This article was first published in the May 2013 of BBC History Magazine
In 1858 Robert Walton struck a deal to lease a patch of land on Coldham’s Common in Cambridge at the cost of £200 an acre a year – an astonishing sum of money at the time. The reason Mr Walton was happy to pay this extraordinary fee was that he had found something precious below the surface of the common – a commodity so valuable that he was prepared to dig a large open cast mine and employ a team of men to get at it. Walton was a pioneer in an industry that would see mines appear all over Cambridgeshire during the next 25 years, sparking a population rise and producing something akin to a gold rush among people eager to dig up a slice of a lucrative pie. What was the object of their desire? In plain terms: dinosaur dung.
The scientific word is ‘coprolite’, but the miners were digging for faeces that had first collected millions of years ago, when the landscape was covered by warm tropical seas teeming with life. It had recently been discovered that this fossilised dung could be ground down to make an extremely effective fertiliser – due to its high phosphate content – although no one is quite sure who made the discovery, and how. The most likely explanation is that a fenland farmer found certain areas of farmland to be more fertile than others and, on digging up the land to investigate, had come across the coprolite and drawn the obvious conclusion. Thus a remarkable yet now-forgotten industry was born.
Robert Walton’s costly transaction is put into perspective by the fact that he could sell coprolite at £3 a tonne, and that the average pit yielded around 300 tonnes an acre. In other words, men with enough resources to afford rent and labour could make a lot of money.
Such was the rush to get involved that soon virtually every landowner in the region was in some way connected with the coprolite trade. It was big business – in 1874 the coprolite industry was said to be worth £628,000 a year to the British economy. That’s over £20,000 more than tin, which, at the time, was a major export.
The sudden arrival of the industry had a major impact on the social makeup of the area. Before the 1850s, virtually the entire population of rural Cambridgeshire worked on the land, with little chance of alternative employment. This meant that landowners could afford to pay low wages and still have a guaranteed supply of labour. All that changed with the coprolite boom. Suddenly local workers could find employment that offered much more than the average farm salary. The miners were paid on a piece-work basis, and a good worker could earn around £2 a week – an attractive prospect when the average wage for an agricultural labourer was a quarter of this.
Extra income was also available for those lucky enough to uncover valuable archaeological artefacts. Miners unearthed many coins, brooches and other ancient valuables and sold them to collectors and museums.
Such was the exodus of men from the land to the mines that many farmers had to increase wages dramatically or see their harvest rot in the fields. Others resorted to recruiting the very old and the very young. This in turn sparked concerns that children’s education was suffering, as they were pulled out of school to work the land.
Despite the large number of farm workers prepared to switch jobs, the demand for coprolite diggers remained insatiable – and mine owners were soon forced to look further afield for labour. The result was an influx of migrant workers, mostly Irish ‘navvies’ whose traditional source of work on the railways was beginning to dry up.
Villages across Cambridgeshire were soon experiencing a population surge as itinerant workers flooded into the area. Records reveal that one such village, Haslingfield, just outside Cambridge, boasted a population of just 550 in 1891. Yet in 1871 – when the coprolite boom was at its height – that number had swollen to 871.
Unfortunately, Cambridgeshire’s natives didn’t always welcome the newcomers with open arms, and there was many a bloody fight between locals and migrant workers. One notorious incident took place at Upware when, excluded from the traditional village feast day, navvies got together to organise a celebration of their own.
The ‘Upware Bustle’, as it became known, was by all accounts a riotous affair where revellers consumed vast quantities of alcohol and fights broke out at regular intervals. Such was the lawlessness of the event that when the police arrived to break it up, they were pitched into a deep fen drain.
Time to kill
It seems that drinking was one of the miners’ favourite hobbies, and many an enterprising publican was soon opening a beer house near the mines. The miners may have frequented these new establishments with alacrity, yet the local clergy weren’t quite as keen. As the vicar of Bottisham complained in 1866, the miners “…leave work at four in the afternoon, and on Saturdays always at 12 at noon. They have much time at their disposal, inducing idle habits and tempting them to sit long at public houses on their way home.”
The workers’ proclivity for imbibing vast amounts of alcohol is perhaps explained by the fact that they were performing dangerous, backbreaking labour, carried out exclusively by hand.
The mines themselves were ramshackle affairs held up by wooden frames and props. Collapses were frequent – and often fatal. In fact, accidents were so common that a representative of Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge felt moved to write to the home secretary to demand that he introduce safety regulations. The reply came back that, as the coprolite pits did not come within the jurisdiction of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, he could do nothing.
Though the coprolite industry didn’t vanish quite as quickly as it appeared, it went into a rapid decline from 1881, and, by 1904, there was only one pit left. To some extent, the industry was a victim of its own success. Word of dinosaur dung’s potential had spread overseas, and soon pits were springing up all over the world, severely damaging the export trade from Britain. The chief culprit was America, where coprolites were discovered near to the surface, making extraction much cheaper. As supplies ran out in Cambridgeshire’s pits, few people were prepared to mine new ones, and so foreign imports began to replace domestic product.
The First World War brought a brief revival for coprolite digging in Britain, fuelled by the military’s rocketing demands for phosphorous for its munitions. Mines were dug once more in Cambridgeshire, and even sprung up as far afield as Woburn in Bedfordshire.
Yet this was to prove nothing more than a stay of execution. Coprolite’s resurgence was brought to an abrupt end by the Armistice of 1918. Soon after, the pits were filled in for good.
Martin Sayers is a Cambridge-based writer with a passion for local history. His work has been published extensively in newspapers and magazines across the world