Back to Bedfordshire publications

 

BARTON LE CLAY, BEDS.

 

The earliest evidence of the coprolite industry in Barton le Clay was in November 1868 when John Bennet Lawes, the patenter and manufacturer of artificial manures from coprolites, engaged the Hitchin surveyor, George Beaver. His diary reports, On the 5th November I survey coprolite boring on Gt. Faldo Farm, Barton, Beds. ...coprolite works in full swing." ( Beaver Diary Hitchin Museum 5th Nov. 1868 p86a) Although the first geological map shows coprolites along the junction of the upper gault clay with the chalk marl, there was no indication as to who was responsible for its working. As Lawes was one of the major manure manufacturers who had actually patented the technique of using the coprolites to make superphosphate and made a fortune out of it, it is possible he made financial arrangements with the landowner to have them worked. Unfortunately no documentary evidence has emerged but the workings attracted the attention of a number of geologists, excited at the fact that it was here that the first outcrop of the Upper gault clay outcropped. The coprolites, phosphate rich nodules also contained an assortment of fossils which were of interest and two well-known figures, in their account of the areas geology showed that the diggings eventually spread into Barton parish.

 

Where the Cambridge coprolite bed first sets in Barton in Beds. a large number of the phosphates are light grey in colour, and the fossils which are essentially upper Gault forms, are chiefly among these light coloured phosphates." (Pennings and Jukes-Brown,Mem.Geol.Surv.1881,p.288)

 

In fact, they confirmed that there were two beds which were both worked; the upper having very dark nodules which were highly valued as they were much richer in phosphate. (Grove,R. 'The Cambridgeshire Coprolite Mining Rush,' Oleander Press, 1976,p.5) After their commercial potential had been discovered in Suffolk a new industry developed to exploit it which eventually spread The deposit had first been exploited in Cambridgeshire and East Bedfordshire as early as 1862 in Shillington where Lawes dominated the work. Gradually the seam was discovered further westwards in Higham Gobion and this area and also further south west in Ivinghoe, close to the Buckinghamshire border. The contractor there, Henry Wilkerson, was managing the work for Morris and Griffin, Wolverhampton based manure merchants, and he must have heard of this new exposure and made enquiries about the possibility of raising it from the parish Townlands." Other Church and Charity lands had been worked by the contractors in Cambridgeshire so, after his communication with the vicar, Rev. Arthur Blomfield, a request was made at the end of March 1870 to Archdeacon Emery, the Honorary Secretary Treasurer of Ely Diocese Fund. His reply is included below.

 

The College, Ely My Dear Mr. Blomfield, I hear Mr. Wilkerson is a very respectable man but a Dissenter. It would be worth your while to have your land thoroughly surveyed and depths marked. The coprolites are getting worked out about level hence perhaps the search elsewhere. It is such a serious business and profitable to all that you will be wise first of all in seeking the best advice. If you were nearer here I should recommend you to get C. Bidwell Esq., Surveyor, Ely to see about the matter for you. I dont know if he comes to your parts, anyway I have given hints which your contractor, will I hope, be able to follow up. Yours truly, Wm. Emery. (Beds.CRO.Barton Parish Records)

 

The records did not reveal that Wilkerson was actually engaged on these lands but he may well have gained permission from other landowners for whom no records have yet emerged. The vicar, obviously aware from the experiences of other churchland being worked for the coprolites, must have been conscious of the financial rewards of having them raised but it was another two years before a decision was made. By this time demand had increased and a survey was carried out which ultimately led to another coprolite contractor being given the licence.

On 24th October 1872 an indenture was drawn up between: Rev. A. Blomfield, Rector of Barton le Clay, William Lee and Francis Castleman, Farmers and churchwardens of the said parish, Rev. David Wheeler, Vicar of Pulloxhill and Rev. William Henry Marvin, Rector of Higham Gobion, trustees of a certain charity estate called Townlands in the parish of Barton le Clay and William Arnold, yeoman, farmer and yearly tenant or occupier of said land and Swann Jepp Wallis, coprolite contractor of Duxford.

Wallis had been working the Cambridgeshire coprolites from as early as 1859 but with the discovery of these new deposits in this area he was willing to pay 110 per acre for the 8a.0r.30p. plot, land thought to be part of the Willes Estate. (ODell, Ivan J. 'A Vanished Industry', Beds. Mag. (1951) p313. and his MS. in Luton Museum; ODell, Audrey 'Everlasting Springs, p.134)

Blomfield kept a manuscript book called Parish Facts in which he recorded, In the year 1872 a draft deed of agreement was signed between the rector and churchwardens, and Swann Wallis, of Duxford, Cambs. for digging coprolite. The sum of 900 12s. 6d. was realized." (Grove, op.cit. p4).

The normal arrangement of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners was to take two thirds of the proceeds in such cases, the local church being entitled to the other third with the vicar allowed the interest on it. In fact, of this sum, 300 was spent on the building of the village Infant School Swann Wallis donated two guineas towards it which he should have been able to afford as the average yield of coprolites was between 250 and 300 tons per acre which, in the 1872 -1873 period, fetched between 32 and 52 shillings per ton (1.60 - 2.60).

The seam was reported as being fairly close to the surface which would have reduced labour costs and led to the most accessible deposits being worked first. (ODell, I. op.cit.,p.313) In fact, the school still stands on a coprolite seam only four feet deep. (Mr. Cole of Ampthill writing in his local paper in 1934 states, at Barton -le-Clay part of the profits of the industry built and endowed the school there." The original was built in 1806 to house 120 pupils but in 1874 there were only 74 in the register. By 1878, however, the numbers had increased to 300, an increase undoubtedly due to the coprolite industry which was flourishing at that time. Considerable numbers of them must have been the children of the diggers in the village, whose standard of living must have been improved with them getting relatively higher wages than farm labourers.

This new industry in this and surrounding villages proved something of a dilemma to the church. On the one hand the profits from the diggings helped to build the new school and the rest most probably used for the church but, associated with them, was the behaviour of the coprolite diggers. It is possible that a number of these diggers came from outside the area and, without accommodation, lodged with some of the villagers or at the beerhouses. Because of the hard digging and barrowing work, they received higher wages than the agricultural labourers and no doubt spent some of it the local beer houses, which must have played on the mind of the incumbent, Rev. Blissfield, who probably took over from Blomfield in 1873. While describing life in the parish he informed the bishop that the morality was, not of a high order. There had been an, increase in wage - increase in drunkenness - escape from impoverishment, at present discontented, unsettled... a labour question. (C.U.L.,E.D.R.C3/25)

According to Ivan ODell the Townland field which was dug was to the south of the Sharpenhoe Road and west as far as Gipsy Corner, and called Lye (?) Piece, but no such name was recorded on any field map. It is entirely possible that with the seam extending into adjoining fields Wallis may well have gained further agreements to dig them, but again, records of which have not come to light. ODell,I. Luton Museum MS. p25-6) The demand throughout the seventies eventually led to deeper seams being worked and even though there was a lowering of prices at the end of the 1870s when foreign imports of phosphate started flooding onto the market the local deposit continued to prove economic to work. Between the years 1881 - 1886 the local trade directory recorded that, there are beds of coprolites in the parish, some of which have been worked." (Beds. Almanack 1881,1886) It seems that landowners were still hoping to profit from the fossils as George Beaver was again employed surveying as his notebook revealed:

 

On 22nd, November, 1884, I complete the 60th year of my business life. In the latter end of this month I report to Messrs. Tuson of Ilchester, Somerset, on coprolite borings etc. on an estate at Barton-le-Clay, Beds. of which they are the agents - but to no avail. (Diary of G.Beaver, Hitchin Museum p136a.)

 

The coprolite boom in the village was only a temporary phenomena, ceasing, according to the vicar, by 1886 when the prosperity had declined and the Vicar of Shillington became conscious that many children were attending school hungry. During the winter months he organised porridge breakfasts and 78 children availed themselves of his generosity." ( Kiln,Audrey.The Coprolite Industry1969, pp58,59)

It is not known how many of the diggers went back to work on the farms but there must have been hardship for many. There was a brief revival in 1892 when Revs. Henry and Herbert Tuson allowed Samuel Horsler, a local farmer, to raise the coprolites from 35a.3r.3p. for only 20 an acre. How much they realised and how long the operation lasted is unknown. (Beds.R.O. CRT/160/140)

Alfred Brightman, who drove cartloads of coprolites to the mill for grinding, died in 1949 aged 85. He said in 1936 that coproliting was carried out in the fields east of Manor Road 50-60 years ago, (which dated them between 1876 and 1886) and that borings were first made to ascertain if there was any of the substance below. Usually it was found 3 - 5ft. down in the Greensand and the Gault. After being dug out , the nodules (not true coprolite) were taken to mill" of which there were, he said, five or six in the vicinity of Higham Hill, and one in Longfellow Field. Then they were washed and separated from the surrounding clay, which flowed away into slurry pans". This was about 1879 - 80 when he was, as he put it 'a strong ol boy. His job was to cart the coprolite by pony cart. ( ODell,I. op.cit; Wayfarings, ??? p147 which also on p135 said that two large pieces (of coprolite) came from the Charity Land - Townland)

Mr. ODells grandfather had his leg broken at the work about 1873 in the Pightle- a field on the north side of Higham Hill. For many years his coproliting shovel lay about the place at home. It was some 3ft. long, had a knob at one end, a couple of decorative rings and a round shouldered blade about 9 inches long by 6 inches wide. All of one piece of iron, it would seem that it was used solely by hand. But pickaxes were, however, certainly used as well." (ODell,I. A Vanished Industry, (original ms.),Luton Museum,p.3.)

Rumour had it that the machinery" used to wash the coprolites still lies buried in that field. Mr ODell recorded seeing an outlet pipe from the well that was sunk to provide the washmill with water, running into a nearby ditch. When the drains were dug in Han Furlong c1930-1 no coprolite was found nor any seen when a trench for sewerage was dug from the High St. along Manor Rd. (Back Lane) up to Hydes - where the sewage well used to be, but Mr. C. H. Penson, Headmaster of Barton School informed me in 1941 that in excavating for a shelter in the garden, south of the school house, he came across a layer 4ft. down. Very large beds are said to exist at Barton, especially under the school premises." (Ibid.)

When the diggings finally ceased is uncertain but workings in nearby Higham Gobion finished in 1880 and as the census gives no reference to any diggers one can presume this short-lived but profitable industry had finished. A look at the population figures below for the parish during the nineteenth century show quite clearly how the coprolite industry may well have influenced its growth during the late 1860s and 70s and its decline in the next decade, when the industry petered out.

 

The Population of Barton Le Clay

 

1801 1811 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901

448 546 668 721 855 915 956 1017 1061 924 816

 

Back to Bedfordshire publications