the coprolite diggings first started in the Billington
area is uncertain but there were diggings in nearby Slapton
from as early as 1869. These were run by Henry Wilkerson, a Cambridgeshire
coprolite merchant and his success must have prompted the attention of a
competitor, John Bennet Lawes, of Rothamsted. He had his own manure company and
was making enormous coprolite purchases from
No evidence of any leases have come to light but it would appear works were opened on the northern banks of the river. The 1871 census revealed there were quite a few men who were involved. In fact, details of the labour force have only been found for three villages in this area, eleven coprolite labourers from Great Billington, including an engine driver at the works, and two from Little Billington. The eldest was Joseph Stevens, 62 and the youngest, John Albon, 24. The average age was 33.1 showing it was mainly the older men involved, considerably older than those employed in the Cambridgeshire works. Yet, with only 46% being born in the parish it does seem likely a number had been attracted to the village to work, and three of them were, in fact, lodgers.
other recorded coprolite labourer was James Dean from
By 1872 the representatives of the parish met to discuss, ”the matter of rating the land where the coprolite works are carried on in the parish,• and it was decided that, ”Land and coprolite works to be rated after enquiries in parishes with similar works.• (Beds.RO.P111/8/1 Vestry Minute Book 1872) Other parishes rated the coprolite mills at up to £50 for horse driven mills and £100 for steam powered mills. Whether these rates were paid was not mentioned but the workings generally would have helped to contribute to parish relief. Where fields did have a proven deposit of coprolites very few landowners, if any, would have left them unworked as they were such a profitable proposition in the 1870s. Instead of receiving maybe thirty shillings rent per acre for the farmland, they could expect to get up to £150 per acre if it contained the fossils.
The works at Slapton were managed by Henry Wilkerson, a Cambridgeshire coprolite contractor who moved into this area to exploit the deposit and who lived in Leighton Buzzard. He was taken over by a Wolverhampton based manure company, Morris and Griffin who would have had the coprolites carried either by barge up the nearby Grand Union Canal or by train from Leighton Buzzard or Cheddington. (Bucks.C.RO. P15/49 Ashridge Papers) A sketch map which was attached to their account book for Northall dated 1873-74 showed a coprolite bed west of the mill stream in the field south of Mr Bird‘s Meadow and south east of Mr Thorn‘s Meadow on the road from Billington to Eaton Bray but it is difficult to locate it on the map. (Bucks RO. D/X 660)
The workings must have been of considerable importance to the parish as to have merited mention in the local trade directory for 1874. (Kelly‘s directory,1874) They even attracted the attention of geologists, interested in the type of fossils being brought to the surface and one paper of the local geology noted the extent of the workings confirming Wilkerson‘s involvement in the parish. He was reported as the manager of coprolite works in Cheddington, Northall Common and Billington as well as works around Harlington, Sharpenhoe and Barton Le Clay. (Jukes-Browne Q.J.G.S 1875 p265-7; Lewis,E.W.,‘Lectures on the Geology of Leighton Buzzard,‘1878-9,p.48)
The exact location of the diggings has not been ascertained but the likelihood is that the deposit was found all along the foot of the hill in the parish. The were still workings apparently was in 1877 but with the agricultural depression in the late 1870‘s it appears that the work fell off. Imports of natural rock phosphates brought prices down and as a result working became uneconomic. The 1881 census gave no indication of any coprolite labourers but there was a slight revival in the mid-1880‘s when trade prices improved. 1884 when sale particulars revealed a ”field of pasture known as Billington Great Mead - A valuable bed of coprolite exists under this lot.” (Kelly‘s Post Office Directory 1877;Beds.C.R.O. RY/444/SP.1884, Lot.7)
As there was no further mention of Henry Wilkerson it is possible this land may have been bought by another Cambridgeshire coprolite contractor, Henry Coningsby, from Melbourn who had been working the same fossil beds in Potton. He was reported in 1888 as having a coprolite mill and works in nearby Stanbridge, with a leasing from T. S. Heley, two fields, one of nineteen acres and the other one acre, (Marked .. on the map) on which L. Littleboy was the tenant. The actual pits were where the osier beds stood and in the corner of the field by the road. (Beds.C.R.O Stanbridge VL LB 2/6; Beds Archaeology Database, Billington; Luton Museum 5/50/60 (F.G. Gurney) In 1890 the local trade directory description for Billington included, ”Coprolites found here,” but there was no indication whether there were still workings. There were workings going on around Eggington at this time but the exact location is again uncertain as little documentary evidence has emerged. (Kelly‘s Post Office Directory 1890; O‘Dell,I. 'A Vanished Industry,‘Beds. Mag. 3. p.314) Only two people in the area, according to the 1891 census, described their employment as having anything to do with the diggings, 19 year old William Mansfield of Billington, who was ”labourer (copperlight)” and 47 year old Samuel Jarman, of Stanbridge, the ”Manager of Coprolite Works.” He was from Guilden Morden, one of many Cambridgeshire villages which were coprolited and must have been attracted to the work in this area. (Beds.RO. 1891 census)
Work in Stanbridge continued until the turn of the century as by 1900 it was stated there were only 540 tons raised nationally, at Stanbridge, Potton and Sandy. (Kelly‘s Post Office Directory,1900) When Thomas Heley died at the turn of the century his land was auctioned and the sale document of 1901 showed 101a. 0r.8p. was to be sold and mention was made of ”a proved valuable deposit of Coprolites and Brick Earth, and the excellent Railway Siding facilities afford exceptional advantages for the economical development of the land..” (Dunstable Museum No.42.31) The actual plot was surrounded by W. Littleboy‘s land between the London and North Western Railway and the brook and east of the road to Billington where it turned the corner. (O.S. GR.9572310) It must have been dug over by the new purchaser as the trade directory for 1903 revealed that it was one of only three works operating in the country, along with Potton and Sandy. (Kelly‘s Directory,1903) When it eventually finished is unknown, but this little known industry has left only a few scars on the landscape and precious little to remind people that this intriguing yet profitable activity ever existed in this area of Bedfordshire.