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England - Coal Oil

North Staffordshire

    Works & Refineries




A Recognised Collection of National Importance

Home > Beyond Scotland > Coal oil industry in England

The coal oil industry in England

england coal oil works

Coalfield areas are marked in pink, with markers representing the locations of oil works. See Wales for information on the coal oil industry of Flintshire, Denbighshire, and surrounding districts.


The coalfield districts of England contain a variety of carbon-rich minerals that at various times have been processed to produce oils. The terminology used to describe these minerals has often been confusing, and the semantics of this classification was the subject of several court cases during the mid-Victorian period. "Coal" is used here to describe all coal-type minerals, including cannel coal and coal shale, that occur in the same geological series as common coal, which, in England and Wales, was formed in the Upper Carboniferous period.

Cannel Coal

..... sometimes referred to as "parrot coal" or "gas coal", is a distinctive form of coal that were particularly rich in oils. Seams of cannel coal are usually restricted to limited geographical areas within certain coalfield districts, normally extending over only a few square miles. While common coal is thought to have formed from woody material deposited within swamps, cannel coals were derived from resins and waxes of plants that accumulated in distinct pools within swampy areas. The terms "Torbanite", or "Boghead coal", originally applied to the mineral mined in the Bathgate area of Scotland, came to be applied to exceptionally rich forms of cannel coal, and was characterised by being rich in the remains of algae and other microscopic organisms.

From the early 1840's cannel coal was in great demand for the production of town gas. Before the introduction of the incandescent mantle in the 1880's, town gas supplied to light homes required to be of a high calorific value in order to produce effective light in the simple gas lamp burners then available. Cannel coal was added to common coals to increase the calorific value of the gas. Because of it's scarcity and high cost of English cannel coal, is seems not to have been employed for oil production, unlike in Scotland and North Wales where Scottish Boghead coal and Welsh Leeswood cannel, were used in significant quantities to produce high quality oils.

Coal Shale

......was a term used to describe certain carbon rich shales found in association with coal or ironstone seams, which could be retorted to produce oils. These was known by various local terms such as "nob" and "hub", and had usually been discarded as a worthless waste product. During the oil mania of the mid 1860's a number of oil works were constructed in various parts of England to produce oil from this shale. All were short-lived except for in North Staffordshire where a few concerns operated into the 1880's, producing crudely refined greases and lubricants for use in local collieries.

During the 20th century, several processes were developed to produce oils as a by-product of smokeless fuel and coking processes. These will be considered later.

Mineral Statistics

The Home Office produced an annual report to government quantifying the output of all forms of minerals. The annual statistics for "Oil Shale" record, by county, the output of Scottish oil shale, various coal shales produced in English and Welsh districts, and the small amount of Kimmeridge shale produced in Dorset. In most years Scottish shale oil contributed over 99% of total national output.

Record of annual output of oil shale (in tons) by county

  Cheshire Cumberland Dorset Durham Flint Lancashire Staffordshire Northumber. Yorkshire
1873 0 0 0 0 11360 0 5617 1511 0
1874 0 0 0 0 270 837 3101 0 0
1877 49000 9471 0 294 7688 1520 37449 0 4927
1879 0 5912 600 1450 15961 0 24102 0 31257
1882 1500 0 0 0 9073 0 17500 0 7053
1883 2600 0 1000 0 8450 0 21000 0 4156
1884 200 0 0 0 11039 0 25500 0 8543
1885 0 0 200 0 1926 0 15000 0 4443
1886 0 0 250 0 0 0 22072 0 6394
1887 0 0 0 0 8058 0 13000 0 0
1888 0 0 0 0 2072 0 16459 0 5706
1889 0 0 0 0 2132 0 17692 0 8046
1890 0 7608 150 0 3438 0 13130 0 7351
1891 0 2748 300 0 1904 0 8309 1278 8648
1892 0 1981 70 0 1872 0 4663 0 4278
1893 0 2593 0 0 1754 0 4036 0 295
1895 0 0 0 0 917 0 3552 0 6172

The erratic nature of these statistics perhaps reflect variations in how the figures were compiled, and what products were considered as "oil shale". In some instances figures might include the output of cannel coal. It is interesting to note a modest output of oil shale is recorded in several coalfield areas where no operational oil works were known to exist. It remains unclear for what purpose these oil shales were used. Minor production for short periods were also noted for the counties of Carmarthen, Devon, Glamorgan, Gloucester, Monmouthshire and Shropshire.

In some years, the mineral statistics also included information on the sites or seams of oil shale worked in each county

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We are happy to licence use of many images, extracts, and other resources of this website under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial licence (Scotland). See full copyright statement. Such material should be attributed to Almond Valley Heritage Trust and, where practical, a hyperlink provided to www.scottishshale.co.uk.