There were fossils found in the soils at Newbourn that had attracted the attention of geologists as early as 1840. When the "coprolites," or what the Victorian geologists preferred to term phosphatic nodules, were first worked in this parish is uncertain. The first references to fossil diggings are around 1856. William Colchester, the Ipswich manure manufacturer, was purchasing fossils from Newbourn but none of his leases have emerged to shed any light on it. (Lyell, C. (1847?) Ann.Mag.Nat.Hist. vol.iv,p.186; Owen,Q.J.G.S.vol.xii,1856,p.217)
Where the deposit was found over a large area the landowner sometimes arranged for it to be dug out throughout the year but in many cases it tended to be a winter occupation, once the labourers had finished the farm work and before they were needed in spring. In 1861 the census showed only three people involved. Describing themselves as "coprolite miners" were 20 year old John Geggins and Henry Goodall. Both were lodgers. With 15 year old John Farrow, also born outside the parish, it suggests the three of them had been attracted to Newbourn by the possibility of work. No farmers gave any indication that they were involved but that is not to say that they weren't. Many employed their labourers to raise them and the work was described by many as agricultural labour or simply labour.
the early days of the diggings, where the farmer was responsible for the work,
they paid a royalty for every ton raised to the landowner and then sold them
directly to the manure manufacturers, like
A note in the 1861 census indicates the industry had declined, not because the seam had been exhausted, but because many diggers had migrated to workings in Cambridgeshire, "where more available deposits have been discovered." (Suff.R.O. 1861 census vol.1,p.353) The likes of Messrs. Colchester, Packard and Fison expanded their operations in the neighbouring county when a better quality deposit was found there. This out-migration was given as the explanation for the village's decline in population since 1851 and may well explain why there were no records of the diggings during the 1860s.
Whilst there were certainly workings in the 1870s there was again no indication of any one involved in the 1871 census. The 37 year old Horace Walton, of the Hall, described himself as "Farmer of 851 acres employing 23 men and 13 boys." Subsequent evidence shows that he had these labourers work the coprolite pits on his land. In 1873 the local trade directory mentioned that, "Coprolites are found here in considerable quantities among the marine deposits." Another farmer who may have had his labourers work the coprolites was John Hunt, He advertised at the time but no records of agreements with contractors have come to light. Perhaps the papers of Sir C. R. Rowley, the lord of the manor, may show something of the industry's development. (Kelly's Trade Directory 1873)
Although there was no reference to anyone being involved in the 1881 census the 1885 Post Office directory in its account of the parish included that, "Coprolites have for the last ten years been raised in this parish by Mr. Horace Walton of Newbourn Hall." (Kelly's Post Office Directory 1885) Maybe Sir C.R. Rowley was also involved, allowing his tenant or tenants the right to raise them with them paying him a royalty per ton.
The geologist, Mr. Whitaker, in a report published in 1885, confirmed the Waltons' involvement. He described a valley running through the wood, about a quarter of a mile northwest of Newbourn. The stream had a few springs on its eastern side that had cut deep into shelly Crag. Here the phosphatic nodules were exposed and it was a simple matter of digging them out of the hillside and transporting them to be washed in the river before sending them by barge on to Ipswich. There was a reference to a large Crag pit 40 feet deep, marked on the 1891 OS map nearly a quarter of a mile northeast of the church and just northeast of Brook Cottage. At its base the "coprolites" were found and, in a long cutting in the stackyard at the farm, about a quarter of a mile east of the church, the nodules were also found at the base of the Crag. (Whitaker, (1885), 'Geology of Ipswich Etc.' pp.63-4; Suff. 76SE)
In the 1920s the local historian, Walter Tye, in his research into the coprolite industry, talked to a Mr. Ford of Newbourn. He was supplied with a lot of tales that have helped shed more light onto the social impact of the diggings on the local economy. He mentioned the Waltons of Newbourn who had coprolite pits on their farm. One of their largest workings was known as 'Newbourn Sink' that had a spring rushing out at the foot of the Crag.
"From all accounts the men who worked in the pits were hefty and big, as most men were who lived in the Colneis and Carlford hundreds. Elderly people in this locality today (1930s) still talk about the Pages, Fosters and Stebbings, all men of big stature and strength. Who has not heard of Page, the Newbourn Giant, who left his native village to exhibit himself in shows all over the country?... It is said that Wainwright's carters at Foxhall often had to do two journeys a day to the docks (with their tumbrils full of coprolite) and that in addition to loading and unloading. What with the soft sandy roads, steep hills and slow moving tumbrils, those patient carters must have worked from sunrise to sunset. Places like Newbourn, Waldringfield and Hemley took full advantage of barges on the river.
In those days barges were always coming and going, bringing in manure and cattle food from London, and taking away coprolite, farm produce and cement. Old inhabitants say that hardly a week went by but what Fred Strange in his 'Victoria,' or Stebbings in the 'Kingfisher' or Fred Ducker in the 'Three Sisters' were seen making their way down the Deben.
Then, of course, there was Jimmy Quantrill and his 'Azarias' then operating from Pin Mill, who was frequently seen in local waters, bringing back a load of 'eye powder' from Dunkirk to grind in with artificial manures... When loading from the Quayside, all work in the pit had to stop, for every available man and boy were required for the job. It was indeed a busy day, for 100 tons of coprolite had to be moved between morning and night. Boys did the 'felling' and men the running. To avoid stoppages, 'two-way' gangplanks were laid from beach to barge. The coprolite was shovelled into tins, each weighing one hundredweight when full. And so for all day long, except for a short break at noon, the boys were 'felling', while the men were running up and down the gang plank with their wheelbarrows.
Fortunately for the coproliters, they never knew what it was like to go short of sustaining food. They, like local farm workers, usually had two pigs in the sty and a few hens in the backyard. Then they nearly all brewed their own beer, costing them about halfpenny a pint. The Dutch cheese, too, costing about sixpence, was a good standby when working far from home. So the housewife those days could easily make up a mid-day meal of salt pork, cheese, pickled onions, and good home-made bread. And these could be washed down with pints of good home brewed."
(Tye, Walter (1930), 'Birth of Fertilizer Industry', Fisons Journal, pp.3-9.)
The Waltons must have profited considerably from the business when it was in its heyday, given that they could sell a ton of the nodules at between £2.00 - £3.00 a ton. They "continued working them until the early nineties, when the industry petered out." The import of cheap foreign phosphate supplies from North Africa and the East coast of the United States reduced the manure manufacturers' demand for coprolites. Other factors were the exhaustion of the coprolite seams and the increasingly deeper pits. In 1893 the Quarries Act stipulated that all pits over 25 feet had to have greater safety precautions. As these would have incurred additional costs the men responsible called a halt to the work.
The diggings were responsible for quite a boost to the village's economy at a time when most rural communities were experiencing the difficulties of the agricultural depression.