Coprolite mining in Orwell

Effects of mining on the village

What is coprolite?

Coprolite, fossilised dung, was derived from the fossilised remains of animals and plants deposited on the seabed over 65 million years ago when South Cambridgeshire was submerged by rising sea levels. The coprolite contained calcium phosphate from which cheap artificial fertilizer could be made. It was discovered beneath the fields of Orwell in 1865.

Leading up to this time the population of Orwell was increasing by 50 souls every decade and by 1851 there were two hundred and thirty men between the ages of fifteen and sixty needing to earn a living. It is not surprising that some risked the dangers of many weeks at sea and in 1854 twenty seven men, women and children left Orwell to travel Australia for better opportunities.

Where was the coprolite found?

Those who stayed behind were to benefit greatly from the discovery of the coprolite, which was in great demand during the farming boom of the 1850s and 60s.

Photo:Coprolite digging in Orwell

Coprolite digging in Orwell

Local landowners and coprolite merchants alike made considerable fortunes during the next thirty years out of leasing and mining the coprolite seams at Malton, Rectory and Grove Farms, on the glebeland, behind St. Andrew’s Church, and even on the ancient earthwork near the Church at the Lordship. In these prosperous years Orwell’s population grew from 645 in 1861 to 802 in 1881, this seems to have been due to the financial encouragement to couples to marry and raise their families in the village rather than an influx of outsiders. The census details show that only two of the forty eight men and boys thus employed in 1881 had been born outside of the village.

Financial benefits

adult coprolite diggers earn between £2 and £3 per week

The earnings of many Orwell families increased substantially while the coprolite industry flourished with fathers and sons employed on digging out, washing and carting the phosphatic nodules to supply the fertiliser factories. At times it was possible for adult coprolite diggers to earn between £2 and £3 per week, when the average farm labourer’s wage was 12/-(60p).The credit book of William Law’s general store shows diggers and their wives spending around 18/- per week on food and household goods.

In 1875 even with only one wage owner there were four public houses and four beer sellers providing refreshment for the workers. Coprolite merchants could afford to pay good wages and the men demanded them as the work was dangerous with a risk of being buried by a fall of earth or crushed by a runaway truck loaded with coprolites.

In order to have an idea of the equipment used by a coprolite contractor, the report of an auction on February 18th 1873 of Turrell‘s Coprolite Plant held at the site of his diggings in Croydon village, gives details which would be similar to that used in Orwell:-

An 8 Horsepower portable engine by BURREL, nearly new Engine and Strap Sheds, 2 36 ft, leather driving straps A 20 Ft. Shaft, Common Wheel, 4 Pulleys 2 Trucks, 2 Weighing Machines 3 Powerful Working Horses. (11)

It realised the sum of £347 3s. 0d. of which almost £200 was paid for the relatively new engine by Francis Carver, a coprolite contractor from Whaddon. Other farmers and contractors bought other bits and pieces including William Colchester and Swann Wallis who also had works in the area.

Demise of coprolite mining

The good times were short lived. Four years of heavy rains and poor harvests in the late 1870s caused a depression in agriculture and reduced the need for fertiliser. Many Orwell diggers and farm workers were laid off or had their wages cut and to help, a Coal and Clothing Club was set up. Coprolite prices picked up in the 1890s and almost 20% of the village workforce was employed in the diggings. It was reported in the Royston Crow in June 1891 that the early summer of that year was "one of prosperity in the village,

Cheap foreign imports of fertiliser and new government regulations

the coprolite works being very profitable and the agricultural  interests too were good - but times are altered” and people were leaving to find work elsewhere because of the uncertainty of employment in Orwell. Cheap foreign imports of fertiliser and new government regulations laying down strict safety rules for pits deeper than 25 feet finally put an end to the coprolite boom.

For additional information on Coprolite mining, you are referred to a PDF of "The Origins and Development of the British Coprolite Industry", an extremely comprehensive paper prepared by Bernard O'Connor, which makes much reference to Cambridgeshire villages, including Orwell. Follow this link   

   A further very detailed description of coprolite mining round the Orwell area by The Cambridge Archaeology Field Group can be found here :


This page was added by Pat Grigor on 15/09/2012.
Comments about this page

If you look at the photo it seems very dangerous. the bottom mist be about 15 feet down and on wet days there could be a landslide. I would not like to be the man walking across the pit. Note the railway lines. These were all over the area to transport the Coprolites to Shepreth Railway Station. Some of the rails have been found in people's gardens in Orwell and have been cut up to make fence posts.

By Derek Skipper
On 23/10/2012

In 1862 Christopher Roads took a 21 year lease on Malton Farm from Christ Church College. In 1863 he was given a lease from the College to work the Coprolite on the farm which included 10 acres for a Royalty of £85 per acre. This extended over a wide area of Orwell. Six months later he won another agreement to iclude Great Pasture and Chapel Hill. The lease stipulated that he could work to a depth of 13 feet and up to 12 acres per year. 

By Clive Flack
On 21/02/2021

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