The Bedfordshire coprolite diggings started in Shillington in 1862. The phosphate-rich nodules, including a range of fossils from the Cretaceous period (120 - 65 million years ago,) were found in the Cambridge Greensand between the chalk marl and the gault clay. The bed was discovered during the drainage of the south-facing slopes of Chibley Farm. Manure manufacturers used the eashed fossils as a raw material in manufacture of superphosphate.
The scale of the open cast mining operations was large enough to employ up to 400 workers each winter. Numbers were reduced as the agricultural work started in spring. The better pay of the ”diggers• in comparison to agricultural labour would have attracted some of the men from Meppershall. The 1871 census recorded six coprolite diggers, all local men. The eldest was Joseph Izzard, aged 36, and the youngest, 19 year old Alfred Dilley. Analysis of the census returns for that year shows that it tended to be a younger man‘s job. Their average age was only 24.4. (O‘Connor, B. ”The Coprolite Industry in Shillington• 1994; Beds.R.O. 1871 census) The local historian, V.C. Chambers, commented that the diggings were profitable to landowner and worker alike. Up to several hundred pounds an acre was paid for the right to dig out these fossils. Agricultural rents rarely reached £2. an acre. When agricultural wages were about £0.50 - £0.70 a week labourers in the diggings could earn £1.00 or so. Details of its social and economic impact can be found in the Shillington account.
Few records of workings in Meppershall itself have emerged. They show that towards the end of the 1870s they had reached this parish. The local trade directory of 1879 included that ”a few coprolites are worked in this parish.” (Beds. Almanac,1879) Who was responsible at this time is unknown. This period was during the agricultural deression which brought distress for all those involved in farming. Being able to exploit the coprolite seam may well have helped some farmers gain extra income but the sale price of coprolite had dropped from over £3.50 a ton in mid-1870s to only £1.40 by 1879. This was largely due to large imports of foreign phosphates.
By 1881 there were still small scale workings in the parish. The census revealed four involved, with Amos Dear, 41, from Oddesborough in Bucks, described as the ”Coprolite Foreman.• The three others were local young men in their twenties, James Barratt, James Izzard and James Primmott. They lived at No.2 Lodgeship. By 1882 the work in Meppershall had apparantly ceased. The local directory reported ”No coprolites are now worked in this parish.• (Beds. Almanac,1882)
The depression resulted in many problems for farmers in the area. Charles Brown, of St. Thomas‘ Chapel Farm in Meppershall was given a 20% rent reduction in 1878 and a 30% reduction during 1883 and 1885. When his lease came up for renewal he was in arrears of almost £300. (Guildhall Library,London, Christs Hospital Ms.13845) In 1889 some of the governors of Christ‘s Hospital, London, who owned the farm, paid a visit. Their report indicated that it was not prime agricultural land but his rent of £0.65 an acre was considerably less than the £0.80 an acre paid by most farmers in the area. Brown managed to persuade them to give him a fourteen year lease with a rental of only £270. This was 50% lower than when he took over the farm in 1875! A significant part of the farm was poorly drained and he was keen to bring it into cultivation. The governors agreed to pay for the tiles and labour required to underdrain 100 acres of the heavy clayey soils. Brown had to pay for the carting.
It is possible that this drainage work revealed the coprolite seam in the greensand on the northeast facing fields. It was only about a mile from where the first workings took place on the other side of the hill. In autumn 1891, the Mayor and Commonality of London and the Governors of Christs Hospital gave a licence to Frederick Smith, a coprolite merchant from Royston, Herts.
”...for the purpose of getting and carrying away from and out of the said Farm and lands the mineral or substance known as Coprolite together with the liberty for the licensee at any time or times before 25th December 1894 to excavate dig wells erect engines deposit surface soil and minerals and all acts and things upon the said farm and lands usual or reasonably necessary for getting and carrying away all or any part of the Coprolites (if any) in and under the same...
It also stipulated he had to relay the surface soil on the ”slough,• the material washed from the coprolites, and to restore the land to full agricultural use before Christmas 1895. For this he paid £300 the Hospital with an arrangement that on finishing three acres he was to pay another £250 and then £83.34 per acre. There was no evidence as to how much was worked or how successful the operation was. It would have provided welcome work for many in the parish at the time and probably helped slow down the emigration that was taking place from many villages at the time.
In Chambers account of the parish‘s nineteenth century development there are details of the locations of the workings.
”There are only three small inliers of chalk marl, partially marked by boulder clay drift in Meppershall parish, and it is a mark of their profitability that they should have been discovered. Two of these outcrops were worked, a small one east of Shillington Road where Mr Parson‘s nursery stands, the other on Rust Hill, Chapel Farm, to the south east of Cow Lane footpath. Mr. J. Simkins tells me the site can still be recognised, the barley is always backward over an area where the slurry from the coprolite washing tank was run out. The third outcrop, also on Chapel Farm, but now Mr. Parrish‘s land towards the A600, was evidently not worth working.”
(Chambers,V.H. ”Old Meppershall,1979; Communication with Betty Chambers)
There is little evidence today of the workings except for crop marks visible to the south of Chapel Farm. These indicated the site of some of the old workings. (Beds.Mag,3 p.314; Beds.Arch.Base, SMR. 5497)