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The development of the nineteenth century coprolite industry in this area of Buckinghamshire was based on the discovery of phosphatic nodules in the Upper Greensand which were in huge demand for their conversion into artificial manure. The earliest documented workings were in 1869 but it 1n 1871 when some of those living in Leighton Buzzard at the time may well have been enticed into one of the many lectures that were given to the working people. E.W. Lewis, a local teacher and fellow of the Royal Geological Society gave a series of lectures on the geology of Leighton Buzzard in which he talked in some detail about what he called clay pits which had been opened in the area for their fossils.


Regarded however from an economical and commercial point of view they possess considerable interest and value. At Henlow, Standbridge, Northall, Slapton, Billington and Cheddington, at Stone and Dinton, near Aylesbury, as well as at Brickhill and Ampthill these fossils have been dug. Many tons are carted through our town every week, and some thirty or forty thousand tons have been raised in this district during the past ten years. You will now understand I am now referring to the Coprolites; or, as I once heard them called, ”copperlites•; being solemnly assured at the same time that they were dug for the copper they contained. In fact I believe some persons thought they were productive of gold, which, however true it might be in a more remote sense, was certainly no more true literally and directly than the statement that they contained copper.


(E.W.Lewis. ”Lectures on the Geology of Leighton Buzzard,” 1878-9,p48.)


The earliest contractors were two contractors from the Midlands, Lee and Price who opened a pit near Cheddington, but it was Henry Wilkerson a Cambridgeshire coprolite contractor who was responsible for its early expansion on Earl Brownlow‘s estate in Ivinghoe and Slapton. After running into financial difficulties with landowners in Cambridgeshire, he sold his interests to two Wolverhampton manure merchants, Morris and Griffin. They went on to gain further leases from Brownlow and kept Wilkerson on as their manager. He lived in Leighton Buzzard and must have employed many labourers in the area. (Kelly‘s Directories 1870‘s)


The work that went on in these pits was detailed by Lewis:-


Transport yourselves, in imagination, to a claypit whence coprolites are dug. You observe a long straight trench, perhaps fifty yards in length, five or six feet wide, and eight or nine feet deep, on one side of which is a vertical ”face of clay.”. The coprolites are not distributed throughout the clay; but are found towards the base of the ”face,”  where in a layer of varying thickness you find them more or less thickly accumulated. This is the coprolite ”vein.”. The workmen throw the overlying clay to the opposite side of the trench, till they come to the surface of the ”vein,• the clay of which, thrown into trucks, is conveyed to the washing mill. Here it is placed in a large circular iron pan, called the ”washing ring,” where by means of water and a constant agitation the coprolites are thoroughly cleared from the clay. In some veins, the presence of stones not coprolitic, such as flints, pebbles, etc., makes it necessary to employ hand labour for their removal. They are now ready for the market as the raw material, and in this state are sent by rail or boat to the manufacturer, say, in this instance, Wolverhampton.”


(Lectures on the Geology of Leighton Buzzard, E.W.Lewis 1878-9 p52)


Having an office in Leighton Buzzard, Morris and Griffin, recorded as the only coprolite merchants in the area, seemed to have monopolised all the work and, more than likely, would have raised the coprolites from other landowners‘ estates. In early 1874 there was an incident involving one of Wilkerson‘s employees reported in the Leighton Buzzard Observer.

John Davey, a labourers in the employment of Mr. Wilkerson, coprolite merchant of Leighton Buzzard, pleaded guilty to a charge of being drunk while in charge of a horse and cart at Leighton Buzzard on 17th January. His employer came forward and gave him an excellent general character, stating that he believed he had been overtaken inadvertently in parting with some friends who were bound for Queensland. (Leighton Buzzard Observer,20th January 1874)


He was fined 3s.6d. with 6s.6d. costs. Later that year the company started another works on Earl Brownlow‘s estate further north on the Greensand Ridge just outside Great Brickhill on Galley Lane Farm. These similarly were not far from the canal to which a tramway was lain along horses would have pulled their coprolite laden trucks down to the works near Stoke Hammond.


The early maps of this area show a considerable number of sand and clay pits and there is every likelihood that they developed at the same time as the coprolite industry when demand for building materials was at its height with the expansion of many of the local towns and industries.