The Adelaide Marston mine

Adelaide Marston mine, Northwich; depth of a pair of shafts, 330 feet; area of mine, supported on pillars, 9½ acres; pillars 10 yards square and 20 yards apart.” (1881 – J Dickinson, ‘Report on the Salt Districts’, 1882)

This terse summary could describe a number of the 61 Northwich salt mines of the mid-19th century, but the Adelaide Mine was different. It held an amazing secret; deep below the soft Cheshire countryside lay huge pink caverns, sparkling with crystalline rock salt, long dark tunnels which came to life in the candle-lit torches of the workers, and an unforgettable experience for its many visitors.

The mine opened in 1850, named after the much-loved queen of William IV, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. The owners, Messrs Joseph Verdin and sons, realised that they had both a productive salt mine and a tourist attraction. Local people were soon being lowered in the four-man “hoppet” to the depths of the mine to gaze in awe at the unreal scenes of glittering crystals, dark recesses and dancing shadows. On occasions an orchestra played, usually a local orchestra, but sometimes a visiting military band.

“Festoons of fairy lights were suspended from the mine roof, cascading sparkling reflections on the walls and pillars of salt as the strains of a waltz or a foxtrot echoed through the chambers….” (Colin Lynch, ‘Northwich’, 2004). It was graced by the visits of the gentry and nobility, not least Grand Duke Michael of Russia. If the mine was working, salt was loosened by firing: “the explosions which the blastings occasion are tremendous thunderings, which shake the whole mine and reverberate in awful volleys throughout the caverns long after.”

No such fireworks during the visit of 80 members of the British Association in 1896. These august gentlemen were lowered in batches down the dark and perilous shaft, to be greeted by a candlelit banquet, “illuminated with upwards of 4,000 candles, tastefully displayed against the glittering rock… A table was placed for the gratification of the company, decorated with flowers and wax lights, supplied with every delicacy, and a profusion of the finest wines, to the charms of which these philosophers were not insensible.” (Northwich Guardian)

This appears to be one of many visits by “curious larned men” to the area. In 1838 a group of 60 members from Liverpool had visited the old Marston mine. They were delighted by the magical effect and “the unexpected combustion of some crimson fire and blue lights (which a lover of the pyrotechnic art luckily possessed) upon the sparkling crystal of the mine.” They enjoyed a fine déjeuner: “full justice was done to the viands, and the interest of the scene was considerably heightened by the attendance… of four female servants to wait upon the company.” (I Deck, letter to The Mechanics Magazine, Museum, Journal, Register, 1838).

In 1844 Emperor Nicholas of Russia visited the mine with The Royal Society of England, “on which occasion it was splendidly illuminated with upwards of 10,000 lights, and a banquet was provided at the bottom.” (Kelley’s Directory of Cheshire, 1902)

A trip to the bottom of a local mine also became a special occasion for local people, with up to 1,000 visitors in a single day. They were each given a candle, and invited to ‘promenade’, and explore the eerie dark tunnels and caverns. “When large parties are invited, it is customary to entertain them to music, trumpets, explosions, the magic lantern, etc., the effects of which are as curious as they are novel….” (Edmund Driver, ‘Cheshire: its cheese-makers, their homes, landlords and supporters’, 1909). The great cavern, over 30 feet in height, was “ thoroughly illuminated,….long ‘streets’ being fitted up with stalls and refreshments bars. Music is also plentifully supplied and as many as 400 persons have been known to join in one dance in the crystal halls.” (J J Manley 1878, quoted in Notes on Northwich Brine Area 1931, Vol.3, The Salt Union).

Underground crystal caverns still exist in the vast Wieliczka mine near Cracow in Poland and give some idea of the beauty and magic of the Adelaide experience.

Sadly, in 1928, the Adelaide mine, then being in full production, succumbed to the nemesis of many Northwich salt-mines – water. Although the shafts were roofed and protected from rain water, seepage through increasingly large fissures soon ate away at the workings, draining into the caverns and dissolving the massive pillars, until the roofs were undermined and collapsed. The four ponies which hauled the trucks and bogeys could not be rescued, and a Mr Ashbrook was sent down the mine to humanely destroy the animals as the floodwaters rose.

Much valuable machinery was lost. Like so many Northwich mines, the surface buildings slowly sank into the rising waters and were engulfed into the dark recesses of the flooded shafts and caverns. The site is now a rather attractive lake, which can be seen on both sides of Ollershaw Lane, Marston. When the water-level falls, the remains of old buildings and structures can be glimpsed, and after heavy rain the surface may heave and bubble. But for the most part the scene is a peaceful one; a few fishermen, a pair of great crested grebe, Cheshire’s iconic bird, and the song of the reed warbler.

Yet only a few yards away, on the other side of the Trent and Mersey canal, a contemporary of the Adelaide mine can still be seen – the award-winning Lion Salt Works. In full operation until 1986, it has been wonderfully preserved by a dedicated team of enthusiasts and is now fully open to the public. But no need to clamber into a hoppet and descend into the depths.