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After the Hitcham vicar, Rev.John Henslow, discovered what he termed “coprolite” in the cliffs at Felixstow on a visit to the resort in 1842 he recognised that they had agricultural potential in regards to their potential use as a manure. He initially felt they were fossilised dung but subsequent Victorian geologists argued that they were the phosphatised bones, teeth and shells of an assortment of marine life which had accumulated in beds in the warm, shallow sea that covered this area over 100 million years ago. Although there is a reference to these “coprolites” being raised in Bawdsey from as early as 1845, the first worked from the coastal area near Felixstow were about 1847. (Kelly’s Directory, 1873, Woodbridge)


Manure manufacturers found them a useful substitute for animal bones which were having to be imported from the continent by that time. Many of the locals were engaged in extracting hundreds of tons of these fossils from the local red crag. Carts took them down to the side of the estuary where a channel was dug into the bank. A large wooden sieve was placed into the trench and after the fossils had been emptied into it, they were washed clean from the surrounding clay. They were then shovelled  into barrows and wheeled up a plank and emptied into the holds of shallow-bottomed  lighters. These then took the cargo down the coast to London or up the Orwell to Ipswich.


In manure factories they were ground and then mixed with sulphuric acid to produce superphosphate of lime, a cheap and effective artificial manure. It was not long before the extent of the deposit was determined and the “diggings” spread up the the coast towards the Deben estuary. Two Bawdsey men contacted the trustees of Boyton Charity in July 1850 with the prospect of raising them from one of the farms there. One was Francis Robinson and the other was the landlord of “The Stars Inn,” Edward Ransby. They did not get the contract. It was won by Edward Packard, one of Ipswich’s manure manufacturers, who was prepared to pay them £1.50 for every ton at the dock.


Although there was no mention of coprolite or fossil diggers in the 1851 census they may have been worked by the time it was taken as it was generally a winter job for the tenant farmers’ labourers. They reverted to farmwork during the busy season when the census was taken and would probably not have described themselves as “agricultural” rather than “fossil” or “coprolite diggers.”


As Felixstow at that time was one of the many popular Victorian seaside “resorts” it attracted numerous visitors. One of whom in 1854 was an eccentric Cambridge fellow who called himself  Humble Gumble.” He must have gone for a walk along the coast past Felixstow Marshes and after his trip recorded that,


When you approach the Deben the cliffs disappear; and by the side of the river you will see a large extent of salt-marsh, which is not very ornamental. By the side of the river stands a bunch of houses, which appears to take its name from the Ferry, it is called Bawdsey Ferry; the people inhabiting them are very poor, subsisting chiefly on lobsters and coprolites. In the summer they also pick up a little money by letting their boats and taking Felixstowe people for a quiet toss after dinner “with the blue above and the blue below”... In the winter their abode must be rather trying; one of the ferrymen told me that they were frequently disturbed in the winter nights by the summons of ships in distress.”


(Humble Gumble (Hervey Goodwin),(1854) ‘Letters from Felixstowe’.)


The discovery of these fossils would have provided the cottagers with a welcome extra source of income but it appeared it did not particularly improve their standard of living. Those who owned their own property under which the fossils were found would have profitted from selling them but generally it was the large landowners who made small fortunes from having them raised from their estates. They engaged their farm labourers to dig them out and wash them.


Those crossing the estuary by ferry would almost certainly have been aware of the business, especially when they went to “The Ferry Boat Inn,” seen in the photograph below, which must have had its trade increased by the thirsty “diggers.”


It would not have been long before the deposit on the Bawdsey side of the river was exploited. Landowners were keen to capitalise on the deposit on their land but who else was responsible in Bawdsey remains uncertain. No other records have emerged. The earliest documentary evidence for the coprolites being sold in Bawdsey was in 1855. Edward Packard, one of two Ipswich manure manufacturers at that time, made his first purchase in August of 95 tons which were loaded onto the lighter, “Duckle.” They were then shipped up the Orwell to his new chemical manure works at Bramford. From which farm they were raised was not specified but demand by that time was very high. Mr. Ransby was very much involved at this time, purchasing Boyton coprolites at up to £3.00 a ton! Whether this was Edward was not specified but a George Ransby was landlord of the Star Inn in 1877. (Prestwich, Quart.Journ. Geol. Soc. vol.xxvii,p.337;  Kelly’s Directory,1877; SCRO. HC.434.8728.310a; Boyton Charities.)


Although the trade was predominantly for artificial manure, according to the local historian, Allan Jobson, they had another use.


 ...vast quantities were collected by a perfect flotilla of little boats, taken to Harwich to be shipped to London to be made into Palmer’s Roman Cement.”

(Jobson, Allan, (1967) ‘In Suffolk’s Border’)


No other evidence confirms this. It appears there was a confusion with septaria. These were nodules of clay which were excavated off the shoreline and were used in the manufacture of “Roman” cement. In fact, White’s history of the county revealed that they also had another little acknowledged use.


“Coprolite is a valuable mineral extensively used as manure and in the finer sets of earthenware. It was mostly found near springs of crystal water, surrounded by crag, which abounded in fossils of the antediluvian world, including relics of enormous fish and animals mostly now extinct.”


(White’s History of Suffolk,1855)


The fine earthenware is Coade, a stone used for high quality garden statuary. Examples of  it can still be found in some of the antique shops in the area but the best are reported as being in the graveyard at Saffron Walden.


When the trade directory was published in 1855 it revealed just how far the industry had extended.


Immense quantities of COPROLITE are got in all parishes on or near the coast from Bawdsey Haven to Boyton. It is a valuable mineral, and is extensively used as manure and in the finer sorts of earthenware, and thousands of tons of it are now shipped yearly from the Deben to various parts of the kingdom, and great quantities of it are burnt and used as manure by the Suffolk farmers. Its name coprolite, or dung-stone, is expressive of its fertilising qualities which were first discovered in 1718. by Mr. Edmund Edwards, a farmer of Levington. Veins and ridges of it are found and got at various depths from two to twenty feet, and as much as 20 worth has been got out of a cottagers’ garden. It is mostly found near springs of crystal water, surrounded by crag and abounding in fossils of the antediluvian world; including relics of enormous species of fish, animals and shells, most of which are now extinct. When thrown up, it is carefully sorted, washed through sieves, and laid in heaps, ready for carting. It gives employment to many hundred hands; gangs of 20 to 25 men, women, and children, being daily at work in many parts of the district between Bawdsey, Boyton and Woodbridge. Gold stones, used in the manufacture of copperas and sulphuric acid; and immense quantities of septaria or cement stones, are collected by numerous boatmen employed in dredging for them along the coast from Harwich to Orford Ness.”


(White’s Suffolk Directory 1855)


There was a similar description in other directories, which was repeated in the two subsequent directories, “There are large strata of coprolites, and the cliffs are celebrated for geological and fossil remains.” (Kelly’s and Harrods Co. Directory 1858, 1873, 1877, 1883) By 1858 the parish was listed as one of nine in Suffolk that were raising them. (Mem.Geol.Surv. Mineral Statistics, HMSO. 1860, p.375)


The diggings was very much a labour intensive industry, employing large numbers in the workings. Further evidence of  Lord Rendlesham’s involvement was when he allowed his tenant, Thomas Easterson, to raise them from his fields in Bawdsey. Although they may well have been worked earlier, the records show they were worked between 1857 - 60. It seemed to be predominantly work done over the winter and during 1857-8 200 tons were raised with labour costs of £1.00 a ton. Out of this Easterson had to pay income tax of £3.25. As they were sold to William Colchester, a manure manufacturer who had works in Harwich and Ipswich, at £2.50 shillings a ton, there was a profit of almost £300, the value of a small estate!


Over the following winter, perhaps because of bad weather, the records show that only 12 tons were raised and despite similar labour costs, prices had dropped to £2.00, a problem repeated the following year when they fell to £1.50 a ton. A “New Buin (sic) for depositing coprolite” had ben bought which presumably was for washing the fossils but in 1860, when the records ceased, 143 tons were raised. (SCRO. HB416/F.2 pp.13, 31, 63, 91, 127, 153)


There were no records of anyone being involved in the 1861 census but geological literature confirmed the workings were still going on during the 1860s. (Lankester,R. (1865), ‘Mammalian Fossils of the Red Crag,‘ Q.J.G.S., p.226) It must have been mostly winter work as in 1866, a visiting geologist’s account of his trip to the area recorded how,


Near Bawsdey Ferry we noticed in front of the cottage-doors small heaps of the dark-brown, shining, water-worn pebbles called “coprolites,” which ten years ago created an extensive trade here, and the preparation of which for artificial manure gave employment to numbers of peasantry.”


(Woodward,H, (1866), ‘An Excursion to the Crag District’, Intell.Observer,vol.8, p.37)


From this evidence it suggests the industry had all but ceased but the demand for them must have been high enough in the 1870s for them to be extracted again at greater depths. (Armstrong, P. ‘The Changing Landscape,’ p.106) There was a detailed account in 1874 in the local trade directory.


“Immense quantities of coprolite, fossilized excreta and bones of antediluvian animals, chiefly marine, are got in all the parishes on or near the coast from Bawdsey to Boyton. It has fetched upwards of £3 a ton, and is used as manure and in the manufacture of fine earthenware etc. Thousands of tons of it are shipped yearly from the Deben to various parts of the Kingdom. Its fertilising properties are procured by trituration and treatment with sulphuric acid. Veins of it at various depths from two to twenty feet and thousands of pounds worth have been got out of a single small field. It is mostly found near springs of water, and the starta of the Suffolk Crag, chalk, etc. are very interesting. When dug up, it is carefully sorted, washed through sieves, and laid in heaps for carting. It employs hundreds of men, women and children daily between Bawdsey and Woodbridge. The parish is rich in antediluvian shells and fossils, numerous in the crag deposits, copperas used in the manufacture of sulphuric acid; and cement stones along the coast.”


(White’s Suffolk Directory,1874)


After having been washed and sorted the coprolites would have been loaded onto barges down on the shore and taken to manure manufactories for conversion into superphosphate but there were occasions when, to save money, local farmers simply burnt them and applied them untreated to their land. The “celebrated” cliffs had attracted many geologists in their search for fossils and one recorded:-


I believe that the nodule bed has been worked just SE of Manor House, Bawdsey and in 1874, there was a small working in a field about a third of a mile SW of the church. At the spot where the bed was shown it was about three feet down, and capped by Shelly Crag.”


 (Whitaker, ‘Geology of Ipswich Etc.’,1885, p.69.)


Although they did not mention their involvement in the industry, it would appear that many of the farmers advertising in 1874 would have profited from the trade. These included Edward Cavall at Bawdsey Hall, William Gobitt at the Red House, Samuel Gross of the Manor House and William Turner of High House. It would also seem likely that Mr. Ransby would have acted as the middle man, purchasing the coprolite and then selling them on to the manufacturers. (White’s Directory,1874, 1877)


There were further references in the trade directories to the workings in the 1880s but these must have been on a much reduced scale, partly due to exhaustion of the beds but mainly due to imports of cheaper, foreign phosphates which were eventually to be the death of the “diggings.” (White’s Directory 1885, see author’s account of Alderton) Over the thirty or so years the industry lasted in the area the diggings would have been a welcome addition to the labourers’ wages and provided more than “subsistence” employment to those involved. Landowners would have benefitted the most, realising many hundreds of pounds and possibly the cause of new buildings being erected in the parish and expansion of landholdings.