Bernard O'Connor 2000

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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. 




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.





   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


From Portlandian:

   Buccinum naticoideum               Lucina Portlandica

   Neritoma sinuosa                                  Sowerbya

   Cytherea rugosa                                    Trigonia incurva

   Arca                                         Trigonia gibbosa

   Cardium dissimile

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

   Cardium striatulum


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 :


   Rhynochonella varians

From the Oxford Clay:

   Gryphaea dilatata

   Ammonites Lamberti

From Neocomian :

   Ammonites Deshayesii               Trigonia spinosa

   Anclyoceras gigas                                 Littorinae

   Thetis minor

Miscellaneous derived fossils :

   Belemnites                                            Lepidotus

   Modiolae                                              Strophodus magnus

   Myacites                                               Acrodus strophoides

   Lima                                                     Plesiosaurs

   Cyprina                                     Pliosaurus

   Pholodomya                                           Dakosaurus

   Turreted univalves


(Teall,J.J. "The Potton and Wicken Phosphatic Deposits," Sedgwick Prize Essay for 1873, Cambridge 1875 pp.8-10)




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.




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.




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. 




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."               


 (Ibid. p.108)



A newspaper article from the Bedford Times of 1878 gives fascinating details about all aspects of the industry.




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.           


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.  


 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.  


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.


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