Greek κοπρος/kopros meaning
'dung' and λιθος/lithos meaning 'stone'.
It is often thought that coprolites were just fossilised dinosaur droppings. Their appearance can be persuasive but coprolites can be very large or very small and can be from any animal including sea creatures and humans and can be of more recent origin.
They often contain teeth, bones and claws of the prey and can give researchers an insight into the diet and habitat of the 'producer'. The remains have been mineralised over the millions of years since the animals died.
|The Greensand Ridge, running north of Shillington, was a coastal area 90 million years ago and at that time a major rise in sea level was taking place. Water then covered the south of England many hundreds of metres deep. The land animals succumbed and their remains accumulated to form vast seams two to five metres thick, which stretch almost a hundred miles across the Eastern Counties from Tring through Bedfordshire and Cambridge and on to East Anglia.|
In the 1700s it was discovered that the remains,
if suitably processed, could be an effective phosphate fertiliser.
Seams were exposed in Shillington in about 1862 at Chibley Farm, just to the northeast of the village.
In addition to the Shillington and other Bedfordshire workings it was extracted in parts of Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and also in Suffolk, Norfolk, Bucks, Oxfordshire, Hants. and Kent. There are records of coprolite or fossil diggers in most villages and towns around Shillington. It became the major source of raw material for the local fertiliser business for the next forty years.
Coprolites were extracted from pits, in places up to five metres deep, where the seam occurred along the slopes of the Greensand Ridge where it lay above the clay. They were washed and sorted at coprolite washmills and then carted to the nearest wharf or railway siding for freighting to manure factories in Cambridge, Royston, Burwell, Ashwell and elsewhere.
There was a washmill near the Musgrave Arms and another on Marquis Hill. A small railway line was built in the fields near Marquis Hill to transport the raw material to the washmill. The material was washed to remove the clay, ground to a powder and then dissolved in sulphuric acid to produce enriched phosphate - the world's first artificial chemical fertiliser.
From 1890 the industry declined rapidly as cheaper fertiliser was imported from America and elsewhere. The industry collapsed and now there is nothing to be seen to indicate that a major industry once thrived in the area.
In the second half of the 19th century many
hundreds of men, women and children across Bedfordshire were engaged in
digging coprolites. Shillington had a population of about 1800 and this
expanded to 2400 during this period.
It was hard and dangerous work. There were numerous cases of accidents in the works, many fatal. There was also tension between coprolite diggers and locals. Given their higher wages and shorter hours, attempts were made to deter the diggers' frequent use of the public houses and beerhouses that spread like wildfire in the coprolite villages. Shillington boasted 12 pubs at one time.
A coprolite worker would earn about 15s per week as against 9s for an agricultural labourer.
Personal stories exist. Thomas
Harris, named as a ‘coprolite worker’ on his 4th son’s birth certificate,
became a gravedigger (burying rather than extracting, one hopes!). For more
about the Harris family, Shillington and the industry, click on
the link in the panel and scroll about half way down the page.
A party was laid on after the Harvest in 1872 by one of the employers of the time, Lawes Chemical Manure Company for the workers. An extract from Beaver, op.cit.p.98a states ‘On Thursday 10th October 1872 the men engaged on the coprolite works at Shillington (about 500 in number) are given a supper at the Marquis Hill’.
Drinking was a problem and the churches spent much time and effort trying to reduce it. This didn't always have the desired effect. One man took the pledge to give up but was then advised by his doctor to take 'a glass of Porter' to alleviate his rheumatism. He decided to be pain free rather than devout but lost his membership of the congregation!
|However, there were longer term benefits. The world's first agricultural research station at Rothamsted was set up using the profits from the business. It still carries out research today. Manure companies developed and expanded in this area. The Fertiliser Manufacturers Association was made up of many local companies that purchased coprolites.|
|Many farmers and landowners made considerable fortunes from having the deposit raised from their property. Many of the Cambridge Colleges, the Queen, the Church and Charity Commissioners were able to expand their holdings, renovate properties and generally increase their revenue from coprolites. Sandy Lodge, Fulbourn Hospital and the Cambridge Corn Exchange were funded from coprolite revenue. Local churches were renovated during this period, some with monies from having the glebe worked. Many local traders, bankers, brewers, shop retailers and other entrepreneurs catered for and profited from the improved spending power of the diggers|