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HIGHAM GOBION, BEDS.

 

According to the local historian, I.ODell, the main occupation of the village in the nineteenth century was agricultural until communications were improved. When coprolites were worked in adjoining parish of Shillington during the 1860s they provided a variety of alternative employment for men and boys on a very large scale it naturally would have attracted some of the locals.

 

Geological interest in the area revealed that the diggings were in operation between Higham Gobion and Shillington from 1868 - 1875 but there is evidence showing they continued rather later than that. (Jukes-Browne, A.J. Cretaceous Rocks of Great Britain, Mem.Geol.Surv. 1903,p186) The 1871 census revealed no evidence of anyone involved in the industry. Maybe local farmers employed their agricultural labourers who didnt consider the work coprolite or fossil labour. Another reason could have been that they saw it as general labouring.

 

The local historian, James Dwyer, of Luton pointed out he was born in Coprolite Cottage" in Higham Gobion. It was then three cottages, a doss house, as he called it in which he believed Irish labourers lodged. There has been no written evidence of the Irish connection but they certainly provided a source of migrant labour about this time. The Doss House was a two storey building with six rooms upstairs and six downstairs with a bar in the middle. Like all cottages at the time there was no inside toilet, he reported them using a toilet bucket. As the date 1864 was scratched on the door outside he suggests the men must have been working the pits between the village and Shillington.

 

There was concern felt in certain circles about the increase in immorality occasioned by this invasion of diggers into temporary lodgings and the increase in beershops and the Shillington vicar would have had the assistance of the rector in fostering a distinct evangelising spirit. This took such a hold in the neighbourhood that in 1873 he reported to the Bishop, There is a decrease in drunkenness and morality and the condition of labour has improved. (CUL. EDR. C3/25)

 

The najor contractor at Shillington, John Bennett Lawes, had patented the use of the coprolites in the making of superphosphate and his company was making a massive fortune out of the business. In the early 1870s he won an agreement to work fields at Apsley End, close to the eastern boundary of the parish and his agent took on more labourers to work this area. Although agreements have not come to light, subsequent evidence revealed he won further agreements and at least one rival contractor moved into the area as well, realising Lawes agent was not able to work the entire area. The fossils were raised systematically along the southeast facing slopes east of the village with royalties being paid of over 100 per acre, an immense profit for the landowners concerned given that agricultural rents were only about 1 an acre.

 

The local trade directory in its 1877 description of the parish included, Here are extensive coprolite works, and J.B.Lawes was recorded as Coprolite merchant. (Kellys Directory 1877) They were also included in the 1885 directory, Rich beds of coprolites are worked here, but it appeared they had in fact been worked out prior to that year. (J.Murray, Handbook of Beds. 1895; Beds.Mag.10,1965 p.38)

 

William Reynolds, a farmer from Coton, near Cambridge, had become so involved with the coprolite business that he came over to this area and made arrangements with at least one landoner to raise the fossils. Who he made arrangements with is uncertain as documentary evidence has not emerged but when he had finished the work in that area he realised there was more worth raising from under the 10a.3r.31p. of the parish glebe. In 1878 he approached the rector, Rev. W. Marvin, with a relatively low offer of 35 per acre but uncertain as how to procede, the vicar solicited the opinion of Arthur Wade-Gery, the Shefford solicitor. Acting on his behalf he wrote asking permission from the Church Commissioners.

 

Revd. W.H.Marvin, Rector of Higham Gobion anxious to demise a portion of about 10a. of the glebe land of that benefice for the purpose of digging coprolites. For this he would be able to obtain 350 out of which must be paid tenants compensation."

 

(Church Commission,London,Church Commissioners Files, Higham Gobion.)

 

He went on to say that Marvin proposed the money should be, laid out in the repairs and improvement of the chancel of the church and the Rectory house and premises. Wade-Gery appeared to have had experience in dealing with coprolite agreements on other estates and suggested it be dug,

 

...within two years of next Michaelmas and the ground levelled and the working plant and machinery cleared off within four years of that time. Coprolites have been worked in the neighbourhood and excepting that the Coprolite Merchant who is willing to take the lease has just completed those works the coprolite in the Glebe would hardly be worth working.

(Church Commissioners Files, Higham Gobion.)

 

A later letter pointed out, Mr Reynolds, the coprolite tenant, had been working the adjoining lands and in consequence has all the plant he needs. The thing is too small to dig independently. The diary of Lawes surveyor, the Hitchin-based George Beaver, indicated at that time that Reynolds was not the only contractor in that particular area and confirmed that the seam was all but exhausted,

 

On the 11th July 1878 I make a final survey of coprolite lands on Mr. Trustrams Farm at Higham Gobion. I think this is nearly if not quite the last survey I make on Mr. Lawes business.

(Hitchin Museum, G. Beavers diary, p115b.)

 

A fortnight later, William Reynolds was successful in gaining the licence, paying 50/- an acre rates and taxes, 4 for the timber and 362 10 0 for the coprolites. Mr Young, who farmed the glebe and the fields to the south, decided to act as Marvins agent in the matter and commented to the Commissioners, that he thought the rent, sufficient as the digging of coprolites improves the land but the price of coprolites seems to be little. (Church Commission files)

 

36 per acre was very little compared to the 130 Lawes had paid in 1873 in Shillington. The lower prices at the end of the 1870s were partly the effect of the Agricultural Depression. Mostly it was due to the increase in supply of cheaper foreign phosphates, which were flooding the market, and the exhaustion of the seams. It seems very unlikely the ordinary farmers knew of the market strategies of the manure manufacturers, but, having to give up the tenancy of the glebe land without notice, Young was very keen to get compensation. He was eventually allowed 6 per acre. Marvins plans to improve the chancel were not approved by the Commissioners. They would not even loan him the money to pay for the improvements. They had not paid him the dividends on the investment of the money Reynolds had given and their admission that it hadnt been invested yet provoked his wrath. Describing their 20% office charges as so rapacious, he arranged an interview and much to his chagrin they again turned down his request as the 1858 Ecclesiastical Leasing Act did not allow such use of the funds.

 

By 1881 the matter still hadnt been satisfactorily resolved and his request that the money be put towards the erection of a farmhouse or cottages on the glebe was again refused. What improvements, if any, were made in the parish were not referred to in the correspondence but Marvin died in 1889. (Church Commission File; Beds.R.O. P125/3/1) A Mr. H. W. Bowman of Letchworth recalled that a bill for 800 for repair to Higham Gobion church was largely met by letting the glebe land for coprolite raising.

 

There is evidence showing that during the period 1875 to 1885 Reynolds was selling coprolites to the Farmers Manure Company in Royston. An analysis of their records shows that he sold them about 16,000 worth over that period but there was no indication as to what proportion came from Higham Gobion.

 

Farmers Manure Co. Royston

Coprolite Purchases from William Reynolds 1874 -1885

Years . s. d.

1875 - 6 1,372 9 1

1876 - 7 2,056 18 11

1877 - 8 2,635 4 3

1878 - 9 2,441 14 2

1879- 80

1880 - 1 930 13 0

1881 - 2 740 15 2

1882 - 3 3,499 8 2

1883 - 4 2,116 0 7

1884 - 5 689 8 3 (Herts.RO.D/Eky.B1)

 

I. J. ODell recorded how in 1873 his grandfather had his leg broken in the coprolite pit in the Pightle, a field on the north side of Higham Gobion Hill. He also described his tool.

 

"For many years his coproliting shovel lay about at home. It was about three feet long, had a knob at one end , a couple of decorative rings, and a round-shouldered blade about nine inches long by six inches wide. All of one piece, iron, it would seem that it was used wholly by hand, but pickaxes were certainly used as well.

 

I. J. ODell, Beds. Mag. A Vanished Industry1951 p.312.

 

These iron shovels, according to Cyril Croot, market gardener of Potton, used to wear out after about three years of use in the pits.

 

Alfred Brightmans correspondence with I. ODell, 31/10/1936, says that coproliting was carried out in the fields East of Manor Rd. (Barton) 50-60 years ago (c1870). There were 5 or 6 mills in the neighbouhood of Higham Hill and one in Longfellow fields. They were tested by boring and found about 3-5 feet down. Tons are still in the ground since coproliting ceased to be an economical proposition. (Wayfarings, p147?) What were thought to be prehistoric barrows on the parish boundary between Hexton and Higham Gobion, near Ashbys Farm (Ravendale Farm?) were, he said, spoil heaps left over from the industry. There were reports of a washmill on the north end of Hexton Common too. He also indicated there was a relationship between the industry and the increased birth rate for the area.

 

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