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Home > Family Histories > Occupations & Trades > Retort Charger

Retort Charger

or Gulletman

Retorts at Pumpherston Oil WorksRetort Drawers or Gulletmen at Niddry Castle Crude Oil Works, Winchburgh

Oilshale was heated within a sealed retort to release crude oil from the mineral matrix. Fresh shale was periodically added to the top of the retort by chargers, and waste spent shale removed from the bottom by drawers or gulletmen.

Wages & Working Hours

The Board of Trade Census of Wages conducted in 1886 records that drawers earned an average wage of 26s 6d. The report states that men working in crude oil works worked a 13 day fortnight with the majority of chargers working between 54.5 and 63 hours per week.

No specifc data is given for drawers in the 1925 Report of a Court of Investigation Concerning the Wages Position in the Scottish Shale Oil Industry, however the average weekly wage for men employed in the crude oil works was £2 15s 3d. They worked an average of 6.67 days per week with many working 7 days per week.

In 1958, an Agreement Between the Scottish Shale Oil Companies and the National Union of Shale Miners & Oil Workers records that drawers earned 30s 8d per shift. As the retorts operated continuously, drawers received time and a half or double time for certain shifts on weekends. They worked 48 hours in shifts of 8 hours over 6 days per week.


Retorts at Pumpherston Oil WorksBench of retorts at Pumpherston Oil Works, circa 1920

THE UPHALL MINERAL OIL WORKS - The retort is a flattened cylinder of cast-iron, about twelve feet long, contracting itself towards the ends, both of which, however, are open. It is placed in an upright position in a framework of brick, so that nearly the whole of its length may be exposed to the flames of a furnace playing through a wide flue. The upper end is fitted with a hopper, the orifice of which can be tightly closed at pleasure by an ingenious contrivance, and the lower ends dips to the depth of two or three inches into a shallow pan filled with water. So adjusted, the retorts are ranged in long rows, a platform communicating with the shale-pit tramway giving access to their hoppers. The retort having been filled with broken shale, the furnace is brought into operation so as to raise its middle zone to a low red heat, and then the process of distillation goes on continuously. At the temperature referred to, which has to be carefully maintained throughout, the hydrocarbons contained in the shale are driven off in the shape of gas, which is to a large extent condensible. Under a greater heat they would take the form of permanent gas, and so the production of oil would be frustrated. The shale in the retort is kept moving by the addition at intervals of fresh material through the hopper at the top, and the regular raking away of that which falls out into the water-pan below. The Scotsman, Wednesday 27th December 1871

Base of retorts at Westwood crude oil works Base of retorts at Westwood Crude Oil Works. In previous designs of retort, spent shale was discharged into hoppers and then into hutches. The new, and much larger, design of retort introduced at Westwood discharged spent shale from hoppers onto a conveyor belt which carried the waste to a further hopper at the base of the spent shale bing

"7 days, 8 hour shifts and a 16 hour shift every 3rd Saturday, I was out 7 days, 56 hours. We always had on the three shift jobs, that's the men that work on the tips and the "gullers" when I worked in the gas pipes cleaning the droppers. That was the men that took the shale from the bottom of the retort, the burnt shale coming out. It came down into this dropper and a bell "holding it in", you pulled the lever and the shale came down into the hutch, you see and then when it was empty that closed up again, they had to put it way out to send it up the bing".JD, Niddry Castle Oil Works, circa 1932

STRIKE OF RETORTMEN AT BROXBURN - The whole of the retorts at Broxburn Works have been shut down in consequence of the refusal of the gulletmen to work three instead of four men at each bench of retorts. Close on 100 retortmen are thrown idle, while the miners employed in Nos. 1 and 2 Stewartfield mines were sent home yesterday morning because of the inability of the Company to take away the shale from them in consequence of the action of the retortmen. There are thus about 300 men idle. The gulletmen are employed in drawing the burned shale from the retorts, and they hold that four men are just sufficient for the work of one bench of retorts, and that the men could not stand the work if done with less. The Scotsman, Saturday 7th August 1897


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