The line of low hills to the south of the village was once an ancient reef made up of shelly Coralline Crag at the base of which was a seam of phosphatised nodules, known locally as "coprolites“. They were thought to be the fossilised droppings of dinosaurs that naturally attracted the interest of a number of interested Victorian geologists. They began to be raised on a large scale in this area of Suffolk from the mid-1840s as they were much in demand by manure manufacturers. By dissolving them in sulphuric acid, it resulted in superphosphate, a valuable artificial fertiliser.
Sometime around 1845 it seemed the workings had started nearby as a visiting geologist commented,
"Near Ramsholt Creek, Sutton, as in other parts of the Suffolk Crag large quantities of fossil teeth, bone and coprolitic substances are found. These are rich in phosphate of lime and are now collected for agricultural purposes. They are found mixed with sand and gravel from 2 - 4 feet below the surface and about 300 tons had been procured from about a rood of ground which had been turned up."
(Wiggins, John F.G.S. Quart.Journ.Geol.Soc.vol.iv, p.294)
Yields of 1,200 tons an acre would have meant an enormous fortune for the landowner, especially when labour costs ranged between £0.40 to £0.50 a ton and the fossils could be sold to manure manufacturers at prices up to £3 per ton. According to several sources, this pit was most likely on the estate of Thomas Waller, who lived in Sutton Hall. (Wood, S.V., (1858) 'Fossils of the Red Crag,' Journ.Geol.Soc.,pp.40-1) Although there is a suggestion Mr. Waller was still involved in 1850, the census taken the following year only showed him as a "Farmer of 560 acres employing 26 labourers." Digging fossils was a labourer's work and many did not describe themselves as "coprolite" or "fossil" labourers.
There have been no documents to shed light on Waller's involvement during the 1850s but it seemed he must have done very well for himself. By 1861, aged 61, he was described as living at "Sutton Hall, Owner and farmer of 800 acres employing 38 men and 15 boys." However, the census noted that 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." (1861 census vol.1,p.353) This was the explanation in the census for the village's decline in population since 1851 but there were still deposits to exploit.
In W.G Arnott's description of the estuary it was mentioned that Stonner Point, on Waller's estate, had been used as a landing place throughout the period of human settlement in the area.
"Quite a large settlement formerly existed round the Green at the back of the Point and it was a busy part of the parish when the coprolite industry was in full swing during the 19th century. Stonner Quay was built by Thomas Waller of Sutton Hall about 1850 for the purpose of shipping coprolite when the old barge channel was deepened. Coprolite, which is fossilised animal dung, was used as a fertiliser for the land and was dug in large quantities all over the neighbourhood and particularly at Ham Woods. It fetched about £3 a ton and thousands of tons were shipped annually from the Debenside quays to all parts of the kingdom. The industry gave employment to hundreds of men, women and children between Bawdsey and Woodbridge, and there were men living in Waldringfield now who were earning 6d. a day "coproliting" and sleeping on benches in the bar of the Maybush Inn on a Saturday night because they were too tired to go home."
(W.G. Arnott, (1950), 'Suffolk Estuary', p.107)
The digging was very much a labour intensive industry covering much of southeast Suffolk and the fortunes it brought in to the landowners have been described as enormous. Another large farmer at that time was Henry Edwards who employed 30 labourers on his 1,000 acres. Whether any of them left to work the coprolites or whether he had them extracted on his land is uncertain but there were many cases of farmers having to increase farm wages to ensure the landwork was done. (Suff.R.O. FC47.A1/1) A William Ely, was recorded as a "coprolite miner" in the 1861 census and evidence shows he bought "irons, rivets and sives" from the Boyton blacksmith. (Strong, Brian, 'The Accounts of a Suffolk Village Blacksmith 1859 - 1881', Journal of the Tool and Trades History Society p.55)
As no records of leases have come to light, it would appear that the landowners arranged to have them worked without any need for much paperwork and arranged for them to be sent on to the manure works in Ipswich and elsewhere. Interestingly several geological papers appeared in the mid-1860's after the discovery of what appeared to be the ends of some animal's tusks. (Lankester,E.'Mammalian Fossils of the Red Crag,'Q.J.G.S.,(1865),pp.221-32; Prestwich,J. 'Structure of Crag Beds,'Q.J.G.S., (1868), p.460
By 1871 Mr. Waller had expanded his holdings and become a leading figure in the parish. Aged 70 he was described as a "Landowner and Occupier of 1025 acres employing 70 men and 17 boys." Again none of the locals termed themselves coprolite or fossil labourers so one is left uncertain as to how many were involved. About this time one of the largest exporters of coprolite in the district, William Colchester, had become very much involved. Although no documentation has emerged it seemed as though he had a lease from Waller or another landowner, whereby, for a number of years, his manager was allowed to work the land and raise the phosphates at the same time.
(Prestwich,J. (1871), 'Structure of Crag Beds,'Q.J.G.S.,p.116, read 1868)
Mr. Colchester and his son made a valuable collection of fossils from the pit including bones from mastadon, rhinoceros, deer, cetaceous whale, and other skulls, bones and vertebra. They were noted as being generous in giving samples to visiting geologists. This naturally attracted the attention of a group from the British Museum who visited several pits on the estate.
"Leaving the river, we ascended the hill towards Mr. Colchester's farm at Sutton. We saw the first large accumulation at the entrance to a field, probably 220 tons; we picked up a water-worn tooth of the great shark Carcharadon, and another of Lamna, but no good examples of coprolites, although some pieces showed the twisted form slightly. On enquiring for Mr. Wood (Mr Colchester's steward), he soon appeared, and was most obliging and attentive to us throughout. He amused us by pulling from his pocket a handful of shark's teeth, two fossil crabs, and a very fine corkscrew coprolite, the best specimen I ever remember to have seen. These he presented to us."
(Woodward, H. (1866), 'An Excursion to the Crag District,' Intell. Observer,vol.8,p.39)
Mr. Woodward pointed out for the benefit of prospective entrepreneurs who might be interested in venturing into the industry, that each operation was not always successful. He confirmed Prestwich's point that Mr Colchester had arranged to have a pit opened up on the south side of the hill but when it proved unremunerative it was filled up one or two years later and the ground levelled between 1861-2. A lot of the rubble from these pits was used to reinforce the sea walls along the banks of the river. (Whitaker, W. Proc.Geol.Soc.,vol.v.)
In Mr Whitaker's account of the geology of the area, a section of the workings was taken in 1868. Seen on page .. it clearly shows five pits around what was termed Crag Hill. (Whitaker, (1885), 'Geology of Ipswich Etc.' Mem.Geol.Surv. pp.67-9.) The financial success of other of these workings, in terms of labour for the diggers and carters, and royalties for the landowners and compensation to tenants for land out of cultivation, would have certainly stimulated the local economy. It encouraged nearby landowners to allow the bed to be worked on their land. The tenant of Pettistree Hall had the deposit on their land raised. In 1871another geologist, Mr. Prestwich, referred to a working on the slight rise to the south of Pettistree Hall, close to the Deben. Here the nodule bed was excavated to a depth of 22 feet (8.1m.). (Prestwich, (1871), Quart.Journ.Geol.Soc. vol.xxvii., pp.116-8)
The trade directory for 1874, in its description of included the comment, "Large quantities of coprolites are found in this parish," and also gave some clues as to who else might have been involved. Waller by this time had become the Lord of the Manor with Charles Austin, Lord of the Manor for Fen Hall. Other landowners possibly involved were Lord Rendlesham, who had the coprolites raised from his estates in Boyton, Butley, Bawdsey, Capel St. Andrew and Ramsholt in the late 1850s, W.T. Phillips, Horace Weston, R. V. Edwards and C. Walker. The one most likely involved, however, was Charles Girling who was described as Farmer and Manure Agent of Pettistree Hall. (White's Directory,1874)
By 1876 Thomas Waller, his son or relative of the same name, took over the tenancy of Church Farm across the river in Waldringfield and the Waller family continued the coprolite diggings there until the mid-1890s. Whether he left sons to continue the work in Sutton was again unclear but this was certainly the "boom" period for the industry. It would appear likely that any worthwhile deposits would have been exploited at least until 1879 when the import of cheaper foreign phosphate brought prices tumbling.
In Whitaker's account of the geology of the area, published in the mid 1880s, it was stated that,
"Much of the ground between Nettle Hill Cliff and Sutton Hall has been found productive of phosphate, and some of the abandoned pits are still open."
(Whitaker, 'Geology of Ipswich Etc.' Mem.Geol.Surv.(1885) pp.67-9.)
The contractors were often unable to afford to continue when the fall in prices made it uneconomic. Sections of several of these pits, including Bullock Yard pit on the north side of the hill, just south east of the Hall can be seen on page ..
The 1881 census gave no indication of the work except that 59 year old Robert Long who had been born in Sutton, was described as a coprolite raiser living on the Main Road, Hollesley. It appeared however, that there was a slight revival a few years later, as in 1883, by which time Colchester's lease would likely have expired, the trade directory mentioned, "Thomas Waller occupied the Sutton Hall Estate where two urns were dug up a few years ago, which contained copper coins of the reign of Constantine." (Kelly's 1883; White's 1885) Although the map reported them having being unearthed in 1870 (GR.30624514) the archaeological records omitted the date stating that,
"two coin hoards were unearthed by the coprolite diggers during the diggings and they included nearly a bushel of mainly Constantian bronze and copper coins from c.330 AD. buried in a Saxon urn. Ten of them were donated to the Ipswich Museum."
Coprolite prices rose slightly in the 1880s, but not to the heights they had reached in the 1870's when up to £3.00 per ton was being paid. Just over £2.00 was paid which resulted in contractors laying men off and paying lower wages to maintain their profits.
The 1890 map showed several crag pits which may well have been where the coprolite was worked and these were about half a mile northwest of Newshill Barn and almost half a mile south south east of Broxted House, opposite the Oakhill Plantation. (Suff.77NW) According to the local trade directory in 1892 there must have been a slight revival both here and Waldringfield as it included that, "The parish is rich in antediluvian shells and fossils, numerous in the crag pits. There are also extensive diggings of coprolites." (Kelly's Directory 1892) The decline of the industry was explained well by W.G. Arnott.
"With the advent of new kinds of fertilisers and quicker means of transport by the railways, the industry waned and with it, the barge traffic up and down the river, and it finally died out about 1895."
(Arnott, W.G. 'Suffolk Estuary', p.107)