Oldham Historical Research Group

Discovery of Oldham's Fossil Forest

The Fossil Forest was discovered by James Nield in the late 1870s. He was a local geologist who had served on Oldham Council. He gives an account of his discovery in a letter to Oldham Chronicle published on November 29th 1879.

He states it was in Mr George Milne's brickyard (situated near Mr Mayall's Colliery , Edge Lane Road ) that the remains had been found. The section he had seen a few days before was seven feet long (2 foot 4 inches at the top and about 3 foot at the base ). This was the latest of a number of trunks he had seen in the brickyard. Some 12 to 18 months earlier he had seen several on an upper level. He gives the name Stigillareae to the trunks.

by Stephen Darlington

Also in:
' The Preston Guardian'
Saturday, May 29, 1880

 

MORE ABOUT THE FOSSIL FOREST ............

added December 2013 : contributor Stephen Darlington

Extract from the 'Transactions of the Manchester Geological Society' :

FOSSIL TREES.

"Mr. Atrium said: Perhaps you will also allow me to bring under your notice the fact that in some excavations recently made at Oldham a number of erect trees have been discovered. The excavations were made in getting shale for the purpose of making bricks. The quarry has been worked I believe for about three years; and I am told by Mr. Neild, who resides near the place, and has visited it frequently, that some scores of fossil trees have been found during that period.

I paid a visit to the quarry about a week ago, and found two erect trees in situ, one was 18 inches in diameter and about 8 feet high, and I learned that about 6 feet of it had been removed before the time of my visit. The roots spread out forming a large stool, and having been bared for the purpose of examination presented a very interesting and remarkable feature. There was another tree about 3 feet high, and of rather larger diameter; but some, I believe, have been discovered in this quarry upwards of 2feet in diameter,and of greater length than any I have mentioned. They seem all to stand upon one general level and in the stratum, which underlies the roots there are found a large number of fossil ferns, calamites, and other vegetable remains.

The trunks are not perfectly vertical, in consequence of the rock in which they are embedded having been tilted over to an angle of six or eight degrees. Besides the trunks I have mentioned there are indications of eleven more which have been removed by the workmen. The concave surfaces left in the face of the rock are, however, still visible. Some of these, also, have been of very considerable height and large diameter. They may still be examined by anyone who feels sufficiently interested in the matter. The quarry is on the north-east side of Oldham, at Oldham Edge, and near the Lower Moor Colliery.

The Chairman (Prof. Dawkins) said he quite agreed with Mr. Aitken with regard to these trees; they certainly were the most remarkable instance of the exposure of a carboniferous forest to day-Iight he had ever seen. He did not believe in this country we had ever had so fine an illustration of the way in which the trees grew, and of the way in which they had been preserved, as in that place. The stems ofthe trees might be seen close to one anotber—-two were quite olose together-conveying an idea of the dense condition of the carboniferous forest, of which they formed a part."

Oldham's Fossil Forest
Where was it?

Oldham Geological Society is the origin of much of following. I obtained their research papers almost by accident and never got the chance to return them.

Discovery of the Oldham's Fossil Forest
The Fossil Forest was discovered by James Nield in the late 1870s. He was a local geologist who had served on Oldham Council. He gives an account of his discovery in a letter to Oldham Chronicle published on November 29th 1879.
He states it was in Mr George Milne's brickyard (situated near Mr Mayall's Colliery , Edge Lane Road ) that the remains had been found. The section he had seen a few days before was seven feet long (2 foot 4 inches at the top and about 3 foot at the base ). This was the latest of a number of trunks he had seen in the brickyard. Some 12 to 18 months earlier he had seen several on an upper level. He gives the name Stigillareae to the trunks. His language is very flowery to modern eyes but he does describe very large fossil plants. Also he gives their location.

Later mentions of the forest

The fossil seem to have caught a popular mood at the time for knowledge. The Oldham Chronicle of May 15th 1880 has a letter from James Nield uses the fossil forest as reason for establishing a museum in the Oldham area. This is followed in the paper by an account of a visit by the Urmston Literary and Scientific Society to the fossil forest. The local papers (3 of them) for May 18th 1880 have accounts of the visit of Professor Boyd-Dawkins of Owens College with some forty of his pupils to see it. Again there is mention of Mr Milne's quarry.

Over time interest in the fossil forest seems to have waned but the Oldham Chronicle did raise the subject every some often.
The Chronicle of January 20th 1924 has a picture taken in 1880 of James Nield in the quarry. It shows a group of people with a high face behind them.
The subject is raised again in Febuary 1980 by which the location of the forest had been lost so it is their location which is discussed. Various locations are mentioned. One useful fact from these articles are two references to articles in geological journals from the 1880s and 1890s but I am not sure they are accurate (note the volumes).
The first is "Fossil Trees at Oldham" by J Aitken (Transactions , Manchester Geological Society Vol XV 1880 , page 339). It is an account on the fossil forest given to the Manchester Geological Society. This is the concise description of the forest I have seen (see 2 pages from MGS trabsactions below)
The second is "Notes on Some Fossil Plants from Lancashire Coal Measures " by R Kidman ( Transactions of the Manchester Geological Society , Vol XII 1894 pages 632 – 652). I am trying to find this article with limited success.

Again the subject of where it was raised in 1994 with another picture of James Nield in the quarry. This series of articles does seem to answer the question of where it was but raises the question of where one of the trunks was removed to – it suggests the grounds of Bluecoats school which is nearby.(Ref Oldham Evening Chronicle of 19th April 1994). The person who provided the evidence to where the forest was unearthed was Roy Moses. I think he may have been a member of Oldham Geological Society.

Here is an account of his reasoning.

So where was it ? – Roy Moses
In his article , James Nield gives the location as " Mr George Milne's Brickyard situated near Mr Mayall's colliery EdgeLane Road". There is also mention of Mortimer Street.

If we check the trade directories for Oldham we find the following :

In the directory for 1871 (pages 60 , 73and 104) , there is Mayall & Seddon , coal proprietors of Lower moor colliery , Edge Lane road
In the 1875 edition (pages 80 and 152 ) there is John Mayall there.

In the 1880 edition (pages 87 and 184), there is George F H Milne of Lower Moor Machine Brickworks , Mortimer Street.
In the 1884 edition (130 and 202), there are similar entries .

All this ties in with James Nield's account and places the fossilforest somewhere in the Edge Lane Road / Mortimer Street area of Lower Moor.

If we look at the Oldham town maps , we see both the colliery and the brickworks are next to each other (between Edge Lane Road and Mortimer Street) on the 1880 one. (see 1880 map)
The 1894 town map again shows both but they are disused.(see 1894 map)

Using various town maps the tracks the position of the quarry face over time. The conclusion is
"The 1880 quarry face now lies beneath the garages at the low-number end of Blacksail Walk, curves under the lower part of Helvellyn Walk , then runs down to the bend of Wastwater Street , swings back up to the angle of Wimpole Street and terminates near 94 Edge Lane Road (see 1980 map)"


Maps showing area of presumed location of the fossil forest:
(roads outlined in yellow are identified throughout the century)
image link to larger copy

1880 mao - location of fossil forest
1880 map

1894 map
1894 map

1909 map
1909 map

1922 map
1922 map

1932 map
1932 map

1954 map
1954 map

1980 map
1980 map
1980 map detail
1980 map detail

 

Photographs of location taken in 2012

Photographs of area taken in 2012
Photographs of area taken in 2012
Photographs of area taken in 2012
Photographs of area taken in 2012

Alternative location
Roy's account , gets the general area right , I think. However all the pictures I have seen of the quarry show a very tall face. The area suggested in Roy's account does not seem to have the height required which is about 10 metres .
The land on the other side of Edge Lane Road rises very steeply to the Sarah Moor area. There is brickworks on the other side of that road from the colliery (see 1880 map) which would be into a very steep slope. I think that is where the fossil forest was.

This idea does not belittle the work done by Roy.

contributor Stephen Darlington

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