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The Coprolite Industry - a vanished industry

During the 19th century the population of Britain increased from 7 million to 21 million. To feed all these extra people British agriculture tried many things as fertiliser including, soot, bones, ashes, dung, malt dust to increase the productivity of the soil. The most effective fertiliser was guano, bird droppings, from South America but it was expensive at £12 per ton.

It was discovered that a cheaper alternative could be made from phosphate nodules dug from the Cambridgeshire Greensand. These nodules were called coprolites and are the remains of fossils which had been eroded out of older rocks and redeposited in the sand.
Vast fortunes were made by landowners which included the colleges of Cambridge University.

During the 1870s it was discovered that coprolites could be dug from the gault clay of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire and this happened in the parishes of Barton-le-Clay, Stanbridge, Billington, Eggington, Edlesborough, Slapton, Ivinghoe and Cheddington.

Contractors would pay the landowner for permission to remove the coprolites. This was done by removing the clay down to the coprolite layer. The coprolites were then removed and washed before being sent by barge to Wolverhampton where they were reacted with sulphuric acid to produce a fertilizer called "superphosphate". This was sold for £6.50 per ton. As well as paying the owner for use of the land the contractors paid the owner an amount for each hundredweight of coprolite raised. In addition the tenant was compensated for loss of crop. The diggers were paid between 70p and £2 per week.

pitThe photograph shows the coprolite pit at Great Brickhill. The man standing in the background could be the manager, Henry Wilkerson. Copyright Barry Horne scaleThe photograph in colour of 7 coprolites by Barry Horne, his Copyright

Many acres of the countryside were dug over. A major landowner in the area was Earl Brownlow who lived at Ashridge. He made over £10,000 from the diggings on his land. A number of the agreements he made with the coprolite contractors survive and we can see from the clauses in them that he was very environmentally minded. He took steps to try to ensure that local people were employed to dig and cart the coprolite. The contractors had to ensure that too much water was not taken from streams and that polluted water was not put back into the streams. The land had to be returned back to productive use within a stated period of time.

In 1873 it was discovered that coprolite could be extracted from the sands of Great Brickhill. In this case the coprolites were spread throughout the sand and were not restricted to a layer as in the Gault clay.

These coprolites were also sent by canal to the fertilizer factory at Wolverhampton.
The digging of coprolite in this country became uneconomic towards the end of the 19th century when large deposits of coprolite were found in the Carolinas in the United States. These coprolites were very cheap and were processed at a factory on the coast of South Wales.

Today there is very little to see of the industry.

Bernard O'Connor, 1990; The Coprolite Industry in Buckinghamshire, Records of Buckinghamshire
Barry Horne, 2001; Billington, Bedfordshire and coprolite, Manshead Journal

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