The coprolite workings in the Ashwell area in the late 1850’s led to developments in Astwick parish where the cutting of the Great North Road below Topplers Hill exposed the coprolite seam at the base of the greensand bed which lay below the chalk marl and above the gault clay. Here the coprolite was also extracted and sent in carts to be processed into superphosphate, a popular artifical manure. (O.S. 6 inch Beds.23NE.(1931-2) ) When the Hinxworth landowner, Rev.Clutterbuck, started having them raised after discovering when his estate was drained in 1856 it was gradually realised that the seam ran along the junction of the chalk and the clay in a large arc stretching towards the St.Georges Church and Church Farm in Edworth. (O’Connor, B. ‘The Coprolite Industry in Hinxworth’) One of the contractors working in the area, John Bennet Lawes, gained permission from one of the absentee landowners, Charles Cholmerly Hale, to work one of his fields on Edworth Bury Farm. At Michaelmas 1862, Lawes, who, 20 years earlier, had patented the financially very successful technique of converting coprolites into superphosphate, added to his fortune by leasing 10 acres of land in Astwick, part of a field called Fox Holes owned by C. C. Hale, and tenanted by Hugh Fossey Smyth. It, like those in Ashwell,
“...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.” (Documents 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 5s. 0d. but the records failed to show the royalty Hale was paid by Lawes. Lawes would have employed a foreman to take charge and a gang of labourers taken on and the work entailed in raising these fossils would have provided fairly lucrative employment for many local men and boys, in many cases even attracting men from outside the area which sometimes created social problems in terms of overcrowding etc.
From Foxholes, the diggings gradually spread through Great Mead, Little Mead, Thorns, a small part at the top of 30 Acres, Sward Brook and 18 Acres towards Hinxworth. (Author’s conversation with Mr. Farey, a local Edworth smallholder) It was on these diggings that Lawes’ surveyor, George Beaver, was employed and his diary recorded that,
“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.” (Hitchin Museum, G.Beaver’s diary,p74a )
He also told of them being found on Old Farm, in the ditch of 6 Acres, east of Glebe Farm and just south of Hinxworth. (Documents in possession of Mr D. Smyth of Edworth. ) How long it took to raise all the coprolite was not recorded but the company that took over Lawes’ work in 1872 was still involved in the Ashwell area later that decade. Kelly’s trade directory pointed out that “There were coprolite diggings in 1878.” (Hitchin Museum, Beaver’s diary p117a.) The seams by this time would mostly have been exhausted or too deep and uneconomic to extract as cheaper supplies of phosphate were coming into the country in larger and larger quantities which brought local coprolite prices tumbling.
Mr. Farey told of how Jack Wilson of Edworth, who had worked in the diggings, was able to retire on the money he had made and live 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 were 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 waste water 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 accounts of Arlesey,Astwick, Hinxworth, Ashwell, Dunton, and the Mordens)