In the Iron Age, the area around the town was well-developed for salt production. The brine was heated so as to evaporate some of the water content, producing a concentration sufficient for salt crystals to form, which could then be raked from the brine and left to dry. This basic process was used for salt production in the town until it finally ceased in the early 20th century.
Following the Roman invasion of Britain, the site of Droitwich Spa was a village known as Salinae which was located at the crossroads of several Roman roads. Salt extraction was regarded as an important activity by the Romans and a fort was constructed nearby to protect this valuable resource. Salt production continued after the departure of the Romans, and during the Saxon period the town was then known as Wic or Saltwic, and Royal ownership of the profitable salt production is mentioned in several charters. The town, then referred to as Wych, appeared in the Doomsday Book, and Royal ownership of the salt production is mentioned, as is the amount of salt produced – about 1,000 tons per year.
In 1215 King John’s charter granted all the King’s rights to salt production to a group of local landowners, in exchange for a rent of £100 per year. By the 14th century, the town was known as Dryghtwych. Later, introduction of iron pans to hold the brine, and coal as fuel to heat the pans increased the annual salt production to about 3,000 tons. The monopoly over salt production eventually ceased following an important legal case won by Robert Steynor in 1695. Salt production then became more widespread, and improved techniques also led to increased production, so that by about 1770, the annual amount was about 15,000 tons.
By about this time the town had become known as Droitwich, and the Barge Canal was completed in 1771 to connect the town to the west with the river Severn at Hawford Mill (9 Km). It was used to bring in coal and to export salt. A railway connection to Droitwich was introduced in the mid 1800’s, and at about the same time the canal was extended to the east to join up with the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Hanbury Wharf (3 Km).
The family of John Corbet (1817-1901) owned a canal boat business at Brierley Hill in the West Milands, and he would have been aware of the salt production and transportation at Droitwich. By the mid 1800’s, it became increasingly difficult for canals to complete with the railways, and around 1850 John Corbet sold his canal boat business and bought several interests in salt production. The efficiency of salt production was significantly improved by John Corbett, who as a result became known locally as the “Salt King”. Annual salt production peaked at 120,000 tons in about 1870. However, from about 1890 most of the industry was moved to the newer works at nearby Stoke Prior (9 Km), where it continued until 1972. The last remaining salt works in Droitwich closed in 1922.
John Corbet amassed a fortune from salt production and built the nearby Chateau Impney (2 Km) for his Irish wife in the French style. The Chateau Impney is now a hotel. John Corbett was also responsible for much of the development of Droitwich as a Spa town. Unlike other places, the medicinal benefits were not derived from drinking the water, but from the muscular relief derived by swimming and floating in a dense, concentrated salt solution. The town’s brine baths had opened in their original form in 1830, but over the years had been replaced by similar facilities. The latest brine bath was operated and used as part of the Droitwich Spa private hospital, and was also open to the public for relaxation and hydrotherapy, but this too was closed by the operator in 2008. The money recouped from the operator’s breach of contract has been set aside by Wychavon District Council for the provision of a new spa facility, but currently no decision been made regarding what or where this might be.
In the 1930’s Droitwich Spa Lido opened as a large open-air swimming pool, which used diluted brine, and was marketed as the “seaside come to Droitiwch Spa”. The salt in the water was strong enough to keep the water in the pool aseptic, without the need for additional chemicals such as chlorine. This facility remained popular for many years, but gradually fell into decline and was closed in 1990. Following a campaign by a local pressure group (SALT – “Save a Lido Today”) it was rebuilt and reopened in 2007.