19th CENTURY COPROLITE DIGGING IN EVERTON, BEDS.
Bernard O'Connor 2000
In the second half of the 19th century hundreds of men, women and children in Everton, Sandy, Potton, Sutton, Wrestlingworth and Gamlingay were engaged in a new type of extractive industry - digging "coprolites" - fossils of an assortment of creatures that lived in the area during Jurassic and Cretaceous times. They were extracted from pits, in places up to five metres deep, where the seam between the sands of the Greensand Ridge and the clay beneath.
WHAT ARE COPROLITES?
Locals thought they were fossilised dinosaur droppings, but whilst some flat-bottomed lumps certainly resemble sun-dried turds, the deposit included the teeth, bones and claws of such dinosaurs as dakosaurus, dinotosaurus, craterosaurus, megalosaurus, scelidosaurus and iguanodon. There were also remains of marine reptiles like ichthyosaurus, pliosaurus and plesiosaurus as well as the bird pterodactyl. There were fossils of shark, whale, crocodile, turtle and a host of marine organisms. The most common was ammonite - a member of the squid family. Land animals including elephant, hippopotamus, bear, horse, tapir, armadillo, hyena and ox were also found in the diggings as well as unrecognisable lumps of inorganic phosphate.
Mr Teall, one of the many visiting geologists to the pits, listed the fossils he had found.
LIST OF INDIGINOUS FOSSILS FROM THE POTTON PHOSPHATIC BED
Waldheimia tamarindus Pecten Robinaldinus
Terebratula Dallasii Trigonia alaeformis
Terebratula praelonga Modiola
Terebratula depressa Modiola aequalis
Rhynchonella latissima Cyprina Sedgwickii
Rhynchonella antidichotama Lucina Vectensis
Rhynchonella sp. Pholadidea Dallasii
Ostraea macroptera Pleurotomaria gigantea
List of derived fossils from the Potton Nodule bed
Buccinum naticoideum Lucina Portlandica
Neritoma sinuosa Sowerbya
Cytherea rugosa Trigonia incurva
Arca Trigonia gibbosa
From Wealden and Purbeck :
Bones, teeth and scales of Iguanadon and Megalosaurus. Water-worn remains of the former reptiles are remarkably abundant, and a splendid collection exists in the Woodwardian Museum. For a description of these see Mr. Seeley's catalogue.
Endogenites erosa is recorded as occuring at Potton by Mr. Brodie.
Fragments of coniferous and cycadaceous woods are also found, and Mr. Carruthers has described in the Geol. Mag. for 1867 a pandaceous fruit taken from these beds.
From the Kimmeridge Clay :
Ammonites biplex Nucula ornata
Ammonites mutabilis Pleurotomariae
Ammonites cordatus Chemnitzia
Numerous teeth and spines of fishes are also found; see Ann.and Mag. of Nat.Hist. 3rd Series vol.xviii., and these may possibly have been derived from the Kimmeridge Clay. Thus we find remains of Gyrodus Pycnodus, Hybodus, Asteracanthus ornatissimus and Sphaerodus gigas. All these are stated by Mr. Walker to occur in the clay at Ely.
From the Coralline Oolite :
From the Oxford Clay:
From Neocomian :
Ammonites Deshayesii Trigonia spinosa
Anclyoceras gigas Littorinae
Miscellaneous derived fossils :
Modiolae Strophodus magnus
Myacites Acrodus strophoides
(Teall,J.J. "The Potton and Wicken Phosphatic Deposits," Sedgwick Prize Essay for 1873, Cambridge 1875 pp.8-10)
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF COPROLITES?
The Greensand Ridge was a coastal area in Cretaceous times about 90 million years ago and many of the dinosaurs that lived in the area were experiencing great stress from the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the time the dinosaurs were at their most massive during Jurassic times oxygen levels were as high as 35% but extensive volcanic activity as the continents drifted apart released vast quantities of carbon dioxide which caused big problems for big creatures. The large dinosaurs' respiratory systems experienced asthma-like problems. They were exhausted having to conserve enough energy to "dash and dine" like crocodiles. Many were probably just too tired for sex! Those dinosaurs that adapted to the changing climatic conditions met their demise in this area following a major rise in sea level about 96 – 94 million years ago. It is thought that asteroid impact caused tidal waves which inundated the south of England with many hundreds of metres of water. The land animals were drowned and their bloated bodies eventually sank to the seabed and accumulated as a vast graveyard. Their fossils built up in a huge bed, in places up to two metres thick, which stretches almost a hundred miles across the Eastern Counties.
WHAT WERE THEY USED FOR?
Whilst many Geology students and professors revelled in the finds, Victorians museum and drawing rooms had their shelves filled with the better specimens of these fossils. But furthering academic research was not the main reason why they were extracted.
Britain's population had doubled in the first half of the 19th century. Many millions lived in towns and cities and there was a huge increased in demand for food. This led agriculturalists to introduce an assortment of innovations. Perhaps one of the most practical was the use of chemical fertilisers. The "coprolites" mined from the base of the Upper and Lower Greensand were their major raw material for the fertiliser business for forty years.
WHERE WERE THE COPROLITES FOUND?
Following the discovery of the coprolite by drainage work on the clay lands around Astwick they started to be exploited in Potton by 1866. The first pit was on Sandy Heath owned by the M.P. Arthur Peel who lived in Sandy Lodge - the present headquarters of the RSPB. Over the next two decades he made a fortune out of royalties from having the coprolite raised. Whether Everton farmers were able to improve their incomes from having the coprolite extracted is not known. No records of any agreements have come to light. It has been said that there were mining operations across much of the Heath, along the Horserace (Long Riding) and along Everton Heath. In which case it was on land belonging to the Astell family of Woodbury Hall. Large quantities of fossils can still be found today in the fields along the top of the ridge. When they were first worked in Everton is uncertain but it is very likely many local men, women and children got employment in the pits.
According to the 1871 census there were only two “agricultural labourers” yet forty-nine were described as “ labourers.” They may well have been coprolite labourers but did not describe themselves as such. The work involved in raising the coprolites was very hard, much harder than ordinary farm work. The labourers, as they used to do on the farms, took their children along to assist them in the digging, barrowing, washing and sorting of the fossils.
CONDITIONS IN THE PITS
Some people were concerned about their exploitation and poor working conditions. In 1866 Rev. J. B. James, rector of Gamlingay, provided fascinating details of these conditions. He wrote to Hon. E. Portman, the commissioner in charge of the government's investigations into child labour.
"The coprolite diggings in our neighbourhood have occupied very many of our boys, many of whom earn at them 8s. and 9s. a week, which is more than the farmers can give them. "
50. Mr. Coulson. - "Girls of 7 years up to 18 years are employed in the coprolite works. The work is taken by the piece; they get a sum per ton for picking over the fossils. A girl of ten years would earn 7s. a week by day work, but much more by piece work. The state of education among them is very low; some can read, hardly any can write. The parents also are very uneducated. This and the adjoining district of Polton [sic] is a gardening tract; children are much employed in large numbers in peeling onions and such like work. I have seen gross cases of immorality and indecency, even among the smaller children, at leisure moments at the coprolite mills when waiting for the carts, and have heard much bad language, which is readily learnt by the young from constantly hearing it round them. The foremen do not check them. The sexes should be separated at the mills, by means of different sheds, or even by separate mills for boys and girls. In one instance the foreman keeps a public house, where the wages are paid, and the men and children are allowed to have as much drink as they like during the week on credit, and the money is deducted on pay night. These children have no time for learning, except in the evening."
46a. "There are three sets of coprolite works, three brickyards and a cement works, which have caused a great increase in population, especially in summer, when many houses are crowded. Coprolite employs a good many men, many of whom are strangers. Coprolite works employ some boys, leading horses.
"Coprolite works and brick fields may be added to the causes given by Mr. Weale for the overcrowding and use of bad cottages in the neighbourhood of Biggleswade."
(Beds. R.O. CRT 160/140 Parliamentary Papers 1867-8 XVII "1st Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and others in Agriculture". pp. 343. 506,518)
Mr. Portman's summary added further details about the work and showed that Mr. Peel had attempted to provide the youngsters with the rudiments of education.
"131. There is in Cambridgeshire much employment for the young of both sexes of the agricultural labouring classes at the coprolite works. These works are increasing in number, the price paid for the right of digging is from £80. to £100. an acre, it being agreed that the land shall be restored to the owner levelled and in a state fit for cultivation. The digging work is done by men and grown lads; boys are employed in wheeling barrows, and children of both sexes in sorting the fossils in the mills. Wages are high, boys can earn 8s. and 9s. a week, and a girl of 10 years of age earns 7s. a week by day work, but more by the piece, the payment for picking over the fossils being usually so much per ton... The state of education among these children is very low, and testimony is given as to the existence of gross immorality and indecency, no care being taken to separate the sexes at the mills. On enquiring in the neighbourhood of Sandy and Potton, and elsewhere, I could not learn that any steps had been taken by the inspectors of factories to bring the provisions of the Workshop Act to bear on this industry, but it is possible that ere this the subject has occupied their attention.
Mr. Peel's school.
132. Peel, M.P., of Sandy, has built a shed conveniently situated for a certain number of these works, which is used for dinner, when hot coffee, &c. are provided at a low price, and for evening school. It is under the superintendence of Mr. Coulson, who reads to them at mealtimes, and gives religious and secular instruction. I attended an evening meeting of these children, when upwards of 80 of both sexes were present, who had been regular attendants at the school and regularly employed at the works, and as far as I could judge from the single opportunity, I feel sure that Mr. Peel and his coadjutor have every reason to be satisfied with the success of their missionary labours among this otherwise neglected population."
A newspaper article from the Bedford Times of 1878 gives fascinating details about all aspects of the industry.
BEDFORDSHIRE COPROLITE DIGGINGS
Around the quiet and quaint old town of Potton, there has been carried on for the last ten years an industry that in many parts of the country is quite unknown. Men have been engaged in digging into the earth for a product, the use and purpose of which is scarcely known to one in ten of those engaged in raising it. In the mist of an October morning, I accompanied some scores of men, women, boys and girls to Sandy Heath, on the estate of Mr. A. W. Peel, M. P. where the fossil pits are situate. The men and boys, mostly carrying shovels and pickaxes, are dressed in corduroy, which, by contact with the sand in which they work, has become a sandy colour
At Deepdale, hillocks of stone, the refuse of coprolites, are seen in the fields. The fossils have all been dug here and the pits are now situate on top of the hill, which is of red sandstone formation. The land from which the coprolites are taken is usually hired by contractors at prices varying from £100 to £400 per acre. The coprolites being taken out and the earth replaced, the land is left in a state for cultivation, and instead of being injured in the process, is, in many cases, improved. So much so that where the digging is being carried on now, crops will be growing luxuriantly.
The refuse stones are sold for road-making and realise about a shilling a load, while the smallest stones, or currants as they are called, are used for gravelling paths. Many thousands of loads have been carted from Deepdale and Sandy Heath during the last few years, and it is estimated that in the parish of Potton some 200 acres of land have been turned over for coprolites, besides a large quantity of land at Sandy Heath, Everton and on the estate of Sir John Burgoyne at Sutton. But the fossils on the sand land are of a softer and inferior nature to those found in clayey deposits. Some specimens [sic] of the remains of the Ichthyosaurus and the Plesiosaurus have been found in the red sandstone formation, while remains of inferior orders of reptiles and mammalia are abundant.
TWO FEET THICK
The coprolite are layers or beds about 18 in. to 2 ft. in thickness and at a depth of 5 to 10 ft. from the surface. The land being cultivated for gardening purposes and the topsoil is carefully removed and placed in heaps. A sort of gully or trench 8 ft. wide is dug out, and the coprolites are wheeled in barrows to another portion of the ground where a cylindrical sieve is fixed for the purpose of freeing them from the sand. This machine, which is worked by horse power, is a round cylinder of sheet iron, perforated with holes of a quarter inch diameter and placed horizontally in a tank of water, the cylinder being half submerged. The drum of the cylinder is two ft. in diameter at the larger end and 1 ft. at the smaller and 10 ft. in length.
The fossils are put in at the larger end, and as the drum revolves the smallest stones and the sand fall through the holes into the water tank, and the larger are carried along by a screw arrangement, and emptied at the smaller end into barrows. When these are filled they are wheeled by men into the sorting sheds where women are engaged in sorting. These sheds, 28 ft. long by 8 ft. wide, have on each side a bench, separated by partitions with room for one woman to work.
The fossils being largely mixed with sandstones, it is necessary that they should be removed before they are ready for market. The fossils in their mixed state, are emptied on the benches and sorted, the stones being thrown onto the floor and the fossils passed through a hole at the back of the benches into a box outside. They are then wheeled into heaps ready for sale.
14 FT. DOWN
The sorting, or picking, of the coprolites is an important part of the process. At the pits upon Sandy Heath, the coprolites are about 14 ft. from the surface, and the vein is about 2 ft. thick. Instead of being, as in most pits, in a loose form, the fossils here resemble a rock of the plum pudding stone, and are so hard a substance that they cannot be broken by a pickaxe.
The method of blasting used in the coal pits has to be resorted to. A hole is drilled through the bed of coprolites, and a charge of 2 lb. of pressed gunpowder is exploded by means of a fuse. This loosens the fossils, and breaks them, partially, from the sandstone. They are then sifted and broken again by a hammer and wheeled to the washing machine, from which they go to the picking sheds. After the first process of picking, the refuse is carried to a heap and burned with slack coal. The fire pulverises the sandstone, and they are sifted, washed and sorted again, the process being repeated until every fossil is removed.
The men engaged in the pits are as good specimens of English labourers as could be found - none of the lazy lookers-out for Saturday night, who care not how little work they do, as long as they get their wages, but strong and hearty workers who work with a will. The work being all piecework, none but those who can and will work would find more than temporary employment here. The occupation, though it must tax the strength and endurance of the men, does not prevent them enjoying their pipe, and when I told one of them that I should have thought the work would have been too severe to permit of smoking, he informed me that it was the greatest comfort he had while at work, unless it might be when he had a “bit for the tooth.” I heard no complaints as to the lowness of their pay, although they never average more than 2s.9d. per day; but my reference to the tobacco brought forth a strong expression of feeling with reference to both that article and beer. One of the number, a most intelligent man, entered into a discussion, which lasted some considerable time, without his once leaving off work. He said the magistrates were very down on any poor chap who had a drop too much beer, and some of them thought the men ought not to have tobacco. “Look here, sir,” said he, “I can’t read nor write, and, after a week’s work like this, I like to go to the public house on Saturday night and hear what’s going on, and if I do get a drop too much it’s the only comfort a poor man has. I don’t mean getting a drop too much is the only comfort, but going into company now and then, and having a pint of beer with his mates.
Now there’s Mr. ---- (alluding to a gentleman residing near); he would not like to be at work all day and go home night after night and sit and watch his wife put the kids to bed. He invites his mates to dinner, and they drink their wine, and I should not wonder if they get tight sometimes, but, if they do, go home in a carriage, and the bobby don’t see them; but I can’t invite my mates to come and see me, for I can’t afford it. If I get tight I have to walk home, and if the policeman sees me I have to go to Biggleswade and pay ten bob for it, and I don’t think that fair.
The operation of sorting the fossils is somewhat interesting and the rapidity with which it is done is marvellous. The stones are always kept wet, while being sorted, and to keep the hands of the sorters warm, a fire-basket is hung at every table. As there are twelve of these baskets in the sorting house, the temperature is always warm.
The girls amuse themselves at work by singing, and the whole vocabulary of melody, from the ‘Old Hundredth’ to ‘Tommy make room for your Uncle,’ is regularly gone through in the course of a day.
BUILT A SCHOOL
When the digging of coprolites first commenced on Mr. A. W. Peel’s land, with thoughtful consideration for the welfare of those engaged in the work, he built a school, and employed a schoolmaster so that during meal-times such instruction as the limited time would permit, should be imparted to all those who cared to avail themselves of it.
Hot coffee is also supplied to the work people, by the person in charge of the room, at 1d. a pint, and there are also books, papers and periodicals. Since the passing of the Education Act, children are not employed, and the services of the schoolmaster have been dispensed with, but a man is always in attendance. The cost of digging, sorting etc. ranges from 30s. to 40s. per ton, and at the pit on Sandy Heath, between 30 and 40 tons are produced weekly.”
(Bedfordshire Times, May 18th 1962. from an original article in 1878)
The four consecutive years of heavy rain at the end of the 1870s made coprolite digging dangerous and increased costs with additional pumping. The import of cheaper phosphate from North America caused prices for local coprolites to plummet. Many pits closed and labourers were laid off. There were no ”labourers” recorded in Everton’s 1881 census.
Some of those laid off during this period may well have found alternative employment in nearby towns or elsewhere but some moved into market gardening. Analysis of the 1891 census returns indicates there was considerable out-migration from Everton, Wrestlingworth, Potton and Sutton whilst Sandy experienced in-migration. Those without employment must have experienced severe financial difficulties. Various attempts were made to alleviate their problems. A Relief Committee was set up which provided one temporary solution.
“SANDY - THE DISTRESS. The Relief Committee have got 35 men on to work to repair the Stratford Road, at fairly remunerative wages. The Speaker, besides giving a subscription is finding the material for the works. William Jeeves is the foreman of the work, and Mr. Edward Barron is the superintendent and paymaster. Appeals for subscriptions have been well responded to.”
(Beds. Mercury 15th January 1887)
The coprolite pits reopened shortly afterwards. Maybe the landowner, Mr Astell of Woodbury Hall, allowed some of his fields to be worked at reduced royalties. Two accidents were recorded in 1889 where the fossils were being worked further towards Everton. Here they were found at increased depth and beneath a hard band of ironstone or iron pan which required blasting.
“POTTON. - During some blasting operations on Thursday at the Coprolite Works on Sandy Heath an accident of a very serious nature happened to a young man named Chinn belonging to this Town, who on looking over the borings to see that the charge had been placed right, received the full force of the explosion in his face and chest, and setting his clothes on fire. He was conveyed to Bedford Hospital. It is feared that his eyesight is completely destroyed and at present but little hopes are entertained of his recovery.”
(Royston Crow 12th July 1889)
Three months later a similar accident was reported in Everton. To the east of Sandy Road, Everton, opposite the drive of chestnut trees, is a shallow depression in what is locally called the “fossil field” or “Money Loser.” (OS.198504) This was the fossil pit where a Mr. Jiggle was in charge of the blasting work. As a result of an accident in the pits he spent the rest of his life helping out in the village shop with a pension of £0.25 a week. This was less than the daily wage of the earlier diggers. (Author’s conversations with Wally Smith, Everton and Blanch Hunt, Sandy, who is Jiggle’s granddaughter.)
“ACCIDENT AT THE SANDY HEATH COPROLITE WORKS - Another accident of a more dangerous nature than the one to a man named Chinn, a short time since, took place at the above works on Saturday last. It appears that a man of the name of Jiggle was engaged in the process of blasting stones, when instead of using the proper wooden “rammer,” which was not handy at the time, the man took either a steel crowbar or a boring instrument to ram in the powder, &c. The steel striking on a stone of course produced sparks which exploded the powder, and blew up into the unfortunate man’s face and body, inflicting fearful injuries. The piece of iron or steel, whichever it was, was blown into the air, and in decending [sic] struck Jiggle in the face, cutting it open from the bridge of his nose downwards, making a horrible gash. He was at once taken to Bedford Infirmary, where he is progressing as well as can be expected, although it is feared that his eyesight is destroyed. We hope that this will be a warning to all those engaged in the process of blasting, not to use steel or iron instruments, but wooden ones for ramming in the powder, &c., and we think that whoever is in charge of the works ought to see that this is enforced, and not let the lives of the workers be endangered by the careless use of steel amongst the flint powder.”
( Potton Hist. Soc.Beds.Times? October 1889, Robarts Scrapbook,
In 1891 two Everton women were employed as “coprolite pickers”, 32-year-old Kate Giggle and 24 year old Kate Roberts. (BCRO. 1891 census) Analysis of the 1901 census returns only revealed one person as involved. 45-year old Amelia Inskip, of Biggleswade Road in Potton was described as a “coprolite sorter.” However, there were numerous general and agricultural labourers who may have been engaged in the diggings. Mr. Richardson of Potton mentioned that his grandfather was the coprolite foreman at that time and lived in 'The Locomotive' Public House in Deepdale.
For more detailed information on this unusual industry read ‘The Dinosaurs on Sandy Heath’. It is out of print but can be obtained from the local libraries.