaver, which hath very good Navigation up to Northwich in Cheshire from whence the said Works is easily supplied with Rock Salt and with Salt Water to work it from the River Mersey. The building is mostly new and all in good Repair, and convenient for carrying on the trade of making and refining Salt. The premises are in possession of Mr. Ford who hath a Term of Four Years in them under the clear yearly Rental of Fifty Pounds Annum. There are about two acres of Land of Inheritance belonging to it and a convenient House for the King's Officers, together with about eight acres of tenement held by Lease for one Life. Particulars may be had and a Plan of the work from Mr. Jonathan Case at Wills Coffee House opposite to Lincoln's Inn Gate, London, or from Mr. Richard Eccleston, attorney in law at Liverpool'. (15)

Johnathan Case was a refiner, and may have had an interest since the Dungeon's earliest days, and a Robert Gill is also known to have had ownership.(16)

After the death of John Ashton in August 1759, the Dungeon works was inherited by his son Nicholas, who keen to ensure a regular and economic supply of coal, leased coalmines at Parr, near St. Helens, (close to the new Sankey Canal) at the end of the 18th century.

Woolton Hall c.1819

Nicholas Ashton, owner of the Dungeon Saltworks in 18th century, bought Woolton Hall in 1772. He had previously lived over his business office in Hanover Street in the centre of Liverpool, and no doubt found Woolton more convenient. The house was erected in the early years of the 18th century and was owned by Richard Molyneux (of the Croxteth Molyneux's) by 1704. More detail on the house can be found in History of Much Woolton by Lally & Gnosspelious.

In fact, by the early 1830's, every coal proprietor in and around St. Helens owned salt-works in Cheshire.(17) In 1772, Ashton purchased Woolton Hall, having previously resided at Hanover Street (where he was a neighbour of John Blackburne) and Clayton Square in Liverpool. Ashton was still only 30 years old and had already held the office of High Sheriff of Lancashire.

The salt-works appear to have been discontinued during the late 1840's. The reasons are not clear, although communications to the site, which saw little improvement over a century, combined with the silting up of the Mersey and the resultant tidal problems may have been contributory factors. Indeed, Matthew Gregson was reporting a project under consideration in 1817 to construct embankments on the Mersey from the marsh at Ditton to Garston or even Knott's Hole at the Dingle,

'...Opposite the Dungeon, two miles of land in breadth might be enclosed before the present salt works, where the river is fordable at low water'.(18)

The Dungeon works simply may not have been able to compete any longer with Blackburne's new refinery, which had relocated from Liverpool to Garston in 1798.

By 1841, Nicholas Ashton was dead and ownership of part of the land had passed into Henry Ashton's hands, namely the Salt-works and the cottages nearby. However, John Ireland-Blackburne was still the major land owner in Hale and held the surrounding Dungeon Fields, the two reservoirs and the Marsh. In 1841 this land was tenanted by the legal representatives of Nicholas Ashton. Was there a conflict of interests? Henry Ashton may have found too many legal problems before him to continue a viable business. He may have simply lacked the business acumen of Nicholas to maintain the works successfully. Numerous salt workers were still resident in Hale in 1841, although it is quite possible that the site was closed shortly after Nicholas Ashton's death; they may have recently become unemployed and were travelling to the Garston works. (Research continues in this field).

Dungeon and the Mersey from the Cliff Now heavily silted, the quay lies on the low platform below the cliff. The Mersey, although still tidal up to the wall, could no longer support the kind of vessels that had been using the quay since the 1690's.

In the late 19th century, the wharf was used as a ship- breakers yard by Richard White and Sons of Ditton Road. Various types of vessels met their end there, from schooners and paddle-boats to iron barques. Even the Victorian warship HMS Resistance was broken at Dungeon. Inevitably, the silting of the channels proved to be an insurmountable problem and the yard closed in 1912. The site is also known to have been used as a concrete works and a fireworks factory and grain is once believed to have been handled at the wharf.

During the 20th century, the Dungeon has remained relatively unscathed while large scale housing developments and the construction of a new airport runway were carried out nearby. Hale cliff has proved a popular place as an unspoilt leisure area for walkers and naturalists, and paths have been improved, together with the laying of a small car park.

Several small stone pyramids remain - they were, of course, placed across the foreshore to hinder access to the potential threat of invading forces during the Second World War. The remains of the wharf can be clearly seen, together with the foundations of the Salt- works. However, the site where part of the wall has disappeared is now suffering from serious erosion and damage, mainly from wave action at high tides. This wave action has also revealed a pair of underground brick chambers.

In 1989, members of the North Western Society for Industrial Archaeology and History were becoming increasingly concerned as to the extent of the erosion of the site and contacted the Salt Museum at Northwich. The Society also indicated to the Curator, Stephen Penney, that they had discovered an underground structure, presumably connected to the Works.

Mr Penney discussed the situation with George Twigg, a colleague with experience of such sites, and advised the Society that the discovery was possibly an early type of rock salt dissolver. Rock Salt would have been tipped into the opening at the top (like the charging hole in a kiln) whilst sea water percolating through the lower levels would have slowly dissolved the Rock to produce saturated brine. This was then drawn off to be boiled in open pans in the usual way.

This assertion was only a tentative one however, as it was yet to be inspected by the two gentlemen. Moreover, accurate surveys would also be required to determine its position in relation to the salt- works. The NWSIAH went into action and in January 1990 they began work on the site.(19) Their priority was the completion of a survey plan of the area in 1:200scale. The newly discovered chambers were also plotted, although this was approximate to a certain extent due to silt deposits. Nevertheless, they were still able to determine a circular structure with an arched roof entirely of brick.

Aerial View of Liverpool Airport, with Dungeon in background

Dungeon is the small bay in the Mersey to the right of the picture at the end of the runway.

The survey was extended to include the fishermen's cottages and the Cliff headland. In addition, erosion by the tide action had proved to be so extensive that early brick and sandstone wall structures had been revealed near the wharf at the high water mark. These may be the remains of a quayside constructed prior to the erection of the salt-works, which would confirm the Dungeon's early importance to the locality as a small port. Members of the society were drafted in to prepare preliminary surveys and to carry out excavations. However, the Society was facing problems regarding the former use of the chamber,

'Difficulty is encountered identifying whether the structure is connected with the salt industry, as the most important part is concealed by at least five feet of silt. If it can be proved that the structure was a refining chamber converting rock salt to brine, then the site will be of national importance'.(20)

Erosion continues to be a major problem, but if funding is received this could be arrested, and a site which may prove to one of the rarest surviving examples of its kind will be preserved.

Work on the site carried out by the dedicated members of the NWSIAH is still progressing, and thanks to a local construction group and the Speke Environmental Project, a manhole cover was installed to prevent unauthorised access to the chamber and further internal damage.

(Footnotes and Bibliography below)

Appendix - Documents

[rock salt doc]

The Discovery of Rock Salt

Extract from the Philisophical Transactions of 1670 reporting the discovery of rock salt in Cheshire.

The discovery at Marbury was "of the nature of strong sea salt without any sal-nitre or alum in it; good to season such things with as need very strong salt". This discovery was to be the catalyst in the development and improvement in commmunications from the Cheshire salt fields and the Lancashire coal fields to the River Mersey and Liverpool. The town of Liverpool was opened up to the hinterland and the rise in the port swiftly followed. A small refinery would soon be built at Dungeon.

[Hale Cliff]

Map of Hale Cliff 1914

This shows the buildings as they were in 1914 at the bottom of the map (opposite the words Hale Cliff Wharf).
The fisherman's cottages are opposite the word 'Dungeon' of Dungeon Lane
The map comes from a lease document from Colonel R.Blackburne (of Hale) to Hugh Mapleton, 8th October 1914, at 10 per year for 25 years.

[salt pan]

Salt Chamber - Dungeon

Salt chamber, surveyed and excavated by the North West Society for Industrial Archaeology in the 1980's.

[modern survey]

Modern survey of the site

Survey carried out on behalf of the North West Industrial Archaeological Society during the 1980's investigation.

Mike Royden (1992)


1. A boundary stone bearing the Speke Hall Watt family's initials was situated on this line part way along the incline.
2. The name of which comes from the dove and olive featured on the coat of arms of the Irelands, Lords of the Manor of Hale.
3. Hale Tithe Map 1843 L.C.R.O. ref. DRL/1/31
4. Forshaw,R. eds. 'Hale Cliff Wharf', - Interim Survey and Excavation Report N.W.S.I.A.H. Liverpool (Feb.1990), Section II.
5. See for example, Crump, W.B. 'Saltways From the Cheshire Wiches' T.L.C.A.S. vol. 54 (1939)
6. On average between 2-3 tons of coal to produce one ton of salt.
7. Raistrick,A. Industrial Archaeology, London (rep.1986)
8. Holt & Gregson MSS vol 10 p.253 Lp.R.O. Collection of papers compiled by Liverpool antiquarians John Holt and Matthew Gregson, up to 1831. Many were published in Gregson's Portfolio of Fragment's (1817) although this comment of Holt's was made in the mid 1790's.
9. Birch,T. 'History of the Royal Society, London (1756-7), Vol II, sub. 26 January 1670/1.
10. Barker,T.C. 'Lancashire Coal, Cheshire Salt and the Rise of Liverpool', T.H.S.L.C. Vol 103 (1951) p.86
11. Norris Papers 2/157, 7 December 1697
12. Barker,T.C. & Harris,J.R. A Merseyside Town in the Industrial Revolution: St.Helens 1750-1900 Liverpool Univ. Press (1954)
13. Willan,T.S 'The Navigation of the River Weaver in the Eighteenth Century', Chetham Society Transactions Vol 3. 3rd series (1951) After full industrialisation and the construction of railway networks, production had reached 1,000,000 tons by 1870.
14. Barker, T.C. 'Lancashire Coal.,' op.cit. p.93.
15. Also cited in Wardle,A.C. 'Some Glimpses of Liverpool during the first half of the Eighteenth Century', T.H.S.L.C. vol 97 (1945), p.150
16. John Gill, who was a curate at St. Chad's, Kirkby, in 1786, is recorded in the V.C.H. (Lancs vol.III footnote p.55) as being the grandson of Robert Gill of Hale, proprietor of the Dungeon Saltworks.
17. Barker,T.C 'Lancashire Coal., p.97
18. Gregson,M. Portfolio of Fragments, (1817) Lp.R.O. p.214 Farrer, op.cit. p. 141
19. Forshaw,R. op.cit.
20. ibid. section 5.02.


Barker,T.C. 'The Sankey Navigation - The First Lancashire Canal', T.H.S.L.C. vol.100 (1948)
Barker,T.C. 'Lancashire Coal, Cheshire Salt and the Rise of Liverpool',
T.H.S.L.C. Vol 103 (1951
Crump, W.B. 'Saltways From the Cheshire Wiches' Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, vol. 54 (1939)
Raistrick,A. Industrial Archaeology, London (rep.1986)
Willan,T.S 'The Navigation of the River Weaver in the Eighteenth Century', Chetham Society Transactions Vol 3. 3rd series (1951)
Forshaw,R. eds. 'Hale Cliff Wharf', North Western Society for Industrial Archaeology and History - Interim Survey and Excavation Report Liverpool (Feb.1990) available from: The Secretary, NWSIAH, c/o Liverpool Museums, William Brown Street, Liverpool. L3 8EN.

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