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Broxburn's Early Oil Works

The histories of the many early oil works in the Broxburn area are difficult to unravel, but all are linked to Robert Bell; a Wishaw coal and iron master, who held mineral leases in the Broxburn area and was first to recognise and exploit the potential of oil shale.

Redwood quotes a letter from Bell: " In the year 1859 I took a lease of the Broxburn minerals and shortly after, while searching for coal, came across large quantities of shale. When I saw the manner in which the shale burned, I determined to experiment on it and had experimental retorts erected at Wishard (Wishaw?), where a large number of samples of shale were distilled. The results were so encouraging that I immediately made arrangements for the working of the Broxburn mineral on a large scale, and thus started the manufacture of mineral oils from shale in the year 1862".

Although Bell undertook some oil production on this own account, he also entered into business arrangements with others in which he supplied oilshale or had other involvement in the business. Eight oil work sites are known to have been active in the Broxburn area during the 1860's and early seventies, many changing hands on a number of occasions. All shale interests were pulled together in 1878 with the formation of the Broxburn Oil Company Ltd; a major limited company chaired by Robert Bell.

Without consistant names for these oil works sites and the absence of contemporary maps, it is difficult unravel the histories of individual sites, and apparent contradictions remain between records that require further research. The following sketch attempts to plot the general location of each oil works site, based on the scant evidence available and a great deal of guesswork.

  1. Broxburn Albyn Oil Works (Ebeneezer Fernie) 1864 - 1878
  2. Broxburn Greendykes Paraffin Works (Robert Bell) 1862-1878
  3. Broxburn Greendykes Paraffin Works & Refinery, (Thomas Hutchison) 1864 - 1878
  4. Broxburn Hallfarm Oil Works (James Liddle) 1870 - 1877
  5. Broxburn Buchan Oil Works (John Edgar Poynter) 1866 - 1873
  6. Broxburn Paraffin Oil Works (Dr. James Steel) 1863 - 1876
  7. Broxburn Stewartfield Oil Works (Robert Bell) 1865 - 1874
  8. Broxburn Stewartfield Works (Dr. James Steel) 1865 - 1871
Broxburn area

Location of works based on descriptions by Primrose in "Strathbrock - or the histories and antiquities of the Parish of Uphall", 1898

Additionally a crude oil works, not so far identified in valuation rolls, is thought to have been established in the late 1870's by George Simpson's Benhar Coal Company Ltd, perhaps located in the East Mains area".

A Schedule of Agreement, dated 1877, details the assets sold by Robert Bell to the Broxburn Oil Company Ltd (BP Archive item 142411). Unfortunately the accompanying plan has not survived, however it describes:

A superb account of Broxburn in 1865 was published in Glasgow Herald. See full article.

Historical research, conducted in 1947 (see BP archive 217013) offers further information on the location of early works

Snippets

Already there are three extensive oil works are in existence here (Broxburn), the largest one belonging to Messrs Faulds. The shale is found in great abundance and at no great depth. The Scotsman, 11th June 1862

BROXBURN. - THE SHALE -OIL TRADE. About two years ago shale containing oil was found on the estate of the Earl of Buchan; and now, within a radius of one mile from the village, there are four separate work in active operation manufacturing oil form shale, and a fifth in course of erection by an opulent English firm promises to be one of the largest in the trade. The oil-shale is found very abundantly in the district, and the explored beds are considered sufficient to last for many years. It is of very easy access, being in some instances got by open casting; and the seams are generally from three to six feet thick, but they vary much both in thickness and quality. Fossil oyster and other shells are found in some of the seams in a very perfect state. The greater part of the oil has been sold in a crude state; but Fraser & Meikle, who have erected their works within the last three months, are now refining and disposing of burning oil of a very superior quality; and other manufacturers are preparing to refine also, so that in a short time it will all be ready for use before passing into other hands. The Scotsman 28th November 1863.

Mr. Robert Bell, who, in 1859, leased the minerals in the Broxburn district for the purpose of working coal and ironstone. He shortly afterwards found large supplies of rich shale in the ground, capable of yielding 30 gallons of crude oil per ton, and this led him in 1861 to make arrangements with Mr. Faulds of Glasgow to supply him with a daily quantity of shale. Mr. Faulds, in company with some others, erected a small work in 1862, just north of Canal-Bridge No. 28, and set up 36 horizontal retorts, but they abandoned the works shortly afterwards because the price of crude oil fell below a shilling per gallon. Mr. Fernie then took up the works in 1864, added 32 vertical retorts, and abandoned them in 1866; they were restarted, however, shortly after by a firm known as the " Glasgow Oil Company.In 1862, likewise, Mr. John Poynter erected crude-oil retorts on the south side of the canal, close to Greendykes Road, while Messrs. Miller and Steele erected small works at Broxburn on the north side of the canal, where the present gasworks stand. In 1863 Mr. Robert Bell erected 100 horizontal retorts about midway between Old Stewartfield farm and the canal, and in the year 1865, 100 horizontal retorts at Hayscraigs. In 1869 Mr. James Liddell erected a crude oil work of 40 horizontal oval retorts. These works — the last of the minor enterprises — stood close to the north side of the canal about 100 yards west of Greendykes Road. A small refinery was put up in 1863-64, and worked for several years by Mr. Thomas Hutcheson, at the west side of Greendykes Road, where the Broxburn Oil Company's workshops are situated, opposite the present gasworks. ". Primrose, Strathbrock or The history and antiquities of the Parish of Uphall, 1898

The Broxburn shales on the estate of the Earl of Buchan are leased by Mr. Bell, who is most energetic in developing the mineral resources of that estate. About 1860, retorts were erected by Dr. Steel of Wishaw, at Broxburn, to distill oil from shale supplied by Mr. Bell. Early in 1862, the Broxburn Shale Oil Company (Limited) was formed, which after expending a large sum of money, was wound up in about two years. The whole plant was sold, and Mr. Fernie, of the Saltney Oil Works, succeeded the company in the occupation of the ground. After erecting upwards of 200 retorts, he sold his work to a company called the Glasgow Shale Oil Company (Limited). This company, as well as Mr. Poynter at his works in Broxburn, are now producing large quantities of oil from shale supplied by Mr. Bell. In addition to these works, Mr. Bell has erected a large number of retorts; and Mr Hutchison has a small refinery at Broxburn. It will this be seen that Broxburn is one of the most important seats of the oil trade. From "Supplementary notes on the Mineral Oil Trade", The Scotsman, 8th February 1869.

In this year (1862) Bell sublet a proportion of his shale fields to Fauld, under the condition that a stipulated quantity of shale be retorted per annum, and failing that the work was to be abandoned. Fauld built a work just North of Broxburn village, and set up thirty six horizontal and thirty two vertical retorts, but in a year or two found his inability to comply with the terms of the lease and had to confiscate the work to Bell, who about 1865 let it to Steel, together with a lease of the shale fields, under the same conditions as Faulds had it. Steel found his level with Fauld after a very few month's practical work, and therefore the Broxburn Oil Works (under which name the work had gone) again reverted to Bell, who then carried on the crude oil business himself, until he eventually disposed of the work and shale fields to what turned out to be one of the most successful of the Scotch oil companies, namely, the Broxburn Oil Company Company, Limited. I.I. Redwood, Mineral Oils and their by-products, 1897.

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