THE COPROLITE INDUSTRY IN AMPTHILL, BEDS.
As early as 1872 there were a group of local men and children employed in a new type of extractive industry which few people fully understood. It was the digging of coprolites or phosphatic nodules which contained an assortment of fossils which even included dinosaur bones. Many at the time took them, from their shape, to be fossilized dinosaur droppings and the 1930 “Ampthill News,” which included the first written article on the subject, showed that there were even more obscure ideas about it.
“Probably few people in Ampthill will remember that some 60 or more years ago there was considerable activity in what the workers called “fossiliting. The work took place in some of the fields between the station and Fordfield Road and a number of men were employed under the supervision of the late Mr. Abraham Britten of Oliver Street, Ampthill who represented a firm of manure manufacturers. Fossiliting consisted of digging in these fields for fossilised human bones which were found in quite large quantities. They were sorted out from the stones, washed, loaded into wagons on a light railway leading to the station, and sent to a factory to be ground into manure.” (Beds.Mag.20 p.232 )
Human bones being used to make manure? Pretty morbid stuff and shocking enough to prompt a reply the following week which was a bit closer to the truth.
“ Fossiliting continued.
Our thanks are due to Miss S.F.George for the following response to our note last week. She writes: “The excavations for so called human bones near Fordfield Road were, no doubt, for fossilised animal droppings known as coprolites. These contained, in many cases, bones and teeth of extinct animals. When found in large quantities they were exploited for fertilising purposes, particularly in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. The colour of the coprolites was affected by iron in the soil and they were formed by chemical accretions round animal and vegetable remains lying in water charged with phosphorous.” (Ibid.)
They were not actually the droppings but the phosphatised remains of prehistoric creatures such as the megalosaurus, dakosaurus, craterosaurus, stegosaurus and iguanadon. There were also ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and pterodactyl. Whales, sharks, crocodiles, hippopotami, elephants etc. and an assortment of marine organisms were also dug up from the Greensand. According to many geologists, the fossils and phosphatic nodules had been washed out of the Wealden clays to accumulate in beds in a wide belt across southern Bedfordshire. They were in great demand by manure manufacturers across the country as they could be converted into superphosphate, a valuable fertiliser, by mixing it with sulphuric acid.
The Ampthill coprolite diggings were started by 1872 as a result of similar excavations in the Shillington area where they were found in the greensand formation. When the same deposit was discovered here “the firm of manure manufacturers” arranged to extract them. Evidence shows that this was John Bennet Lawes, of Rothamsted, who had patented the technique of converting them into superphosphate. Such was the success of his business that it was taken over in 1872 by a group of businessmen for £300,000. Part of this enormous fortune he used to set up the Rothamsted Agricultural Research Station. He and the analytical chemist, Augustus Voelcker, were the founders of the similar experimental farm on the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Farm in 1876. (See author’s account of the industry in Shillington, Woburn, and Rothamsted)
The new company’s investigation of the coprolite side of the business revealed that by 1873 £1,611 13s.3d. had been expended on developing the Ampthill works and that there were 40 acres yet to be worked. (Valence House Museum, Dagenham, Lawes Chemical Manure Co. Private Ledger,1873,p.98
According to the report they were dug around 700 yards southwest of Ampthill Station between Station Road and Woburn Road/Fordfield Road. This necessitated the cutting down of some pinewoods. The seam, extending over 200 acres, was found dispersed through a six foot band of pebbly sand about 15 feet above the base of the sands, which would have involved specialised washing plant. (Teall, H. (1873), ‘Description of Phosphatic Bed as it occurs at Potton and Wicken,’ p.11; Bonney, (1875), ‘Cambridgeshire Geology,’ Cambridge, p.23; Oakley, K. (1941), ‘British Phosphates’, Wartime Pamphlets Vol.8 No.3 see fig.3; O’Dell, I.J. (1951), ‘A Vanished Industry’, Beds.Mag. and his ms. notes in Luton Museum)
The geologist, J. Teall, visited the pits in the early 1870s hoping to find interesting fossils. His paper on the fossils being unearthed from the Bedfordshire pits won a Cambridge University Prize in 1875. He revealed that the seam was quite shallow but also of varying thickness.
“In the neighbourhood of Ampthill several good sections are exposed; one at the crossroads near Millbrook gave the following succession:
1. Red and yellow sands, false-bedded. 8 - 10 ft.
2. Phosphatic nodule bed, containing a great number of
lydian-stone pebbles. 4 in.
3. Yellow and white sand, intensely fine-bedded, with
occasional argillaceous layers. 15 ft. to bottom of pit.
The junction with the Oxford clay can be seen a little further down the hill.
In a field adjoining the section above I was fortunate enough to find some 20 to 30 trial pits which had been sunk for the purpose of testing the value of these phosphatic deposits. These showed that the bed varied in thickness within very short distances; in one pit being as much as three feet, and in another, not 40 yards distant, only a few inches. They also showed that the thickness of the sands below the bed varied considerably, and that in some cases it rested directly on the Oxford clay. The nodules consisted, for the most part, of rolled fossils, exactly as at Potton, and with them were associated pebbles of lydianstone, quartz, etc.
A section at the coprolite-working about half a mile west of the Midland station showed six feet of a reddish brown sand, with concretions, throughout which phosphatic nodules and pebbles were distributed. The nodules here are separated with the sandy matrix by sifting, and then the phosphatic nodules are picked out by children.”
(Teall, J. (1875), ‘The Potton and Wicken Phosphatic Deposits’, Sedgwick Prize Essay of 1873, Camb. Deighton and Bell. Co.,p.26)
With 200 acres to be worked it must have entailed a large workforce which included considerable numbers of the local children. These were needed in separating the fossils from the pebbles. This explained the reports in one of the teacher’s books of the Secondary School Board that several children were absenting themselves from classes to work in the coprolite pits. (Author’s communication with Barbara Howard, Ampthill
The photograph on page .. shows tumbrils loaded with the washed fossils coasting down the hill into Millbrook. From here they would have been taken to Millbrook station. As this Bedford Branch connected easily with the London and Birmingham line there is a likelihood that the contractors were Morris and Griffin, Wolverhampton manure manufacturers, who were responsible for hiring Britten. They had numerous workings to the southwest and into Buckinghamshire where the seam was similarly exploited. (O’Connor, B. (1990), ‘The Coprolite Industry in Bucks”, Bucks Record)
How long the work went on is not known but it was still going in 1881 as the census revealed that William Disbrey was a “coprolite foreman.” (Beds.C.R.O. 1881 census)
Whether this was on the same workings as Britten is uncertain but he had been born in Barton, Cambridgeshire, which was one of the earliest villages dug for fossils so it’s possible that he had been attracted to the Bedfordshire diggings when it became apparent there was many years’ work available.
When the bypass was constructed around Ampthill, in the cutting just above Little Park Farm, the same seam of fossils was exposed but there was no indication the workings had extended to this side of the railway.