Weird Norfolk: Something fishy found deep beneath West Dereham

The West Dereham village sign. Picture: Ian Burt

The West Dereham village sign. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

California had a Gold Rush in the 1840s, East Anglia had a Coprolite Rush in the late 19th century – a different kind of black gold made from fossilised faeces.

Coprolite (the word is taken from the Greek kopros for dung and lithos for stone by geologist William Buckland) was hugely useful to a country recovering from the Napoleonic Wars and suffering from a desperate food shortage.

The dino dung could be ground up and mixed with acid or water to create a cheap and effective fertiliser to gain maximum potential from the land.

Before the prehistoric discovery, fields had been enhanced with bone matter, sometimes dug up and exported from battlefields such as Waterloo, sometimes from Italian catacombs, or perhaps from mummified cats taken from Egyptian tombs – but the supply was quickly exhausted and farmers had to look further back in time for answers.

Coprolite mining was an industry unique to England and attracted workers due to the high wages offered – this was because the job of a miner was dangerous: there were many accidents and even fatalities caused by unconsolidated earth falling and crushing the workers in deep trenches.

Steam trains would transport the coprolite away from the mines which was then sold to farmers not only from Britain, but also to countries as far afield as Australia.

Most coprolites come from marine reptiles or fish and one example that has survived for centuries is shark faeces from Abbey Farm in West Dereham in Norfolk where a phosphate-rich seam of coprolite was discovered in 1873.

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Chemical manure manufacturers James Fison & Son and Thomas Thwaites-Ball worked together to mine the seam on the farm, employing dozens of local men to cope with demand.

Technically-speaking, although coprolites are fossilised droppings, the term is also used as a trade name to describe the phosphate nodules mined around East Anglia which formed in or around fossils due to the decomposition of tissues or droppings changing the chemistry of the water around them.

By 1908, the West Norfolk seam had been worked out and the coprolite was processed at what later became Fisons, in Ipswich. Look out for Coprolite Street which is near the town's docks close the site of the Fisons works.

On an unrelated note, the aforementioned William Buckland was well-known for serving his visitors with meals made from unusual animals such as crocodiles and had a coprolite side table and commissioned a pair of coprolite earrings for his wife – the perfect gift for the woman who has everything.

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