Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Dinosaur Poo

Despite the attempts of the likes of Vladimir Propp to categorize stories into standard variations (31, apparently -- don't you love that precision?), it has been said that there are really only two stories: "someone goes on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town". In fact, it doesn't take much insight to see that these are two sides of the same story, and that therefore there is really only one story, something like "people do stuff in the world", which is doubtless true, but not terribly helpful as an analytical tool.

Today the 1911 Census has gone live, and what is more three years early -- how did that happen? Does someone in government know something they're not telling us? Or have we got to the point as a nation where, like parents with grown up children, there no longer seems any point in making anyone wait for a present until the actual day of their birthday? Like a lot of other people, I've been all over it today. I confess I've been occupying myself in recent years with a little family history research (no, wait, don't go!) and have noticed how that "go on a journey / stranger in town" split seems to typify the stories I have uncovered in my family, and quite likely would be true of anyone else's, too.

Typically, one branch of the family lives and works on a few square miles of countryside for centuries, breeding generation upon generation of large parallel families of cousins, all with exactly the same names (though I'm proud to say one of my female forebears bore the unusual name of Dorcas Goops). Then -- you guessed -- either a fascinating stranger comes to town, or one of the homeboys/gals runs screaming over the hill, to exercise his or her fascination somewhere far, far away. Bingo, a new branch of the family that never sends Christmas cards, but with a story worth telling.

What interested me was when I discovered that, in my family, a major source of these blow-ins was a mini-Klondike in the mid-19th century that happened on the Hertfordshire / Bedfordshire / Cambridgeshire borderlands, an area that is not now a byword for social upheaval.

Coprolite miners in Bedfordshire
(Sorry, lost the URL for this image)

It's all to do with the Greensand, the Gault and the Marl, or more precisely the beds of phosphatic nodules found in those soft rocks, generally known as coprolites. A coprolite, as any 10-year old will tell you, is fossilised dinosaur poo (though the term covers any phosphatic organic material). For a few years in the 1800s, coprolite mining formed the basis of a boom industry: they were dug out, ground up and shipped out by the waggon and trainload to make artificial fertiliser.

Pick the right field, strip off the top layers, and there it was. Numerous gangs of labourers were recruited to excavate the stuff ("a man goes on a journey"), then put the soil back so the field could get back to growing things. Some landowners grew very rich on the proceeds. Beershops and other "entertainments" opened up everywhere in Wild West fashion. There was concern in religious circles for the ensuing moral turpitude.

Then someone discovered guano, and it was suddenly all gone, and the fields returned to normal, apart from some odd lumps and bumps. The main side effect had been a fresh infusion of marriageable young men for the cousins ("a stranger comes to town"). And, 150 years later, some raised eyebrows when I discovered the occupation "coprolite miner" (and place of birth "Far, Far Away") on the mid-century census returns of my ancestors, in place of the usual "Ag. Lab."

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