Coprolite mining in Orwell

Effects of mining on the village

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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.

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 Crowe 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.


This page was added by Martin Grigor on 05/11/2012.

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