Dinosaurs and superphosphates…

This is third  and probably the last  [I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear!] post about the Victorians and their use of manure and fertilizer.

Even as guano took over from night soil as the ‘best’ fertilizer, and began to transform British agriculture and horticulture  in the mid-19thc [as was explained in two recent posts]  experiments began to find cheaper alternatives. These included making artificial versions of ‘guano’, although the name often stuck because it seemed  to have been a magical word in terms of sales.

It might be hard  to believe, but some of the alternatives were even more extraordinary than the idea of scraping dried bird droppings off remote islands and shipping them half way round the world, and the weirdest of all was completely home-grown. Read on to find out more…


The guano trade was so profitable by the mid-19thc that fraud became commonplace. [That’s a bizarre thought – that you could get rich by faking Peruvian bird poo!] It wasn’t very long before soon the suppliers of the real  South American product had to advertise with a warning to check that what you were buying was the real stuff.   Gardeners Chronicle  in 1850 estimated losses of upwards of a million pounds   “in consequence of the fraudulent practices of the rogues in guano.”  As well as the obvious perpetrators, the magazine blamed those who “will not take the precaution either to deal with honest men who may charge somewhat higher for a genuine article, or pay for having a  doubtful cargo analysed.” The Royal Agricultural Society reported on spurious guano in 1858, showing that even the best so-called guano had probably been adulterated, and contained only 25 to 30% of the Peruvian original, although it looked and smelt the same.  The secret of advertising then seemed to be to prove that your product was “genuine.”

Receipt for Canary guano (used as fertiliser) supplied to Gunnersbury in 1911, from https://www.rothschildarchive.org/exhibitions/gardens/creating

Receipt for Canary guano (used as fertiliser) supplied to Gunnersbury House in 1911, from https://www.rothschildarchive.org/exhibitions/gardens/creating

Other manufacturers and their salesmen  tried avoiding that trap entirely, and  offered alternatives. There was homegrown “Canary guano” which was produced in East Anglia.  At first I wondered  how many canaries were needed to produce a sackful and then thought it  may well have been poultry manure which is simply ground up after a drying process and with an analysis that was quite high in nitrogen but far too low in phosphate and potash.  But, in fact, I think Canary was simply a brand name used by the Chemical Union  – a part of Fisons – of Ipswich and which was popular around the turn of the 20thc. But as you can see the sales pitch was very glamorous compared with most advertising for fertilizers!screenshot




screenshotEven stranger was “Ectoplasm” fertiliser.  This advert is the only reference I can find  but Joseph Robinson & Co. of Greenwich who sold it appear to have been mainly suppliers of gypsum related products such as ” Robinson’s fire proof cement, Keene’s, Parian and Portland cements, plaster of paris, mineral white, terra alba, gypsum, manure driers,…simplex partition blocks, fibrous slabs etc.” [http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/organization.php?id=msib1_1272276229]

The Native Guano Company

The Native Guano Company

 screenshotOthers tried repackaging sewage. In 1871, for example, in response to “a sort of sanitary crisis impending over the whole nation” and with another “of an agricultural character looming in the distance” a company was set up to treat sewage “throwing down a deposit …said to possess valuable manure real properties.  To make the deposited matter portable, it is dried and is subsequently sold under the attractive title of Native Guano.”  In other words “Native Guano” was dried sewage!  There is a short account of  the process at the  sewage works in Leamington which was taken over by the Native Guano Company in 1869, in The Engineer 14th May 1869, and the debate about what to do with the vast quantities of urban sewage that the Leamington takeover sparked off which can be found at:


Click to access Er18701028.pdf

And for even more on Native Guano, and in fact probably more than you ever need to know, see  The Utilisation Of Sewage, by the directors of the Native Guano Company, which can be found at: 


screenshot 2

Beeton’s Dictionary of everyday gardening [1908 ed, p.118]

What all this shows is that the late 1830s and 1840s was a time of immense interest in improving agricultural and and horticultural productivity.   Of course the competition grew fiercer and Victorians used a whole range of other potential fertilisers as well.  Apart from the obvious more popular ones like coal ash, peat, wood ash, gas waste, lime, chalk, gypsum, and bones there were, as Mrs Beeton’s gardening counterpart suggested blood, offal and sugar-bakers scum …..and one they didn’t mention ….coprolites.

And if your Greek isn’t very good and you can’t work out what coprolites might be from the etymology then read on and be prepared to be surprised or perhaps even amused.

from William Buckland's On the discovery of coprolites, or fossil faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis, and in other formations. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, second series 3: 223-236

from William Buckland’s “On the discovery of coprolites, or fossil faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis, and in other formations”. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, second series 3: 223-236

Coprolites were first “officially” described in 1829 by Rev Dr William Buckland, a geologically minded clergyman.   Prior to this they were known as “fossil fir cones” or included in the definition of “bezoar stones.” They had  first been seriously examined by the pioneer fossil hunter Mary Anning at Lyme Regis who noticed that “bezoar stones” were often found in the abdominal region of dinosaur skeletons she uncovered and that when broken they often contained small fish scales and bones.  Buckland gave them the name coprolites, from the Greek kopros (“dung”) and lithos (“stone”), was accordingly given them by Buckland. So… you probably won’t be surprised to hear that coprolites are yet another form of excrement – but this time  fossilised.  Dinosaur droppings were about to become the must-have fertiliser  in Victorian gardens!

It was Rev John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge and Darwin’s mentor, who first realised their potential as a fertilizer, because after conducting experiments on them he discovered their high phosphate content. He even  patented an extraction process.  This was in 1842 – the same time that the guano rush was getting under way.

But it was not only all those strange organic fertilizers that were being investigated. The late 1830s and very early 1840s also saw attempts to make artificial fertilizers and then produce them in large quantities.

screenshotJohn Bennett Lawes  was the  pioneer of this new industry. As a young man he inherited Rothamsted Manor  in Hertfordshire and immediately “I gave an order to a London firm to fit up a complete laboratory, and I am afraid it sadly disturbed the peace of mind of my mother to see one of the best bedrooms in the house fitted up with stoves, retorts, and all the apparatus and reagents necessary for chemical research.” [Letter to John Chambers Morton 1888]

During the 1830s Lawes had begun a series of experiments to try and  make better use of waste material, particularly bones which had long been known to be a soil improver but which were very

by ThÈobald Chartran ('T'), watercolour, published in Vanity Fair 8 July 1882

by Theobald Chartran (‘T’), watercolour, published in Vanity Fair 8 July 1882

slow to be broken down by the elements naturally to be of use to plants.  By 1840 he was suggesting in an article in Gardeners’ Chronicle that his research experiments might have a profitable outcome, and by 1842 he had discovered that if you treat bones with oil of vitriol [as sulphuric acid was then called] they produce a byproduct called superphosphate which is much more rapidly absorbed by plants.  He patented the idea, set up the “Lawes Artificial Manure Company” at Deptford and industrial production started almost immediately.

The Deptford plant processed guano, nitrates from Chile, animal bones and coprolites.  By 1852 he was able to sell his superphosphate at £5 a ton, considerably less than the £12 per ton of Peruvian Government guano and by  1854 the plant was  producing 30,000 tons of superphosphate annually.  He then expanded to a new site at Creekmouth near Barking. By the 1860s he was drawing an income of about £50,000 a year from his fertilizers; and in 1872, at the peak of his prosperity, Lawes sold up for £300,000.  There is an extremely detailed history of the works at:


Lawes reinvested his money in agricultural crop research and  became “universally recognized as the world’s leading authority on agricultural science.” [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]  His work attracted huge attention and Rothamsted was visited by so many people that a marquee with beer and other refreshments for visiting groups was almost permanently in use. He gave  £100,000 from the proceeds of selling his factories to the Lawes Agricultural Trust and to provide for the long-term future of Rothamsted.

The Old Fisons site in 1916 showing the dock and canal wharf. The North Warehouse is pictured on the left. http://theoldfisonssite.co.uk/history/

The Fison site in 1916 showing the dock and canal wharf. The North Warehouse is pictured on the left.

packards-manure-poster Several businesses  in  East Anglia led the way in further exploiting Lawes process, paying him 10 shillings a ton royalties. Edward Packard was already in business selling bone meal and other manures, and in 1843  he set up the first  superphosphate plant at Bramford in Ipswich.  Four years later, a very successful local flour milling enterprise, James Fison & Co. decided to diversify,  and entered the developing field of fertilizers as well.  Fison  moved their business headquarters to Ipswich – opposite Packards and Within a few years,  had built a manure works and were producing their own sulfuric acid. By the 1870s there were over 80 factories producing and exporting superphosphates.

But what, apart from bones, did Fison and Packard use for the basic raw ingredients of their superphosphate fertilizer? You’ve probably guessed already – it was coprolites!

A346K5 Guano advertisement from Wm Colchester Ipswich circa 1890

Guano advertisement from Wm Colchester Ipswich circa 1890

Someone else who cashed in on the rush was William Colchester, a geologist, linguist, fishing fleet owner and all-round canny businessman. After consultation with Lawes he set up Lawes Chemical Manure Company which he then chaired for the next few decades.  His obituary makes it clear that he deserves a post of his own one day if only for saving the East Anglian countryside from wholesale destruction in the search for coprolites! He sold fertilizer derived from them under the extraordinary name of “Icthemic Guano.”





Coprolite pit at Orwell in Cambs, c.1860-70 Cmabs Folk Museum

Coprolite pit at Orwell in Cambs, c.1860-70
Cambs Folk Museum

And why did Colchester’s obituary suggest that he had saved the east Anglian countryside?  Probably because Professor Henslow had found a large coprolite site near Felixstowe, following a landslip.  Others were later discovered in Cambridgeshire as a by-product of digging for brick clay and once this was realised  there were soon small coprolite mines all over eastern England. Part of the rush to find them was because Henslow read a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1845 explaining the potential economic value of coprolites and indeed fossil bones.

Hand laoding coprolites at Trumpington Cambridge, c.1914 Cambridge Libraries

Hand loading coprolites at Trumpington Cambridge, c.1914
Cambridge Libraries

As with guano, the hunt was on and articles appeared in the geological press seeking more possible coprolite deposits for exploitation.

The whole of East Anglia went mad hunting for dinosaur burial sites!

A very detailed  local study of the industry around Trimley St Martin by Berridge Eve can found at at:

Click to access TSMCMR.pdf

For more information on the history of Coprolites and the mining industry in Britain a good place to start is Bernard O’Connor’s article at :

Click to access Bulletin%2014-5%20-%20The%20Origins%20and%20Development%20of%20the%20British%20.pdf

But, no sooner had it started then, like the Peruvian guano trade, coprolite mining  declined rapidly and had virtually died out by the end of the century whilst  the days of “real” artificial fertilizers were just beginning.


Bucks County Museum

Bucks County Museum





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