THE COPROLITE DIGGINGS IN STONDON, BEDS
Few people are aware that fossil digging was once a lucrative occupation in Stondon. It was in the surrounding villages as well. The fossils, known by many as “coprolites” and thought to be fossilised droppings of bear, lizard, wildebeest, fish or dinosaur, were termed by geologists as phosphatic nodules. They contained the fossilised teeth, claws, scales and bones of all sorts of dinosaurs - iguanodon, megalosaurus, dinotosaurus, dakosaurus, craterosaurus, and pterodactyl as well as the marine lizards - pliosaurus, plesiosaurus and ichthyosaurus. Hippopotamus, elephant, rhinoceros, crocodile, hyena, bear, tapir, horse, ox, shark and whale were unearthed as well as numerous shells, sponges and many other marine organisms. Although the nineteenth century geologists disputed their coprolitic content excellent specimens have been unearthed recently.
It caused localised inflation when farm labourers were able to get higher wages in the fossil pits. Farmers had to pay their labourers more to get the farmwork done. Landowners made considerable fortunes allowing their fields to be worked for the fossils. They were a valuable commodity, not only in providing the budding new sciences of geology and palaeontology with material for research papers and filling the shelves and cabinets of museums but also for their phosphate content. The best specimens were sold to visiting scholars who haunted the pits in the hope of finding new species or better examples. Many found their way into the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, the Ashmolean in Oxford and others across the country. More often than not the diggers pocketed the better quality smaller finds to sell for a few shillings. The bulk of the deposit was worthless geologically speaking, being an assortment of amorphous lumps but they were the basic raw material for a new industry - that of superphosphate manufacture - the first artifical chemical manure. After being ground to a powder the fossils were dissolved in sulphuric acid to produce a soluble material, paticularly effective on root crops.
The coprolite industry started on the southeast Suffolk coast and spread to the Cambridgeshire fens in 1846. The diggings reached Cambridge by 1849 and the Ashwell and Hinxworth area in 1857. The fossil deposit was dug from the base of the Lower Cambridgeshire Greensand which outcropped in this area too. Here the phosphatic nodule bed was found all round the edge of the chalk marl where it bordered the boulder clay. Once the landowners realised there was a deposit on their land they would have it tested. A surveyor would come in and do test bores or pits to ascertain its depth, extent, continuity, quality in terms of additional pebbles and, more importantly, its phosphate content.
If the landowner farmed themselves they would sometimes use their own agricultural labourers to dig the deposit out. Sometimes the tenant farmers were allowed to, in the early days of the industry paying the landowner a royalty per ton initially for the right to dig them. Otherwise a coprolite contractor was awarded a lease. Royalties ranged from seven shillings (£0.35) to fifteen shillings (£0.75) for every ton the workmen raised but by the mid-1860s surveyors, recognising how lucrative it would be for them, encouraged landowners to shift to royalties per acre. The pits were measured twice a year - at Michaelmas and Lady Day. In some parts of Cambridge sums up to £200 per acre were offered but they averaged just under £100. In their heyday the best quality coprolites were bought by manure manufacturers at £3.70 a ton so many hundreds of pounds profit could be realised from every acre. When agricultural rents rarely exceeded £1.50 an acre one understands why the historian Richard Grove termed it the Cambridgeshire Coprolite Mining Rush.
With the coprolite yields averaging about 250 tons an acre there were enormous profits to be made. It was simply the job of digging them out after removing he overlying top andsub soil - in this area down to about twelve feet (4.2m.). Picks, shovels and crowbars were used. Barrows were filled and wheeled over to the site of a washmill in which the fossils were cleaned. In some areas horses pulled the carts along a tramway laid along the edge of the field.
The mill was often adjacent to a stream from where the water could be pumped or else a well had to be sunk. Unfortunately, if any Victorian photographer captured one in print, it has not come to light. An artist’s impression of one can be seen on page .. . This was quite a novel development from the wooden tray immersed in the bank of the estuary used in Suffolk coastal parishes. According to Charles Lucas, the son of the Burwell doctor whose land was the first to be dug for coprolites in Cambridgeshire,
“The first thing to do was to throw up a hill in the middle of the ground, and this was done by first erecting a post about ten or twelve feet long, and throwing the (top)soil around it to a height of eleven or twelve feet and of thirty feet in diameter. Three feet from the centre a ring would be formed six to eight feet wide and four feet deep. This would be paved with bricks and the sides would be sheets of iron. On one side of the hill a platform was made from a wooden tank, to which was connected a pump eighteen feet long; a pipe from the tank would go with the ring and opposite the tank was a trapped outlet, and on the outer side of the hill a square of about two chains would be earthed up a little to form a sort of pan. From the central post a wooden arm would be attached about twelve to fourteen feet long; to this would be attached a wimpole tree, to which a horse would be yoked. Connected to the centre of the post would be a light rail which was fixed to the horse bridle to keep the horse always in its track; from the arm would be suspended two iron harrows which ran well in on the bottom of the ring. When the soil containing the fossils was wheeled up to the ring a sufficient quantity of water would be let in. As the horse went round a creamy fluid would be produced and the fossils would drop on the floor. Then the trapped outlet would be opened and the creamlike fluid, called “slurry” would flow into pans. This operation having been repeated a number of times the fossils on the floor would be washed clear of earth and weighed up.”
(Lucas, C. (1931), ‘Fenman’s World’, Norwich, p.31)
Once washed and sorted in the early stages of the industry they would have been taken to a weighing machine, probably set up by the gate to the field. Later they would have been paid by the ton at the railway station. It was only a short distance for them to have been then carted to Henlow or Arlesey Station. Loaded into drop sided trucks trains the coprolites would have been sent to the manure factories of Cambridge, Ipswich, London and elsewhere.
The coprolite works started in Shillington, just west of the parish boundary, as early as 1862. The landowner, William Wilshere, arranged with Mr Lawes to have them raised from Chilbey Farm, where the seam had been found during drainage operations.
Wilshere’s neighbour, Robert Long, who farmed Manor Farm in Stondon noted in his journal of 28th June that year that "At Chibley Farm which is adjoining ours they have this week begun to dig out Coprolites for the manufacture of Turnip manure.” (BCRO.X159/3) After being washed they would have been carted to the railway station at Henlow. From here they then taken in low-sided wagons to Lawes’ chemical manure works at Barking. Lawes employed George Beaver, a surveyor from Hitchin, to undertake borings and measurements at the works. Insight into the undertaking has come from his diary,
“Friday 1st August 1862, I begin works connected with coprolite diggings, just lately commenced by the agents of Mr John Bennet Lawes of Rothamsted, Harpenden, on Chibley Farm, Shillington, the estate of Wm. Wilshere Esq., Mr George Lines being the tenant thereof. And on Saturday, the 2nd instant, I journey to the works at Chibley and have an interview with Mr Wyatt, the manager for Mr. Lawes - this being the commencement of a long engagement and connection of business.”
(George Beaver's diaries, Hitchin Museum, p.73a)
The coprolite works got started with Mr Wyatt probably hiring a gang of able-bodied men. The success of the operation led to tests being done on Manor farm in Stondon. Robert Long’s journal noted that on 13th September the same year “Coproilite prospectors doing trial diggings.” (BCRO.X159/3; Communication with David Cooper, Shefford) These must have been Beaver’s men. The diggings extended along the foot of the slope into Stondon. There are reports of them being in full operation by 1870. (Hitchin Museum, G.Beaver’s diary p.93a; 1st Ed. 6” Geol.Map, Beds)
Beaver took measurements of the pits twice a year, around Lady Day and Michaelmas, to determine the amount of royalty that had to be paid to the landowner. His diary had several entries about his visits to Stondon but gave no indication of the financial arrangements. Lawes’ royalties in Shillington were up to £130 per acre but documentation of his agreements in Stondon have not come to light.
There is evidence, however, suggesting that the parish glebe land was worked. The vicar, Richard Hicks, pointed out to the Bishop in 1873 that he had received £270 for the coprolites, money which had been invested in Queen Anne’s Bounty. (CUL.EDR.C3/25) Whether it was the tenant farmer working the pits or a coprolite contractor is unknown.
In 1872 Lawes chemical manure business and coprolite contracts was sold for £300,000 to a group of businessmen. Unable to realise the full amount in 1873 they allowed Lawes the coprolite side of the business. Their report on the profitability of this side of the business shed some light on the Stondon works. An enormous sum had been invested. £2,324. 02 had been expended on developing the works, more than £700 more than those at Shillington! This would have included the tools like pickaxes, shovels, crow bars, planks, dog irons (supports for the planks across the trenches), carts, barrows, horses, tramways, washmills, steam engines, pumps etc. Lawes had a further 11a.2r.15p. yet to be worked and a market to sell them to. (Valence House Museum, Dagenham, Lawes Chemical Manure Co. Private Ledger, I, 1873, p.98)
New deposits must have been developed by 1876 as Beaver reported,
“During this year (1876) I have been very busy with sundry crop, coprolite and other surveys - viz. Lady Cowper’s & Christ’s Hospital estates at Stondon for coprolites - Hunsdon Lodge Farm.”
(Beaver, op.cit, p.111b.)
No documentation of any of these agreements have come to light. According to one source, there were 1,400 people working in the industry around Shillington in 1876. (Harrods Directory 1876) It must have been a major operation indeed, the centre of the Bedfordshire coprolite belt.
The diggings, according to Beaver, were still in operation in 1878 . (Beaver 117a)
ADDITIONAL INFO FROM HENLOW RE 1878 diggings on Oldfield and grange.
In the latter years of the 1870s there were four consecutive years of bad weather, heavy rain and poor harvests which badly affected farmers and coprolite diggers alike. Wet weather made the work dangerous and incurred increased pumping costs. Economic problems were exacerbated by the then government’s introduction of Free trade. Vast quantities of cheap meat and grain surpluses from the American Prairies were shipped into Great Britain. Home prices plummeted. On top of this newly discovered rock phosphate from Charleston, Carolina started to be shipped into British ports. Much cheaper than coprolites it caused prices to drop to less than £2.00 a ton. Many pits were abandoned, coprolite contractors asked to be allowed reductions of their leases. Some landowners refused and forced them into bankruptcy. Farmers too tried to arrange rent reductions, some met with the same fate. Many farms were untenanted. The Agricultural Depression had set in. Manure manufacturers suffered too. Farmers weren’t buying fertilisers to grow food they couldn’t sell. The prices of “super” fell. This downward spiral in trade came full circle when the manure manufacturers reduced purchases of the overseas phosphates. There was no market for “super”.
By late-1881 there was a brief revival. It was mainly occasioned by inland manure manufacturers whose shareholders in many cases were farmers or landowners with coprolite holdings. In the case of the Farmers Manure Company of Royston their managing director owned vast reserves of coprolites on his land in Bassingbourn! There was also the fact that freight rates had gone up so buying in imported phosphates was not quite as economic as for the coastal manufacturers. Cheaper coprolites were still available.
Although there was no record of anyone in Lower Stondon involved in the 1881 census, further evidence suggests that a subsequent vicar, Richard Hull, continued to realise the profits from having the coprolites raised from the glebe. In his reports to the Bishop he noted that the coprolite money, which had earlier been invested in consuls, by 1885 was more than his actual living. Because of the agricultural depression, the rent of the glebe had been reduced from £2.50 to £1.62 an acre. But what is more interesting was that, by 1888, £1,400 had been realised from the glebe, a veritable fortune. (CUL.EDR.C3/25 1873; C3/29 1881; C3/31 1885) If royalties of £100 were paid then about fourteen acres were worked.
What was done with the royalties was revealed in his 1888 report to the bishop.
“In addition to farmhouse and buildings, nearly doubled the size of the Rectory house and expended over £3,000 on the improvement of the property besides restoring and enlarging the Church.”
The diggings must have had an effect on village life but little evidence of its social impact has emerged. However, the local historian, F. Brittain, pointed out that one of his ancestors, William Brittain, started work in the coprolite industry in 1873 at the age of seven but, when it fell into decline, he went into farming and gardening. (Brittain, F. (1972) ‘It‘s a Don‘s Life’, Heineman) In his account of Feeny Arnold, one of the local characters from that period, he noted that,
“When he, Feeny Arnold, was in his twenties he left the farm and worked for a company that was digging for coprolites in the neighbourhood. One day, when he was digging in a fairly deep pit, the earth suddenly fell in on him and crushed his legs and other parts of his body so badly that he was left a cripple for life. This was long before the days of the workmen’s Compensation Act, and Feeney, who did not receive a penny from his employers was faced with the prospect of utter destitution.”
(Brittain, F. ‘F.A.’ Beds.Mag. Vol. 2.138)
The diggings unearthed evidence of the Romans in the parish as a long, thin bronze object, thought to be an earpick from Roman times, was donated to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and reported to have come “from Lord Cowper's coprolite diggings”. Certainly there were workings on Lady Cowper's estate on Hunsdon Lodge Farm in 1876 but documentation of Lord Cowper’s agreements have not emerged. (Cambridge Museum of Arch. and Anth. IDNO D 1906.8)
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