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Many of us knew Fisons from its Ipswich Town days, but what was its story? John Norman explains
We probably all know what coprolite is (or was – it’s fossilised faeces) and that Coprolite Street was named after the fertiliser factory immediately to the south of the access road leading to the Wet Dock (Neptune Apartments currently occupy the site).
But who were these fertiliser manufacturers and why did they use coprolites?
In 1780 James Fison was trading as a miller at White House Farm in Barningham, Suffolk. He moved to Thetford in 1808, from where the youngest of his three sons, Joseph, set out for Stowmarket to marry into another milling family, with a certain Deborah Prentice. They lived in Ipswich, where they founded Joseph Fison and Son in 1847.
In 1856 three of Deborah’s nephews founded a rival firm – Prentice Brothers in Stowmarket, manufacturing agricultural fertilisers – in the works between the railway and the River Gipping.
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The site was important: the Prentices could transport coprolites from the Fens more easily than the fertiliser manufacturers in Ipswich who obtained theirs from East Suffolk.
The Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century caused a sharp rise in the population (as people moved into the towns to work in the manufacturing industries), with an increase in demand for food from local farms.
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Scientists were researching and experimenting with different chemicals, and, with the chemical content of naturally-occurring rocks and minerals, trying to find suitable fertilisers.
In Suffolk, particularly on the low-lying land either side of the rivers Orwell, Deben and Alde/Ore, coprolites had been discovered and the Rev John Stephens Henslow, a professor of botany at St John’s College, Cambridge, realised they were an abundant source of phosphates.
By dissolving the coprolites in sulphuric acid, superphosphate could be created on an industrial scale – a fertiliser that revolutionised the arable farming process.
Edward Packard (senior) was born at Hasketon, near Woodbridge, in 1819 and by the middle of the century had adopted Henslow’s discoveries and was manufacturing superphosphates derived from coprolites. His son, also Edward, born 1843, was educated at King’s College, London, and the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, and by 1863 had joined his father’s business in Bramford. Packards had moved the manufacturing from Ipswich because the smell had been upsetting local residents, although they retained Coprolite Street as their dockside warehouse.
Edward senior became a wealthy and prominent figure in the life of Ipswich, leaving his son to run the company. The business was incorporated in 1895 and in 1919 it bought the business founded by James Fison. The Prentices of Stowmarket purchased the business of rival William Colchester (Ipswich, Harwich and Burwell) but were in turn bought by Packards to become, in 1929, Fison, Packards and Prentice. In 1942 this name was simplified to Fisons Ltd.
Sir Frank Guy Clavering Fison (born December, 1892, in Sproughton) became chairman of Fisons in 1929, the same year that he became a Member of Parliament (Conservative MP for Woodbridge). He was also Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff in 1942, knighted in 1957 and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Suffolk in 1958. Clavering Fison died in 1985, aged 92.
At this time Fisons’ headquarters was in Gippeswyk Hall, the corner of Gippeswyk Avenue and Birkfield Drive – a building that is today the Avenue Theatre. In 1961 Fisons moved across the river to Harvest House in Princes Street, designed by Birkin Haward, with their main administrative offices and research facilities at Levington (1957 by Birkin Haward). This was the largest horticultural research facility in the UK in the 1960s.
Fisons had two manufacturing plants: one at Ipswich’s Cliff Quay, on the high ground known as Hog Highland, and the Eastern Union Mills at Paper Mill Lane, Bramford (alongside what had been Packard’s works). Towards the end of Clavering Fison’s period as chairman the focus changed from fertiliser to pharmaceuticals and scientific instruments, eventually selling the fertiliser business to Norsk Hydro in 1982. Fisons concentrated on pharmaceutical research and development, the company being bought by Rhone-Poulenc, a French chemical giant, in 1995.