2nd April 1871. How to make a fortune from bird droppings.

‘William Gibbs made his dibs selling the turds of foreign birds’: 19th century Music Hall ditty on how Gibbs made his fortune from guano.(1)

Today in the Decennial Census in England and Wales in 1871, the list for Tyntesfield includes, apart from the ‘Guano Magnate’ William Gibbs aged 80, his wife aged 53 years Matilda.

Built on guano

Tyntesfield, near Bristol, built on the proceeds of guano. Courtesy of wikipedia.org.

Also listed was his son Anthony, William’s recently widowed son-in-law Alfred Gurney and his two boys, a Miss Low, a cousin, and a clergyman, along with 12 servants from Housekeeper down to William White described as ‘odd-man’.(2)

Obviously William had done well from Peruvian guano which was an excellent fertilizer for Victorian farmers and gardeners. The droppings from cormorant, pelican and booby were found on an island 6 miles in circumference and 80 feet deep.

However the local Peruvians weren’t too keen to extract the manure, so Chinese ‘coolies’ were drafted in to work, in such inhospitable conditions, that many attempted suicide to escape them.

Guano contains nitrogen and phosphates and by 1850s was being widely imported into Britain, but cheaper nitrate of soda saw Gibbs’ Company eventually to move to Chile to extract the natural materials, with its by-product Iodine.

In 1852 the Royal Agricultural Society offered £1,000 (£70,000 today), for a substitute for guano, plus 50 Sovereigns for the best account of the geographical distribution of guano, with suggestions for the discovery of any new supply. However there were no takers.

As guano reserves ran out, other materials were added: ‘I got a ton and a half of Guano at Bradley’s in the High Street’, said the archdeacon; ‘and it was a complete take in. I don’t believe there was five hundred-weight of guano in it.'(3)

In June 2002 saw the Victorian mansion Tyntesfield near Bristol acquired by the National Trust. A spectacular Gothic house, dating from 1875, it was home to the reclusive bachelor, Lord Wraxall, a member of the Gibbs’ family.

The Gibbs’ family had made a fortune out of Peruvian guano fertilizer and in the early days, the slave trade. Banking and other interests were to follow, later to be sold to HSBC.(4)

The widespread use of fertilizers and synthetic nitrogen boosted food production which in the 20thc catapulted world population from 1.6 billion to 6 billion.

In fifty years an increase in fertilizers and fossil fuels has seen nitrogen pollution in that as well as growing food, almost all of it escapes into the atmosphere, groundwater and ocean ecosystems with its deleterious effect on health and environment.

(1) He was the grandson of the chief surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Gibbs was benefactor of many church projects including Keble College Chapel and the cathedrals of Bristol and Exeter. William (1790-1875) has a memorial at St.Michael’s Exeter.

(2) Alfred Gurney for some reason was described a ‘married’.

(3) Ref: Barchester Towers, A.Trollope 1857.

(4) It was sold to the National Trust for £24 million plus an unspecified amount negotiated in a tax deal and made possible by the decision of National Heritage Memorial Fund to give £17.5 million, the largest grant in history.


Guano is composed of ammonium oxalate (oxalate salt plus ammonia), urate and phosphates, earth salts and impurities and has a high content of nitrates.

An oxalate is a dianion C2O4 2- which can be written as (COO)2 2- and is a conjugate base of oxalic acid which is found in many plants including rhubarb leaves.

Too much oxalate has been suggested as contributing to joint problems including gout and fibromyalgia.

Ref: bristolfamilyhouses.co.uk ‘Visit to Tyntesfield 9.6.09 > blog.Henry Gibbs was ennobled as 1st baron Aldenham.

Ref: OED-online 2nd edition: Lupus found in 1590 work ‘malignant ulcer quickly working consuming nether parts-very hungry like unto a wolf’.

Ref: nitrogonnews.com

Ref: Journal Ag Soc Vol xii 1852 p. xix.Ref The earliest record of guano. bernardoconner/coproleted/guano.org.UK.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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