THE COPROLITE DIGGINGS IN ASTWICK, BEDS
Few people are aware that fossil digging was once a lucrative occupation in Astwick. 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 artificial chemical manure. After being ground to a powder the fossils were dissolved in sulphuric acid to produce a soluble material, particularly effective on root crops.
The coprolite industry started on the south-east 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 and sub 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 Arlesey Station. Loaded into drop sided trucks trains the coprolites would have been sent to the manure factories of Cambridge, Ipswich, London and elsewhere.
It was the enclosure and subsequent drainage of Rev. Clutterbuck’s land in the Hinxworth and Ashwell area in the late 1850s by the surveyor, Bailey Denton that discovered the coprolite seam. (Clutterbuck, Robert, (1877), ‘The Coprolite Beds at Hinxworth,’ Trans. Watford Natural History Soc. Vol. 1. p.238; see author’s account of Hinxworth) He set up a company to exploit them and his work attracted farmers and manure merchants alike to get involved with the diggings.
At Michaelmas 1862 Mr. Lawes moved into this area. With his competitors having a strong foothold in the Cambridge area he was keen to dominate this area of newly discovered coprolites in Bedfordshire. He leased 10 acres of land in Astwick, part of a field called Fox Holes owned by C. C. Hale. It was tenanted by Hugh Fossey Smyth. There was no indication as to how much royalty per acre was paid. Like the land in Hinxworth and Ashwell it
“...Had been drained in 1855 at the expense of the tenant, (less the tiles). In the Spring of 1862 was all manured with good dung and 2 cwts. of Lawes’ manure per acre for turnips which is a good preparation for a succession of crops.”
(Document in possession of Mr D. Smyth, Edworth)
Mr. Smyth was given notice to quit in 1863 and was eventually compensated to the extent of £138 5 0d. Who Mr. Lawes brought in to supervise the work and arrange the transport of the washed fossils to the nearby station is unknown. The work entailed raising these fossils would have provided fairly lucrative employment for many local men and boys. They even attracted men from elsewhere. Mr Farey, a local man, told of how, from Foxholes, the work progressed generally eastwards through Great Mead, Little Mead, Thorns, part at the top of 30 Acres, Sward Brook and 18 Acres towards Hinxworth. They were also found in Old Farm, 6 Acres in the ditch, east of Glebe Farm and just south of Hinxworth. (Ibid.)
By the mid-1860s the land agents called in by landowners to arrange the coprolite contracts altered the arrangements. Instead of a royalty being paid for every ton raised which incurred difficulties in accurate weighing at the site, it was recommended that royalties per acre were paid. As this entailed taking accurate surveys twice a year it provided the surveyors with a regular source of income. Lawes had taken on the services of the Hitchin-based surveyor, George Beaver, who recorded in his diary
"On the 3rd Jan.1863 I go to Edworth to make survey of some lands for coprolite diggings on the estate of Mr. Hale of King’s Walden - this is the commencement of works in that quarter.”
(Beaver’s diaries, Hitchin Museum, p.74a)
How long the work took to raise all the coprolite was not recorded. Documentation to show that other landowners in the parish similarly arranged with Mr. Lawes or others to have the coprolites raised has not come to light.
The 1871 census showed no one involved. A number of reasons may explain this. The work had ceased at that time. Farmers may well have used their agricultural labourers to do the work and they didn’t consider it “fossil” or “coprolite” work. The bulk of the operations were a winter activity, once the harvest was in, and the census was usually taken in April. At this time of year the farmers wanted all their labourers at work in the fields.
In 1872 a group of businessmen bought Lawes’ Chemical Manure Company and coprolite contracts for £300,000 but by 1874, unable to pay his the full amount, they allowed him the coprolite contracts. Their account books show the Astwick workings had cost £183 15s.3d. To open and develop and that there were 7a.3r.28p. Left to work. (Lawes Chem. Manure Co. Private Ledger, I, p.98 (Valence House Museum, Dagenham) they were still in operation in 1878 as Beaver’s diary noted that
"Coprolite diggings are carried on this year at Pirton Grange, Henlow Oldfield, Astwick Bury, Ashwell & Stondon... all of which have required attention and have given a very acceptable supply of work.”
(Beaver, op.cit., p.117a)
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 in some areas but it is not known whether the diggings in Astwick continued that long. 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.
There was a local story told of Jack Wilson of Edworth, who had worked in the diggings and was able to retire on the money he had made. He lived happily on his four acres keeping a few pigeons. In Astwick field, he had said, there was a wooden paymaster's shack where the coprolite gang was paid and the fossils were washed in Hinxworth Field Barns, which used to be thatched. A little track ran down Love’s Farm from the “quarries” to these barns and beyond Jarmans there were white patches in the fields where the subsoil had been brought to the surface and the men had not replaced the topsoil. “Slub pans” were also to be found near these patches where the wastewater from the washing of the coprolites was allowed to accumulate and dry out before supposedly being put on the diggings before the topsoil was replaced. In the Middle of Saltmore there was a well and a ring of bricks, which was another site of the washmill. (See author’s account of the diggings in Arlesey, Hinxworth, Ashwell, Dunton, Guilden and Steeple Mordens)
The first 6” geological map of this area of 1931 shows a coprolite pit on the West Side of the Great North Road, just below Topler’s Hill. Here the gault clay met the chalk marl in Astwick Field. (O.S. 6 inch Beds. 23NE 1931) The road cutting must have exposed the coprolites in the greensand formation.
The diggings also unearthed some archaeological remains giving evidence of Roman occupation in the area.
“Near Astwick a number of human skeletons were found during coprolite digging; near them were 10 Samian vessels. A sword, a shield boss, a number of spearheads and a knife were found with the skeletons. The site is on flat ground near a stream. (O.S. 216385)”
(Trans. Herts. Nat. Hist. Soc. IV (1886); Fox, (1923), ‘Archaeology of Cambs.’ p.267)
Where the finds went is unknown but in many cases where the diggings unearthed treasures like this the diggers slipped good bits into their pockets and sold them on Cambridge Market.