THE ORIGINS OF THE FERTILISER INDUSTRY
Since pre-Roman times farmers have recognised the value of adding substances to the soil to increase its fertility. The chalky soil in this area was generally infertile and the lowland clays often waterlogged. There are records of the Romans using sand to lighten clayey soils but the best soil for crops was where the clay and sand mixed. This was called loam soil - lighter, better drained and ideal for vegetables. In areas where chalk was the dominant rock it too was added to clay. This was called marling. When it was first used is unknown but in coastal areas farmers were also using crushed seashells, dead fish and seaweed.
Did you know that a hundred years or so ago there was an unusual industry in this area that supplied farmers with what many thought were fossilised dinosaur droppings? And that they were dug from hundreds of acres of land around southern Cambridgeshire? Some called it “lizards’ muck,” some “bears’ muck,” some “mammoth dung” and a retired major believes it is “sun-dried wildebeest droppings!” He recognised them from those he saw on the banks of the Zambezi River after the floods. Would you believe that there are records of five dinosaurs being dug up in the area? They included an iguanodon, megalosaurus, dakosaurus, craterosaurus, and dinotosaurus. There were also three marine lizards - pliosaurus, plesiosaurus and ichthyosaurus! This book is based on my researches into this little known and rather unique 19th century industry.
Since early times the most successful mineral applied to the soil was calcium. This was obtained from both chalk and limestone and there are numerous pits dotting the chalk hills in this area which local farmers exploited. A man or two would be sent in autumn with a shovel to fill a barrow or cart. It would be dumped on the side of the field, left for the winter frosts to break it down, and spread about in spring.
As the science of analytical chemistry developed in the early 19th century the early chemists understood that it was calcium phosphate that the plant roots needed. When it was discovered that bones were rich in calcium they too were used on the fields. Burnt or crushed they were spread on the fields to increase crop yields. However, tests showed that, being insoluble, bones took a long time to disintegrate and be fully absorbed by the plants.
It was the analytical chemist, Baron Von Justus Liebig, who made a major breakthrough in the manure business. His laboratory experiments in the late 1830s showed that sulphuric acid could be used to dissolve animal bones. When the resulting mixture was dried it was found to be soluble in water. This proved to be an extremely valuable discovery since plant roots could then absorb the fertiliser much more readily. This new “artificial” fertiliser naturally caught the attention of the nation’s manure manufacturers. Buffalo bones were collected from the American Prairies and camel bones from the Egyptian desert. Even cargoes of mummified cats from the pyramids found their way into the manure manufacturers’ den. The battlefields of Leipzig, the Crimea and Waterloo were scoured for their bones and even the contents of Sicilian catacombs were used! Their demand for bones became so great it prompted Liebig to comment that
“Great Britain was like a ghoul, searching the continents for bones to feed its agriculture... robbing all other countries of the condition of their fertility.”
(Quoted in Keatley, W.S. ‘100 Years of The Fertiliser Manufacturers Association’, F.M.A. 1976 )
A less controversial addition to the soil was phosphorite - a mineral phosphate. This had been found in Canada in 1828 and later in the United States. It too proved an effective fertiliser.
In Sheffield farmers successfully experimented with the powdered bone, ivory and horn leftover from the cutlery industry. Other additions, like dried blood, dried fish, crushed shells, seaweed and even rags, were experimented with. Perhaps you can remember the rag and bone man?
After the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the last century there was a period of peace and economic growth. The technological improvements of the Industrial Revolution had created enormous job opportunities in the industrial towns. Trade increased in Cambridgeshire when the Eastern Counties Railway was constructed in 1846. It later became the Great Eastern railway with links to the Great Northern, London and North Western and the Midland Railway at Cambridge. This brought quicker access to London and the North. A huge rise in population, notably in the towns and cities, led to increased demand for food. Few town houses had gardens for growing crops or keeping animals. People also did not have the time. As a result there was a huge market for farmers to supply.
This partly explained the improvements of the Agricultural Revolution. Landowners, agriculturalists and farmers wanted to increase yields. The introduction of Enclosure Acts in the late 18th and early 19th century had allowed the major landowners in the area to reorganise their widely separated landholdings. This produced larger estates and much of the waste land was brought under cultivation. The Norfolk crop rotation method was introduced. Trees were cut down, bushes were grubbed out and deep roots were hauled out using steam traction engines and chains. An iron plough with a deep ploughshare was developed, able in sandy areas to break the iron pan - a hard band of ironstone just beneath the surface. This improved drainage on the heathlands as well as bringing a new building material onto the market. A lot more land was therefore brought under cultivation.
The introduction of mass-produced drainage pipes in the second quarter of the 19th century enabled the lowering of the water table on the clay lands. Steam-driven pumps, newly developed agricultural machinery, Jethro Tull’s seed drill and improved crop and animal breeds all helped increase food production. Improved transport with the development of the steam engine had several effects. The noise and steam from these machines caused so much animosity from the horse riding gentry that the Council was compelled to use the 1861 Locomotives Act to ban them on the streets except between 9 at night and in the morning. This restricted their use to iron tramways across the fields to the roadside and provided continued labour for the carters with their horse and tumbrils. (Cambs.R.O. Francis Bill Books 1864 N-Z 1st January 1863 ) Those farmers who could afford their purchase and the coal to fire used them for all sorts of agricultural tasks - ploughing, threshing, pumping etc. Not needing to employ as many labourers in time their profits rise. They could afford to experiment with the new manures that were being marketed across the country.
There was a never-ending demand for manure. There was money to be made from it. The new steam trains carried truckloads of vegetables to the London markets and returned each day laden with horse manure. Carriers made good business carrying cartloads of manure from station yards to the surrounding farms.
It wasn’t until the late-1830s, however, that farmers were really able to improve their crop yields. In 1838, guano began to be imported into Liverpool on a large scale. Guano, or bird droppings, was found on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. Chemical analysis showed it had a very high calcium phosphate content. Although very expensive - up to £12 per ton - it was the most effective fertiliser at the time.
In 1842 an alternative and cheaper source of phosphate was discovered by Rev. John Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge University. He found what he thought were coprolites, fossilised dinosaur droppings, in the Suffolk “Crag” at the base of the cliffs at Felixstow. Following tests done on the deposit which confirmed its high phosphate content, Henslow felt it could be “a matter of commercial proposition”. Before he made public his find in a report to the British Association in Cambridge another development took place which was to bring his ideas to fruition. (Henslow, Rev. John, Report to British Association. Cambridge, 1845)
John Bennet Lawes, a Hertfordshire landowner, was experimenting with different manures on his estate in Rothamsted. Like Liebig, he too successfully dissolved bones and phosphorite in sulphuric acid. The resulting mixture he called “super phosphate of lime” and his experiments with it showed it to be an extremely valuable manure, especially for root crops. He patented his “discovery” in 1842 which sparked a length, expensive but successful lawsuit with Liebig who claimed to have been the first to discover the technique. This “discovery” also upset Lawes’ mother. She was appalled that a gentleman should engage in trade - let alone in manure. Ignoring both he set up his own company. It was called “Lawes Artificial Manure Company.” His planned European Tour for his honeymoon was cancelled in favour of a trip down the Thames where he found an ideal site for his factory. He had a large chemical manure works built at Deptford which was capable of producing up to 200 tons of superphosphate a week. A few years later he expanded onto another site at Barking. (Dyke, G.V. ‘John Lawes of Rothamsted’ Hoos Press Harpenden 1993 p.15)
Entrepreneurs abounded during the Industrial Revolution. Edward Packard, a chemist from Saxmundham in Suffolk, successfully dissolved the Felixstow “coprolites” in sulphuric acid and in 1847 opened his own chemical manure factory. This was sited on the banks of the River Orwell in Ipswich. Joseph Fison, a Suffolk agricultural supplier with an eye for a profit, saw the money to be made in manures and was quick to invest. As did William Colchester, a brickyard and ship owner from Essex. He too invested in a chemical manure works at Ipswich and thus began the growing demand for the Suffolk “coprolites.” They paid landowners as little as six shillings (£0.30) a ton for all the coprolites they could extract from their crag pits. They also had to pay Mr Lawes five shillings (£0.25) for every ton they produced as royalty payment.
Lawes in London, Packard, and Colchester in Ipswich, Fisons of Thetford and later in Ipswich Prentice Bros. of Stowmarket, Odams of London, Waltons of Cambridge and others advertised their superphosphate in the pages of the “Gardeners Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette” at up to £7.00 a ton. Henslow’s idea had been realised. Articles on the success of superphosphate and of using coprolites appeared in the agricultural press. These increased landowners and agriculturalists’ awareness of the financial advantages of finding the fossil deposit on their properties and sparked enormous interest in this fossil bed.
In order to compete with the Suffolk manure manufacturers, in 1847 Lawes was prepared to pay landowners up to £1.00 per ton for the Suffolk “coprolites.” They were taken by lighter up the Thames estuary for processing in his factory. This was almost half the price of guano and the resulting demand for his “artificial” manure brought him huge profits. Within a few years of starting production he was clearing £40,000 - £50,000 annually! - an enormous amount in those days. (O’Connor, B. ‘Rothamsted, Lawes and Dinosaurs,’ 1994, unpublished paper; Dyke, G.V. op.cit. p.18; Rothamsted Papers, 7,18) No wonder Lawes was able to afford to lease two estates in Scotland and to set up the world’s first agricultural research station. Writing papers on his agricultural discoveries at the rate of one every forty days he made a valuable contribution to British agriculture. Amongst his many honours was a baronetcy from Queen Victoria. One understands why the expression was coined, “Where there’s muck there’s money!”
One of Rev. Henslow’s students was Charles Darwin whose controversial theory of evolution threw the academic clerics into confusion. But it did stimulate enormous interest in geology, palaeontology, anthropology and archaeology. The Victorian geologists were fascinated by the fossils being unearthed in the coprolite pits. These helped piece together the scientific jigsaw of life before Adam. Some of the deposit certainly resembles sun-dried fossilised droppings. Numerous lumps have flat bases which suggests that they had dropped onto the sand. However, the geologists disagreed as to their origin. After much debate in the academic journals and magazines, they came to accept them as being water-worn, phosphatised nodules containing the remains of prehistoric marine and terrestrial life. But the trade name “coprolite” stuck which gave rise to the confusion over their origin.
Geological literature shows the deposit included much more than droppings though. There were the bones, teeth, scales and claws of at least five dinosaurs - the iguanodon, megalosuarus, craterosaurus, dakosaurus and dinotosaurus. There were the remains of three massive marine lizards - the pliosaurus, plesiosaurus and ichthyosaurus - and the bird pterodactyl! There were sharks and whales, the amphibious crocodiles and turtles as well as sponges, an assortment of shells and pieces of wood. There were elephants, bears, hyenas, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, oxen and horses from not just from Jurassic Park. They also dated from the next geological period - the Cretaceous - about 120 - 65 million years ago. Some were indigenous - local to this area - others were thought to have been washed out of the clays of the Wealden beds of Southeast England when it was uplifted about fifty million years ago. River erosion has been suggested as the cause of them accumulating in beds along the sandy edges of the shallow seas that covered much of what is now Southern Britain.
Found in two seams, averaging a foot thick (0.74 m.) but in places up to six feet (2.1m.), up to seven miles (11.2 km.) wide and stretching about 100 miles (160 km.) from the southeast Suffolk coast into Oxfordshire one wonders what brought about this enormous prehistoric graveyard. Rivers couldn’t have been the main agent of erosion. Enormous tectonic upheavals in the period around 90 million years ago resulted in periodic flooding and uplift. Associated with considerable volcanic activity which ejected quantities of Carbon Dioxide and other poisonous gases the creatures stood little chance. It was mass extinction. Flooding washed their bodies around in shallow waters and they were eventually scavenged on to leave only a mass of skeletons - and the sun-dried droppings washed out of the sandy nesting and mating grounds on what was their coast. The remains, once consumed by marine detrivores, accumulated in the shallow coastal waters and over millions of years were buried under what is known as the Lower Cambridgeshire Greensand. Further tectonic shifts caused sea levels to drop and land emerged once more from the sea. Life recovered on the coastal strip of the island that made up Southern Britain but yet another inundation washed them away! This resulted in the higher bed at the base of the Upper Cambridgeshire Greensand.
The most common of these fossils was the ammonite - a scavenger that lived on the carcasses of marine creatures that had sunk to the sea bed. Broken and water-worn sections of these ammonites closely resemble animal droppings but there are wonderful specimens which look remarkably like sun-dried droppings which would have been fossilised in the sand.
The first academic to write about true coprolites was the Dean of Westminster, Rev. William Buckland. He was Oxford’s first professor of Geology. In 1829 he had found them in the fossilised stomach and intestines of the ichthyosaurus unearthed at Lyme Regis. He took the Greek word “kopros” meaning dung and “lithos” meaning stone to produce “coprolite”. Earrings were made from their polished sections. He ate from a table made from polished coprolites and on one occasion joined friends for an banquet in a reconstructed skeleton of an iguanodon! Buckland shocked religious circles by suggesting that dinosaurs were cannibals. Tiny bones of baby ichthyosaurus were found in the stomach contents! This contradicted the belief that life before Adam was peaceful and harmonious. Challenges to his theory nowadays suggest the babies were expelled as the mother’s body was crushed by overlying sediments!
The interest in “coprolites” spread to Cambridgeshire in the late-1840s. A fenland farmer took some fossils to show Rev. Henslow. Another of his students, Charles Kingsley, recorded the importance of the find.
“He saw, being somewhat of, a geologist and chemist, that they were not, as fossils usually are, carbonate of lime, but phosphate of lime - bone earth. He said at once, as by inspiration, “You have found a treasure - not a gold-mine, indeed, but a food-mine. This bone earth, which we are at our wit’s end to get for our grain and pulses; which we are importing, as expensive bones, all the way from Buenos Ayres. Only find enough of them, and you will increase immensely the food supply of England and perhaps make her independent of foreign phosphates in case of war.”
(Note in the Coprolite file in Ipswich Museum, Geology section)
COLCHESTER CORNERS THE CAMBRIDGESHIRE COPROLITES
William Colchester, one of the Suffolk manure manufacturers, bought the field from the local doctor, drained it and had the fossils extracted. A washmill was erected to clean them, a sketch of one can be seen on page 9. This was quite a novel development from the wooden tray immersed in the estuary used in Suffolk coastal parishes. The new technology which was not superseded until the 1870s was described by the doctor’s son, Charles Lucas:-
“The first thing to do was to throw up a hill
in the middle of the ground, and this was done by first
erecting a post about ten or
twelve feet long,
and throwing the (top)soil around it to a height of eleven or twelve
feet and of thirty feet in diameter. Three feet from the centre a ring
formed six to eight feet wide and four feet deep. This would be paved
with bricks and
the sides would
be sheets of iron. On one side of
the hill a platform was made from a wooden tank, to which was connected a pump
eighteen feet long; a pipe from the tank would go with the ring
and opposite the tank was a trapped outlet,
and on the
outer side of the
hill a square
of about two chains would be earthed up a little to form a sort of pan.
From the central post a wooden arm would be attached about twelve to fourteen
feet long; to this would be
attached a wimpole
tree, to which a horse would be
yoked. Connected to the centre of the post would be a light rail which was
fixed to the
horse bridle to keep the horse always in its track; from the
arm would be suspended two iron harrows which ran well in on the bottom of the
ring. When the soil containing the fossils was wheeled up to the ring a
sufficient quantity of water would
let in. As the horse went round a creamy fluid would be produced and the fossils would drop on the floor.
Then the trapped outlet would be opened and the creamlike fluid, called “slurry” would flow into pans. This operation having been repeated a number of times the fossils on the floor would be washed clear of earth and weighed up.”
(Lucas C. ‘The Fenman’s World’ Norwich (1931) p.31)
An artist’s impression of the washmill can be seen on page 9. The cost of constructing these mills when they were first developed cost £100 but by the mid-1870s the “coprolite contractors” had become so expeditious that a hill could be put up for £5! (Ibid.) Once cleaned, the “coprolites” were sent to Burwell, near Cambridge, where Colchester had gone into partnership with a local miller, Mr Ball. A new inland chemical manure works was erected on the banks of Burwell lode, allowing easy access by water to the fenland coprolites. So close to the source of its major raw material it was well placed to compete with the coastal competition.
The Burwell finds stimulated enormous interest in adjoining parishes. When similar seams of phosphatic nodules were uncovered at the junction of the Greensand and the Gault in the brickfields of Cambridgeshire in 1848, tests proved them even richer in phosphate of lime than the Suffolk deposits. This led Lawes, Colchester, Packard and other manure manufacturers to move into Cambridge and exploit this valuable deposit. Typical Victorian entrepreneurs, they wanted control not only of the processing but also the supply of raw materials. (O’Connor, B. ‘Who Took the Dinosaur **** out of Cambridge?’ unpublished paper, 1994; O’Connor B. ‘The Burwell Coprolite Industry) Arrangements were made with landowners to purchase what the brickmakers had previously considered “troublesome annoyances”. Some were prepared to pay £2.00 a ton for them.
Washed coprolite, termed “whole”, and “ground” coprolite were sent by shallow draught barge or fenland lighter up the Ouse to King’s Lynn. There was one firm ran by a Mr Dant who dominated the lighter trade and who profited considerably from carrying coprolites.
“From Popes Corner - the junction of the Cam and the Ouse - they were transported by way of Ely, Littleport and Downham Market to Lynn. In the harbour their cargoes were shovelled into the holds of small sailing coasters bound for East Coast ports, where processing plants swallowed their puny contribution at an alarming rate and with them millions of years of history.”
Worfolk, S.G.C., ‘History by the Ton’, North End Trust, King’s Lynn, (March 1990)
Manure factories had sprung up across the country so the market for coprolites was national. Some were sent by train to other parts of the country but this was more expensive and only practised where the diggings were close to railway sidings.
Away from the brickfields, where the topsoil needed removing before the seam could be extracted, there were greater labour costs. The photograph on page 11 shows a typical coprolite pit. This one was at Orwell, Cambs. Such was the demand that any field where the deposit was found was a veritable gold-mine. Prices of “coprolites” jumped over the £2.00 mark. In the Cambridge area yields were about 300 tons an acre! Small landowners could make their fortune. When agricultural rents rarely topped £1.10s.0d. (£1.50) an acre and agricultural labourers’ annual wages rarely exceeded £25 one can see that profits of several hundred pounds an acre were possible. This could buy a small estate. However, the profits did not go to the tenant farmers.
The larger landowners engaged land agents to deal with legalities. Although the tenants lost the income from those fields out of cultivation whilst the fossils were raised, some of the first documented leases showed that land agents tried to ensure that they received compensation at more per acre than the fields’ agricultural worth. They initially made contracts with the manufacturers at royalties of so much per ton for the coprolites raised. This created an opening for coprolite merchants to act as middle men buying from local landowners and arranging their sale to manure companies. Coprolite contractors appeared, bidding for the right to work the advertised land, bringing in a gang of men to dig, wash and sort the coprolite and then sell it. So began what the historian, Richard Grove, described as the ‘Cambridgeshire Coprolite Mining Rush.’ (Grove, R. (1976), ‘The Cambridgeshire Coprolite Mining Rush,’ Oleander Press, Cambridge )
Scanning the local press and accessing agreements in Record Offices and elsewhere it was possible to determine the location of the newly found deposits. The diggings expanded in and around Cambridge in the 1850s but the technical and human problems associated with the inaccurate weighing of the many thousands of tons that were leaving the fields led the solicitors in the late-1850s to introduce royalties per acre. This policy ensured regular work for surveyors as they had written into the agreement a clause that the acreage of the pits should be measured twice a year, around Michaelmas and Lady Day. Companies like Francis & Co., Bidwells, Carter Jonas and Mann and Raven made considerable sums from coprolite work. The royalties that the manure manufacturers or coprolite contractors were prepared to pay ranged from £30 up to £400 an acre! This depended, not only on the market price for coprolite, but also on the depth of the seam, its quality, its extent, and even the distance of the pits from the road or the nearest station. In some cases it also depended on how well the contractor knew the landowner!
More than eighty
manure works had been set up at coastal ports and in industrial towns by the
end of the 1860s. This included Duxford and another seven on the coprolite
belt. With those on the continent and in the United States as well there was an
enormous demand for any kind of phosphatic material. Interest in geology had
sparked off surveys across Europe and phosphorite, a rock phosphate, was found
in Estremadura in Spain in 1845.
The following year it was found in the Ardennes and Pas de Calais in France. Apatite, another rock phosphate, was worked in Arendal in Norway and Pargas in Finland in 1851. With apatite mines opening in Amberg in Bavaria, Ehrenfriedsdorf in Saxony and Schlackenwald in Bohemia also in 1851 Lawes and the other manure companies began importing increasing quantities. In the United States they were using guano and buffalo bones as fertiliser. But with the discovery of mineral phosphate of lime in New Jersey and New York, which had a phosphate content of over 80%, they were able to start manufacturing superphosphate from 1852. However, “coprolites” were still the major raw material of the British superphosphate.
Coprolite merchants set up offices in many of the southern Cambridgeshire towns and villages. Manufacturers employed their own agents to make agreements, not only with landowners but in some cases also with coprolite contractors who then hired gangs of labourers to raise the fossils. Many, many hundreds of people were engaged in digging over a huge area along a northeast - southwest line in south Cambridgeshire during the 1850s and 1860s. The full extent of the villages involved in the coprolite diggings can be seen from the map on page 12. One can see how the coprolite area around Duxford was only a small part of a much more extensive belt.
DUXFORD’S ROLE IN THE FERTILISER BUSINESS
Duxford was a small agricultural community in the early nineteenth century with the majority of its inhabitants almost entirely dependent on farming. By this time the farms had incorporated many of the developments introduced during the “Agricultural Revolution”. Jethro Tull’s seed drill brought more efficient planting, the Norfolk crop rotation method, deep ploughing of sandy soils was able to break the iron pan and improve drainage, the use of mass produced drainage pipes on clay soils and using steam engines to grub up bushes and scrubland brought more land into cultivation. The one improvement which had a significant impact on the village was the improvement in fertilisers, notably the widespread use of burnt or ground animal bones on the fields.
Bones, it was discovered, contained a high percentage of phosphate of lime and the Victorian agricultural chemists acknowledged that plants produced a greater yield if they were given more phosphate. Apart from using the traditional animal manures experiments were being done to determine the phosphate content of rags, soot, blood and animal bones. One recollects the rag and bone man? It was this latter product which provided the bulk of the phosphate. Manure manufacturers converted corn mills to grind bones and imports of bones from the continent helped to provide the backbone of Britain’s agricultural fertility.
By the end of the 1830s a new mineral phosphate began being imported into Liverpool which greatly increased yields. This was guano, phosphate rich bird droppings, which was imported from the Pacific Islands and, being much richer in phosphate than bone manures, it sold well at prices up to £12 a ton. Millers in Duxford gradually changed from corn to grinding bones for fertiliser and in about 1853, according to one report, one of the mill owners, which one
was not known, changed again, this time to grinding “coprolites.” (Cambridge Village Book, Womens’ Institute,(1989), p .49)
Coprolite was considered by many when it was first discovered to be fossilised dinosaur droppings but they were subsequently found to be phosphatic nodules which included fossilised bones, teeth, and claws of prehistoric creatures as well as shells and other marine organisms. These ”coprolites,” as they continued being called as their trade name, were also discovered to occur in vast quantities in Cambridgeshire, at the foot of the Lower Greensand, between the gault clay and the overlying chalk. They began to be exploited on a large scale in the early 1850s near Cambridge and sold to local manure manufacturers for two to three pounds a ton who, after processing, sold the resulting superphosphate at up to £7 a ton, considerably cheaper than guano. To capitalise on the growing demand for this successful artificial manure many companies were formed and in 1856 the Cambridge Manure Company was formed. (O’Connor, B. ‘Who Took the Dinosaur **** out of Cambridge?’)
It was set up by the Cambridge auctioneer, John Rolfe Mann, of Mann and Raven. He was chairman, the Fulbourn merchant A. P. Chaplin was one of the directors and local ”agriculturalists” made up the rest of the board. They recognised the potential profits to be made in the manure industry. Originally they had a steam mill in a building on Histon Road in Cambridge and were purchasing bones, bone dust and vitriol, as well as coprolites from Coldham’s Common. In January 1857 a mixing plant and shed was erected but a letter to the vicar, Revd. William B. Hopkin and Mrs Maria King informed them that the factory was moving. Being sited in a growing urban centre like Cambridge there was local opposition to it’s fumes polluting the neighbourhood. A site was investigated on Chesterton Road and another in Duxford. On August 8th their solicitor and “undisclosed agent”, Clement Francis, was authorised to purchase the Duxford property from Mr. Peed for £850. A share issue at £5 per share was announced to cover it’s purchase price and a visit to get plans of Odams’ manure works in Plaistow was made.
Charles Thurnall was appointed manager of the works and he arranged for the machinery to be purchased from the Butterley works, near Wellington, for £900. When completed it consisted of an engine house, engine, boilers, bone mill, grinding stones, machinery, two store rooms, stables, lodges and a cottage, part of which can be seen in the photograph on page 9. (Cambs.R.O. R60/3 Cambridge Manure Co. Minute Book; Francis Bill Books, 1857,p.193)
It seemed to have been only a small concern when it was first established, selling superphosphate at £5.5s.0d. per ton (£5.25), corn manure at £7.5s.0d. (£7.25), turnip manure at £6.5s.0d. (£6.25) as well as bone dust at £1.3s.0d. (£1.15) and ground coprolites at £2.10s.0d. (£2.50). These latter two commodities could then have been made into superphosphate by local farmers using their own equipment to save expense. Evidence from Whaddon shows that farms had a long wooden trough made up in their yard into which the bags of ground bones or coprolites were emptied. Carboys, huge round jars of vitriol (sulphuric acid) were poured onto the mixture which was stirred using a long puddling stick. Once dried it could be shovelled onto carts and spread onto the fields or bagged up for later use. This was a considerably cheaper alternative than purchasing manufactured “super” but where quality wasn’t considered important and where the health of the stirrers wasn’t considered then it was an option for those farmers. (O’Connor, B. ‘The Coprolite Industry in Whaddon’)
The 1861 census sheds little light on those employed. There was nobody described as working in a manure or chemical factory. The employees at the works may have described themselves as ordinary labourers. Apart from agricultural labourers the other main labouring occupations of local men were in the Sawston paper mills and Hudson's brewery at Pampisford. There were a number of engine drivers, however, who may have been involved but there were an assortment of different agricultural jobs involving engines in those days. (Cambs.R.O. 1861 census)
The first dividends were paid in 1860 with non-farming shareholders getting 5% and farmers 2.5%. In 1864, following the establishment of the Royston Farmers Manure Company, there was a need to start advertising in the local trade directory. (Kelly’s Directory 1864; O’Connor, B. ‘The Coprolite Industry in Royston) Analysis of the company minute books showed that over the period, 1857-1875, the major raw material was local coprolites with vitriol purchased from Fisons of Thetford. Occasional purchases of blood, manure, nitrate of soda and guano were made but coprolites dominated their purchases. They accounted for 67.4% of their annual expenditure in 1867. Business dramatically improved during the mid-1860s in a mini-economic boom with farmers very keen to increase food production. Dividends increased to 6% in 1864 and to 10% for the years 1865 to 1872. (Cambs.R.O. R60/3)
Their main supplier was Swann Wallis, a Duxford farmer who had gone into the business of raising coprolites on a number of farms in the area. There is evidence of him having agreements with landowners at Coton (1859), Grantchester (1859), Barrington (1862), Bassingbourn (1863), Steeple Morden (1863) and Barton-le-Clay, in Bedfordshire. (1872). (Kelly’s Directory 1864; See author’s accounts of those parishes mentioned) He would have arranged for the coprolites to have been carted to the nearest station and then brought by rail to Duxford. There is also every likelihood he made arrangements with many other farmers and landowners in the area but the only documentary evidence to emerge is from the larger landowners whose land agents kept their archives. Whilst he was the major supplier, table 3 shows many other contractors like William Reynolds and Arthur Austin providing large quantities.
Table 2. Cambridge Manure Co., Duxford Prices 1860 -1875
1860 1861 1866 1867 1869 1870 1875
£.s.d. £. s.d. £.s.d. £.s.d. £.s.d. £.s.d. £.s.d.
Corn Manure 7. 5.0. 6.10.0 7. 0.0 7. 0.0
Turnip Manure 6. 5.0. 5.10.0 5.10.0 5.15.0
Superphosphate 5. 5.0. 5. 0.0 4.15.0 5. 0.0 5.10.0 4.10.0 4.10.0
(Cambs.R.O. R60/3 Minute Books 1857-76)
Table 3. Coprolite Suppliers to Cambridge Manure Works, 1857 - 1875
Supplier Year(s) Price per ton Payment
£.s.d. £. s.d.
F. Laws 1856 2. 2.6 225. 0.0
Mr Lenton 1857
D. Symonds 1857-60 1.13.0 - 1.12.0 238 15.6
Mr Ford 1857 2. 2.0
Mr Long 1858 2. 8.0
Wm. Reynolds 1859-70 1.13.0 - 1.17.6 2352 6.3
S. Wallis 1862-71 1.17.6 - 2. 9.6 3784 4.8
C. Roads 1868 240 18.0
J. Smith 1868 322 4.0
A. Austin 1872-75 2.14.0 - 2.17.6 1133 16.1
J. Headley 1873 195 0.3
Mr Dawson 1873-4 212 18.6
Mann & Raven 1874 141 5.0
L. Griffin 1875 1.17.6 24 15.0
By the beginning of the 1870s the company was advertising in the local papers, obviously proud of its success and quality products.
“The Cambridge Manure Company Ltd, Factory, Duxford, Cambridgeshire. This was the original Company, formed by some of the principal Agriculturalists in Cambridgeshire and the neighbouring counties. The manure is so well known, and so generally used that comment is needless. Genuineness and Quality Guaranteed. Superphosphate at the works: £5 10 0; superphosphate per rail: £5 15 0; 2% Discount for cash. C.Thurnall, manager.”
(Cambridge Chronicle,3rd Dec.1870, p.2)
According to the 1871 census one Duxford man was described as a coprolite labourer. He was probably employed in the factory as no records exist of actual diggings in the parish. He may have walked to the diggings in a nearby parish. Swann Wallis was still living here, now aged 45. He was still described as a coprolite merchant. (Cambs.R.O. 1871 census) Although it did not seem to have played a major role in terms of employment in the village, economically, the business was a relatively profitable venture.
The company records, seen in Table 1, show how extensive the company’s market area was with accounts held in Derbyshire, Hull and as far afield as Bordeaux in France. (Cambs.R.O. 253/2/B1; Cambs.R.O. R60/3) The French wine growing industry at that time had been devastated by phylloxera, a disease which destroyed the roots of the vine and forced the wine growers to import vines from California and to replant extensively. To do this successfully they needed the best fertiliser available and as a result large quantities of British superphosphate of lime was used.
Table 2 shows the downward trend in “super” prices during the early 1870s. This was mostly attributed to intense competition between local manure manufacturers, the Farmers’ Manure Company of Royston, Fordhams’ coprolite mill at Odsey, near Ashwell, James Headley’s coprolite factory on Mill Road in Cambridge, Hallack (sic) and Bond’s coprolite factory on Hill’s Road, Cambridge, Colchester’s works in Burwell and a new one he’d opened in Bassingbourn. The company responded in 1871 by reducing their superphosphate prices by over 20%. An advert in the Cambridge Chronicle shows prices down to £4.10s.0d. (£4.50) at the works and £4.15s.0d. (£4.75) per rail. (Cambridge Chronicle,16th December,1871, p.2) As a result of this decision and other factors dividends dropped to 5% in 1873. There were none in subsequent years. What had happened to explain this decline in fortune?
Table 3 shows considerable fluctuations in the prices paid for coprolites. One imagines the company’s policy would have been to secure the cheapest supplies but in the early 1870s prices rose. The two major suppliers in the 1860s, Swann Wallis and William Reynolds, a coprolite contractor from Coton, increased their prices when there was so much demand. The company wasn’t prepared to pay such high rates. As a result Wallis and Reynolds transferred their trade to the Farmers Manure Company of Royston. (Cambs.R.O. R60/3 Cambridge Manure Co. Minute Books 1859-1872; O’Connor, B. ‘The Coprolite Industry in Royston’, unpublished paper) The company was compelled to advertise for alternative supplies.
Coprolite labourers’ wages were several shillings a week more than those of agricultural labourers. Their pay was piece work and some could make about £1.00 a week but many earned less. With the spread of a reading working class there was a growing awareness of comparative wages and how little farm labourers received. 1871 saw the beginnings of national unrest amongst the workforce. By early summer this had spread to East Anglia and some coprolite labourers took action.
“ASHWELL - We understand there has been a strike at the coprolite works in this neighbourhood, and that now labourers are in demand at the increased rate of wages. It is an opportunity for many to improve their position.”
(Potton Journal, June 17th 1871)
Having to pay higher wages resulted in higher prices for coprolites. Eventually, the company made an agreement with Arthur Austin, a coprolite contractor from Little Shelford who agreed to deliver 300 tons but at £2.70 per ton. Wallis and Reynolds were getting more than that from other manure manufacturers. Competition was hotting up. The Farmers Manure Company expanded their capacity with new plant at Royston and increased production.
This higher rate, poor business practices by the manager, competition and other factors resulted in the 1874 balance sheet being “so unsatisfactory a character that the accountant was called in.” There were many clients who were behind in their payments. Some of their agents were similarly slow in repaying the company. A meeting was held where it was agreed that all coprolites should be tendered for, the stock and materials on the premises to be accurately ascertained and a monthly account be given to the directors. The directors were ordered to hold monthly meetings at the factory, not at the Bird Bolt Inn, on St. Andrew’s Street. Mr Thurnall was also ordered to give all his time to the manufacturing business.
These measure didn’t prove successful. Mr Thurnall was given notice to quit at Michaelmas 1875. (Cambs.R.O. R60/3 Minute Books 1857-76 ) Perhaps aware of what was happening on a global scale the poor state of affairs in Duxford led the directors to sell up. On 4th December 1875 they
“agreed to dispose of the Cambridge Manure manufacturing premises at Duxford together with the Plant and good will of the business to Mr Bird for the sum of £2,750... and also the stock in trade for £375.”
The remaining superphosphate was sold at £7.10.0 per ton, £3 more than in 1870! The liquidators were called in and their investigations showed a final balance of £4,485.14s.8d. Investors were offered 17s. 6d (£0.875) in the pound. In October 1876, the vinegar maker, William Kidman Bird, took over the works. (Kelly’s Directory, 1875; Cambridge Chronicle,29th January 1876)
THE AGRICULTURAL DEPRESSION
In the circumstances his purchase did not prove a good investment. 1876 saw the start of four consecutive years of bad weather, heavy rain and poor harvests. This badly affected farmers, coprolite merchants, contractors, diggers and manure manufacturers alike. Wet weather raised the water table and made the diggings dangerous as well as incurring increased pumping costs. Poor yields reduced farmers income dramatically and many labourers were laid off. Rent arrears, rent reductions, bankruptcies and even evictions were common. The farmers’ economic problems were exacerbated by the then government’s introduction of Free Trade. Vast quantities of cheap meat and grain surpluses from the American Prairies and South American Pampas were shipped into Great Britain. Home prices plummeted. Farmers couldn’t sell what little they managed to grow.
It had a direct impact on the fortunes of the nation’s manure manufacturers. Whilst the mid-1870s had been the peak of Great Britain’s trade and industrial development, it coincided with the “boom years” of the coprolite industry. Given the huge demand for fertilisers at home and abroad, some of the entrepreneurial manure manufacturers had invested in the extraction and import of overseas phosphate and nitrate supplies. Following the exhaustion of the South American guano deposits by 1875, exploration began in earnest to locate alternative supplies. Massive reserves of cheap rock phosphate had been found in many parts of our trading area. Ship-owners soon imported increasing quantities from mining operations in such countries as Germany, Netherlands, Spain, France, Algeria, Scandinavia, the West Indies and, most importantly, the United States.
Government mineral statistics show how Britain’s coprolite production fell from 258,150 tons in 1876, when its value to £2.8s.0d. (£2.40) to 69,000 tons the following year, even though its value had increased to £2.18.0 (£2.90). The same year phosphate imports of 170,000 tons a year with a value of £500,000, arrived in British ports from just one American port, Charleston, South Carolina. (Mineral Statistics, Mem.Geol.Survey. 1876 -1879)
These rock phosphates were very similar to the East Anglian coprolites but with a higher phosphate content. In true American fashion, they were on a far greater scale and variety. The Charleston News and Courier of 1880 reported that
“These deposits consist of nodules of phosphate of lime, thickly interspersed with the huge bones and teeth of antediluvian mammalian and marine mammoths of stupendous and gigantic proportions; the chrysonicocrisides, ichthyosauri, hadrosauri, stupendous giant baboons, prodigious mammoth gorillas, lizards 33 feet long, and other huge graminovorous and carnivorous quadrupeds; also the squaladons, phocodons, dinotherinons, and members of the ichthaurian, saurian and cetacean families, whales 500 feet long, sharks 200 feet long, briny leviathons, voracious marine vultures and other monster, rapacious denizens of the mighty deep - land and water animals lying in the same bed. These wonderful and awe-inspiring skeleton remains, styled by Professor Agassiz “the greatest cemetery in the world,” constitute by far the most valuable fertiliser known to man since the exhaustion of the Peruvian guano deposits; and are an inexhaustible source of wealth to the State and people of South Carolina, and thence to the whole world.”
(Charleston News and Courier, Industrial Issue, (1880))
Shipped into British ports it was sold much cheaper than coprolites. With its higher quality it was eagerly bought by the coastal manure manufacturers. Demand for coprolites dropped with prices falling to under £2.00 a ton. Contractors asked to be allowed reductions of their leases. Some landowners refused. Any income from coprolites was worth having, even if it was less than in the boom. Some kept to the letter of their agreement that the contractors continue to work so many acres a year, and forced them into bankruptcy. Many coprolite pits were abandoned. The Agricultural Depression had set in.
But manure manufacturers suffered too. Farmers weren’t buying fertilisers to grow food they couldn’t sell. The price of “super” fell. This downward spiral in trade came full circle when manure manufacturers reduced their purchases of the American phosphates. There was no market for “super” so there was no market for phosphates. This caused almost identical problems for the American suppliers as those experienced by the British coprolite contractors. The South Carolina Ministry of Agriculture described the problem in early 1880 as being
“...a very general and widespread depression prevailing in the production of river rock. As is generally known, the great bulk of this rock is shipped to foreign countries. The short crops, and general agricultural distress which has for some years past spread over the whole of Europe, had most seriously affected the capacity of the farmer to purchase and pay for fertilisers, and consequently diminished to a very large degree the demand for the Carolina rock. Thus not only was the market lost, to a great extent, but the prices at which the rock could be sold were very greatly diminished. In consequence of this, river mining became unprofitable. A large number of the smaller companies ceased work entirely, and even the larger ones were compelled very greatly to curtail their operations and to continue with a much reduced force and at great loss.”
(‘First Annual Rept. of the Commissioner of Agriculture of the State of South Carolina.’ Walker, Evans & Cogswell, (Charleston, 1880), pp.11-12.)
The government statistics show that in 1878 coprolite prices dropped to £2.75 a ton but plummeted to only £1.40 the following year. (Mineral Statistics, Mem.Geol.Survey. 1876 -1879) This almost caused the bottom to fall out of the market. Competition amongst manufactures was intense. The Royston Farmers Manure Company dropped its prices for superphosphate, during 1879 - 80 to only £2.40 a ton. (Herts.R.O. D/Eky.B1) Mr Bird was in trouble. In 1878, after only two years in business, he sold a part share of the business to Prentice and Sons of Suffolk. It was the best time to have gone into partnership. Their prices for superphosphate had to be lowered if any was to sell. They dropped from £3.50 in 1879 to £2.50 in 1881. (Grove, R. ‘The Cambridgeshire Coprolite Mining Rush,’ Oleander Press, Cambridge 1976, pp.29,47-8)
In 1881 the census shows there were two labourers in the manure factory and an engineer, as in 1871, hardly a large concern. (Cambs.R.O. 1881 census) Except for the few areas where the known coprolite reserves were very high, it became uneconomic for farmers and contractors to continue digging. Those landowners and farmers who had relied on coprolites as a major source of their income were badly hit. The contractors whose sole revenue came from the coprolites also suffered greatly. Those with deep pits, high pumping and labour costs, loan repayments on plant and machinery suffered the worst. As a result, the larger, more financially sound coprolite and manure concerns, like Prentices, started looking into the possibility of take-overs and mergers. Many contractors were forced to sell up or go out of business. In some cases landowners, keeping to the letter of their agreements, still claimed the royalties from the contractors for the pits on their land, even though they were neither raising nor selling any coprolites. This caused a number of bankruptcies. As a result, pits were left unlevelled. They were allowed to fill up with water; the topsoil wasn’t replaced and the
“... countryside was littered with abandoned workings and rusting machinery no-one could afford even to remove. Inns were closed near the workings.”
(Porter, Enid ‘The Coprolite Diggers,’ Cambs.,Hunts & Peterborough Life, 1971,p.42-3)
A BRIEF REVIVAL
By late-1881 there was a brief revival, occasioned by Mr Bird and other inland manure manufacturers on the coprolite belt. The company shareholders, in many cases, were farmers or landowners with coprolite holdings. In the case of the Farmers Manure Company of Royston their managing director, Mr Nunn, owned vast reserves of coprolites on his land in Bassingbourn! Whether Mr Bird owned coprolite land is unknown but almost certainly shareholders and maybe directors still held coprolite land worth exploiting. The railway companies had increased freight rates so the cost of bringing in imported phosphates was not quite as economic as it was for the coastal manufacturers.
Bird and Prentice’s company advertised throughout the 1880s but with much reduced prices. (Kelly’s Directory 1879,1883,1888) Production was maintained but on a reduced scale. No records of the company’s purchases for the 1880s and 1890s have come to light that would show who or from where their coprolites were purchased. Like the Farmers Manure Company of Royston, they may well have been purchasing cheap Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire coprolites. Documented coprolite agreements show a marked drop in numbers during the 1880s and 1890s. They include Orwell in 1881 and 1883, Haslingfield in 1881, Bassingbourn in 1881, Ashwell in 1882, Abington Pigotts in 1882, 1885 and 1886, Crimplesham in Norfolk in 1883, Shepreth in 1885, Stow-cum-Quy in 1888, Harlton in 1891, Meppershall in Beds. in 1891 and the last recorded agreement in Barrington in 1984. (see author’s accounts of those parishes for details.) Any number of these could have supplied Duxford with coprolites.
The 1891 census shows that 41 year old Josiah Muggleton was the manager of the works. There were five labourers and one engine driver. (Cambs.R.O. 1891 census) The 20th century history of the works has not been researched in depth. Prentice’s took complete control in 1912 but were themselves taken over eight years later by one of the larger fertiliser companies, Fisons of Suffolk, who had earlier supplied the Cambridge Manure Company with carboys of vitriol. (‘The Early Fertiliser Years,’ Fison’s Journal no.77 December 1963) The Rook family took control sometime later and Len Rook was responsible for what was renamed the Cambridge Fertiliser Company. Fertliser was still manufactured as well as a variety of meat products. In the early 1970s it was sold to Prospero De Moulder with Len still acting as manager but by the end of the 1970s the site was again sold, this time to Volvo (earth moving equipment), and the works were demolished. (Conversation with Jim Longstaff, Duxford History Society) A century of manure manufacture ceased but its history has not been forgotten.