The Archaeology of Irish Salt – fatalities and accidents

Halloween may have just past, but in researching the historical salt works around the Irish coast we uncovered a few gruesome incidents fit for late night story-telling!  On the 19th November 1875  a 17-year old lad named John Barbour had a horrible accident in one of Carrickfergus’ salt works, which resulted in his death. He seemed to have been raking the salt to remove it from a platform beside one of the pans. He filled a barrow rather unevenly placing more salt on the side near the pan than on the other. On raising the barrow it was off-balance and capsized, throwing him headlong into the pan, which contained several feet of boiling brine. Hearing his cries, he was joined by a co-worker who found the unfortunate lad swimming, as it were, through the pan. He caught him by the arm, but the skin coming away in his hand, he had to pull him out by the hair. John was removed to his home nearby, where despite being attended to by Dr Taggart, he lingered in intense agony until he died two hours later.

Working the pan recreated at the Lion Salt Works (with disco lighting!)

Working the pan recreated at the Lion Salt Works, Cheshire (with disco lighting!)

The Coroner’s inquest found that owing to the swollen state of the tongue and the scalded state of the throat, the immediate cause of death was smothering. A verdict of accidental death was returned. Barbour’s story is similar to that of a 19-year old boy named Hamilton from the Balbriggan works in Co. Dublin. In 1910 he also died of injuries sustained by falling into the evaporation pans.

Accidents were not confined to the open pan method of extracting salt. In 1899 at the rock salt mines of south-east Antrim, old workings that had been abandoned and crowned 30 years previously suddenly erupted. They were described by a Mr Rigby as ‘forming a hole about eighty feet across and about thirty feet deep, which was full of water and used as fish pond’ prior to the eruption. Rigby went on, ‘at six o’clock on Saturday evening [they] suddenly burst upwards, throwing out the whole of the water and fish and covering the whole surface of four acres of mowing grass with coating of red marl from an eighth to a quarter inch thick, and scattering stones, some weighing 1 cwt., 60 to 80 feet up in the air, and as much as 100 yards away from the top of the shafts. Women living in the houses were attracted by the noise, which they described as being like traction engine, and on turning round they saw this immense quantity of water and stones flying up in the air to distance of quite 80 feet…The rush of water, mud and stones, continued so far as I could ascertain for about four minutes, and accompanied by very loud rumbling noises.’ The eruption was attributed to air pressure building up in the old shafts with a further collapse in the roof of the system causing the subsequent explosion. On this occasion, despite stones being propelled over the nearby houses, no one was hurt – excepting the chickens in the backyards!

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