The Coprolites

Commercial interest had been roused in the 1840s by the discovery of fossilised remains at the base of outcrops of shelly crag along the coastline of Essex and Suffolk. A distinguished chemist, Professor John Stevens Henslow had found the fossilised remains of aquatic animals in the cliffs at Felixstowe Ferry in 1845 on which his experiments produced phosphoric acid. Bones had long been known as a source of phosphates for agricultural fertilisers and these phosphatic nodules were quickly recognised as an alternative artificial fertiliser. They were known as coprolites (from the Greek j oo q os or dung, and k i h os or stone) in the mistaken belief that they were fossilised animal excrement. Large coprolite deposits were also found in the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire gault and greensand but it appears that they may have been first exploited in the Suffolk crag. The Cambridgeshire deposits led to a coprolite mining "rush" and some agricultural land values rose as speculators moved in.

John Crabtree, then Clerk to the Mary Warner Trustees, recorded in his notebook:

"Ju1y 29 1850 - Messrs Edward Ransby of the Star Inn, Bawdsey and Mr Francis Robinson of Bawdsey called about coprolites on John May's farm; agreed to let Ransby know when I went to Boyton and then would meet them".

"5 November 1850 - Memorandum. It was agreed this day between the Trustees of the Boyton Charity (by Mr Crabtree their agent) Mr Wm. Miller of Boyton and Mr Edward Packard of Saxmundham as follows: The Trustees agree to sell the Coprolite that may be found on Mr Miller's farm [Valley Farm] at Boyton to Mr Packard who is to be considered the owner thereof. Mr Miller to dig, sift and cart the same in a proper marketable state to be delivered free of all expense at Boyton Dock and put on board a vessel & the same to be dug in such a manner as in least possible way to affect the property. Mr Packard to pay to the Trustees the net sum of ten shillings per ton free of all deductions and to pay Mr Miller one pound per ton on delivery. The Trustees or Mr Packard to have the liberty of putting an end to this agreement upon giving one month's notice."

Signed John Crabtree William Miller Edwd. Packard

Seventy-one tons were sold under this agreement and in 1851 coprolite diggings began on John May's farm. On 15 November that year, Crabtree noted "Up to this day, Mr May has sold 50 tons of coprolite to Packard which went to the North. There is now lying at Boyton Dock from May's about 60 tons, 40 tons of which is sold to Packard. There is now lying at the back of May's barn about 100 tons in heaps. Memorandum: May pays Bennington 7d per ton for dock charges. Bennington to this time has worked and screened about 42 tons and there is another heap in progress". [Bennington was the tenant of Dock Farm.].

Between 1850 and 1857, over 1600 tons of coprolites were dug and shipped from Boyton. By that time the seams on May's farm were exhausted.

Edward Packard was not the only purchaser of Suffolk coprolite; James Fison shipped over 2100 tons to King's Lynn from the Deben, Bawdsey, Boyton, Woodbridge, Ipswich & Harwich in the same period. Packard later joined with the Ipswich firm of Prentice in a fertiliser factory in Ipswich which was subsequently taken over by Fisons.

White's Directory of Suffolk for 1885 records:

"The manufacture of phosphatic and other artificial manures from coprolites is carried on at Ipswich, Bramford, Stowmarket and other places by Messrs. Packard, Messrs. Fison, Messrs. Chapman & Co., Messrs. Prentice & Co. and Messrs. Noble Co.. Some extent of this manufacture may be formed from the fact that Messrs. Packard alone employ steam to the extent of more than 800 horsepower. There are extensive beds of coprolite in Suffolk, chiefly at Kirton, Trimley, Felixstowe, Bawdsey, Alderton and other places in the Colneis and Wilford Hundreds..."

There was a gap of over ten years before coprolite digging restarted, this time on Boyton marshes, part of William Miller's farm (Valley Farm). Between 1870 and 1880 over 2500 tons were sold from Miller's farm to George Ling (who took over the tenancy from Miller in 1877). The coprolite business declined in the 1880s owing to cheaper imports of phosphates mainly from the USA. There is no doubt that the Trustees of the charity made substantial amounts of money from royalties in the boom years which enabled them to add new cottages on the farms, to increase the pensions to almspeople, to rebuild the marsh wall near Flybury Point, and to invest the rest in 3% Consols.

Bernard O'Connor has researched coprolites in Suffolk and more informations can be found on his site. However, you have to pay for details on Boyton, Ipswich and Felixstowe; details on other villages are freely available.

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