Death at Marston

The recent opening of the Lion Salt Works in Marston, near Northwich has been met with delight and acclaim, both locally and nationally. But it was not always so; its first opening 1n 1894 met with much local anger and suspicion, leading to conflict, passionate rivalry – and within months – tragedy.

The creation of the Salt Union, in 1888, took nearly all the existing mines and salt-works into common ownership, as the Union sought to control production and prices in a chaotic market. The Thompson family sold the Alliance Salt Works to the Union for £17,000. The works were old, and like many of the newly-purchased properties, soon ceased production, and closed down by about 1898.

But salt was in the blood of Henry Ingram Thompson (1851-1937); he purchased a plot of land, about an acre in extent, adjoining the old Alliance works, and began drilling a new shaft, “within four yards” of the Alliance shaft next door! The Thompsons replied to Salt Union protests that the new shaft and brine were “newly discovered” and therefore outside the area and mineral rights of the Salt Union.

The Salt Union immediately went to litigation. Not only had the new Lion Salt Works shaft infringed their property and rights, but suspicious practices were noticed. In November 1894, within days of completion of the new shaft, Alliance workers were surprised to note a sudden 5’6” rise in the brine in their own shaft; moreover, the strength of their brine declined from the normal 38oz to 28½oz. There could be only one explanation: …”this could only have arisen from some water having been put down some neighbouring shaft…. At least 100 tons of water must have been put down….”

In the opinion of the Salt Union workers, the Lion shaft had failed to strike brine, and so Thompson had poured fresh water down to the salt rock head to dissolve the salt to make “artificial” brine. The local SU manager had even spotted a hosepipe on their property! They demanded an independent inspection by a neutral Surveyor.

Despite Mr H I Thompson’s assurances that he had secured a “plentiful and permanent supply of brine,” Mr Justice North remarked that “the case seems to be a very suspicious one….the inspection must take place at once”.

Mr Joseph Dickinson carried out an inspection on 13th November 1894 which was inconclusive. This did not satisfy Thomas Rayner, Divisional Manager at Marston. He must have a sample of the newly-found brine. But how? He resorted to what we now call industrial espionage, and had a quiet word with a trusted employee, James Littler.

About 1.00 a.m on a bitterly cold February night, 1895, four Salt Union employees, James Littler, George Worrall, Thomas Davies and Samuel Riley, climbed over the wall of the Lion Salt Works. One remained on watch, while his three companions went to the shaft and removed the flake, or wooden covering.

Thomas Davies volunteered to descend with a bucket, being lowered on a “horse” or chair used by miners. “Standing on the partly-open flake, while endeavouring to attach the eye of the chair to a hook on the pit rope, he suddenly disappeared, and his companions heard him fall into the brine at the bottom of the shaft, nearly 150 feet below.” He was heard to crash against one of the cross bearings on the way down. The men shouted down, and as no response came, they concluded he was killed. His distraught companions dashed for help, and soon Acting Sergeant Venables and Thomas Moore, foreman of the works, were on the scene.

Mr Moore descended the shaft and found the “fearfully mangled” body of Thomas Davies, with a severe head wound, floating in the brine. “It was found that the poor fellow in his terrible fall had, through coming into contact with projections, dislocated his neck, and fractured several limbs…”

Mr Davies was 33 years old and left a widow, Mary Jane, and two small children. At the subsequent inquest, much sympathy was expressed for Mr Davies, “one of the steadiest men in the neighbourhood,” and his family. The Coroner sternly condemned Mr Rayner, who bore “moral if not legal responsibility” and expressed the wish that the Salt Union should pay due compensation to Mrs Davies. Whether they did so is not known, but the jury generously donated their fee to the widow.

The test of legal responsibility came on the 9th March, when, at Northwich Petty Sessions, Mr Rayner was accused of incitement to larceny, by asking his men to steal brine from Mr Henry Ingram Thompson. Despite the subtle argument of his counsel, Mr Cooke, who observed that in Common Law the brine did not belong to Mr Thompson, being part of the untapped rock head, so part of nature, Mr Rayner was found guilty and fined £7, including costs.

The wretched workmen were likewise summonsed, accused of trespass and attempted theft. Loyal to their employer throughout, they denied being paid for their intrusion into the Lion Salt Works, and professed support for Mr Rayner and their management. They pleaded guilty, but the Court resolved to be merciful, and the men were merely bound over.

The Salt Union’s suit was lost, and they were obliged to pay £150 to Mr Thompson for trespass and nuisance.

The incident was not recorded in the minutes of its AGM in 1895. Mr Raynor subsequently became Manager of a Salt Works, probably the Adelaide Mine.