Victorian Coprolite Mining & Pterosaurs


The industry began in the mid 19th century, when shortage of food after the Napoleonic Wars caused an influx in demand for fertilisers. The coprolite itself is fossilised dinosaur faeces which, when ground up, can be mixed with acid or water to make fertiliser. This fertiliser was discovered when a brick kiln using local clay exploded. One of the first areas in Cambridge to undergo coprolite mining was Coldham’s Common between the 1850s and 1890s. Wages were far higher in mining than agriculture so there was a ‘coprolite mine rush’ with huge pits dug on the common. The making of fertiliser and mining of dinosaur poo began to decline when international competition kicked in from America. But the industry was revived during the First World War when imported goods became unreliable and England needed to grow more food.

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Coprolite mining first came to the Cambridgeshire region during the 1850s. It was an industry unique to England and consisted of digging up fossilised dinosaur excrement to be used as fertiliser for agricultural purposes. Coprolite had been discovered as early as 1838 but its value was unknown until a decade later. Before the worth of coprolite was revealed, workers in the brickfields between Chesterton Road and Victoria Road often complained about the inconvenience caused when bricks containing coprolite would cause explosions in the furnaces during the heating process.

After the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, there was a double in Britain’s population which caused a surge in demand for food. Thus, farmers looked to fertilisers to help enhance their crops, the most popular source of which were bones. Bones were being imported to England from all around the world, such was the demand for it that people even turned to digging up bones from the battlefields. However, even the international supply was not adequate to meet England’s demand and soon farmers began turning to the newly discovered fossilised dinosaur manure to improve the growth of their crops.

One of the first areas to have been found to contain a seam of coprolite was Coldham’s Common. A ‘Coprolite Committee’ was founded in 1855 along with the ‘Cambridge Manure Company’ which would supervise the digging up of coprolite on Coldham’s Common. An entrepreneur John Bennet Lawes saw the potential in this new fertiliser and began producing his own ‘super’ fertiliser using Coprolite in 1842. He was so excited by his new company ‘Lawes Chemical Manure Company’ that he took his wife to the Thames to look for potential factory sites instead of taking her to Europe for their honeymoon!  James Headly, of the Eagle Foundry, also diversified into the coprolite business, building a Coprolite Mill, behind the Foundry when they moved to Mill Road.   The Foundry made tools and bone mills which were sold widely around Cambridgeshire, and it looks as if growing the coprolite milling and minging business became the main business for the Headlys, using their siding into the Eagle Foundry site, to move huge quantiies of coprolite fossils onto the side for grinding, and off site as fertilizer! 

Many people were attracted to the mining business known as the ‘Cambridge Coprolite Mining Rush’ as the wages for miners were significantly higher than those offered in agriculture (10/- compared to 4 pounds)Although the pay was excellent, there were to be many accidents leading to fatalities caused by unconsolidated earth falling and crushing the workers in the deep trenches. However, this did not greatly affect the enthusiasm for coprolite and the mining was so intense between the 1850s and 1890s that it exhausted the Common of almost all its coprolite.

During this coprolite rush in 1859, Darwin published ‘On the Origins of Species’. This was to inspire curiosity regarding the coprolite by Colleges in Cambridge who decided to begin investigating into Cambridge commons and the Trumpington region which at the time was owned by the University. The development of this mining however, was not immediate as heavy competition from Free Trade products imported from America stunted the progress. It wasn't until the First World War that coprolite mining in these regions picked up again under the Ministries set up by Prime Minister David Lloyd George.It was believed that the mining had halted due to pressure from imports and not from the exhaustion of the land in Cambridgeshire. Although this was true for areas such as Trumpington which hadn’t been used to mine coprolite previously, the mining never repeated the scale at which it had reached between 1850 and 1950.

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Segwick Museum, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ

 Education Co-ordinator- Nicola Skipper-

Victorian Coprolite Mining & Pterosaurs


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