Clare Rainsford By the banks of the Nar, and under the trees, Thirty miles from the town and ten miles from the sea, Whales from the ocean, cows from the land, Float the dead to us, and we grind them down. Hungry the land, hungry the homes, Hungry the fields and the harvest they grow, Hungry the plough and the soil it will till, Hungry for bonemeal, fed from the mill. Whales from the ocean, sheep from the fold, Cargoed from rough seas; driven down roads; Stripped by the slaughtermen: flesh, oil and hide; All of us bones now, for all of us die. Bones of my bones, now long ages dead, That once caged a heart, which once carried a head, Hands that held hands by the Elbe or the Rhine, They go to the millstones, and down the mill grinds. Scatter us now, from hessian sacks, Hearsed on a farm cart, jolted down tracks Over crow-studded fields in the bleak winter dawn - Ashes to ashes, dust to corn.
About the Poem
Among all the topics you’d think would turn macabre, the history of agricultural fertilisers is not one of them.
Roughly crushed bone was used on fields from the late 18th century, to provide nitrogen and phosphorus, but it was in the early 19th century, as with so many other things, that the production of fertiliser was industrialised and mechanised. There’s one standing 19th century bone mill left in the country, at Narborough in Norfolk. Bones were brought upriver by barge from Kings Lynn, boiled, chopped to pieces, and finally ground to powder by the same mechanisms which were used to grind corn into flour.
The location of bone mills – in easy access of east coast ports – indicate how much they benefitted from the thriving whaling industry; but slaughterhouses and even local villagers contributed bones to the industry for a price. Unfortunately, the more grisly stories about bone mills also seem to be true. Ships coming into Kings Lynn sometimes contained the exhumed contents of German burial grounds, from around Hamburg, and there was a reported saying that “one ton of German bone dust saves the importation of ten tons of German corn.” It’s unlikely that Narborough was the only mill to think this way.
Bonemeal, of course, is still readily available at all good garden centres, although these days it tends to be just made of cows. Somewhere, the bone mills still exist. Somewhere out of sight.