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Labourer - Sulphate of Ammonia Plant

Ammonium Sulphate Plant Pumpherton RefineryP980665 Ammonium Sulphate Plant, Pumpherston Refinery, circa 1950

A labourer performed unskilled work of a general nature on the sulphate of ammonia plant or sulphate house at the oil refinery. The type of work a labourer would do would include filling and weighing bags of sulphate of ammonia, stamping the bags with the destination and loading the filled bags ready for despatch.

The introduction of the Young & Beilby retort in 1882 allowed large quantities of ammoniacal liquor to be extracted from oil shale. When reacted with sulphuric acid this produced ammonium sulphate sold as a valuable agricultural fertiliser or a feedstock for explosive manufacture. Until the invention of nitrogen fixation processes during World War One, ammonium sulphate production accounted for the bulk of profits earned by the shale oil industry.

In the early years of the industry, the ammonia still was a horizontal boiler, heated by a furnace beneath. More modern stills were tall, cylindrical steel vessels heated with currents of steam. The photograph to the right shows part of the ammonium sulphate plant at Pumpherston Refinery in circa 1950. Ammonia from the crude oil works was expelled as vapour from its solution in a still then absorbed in sulphuric acid and water in lead lined vats. This solution was then evaporated to form crystalline ammonium sulphate which was then separated, washed then dried by centrifugation and rotary drier evaporators above and aspirators and centrifugal dryers below. The evaporators are seen at the top of this picture, below which are aspirators and centrifugal dryers.

Wages & Working Hours

In 1958, an Agreement Between the Scottish Shale Oil Companies and the National Union of Shale Miners & Oil Workers records that a labourer in the sulphate of ammonia plant earned 3s 9d per hour. Day workers worked an average of 44 hours per week (5 days one week and 5.5 days the next week). Three shift or double shift workers worked a 6 day week of 48 hours.


"The gaffer came to me and says "There's a chance of another job going on, Adam, if you want it!" I says, "Where is it about?" He says, "The sulphate house!" "What kind of job is that then, what is it doing?" "Well", he says, "The sulphate is put up into a hopper, and you are at the bottom", he says, "with a bag, and you put the bag in below, pull the bag off when you think it is about a hundredweight, take it over the scales and weigh it. If it's too heavy, take some off with a scoop 'til you get the right weight, then sew it up with a big steel needle, with string and burl it round about..... and you were left with two lugs (ears) and tie a knot in the end of the string! Two knots......and......wee Jimmy Cross ......was on that job along with me, I think that Jimmy was taking the bags off me, when I sewed them, and he had a two wheel barrow, and he harrowed them across and stowed them ready for dispatching". AG, Oakbank

"I had a job stamping bags. There had been an earthquake in Japan in 1921, and that was where the bulk of sulphate ammonia went to, when I started work. There were big enormous stencils that you had to stamp with, lamp black they called the black stuff, you had to mix it up with naphtha, and brushed and stencilled the name on, and it was either Yokohama or Tokyo that it went to. They nearly always had to be double bagged, that was …. a second hand bag was put on a trestle and then there had to be a new bag pulled over the top of that. Then, of course, the bags had to be filled with the sulphate that came through the mill from the upper storeys of the sulphate house and weighed and I was the man that held the bag open for this Dan fella to weigh the bag. It held 2cwt in each bag, and that was my job, he had his barrel beside him, and that if there was too much in the bag, he put it into the barrel, if there was too little in the bag, he took it out of the barrel and put it into the bag, and they were loaded, five bags at a time, on to a bogie and I operated this lift up to the wagon. I stuck that for a year, and then I got transferred into the engineering shop, where I served my time as an engineer repairist". AF, aged 14, Bag Stamper / Labourer, Albyn Oil Works, 1923

Additional Resources

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