Droitwich is unique because its natural brine springs have been exploited on an industrial scale for at least 2000 years. Underground brine streams rise to the surface in the Salwarpe valley (Vines Park) under artesian pressure. The brine was collected and evaporated to make salt; at 25% salt by volume, Droitwich brine is saltier than the Dead Sea. (Seawater is about 3% salt.) Droitwich brine was always, therefore, a very valuable resource and its ownership was coveted and closely guarded.
There is archaeological evidence of salt manufacture from the Bronze Age onwards (around 600 BC). From the Iron Age (300 BC onwards) this was on an industrial scale. To the north of High St and Friar St large brine storage pits were constructed (perhaps 100,000 litres of total capacity), and the resulting salt was distributed by pack horses over a wide area of central/southern England at a time when there were no roads as such.
The Romans re-organised the production methods and distribution from AD 47, and there is little doubt that the brine resource here was one of their targets for the conquest. A Roman fort briefly occupied Dodderhill to consolidate their hold on the area; they probably constructed the first timber-lined brine well (later known as the Upwich pit), and built roads for the transport of salt which radiated out in 6 directions. The location was known as 'Salinae' (saltings) on Roman itineraries.
The industry continued through the post Roman 'Dark Ages' and the early Saxon period, and there is charter evidence for 'markets' here from the late 7th century (when the first written records were made). It's likely that these markets go back even further in time. However, as the salt industry was seasonal up to the 18th century, probably there was no physical town (permanent settlement) here until the middle Saxon period (around AD 800) when the first permanent buildings may have been constructed on broad burgage plots along what are now High Street, Friar Street and St Andrew's Street. So far nothing is known of these.
From late Saxon times onwards, documentary evidence shows that Droitwich salt rights were owned by the Crown, the Church, and other high status individuals. At this time the town was called 'Wich' and it is the place mentioned most frequently in the Domesday Book - William the Conqueror's great national tax survey of 1086. It is around this time that the town acquired borough status.
In 1215 King John's royal charter leased the Crown's salt rights to the burgesses of Wich for a huge annual rent of £100 (Worcester paid £30 annually). This gave the burgesses an effective monopoly on salt production and the resulting wealth probably led to an expansion of the town, although the main brine well (Upwich) failed and had to be reconstructed in 1264/5. A further disaster struck the town in 1290 when a serious fire started at St Andrew's church and destroyed many buildings, and it's likely that these were only fully replaced decades later.
The Borough monopoly continued to 1695 when a legal challenge by Robert Steynor, who had sunk a brine well on his own land, succeeded after a 5 year court battle. Thus the early/mid 1700s saw significant changes to the town’s socio-economic structure and physical appearance as new brine wells were sunk. The Upwich pit went out of use quickly. Wealth was achieved by different new people and lost by others whose economic prosperity had been based on shares in the old brine pits. There was a major rebuilding in brick of earlier mainly timber-frame buildings, with some replaced completely and others re-fronted.
1714 saw the turnpiking and subsequent paving of the road to Worcester, thus improving transport links (so making it easier to bring building materials into the town). The canal from Vines Park westwards to the River Severn was constructed in 1768 to further improve transport links; coal was brought in, and salt taken out of the town. In 1854 it was extended to the east, and in the same year the railway arrived nearby, with the station in Droitwich constructed later.
From the mid 1700s onwards steam pump technology and the use of coal enabled a massive increase in salt production which now took place all year round. Starting in the 1830s large modern factories were built round the north and west sides of the town. Smoke and steam polluted the air, and the increased population of salt workers lived in cramped, poorly constructed dwellings, many of which were fairly new.
Brine had been used therapeutically from the 1830s, initially to cure cholera, but its benefits for sufferers of rheumatic conditions were soon famous and Droitwich Spa was born. Many hotels and boarding houses of various sizes were built to accommodate the visitors who were treated at the Brine Baths which had been established. In the late 1890s and through the 20th century brine was used in hospital treatments including by the NHS.
Salt production in Droitwich ceased in 1922, and within a couple of decades the enormous factories and their tall chimneys were mostly swept away. The Spa buildings remained into the late 20th century and beyond, and from the 1970s Droitwich has become somewhat of a dormitory town for people working in the West Midlands conurbations, hence the construction of the inner ring-road, the A38 bypass, and the sizeable housing estates all round the town. Some light engineering and production provides local employment, together with the usual retail and service industries.
For further information on Droitwich's history, click on the link below and search on 'Droitwich'.
For an overview of the archaeological work carried out in Friar Street and High Street including a discussion of building plot widths, see the report below