OLDHAM'S FOSSIL FOREST
Contributed by Ken Stanley
page 1 of 4
A number of years ago, I remember being captivated by a small article I read in the Oldham Chronicle.
This tale of a lost forest of fossil trees seemed like every boy's dream — lost treasure, a fairy story. But that seed of discovery and adventure stayed with me. In the intervening years it grew even stronger, until a day arrived when I thought it was about time something was done.
I spent many hours of research, writing, reading old ordnance survey maps, searching for some form of clue. A lot of people will have seen my weary figure wandering around Oldham Edge with a trowel in my hand, and a map in the other. I never had any doubts that the fossils could be found by someone determined to do so.
This is the story of my search and eventual discovery of the remnants; not "in situ" the site may be, but still they remain a sight to behold that every Oldhamer should see and be proud of.
My thanks to everyone concerned in my search :
Mrs Phyllis Nield Ellis for her letter of support and appreciation, whose Great Grandfather - Mr James Nield himself, did so much to preserve the fossils from being totally destroyed.
The Local Interest Centre, Oldham, for all their help and information so freely given.
My thanks also to the following :
The Headmaster / Deputy Head and Caretaker of the Bluecoat School, Oldham.
Dr. Broadhurst of Manchester University.
The National Coal Board.
The Oldham Evening Chronicle.
Dr. Chris Hill of the British Museum.
Councillor Campbell, Mayor of Oldham.
And finally, to everyone who kindly wrote to me with information. I greatly appreciate your help, and to anyone else I inadvertently may have missed - I thank you all.
Ken Stanley - 14"‘ May 1983
The story begins over 300 million years ago, before man or anything more advanced than a reptile walked upon the Earth. The continents were yet to be formed as the land mass was covered with vegetation and tropical forest.
The Earth was surrounded by a warm tepid atmosphere — not very uniform in quality, but the vicissitudes of seasons had not yet begun. The sun hadn’t begun to shine as it does today, but the weather was much warmer.
Thus was the basis of today’s coal measures formed with the death and decay of these primeval monsters. But not all decayed. Some were transformed into the fossilised remains we find today, as indeed was what happened to the forest on Oldham Edge - discovered in a quarry belonging to Mr George Milne at Edge Lane
The discovery caused quite a stir as the fossilised remains of tree trunks were laid bare for everyone to see. Indeed, some quite eminent personalities of the day visited the site to stare in awe at this magnificent wonder, remarkably preserved. One of these people being Mr. James Nield, an eminent local geologist at the time, and a Professor Boyd Dawkins of Owens College in the centre of Manchester.
Ken Stanley turned detective to find what remains of Oldham’s fossil forest
–once the wonder of Europe.
Oldham’s Fossil Forest
Ken's article was printed in the 'Pennine' Magazine
in Vol 3, No. 4, April/May 1982,
and he has kindly allowed us to re-print it here.
Most people know Oldham as the once booming mill town of Lancashire, but over 100 years ago a strange discovery made at “Oldham Edge", brought it another source of fame.
In November 1879, in a Mr George Milne`s quarry situated off Edge Lane, there were laid bare over a dozen well-preserved fossil tree trunks. This find caused such a stir that an eminent Victorian geologist, Mr James Nield, and Professor Boyd-Dawkins from Owens College, Manchester, made it their business to immediately visit the site. They were extremely interested to see over a dozen fossilised trunks of trees from the Carboniferous period, dating back some 300 million years.
The forest was unique in their number and so easily accessible to scientific examination that it was discovered to be the only one of its kind in Europe, comparable to - and older than - the New Brunswick fossilised forest in the USA.
In an article published by the Oldham Evening Chronicle on May 17th 1880, a student expressed his wish to form a fund to have the forest removed and preserved. This motion was seconded by a Rev. Joseph Harrison. But, alas, nothing, more was heard and eventually the site, forest and all, was lost. No one knew whether the trunks were smashed, taken away or simply left where they were found.
ln the intervening years a few attempts were made to find the site - without success. What was believed to be one of the wonders of the world was thought to be lost forever.
However, I began my own investigations in February 1980, by placing a few articles in the Oldham Chronicle. I managed to gain more information and from this discovered the exact site of Mr George Milne’s quarry where the trees were first discovered - 100 years nearly to the day. By January 1981, I had in my possession a fossilised fragment of trunk and stem from Oldham Edge, a large fragment from an old well made of fragmented pieces of fossilised tree - (believed to have come from the Oldham Edge site), discovered the site of the quarry - now a football field off Bar Gap Road, Oldham, but still no sign of the fossils themselves.
One day I was traveling to the Bar Gap Road site when I spotted a strange sight. I passed by the Blue Coat School, a famous centre of learning for many years and a beautiful landmark, which is fronted by an old vicarage. In the grounds of the vicarage, in a rockery, there protruded a black shape. This immediately caught my attention and upon asking permission from the caretaker - I took a closer look. lt was a fossilised tree trunk, measuring six feet from top to bottom, and indeed the whole rockery was made up of fragments of fossil tree.
To be certain my assumptions were correct I was allowed to see the school archives with the help of Mr Carre, the headmaster, and the deputy headmaster. There were no records whatsoever of the fossil trees or where they had come from, but in an entry dated May 31st, 1880, I found the evidence I needed. The writer of the entry was the same Rev. Joseph Harrison, who was one of the people who had wanted to have the forest preserved. He had been at the school between 1870 and 1880.
I eventually had the site recognised by the local interest centre and confirmed by Dr Broadhurst of Manchester University.
l was unable to find more information about the Rev. Harrison himself. Perhaps he had the fossils moved at his own expense, or volunteered to have them for his rockery. Either way he saved what must be the last remaining fragments.
The site is clearly visible from the main road of Horsedge Street near Oldham town centre to anyone interested - and I have been told that anyone requiring a closer look can do so upon permission from the headmaster.
© Ken Stanley
Selection of Ken's Research log entries:
8th January, 1981
I was on my way to investigate the site on Mr. Milne's quarry which I believe was off Bar Gap Road, Oldham, when I witnessed a curious site. I passed by the Blue Coat School, Horsedge Street end and I saw what I believe was a fossilised trunk of a tree. Upon investigation of the matter with a Mr. Lawton, the School Caretaker, I was convinced that my search was at an end. Mr Lawton kindly allowed me to search the school archives and low and behold, there was an entry by a Reverend Joseph Harrison-dated 31st May, 1880.
The Reverend Joseph Harrison was the Reverend to the school in the late 1870s, early 1880s and lived in the Old Vicarage fronting the school on Horsedge Street.
Investigations are continuing with letters sent to:
The Mayor of Oldham
The Blue Coat School
The Oldham chronicle
M. J, Hollingworth
15th January, 1981
I had an appointment at 9:30am with the Natural History teacher at the Blue Coat School.
We had a talk about the fossils' origins and condition, and due to the weather did not go to examine them.
I was granted permission to uncover the trunks with the help of some pupils.
Later that evening I had a telephone call from Manchester University Geology Department who wish o see the sites that I have found.
I have in my possession a fragment of trunk from the site which I took to UMIST today. A Dr. Geake advised me to contact a Dr. G. Turner of Sheffield University who I have written to for dating and identifying the species.
21st January 1981
A reply from the University of Sheffield was received, advising me to write to the British Museum, which I did.
28th January 1981
then had an informative chat with the Deputy Head Master - and the Canon of Old ham Parish Church. I also had a search through the old school records without success.
Letters for information were sent to the following:
1. Canon Kirk man (Rural Dean)
2. Reverend J. Bentley (Chaplain), Eton College, Slough.
3. Mr. Harry Goodyear, Keeper of the records at the Old Rectory.
1st February 1981
Conversation with Mr. Goodyear - keeper of the records of St. Stephen's, Old ham. He could not find any trace of a Reverend J. Harrison but urged me to continue investigations as no-one had ever traced the fossil forest before.
1st February 1981
Conversation with Canon Kirkman - he hadn't much information to give me but indicated the rockery had been there a number of years - always in an overgrown state as far as he can remember.
He urged me to contact a Mrs. jean Bannister, wife of the Canon of Oldham, and also to contact a R. Don Fallons, Chairman of the Henshaw Trust.
6th February 1981
I visited the site today to ask permission to find a loose piece of fossil for examining purposes. This I did and took it to the Local Interest Centre. They told me to get into contact with Dr. Broadhurst of Manchester University. I sent a message with his wife saying he could see the site whenever he wished. I am, at the moment, awaiting a reply.
10th February 1981
A letter arrived from the Reverend James Bentley, the last vicar at the Old Rectory in the late'60s, early '70s.
16th February 1981
Dr. Broadhurst came this morning and I took him to the site. He confirmed the fossils and was very interested indeed. He also asked permission to take students from the university to see them, as they are very clearly visible from the road (Horsedge street).
16th February 1981
Reply received from the British Museum.
Letter from the Mayor of Oldham giving me advice to contact the Chairman of the Governors, Blue Coat School. This I did on the same day, requesting I be allowed to clear the site.
16th March 1981
Received telephone call today from Mr. Fallows, Chairman of Governors at Blue Coat School, Oldham. He told me that a meeting of the Trustees had taken place and had been unanimously agreed upon to preserve the fossil site for posterity. He is now arranging a meeting with myself, Dr. Broadhurst and the Trustees.
23rd March 1981
Investigation at an end. Blue Coat School no longer wish to have the full site uncovered. A loss to Oldham, as I believe the remains of the whole forest to be buried there.
K. Stanley - 23rd March 1981
Read more :
* Oldham's Fossil Forest - Intro., Magazine article & research log - Page 1
* Oldham's Fossil Trees - Manchester Geological Society - Page 2,
* Fossil Trees - 19th century letters & reports - Page 3
* Fossil Trees - Ken's 20th century letters - Page 4
* Return to the Pictorial Index
* Read more and see maps, on the
Oldham Historical Research website HERE