Prentice started in business in the 1840s as a corn merchant and maltster supplying farmers in the area. By the 1850s he had
recognised the potential of the new artificial chemical manures on the market
and in 1856 invested in a sulphuric acid and superphosphate works at Stowupland, near Stowmarket.
Situated on the railway from
In 1866 his brothers, Eustace and Edward, took over the fertiliser side of the business and were joined shortly afterwards by Manning Prentice,
"...an outstanding chemical scholar who was to prove the mainspring of the future success of the company. He became well known as the inventor of a process for concentrating sulphuric acid in a platinum pan and he also developed a continuous nitric acid still."
('The Early Fertiliser Industry,'Fisons Journal,December 1963)
By January 1870 the Prentice Brothers described themselves as "merchants." They had recognised that the future prospects in the chemical fertiliser industry necessitated expansion of their works. They purchased a 99 year lease on a plot of land known as Claypit Bottoms between the railway and the river. The extensive Great Eastern Chemical Works were erected, supplied by rail with coprolites from Suffolk and Cambridgeshire as well as rock phosphates from overseas. (Suff.R.O. HC 434.8728.227-9; Kelly's Post Office Directory 1873)
Following Edward Prentice's death in 1871 Manning Prentice assumed the bulk of the responsibility running the business. He maintained demand for the coprolites throughout the 1870s but, when cheaper foreign phosphates became available in larger quantities in the late 1870s, purchases of local coprolites were reduced. This was only temporary. The last four years of the 1870s were dominated by heavy rain and poor harvests. Agricultural production fell and, with the introduction of Free Trade, huge quantities of cheap foodstuffs from North and South America flooded the British market. What has been termed the “Agricultural Depression“ set in. Farmers experienced severe distress. Rent reductions were common but some went bankrupt and curtailed farming operations. Demand for "super" fell. There was no point adding to the soil when what it produced wasn't selling. Faced with intense competition from the eighty or so manure manufacturers across the country and a reduction in demand occasioned by this Agricultural Depression the manure business faced considerable financial difficulties. They responded by reducing their purchase of overseas phosphate and lowering their prices for "super."
In the early-1880s the economic situation improved. Demand for local coprolites was revived - mostly by the inland manure manufacturers. It was costly to transport the new rock phosphate from the United States to Stowmarket. As barge and lighter charges were cheaper than rail freight charges, demand for the Cambridgeshire coprolites resumed. Shortly after Eustace Prentice's death in 1884 Manning's first strategy for recovery was to take over one of his competitors, William Colchester's Cambridgeshire business. He had chemical manure works in Harwich, Ipswich and Burwell but had just taken on the post of managing director of the London-based Lawes Chemical Manure Co. His holdings included Mr Ball's Burwell manure works. Manning took on Mr Colchester's son to join Mr Ball where, according to the local directory, they provided, "employment to about 40 persons." (White's Trade Directory 1885)
The same directory made mention of another important company in Stowmarket. Its role in the business must have included supplying Manning Prentice with quite a few of his needs. "Adam & Co. Coprolite Raisers, Stowupland, Stowmarket. Engineers, millwrights, machinists and manufacturers of bone and coprolite mills." (White's Trade Directory 1885) None of this company's records have come to light.
In 1891, using additional capital raised from local agricultural merchants and farmers, Prentice converted the business to a limited company. It is possible he had taken over the Cambridge Manure Company as his new directors had previously been on their board. This expansion included the 1893 take-over of the Norfolk coastal shipping business of Bailey, Sutton and Company of Great Yarmouth. Effectively he controlled the local phosphate supplies, its manufacture, distribution and sale. By this time however, supplies of coprolite had mostly been exhausted and increased labour costs had made the business less profitable. The 1893 Quarries Act included strict controls over all pits deeper than 25 feet so the coprolite industry petered out. The tremendous effort and energy used to build this new company took its toll and Manning died in 1895, succeeded by W. Henry Prentice. ('The Early Fertiliser Industry,' Fisons Journal, December 1963)
After the First World War the business was taken over by Packards & Co., an Ipswich manure company. By this time, Stowmarket's inland location incurred higher transport costs for the imported phosphates thereby reducing their profitability. When it happened is uncertain but Packards were eventually taken over by Fisons. Fisons expanded their manure and agricultural supplies business into Stowmarket and Thetford in Norfolk to use the navigable waterways that appeared in many of the landscapes of Constable for the flourishing trade in foodstuffs from Ipswich to London.
The Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket has a small coprolite grinding stone, which is reputed to have been used in the Prentice's Works.