Journal Article

August 2010

The Coprolite Diggings

Avril Emery

Those of you who have been members for some time will remember that we have previously looked into the Coprolite Industry. This digging for fossilised deposits that were rich in phosphates absolutely exploded in the Eastern Counties in the mid to late 19th Century. These deposits were found in the Cambridge Greensand and contained the droppings of, and fossilised remains of, the creatures living in the seas and coastal plains of Britain in the Cretaceous period. Our part of the World was particularly rich in the Greensand and vast numbers of the villagers in our area forsook working the land to become coprolite diggers. In my own village of particular interest, Croydon-cum-Clopton, the 1871 census shows 36 men working as coprolite diggers.

We have previously gone into much greater detail on the subject but this is no longer necessary because a local historian, Mr Bernard O’Connor, has made it his business to become a world wide expert on the subject. You will find an awe inspiring amount of detail on his web site <http://bernardoconnor.org.uk/Coprolites> This is Mr O’Connor's livelihood so you do have to pay to receive the information but it is available village by village so there is no need to pay for what you don't need. To show you what an enormous "deal" it was at the time the revenue received by the colleges of Cambridge University, as the landowners, totalled £143,377 for the years of 1859 -1880 approx. Trinity, with land in Barrington, Orwell, Haslingfield, Shillington and Trumpington raked in £45,150 and Christ's with land at Orwell and Whaddon, £32,000. Those were the major players with the others receiving amounts between £21,171 (St John's) and £100+, Gonville and Caius.

My thanks are due to Howard King in Ipswich for telling me about Bernard O’Connor's website and also for the following :-

Just up the road from us at Ipswich, in a little place called Waldringfield the Victorians dug up 1000's of tons of the stuff. A factory was set up on Ipswich Docks to process it, in a street still (despite all the current re-development) called Coprolite Street. The first factory was very big at that time, requiring Royal Assent through Parliament to be able to build it.

The first owner was a Mr Packard who made "loads a money" which attracted other investors including a certain Mr Fison, who also made lots. More recently Fisons Research labs were just up the road from us at Levington, hence Levington Compost. We have lumps of Coprolite and a nice display in Ipswich Museum and the kids are fascinated when I describe some of it as "fossilised Dinosaur Poo". (Howard works at the Museum from time to time. Ed)

It is interesting that Mr Fison built some premises in the Ipswich area. He obviously did VERY well out of coprolites because he also built the huge plant at Harston which dominated the local economy for many years. It was still under the name of Fisons until quite recently, within the last twenty years I would guess. Since then it has been taken over several times and within the last two years the site has been totally demolished.

Any of you with ancestors among the labourers of South Cambridgeshire in the mid 1800's are almost certain to have a coprolite digger amongst them and it is always very satisfying to put some flesh on their bones, isn't it?

I am now delighted to be able to report that Bernard O'Connor has accepted our invitation to come and talk to us about this subject. He is booked for May 16th next year. Whatever you do don't miss him!

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Royston and District Family History Society

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