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A Brief History of James "Paraffin" Young

Early years

James Young was born in 1811 in the east end of Glasgow. He followed his father into trade as a cabinetmaker. At the age of 19 he enrolled in evening classes at the Andersonian college, an institution that schooled artisans and other skilled workers in the ways of science. He was taken under the wing of chemistry professor Thomas Graham, and ultimately assisted him in his lectures and experiments. At the Andersonian, he rubbed shoulders with the cream of the Scottish scientific community and made contacts and friendships that benefited his progress throughout his career.

In 1839 Young was appointed manager of James Muspratt's chemical works at Newton-le-willows and in 1844 moved to Charles Tennant's works in Manchester where he was employed as a chemical troubleshooter. During his time there he was sent a sample of oil from a natural seepage in a coal mine at Riddings, Derbyshire. He recognised the opportunity of using a distillate of this oil as spindle oil to lubricate the looms of the Lancashire cotton mills, and set up in partnership with Edward Meldrum to produce and market this product. After initial success, supplies of the oil soon dried up and in 1848 Young turned his attention to finding ways of obtaining mineral oils from other sources.

At that time there already existed a substantial trade in natural oils from seeds, from fish, whales and other marine creatures, in tallow from rendered meat, and small volumes of Rangoon Petroleum; a natural oil seepage from Burma. The coal gas industry was also well developed and various tars and liquid solvents were produced as by-products of gas production.

First Experiments

Young took the basic process used for gas production – the heating of cannel coal in an enclosed cast iron container – and found that under less aggressive conditions of heat, an oil vapour could be driven off rather than an incondensable gas. In 1850 he took out his patent for the production of paraffine oil; an expertly constructed legal document that was sufficiently specific in key respects, but conveniently vague in others. This patent was later extended to the USA and many European countries, and although contested in several high profile court cases, remained effective until its expiry in 1864. This patent, which covered both the retorting process and some simple refining and processing of the resulting oils, was the foundation of Young's wealth and success.

Young experimented with a variety of cannel coals from throughout Britain that were were used for gas production, and identified Boghead coal as one of the richest sources of oil. The decision was therefore made to construct his first oil works near to Bathgate, on a site beside the Wilsontown, Morningside and Coltness railway close to where the seam of Boghead coal outcropped at the surface. To progress this enterprise, Young entered a formal partnership with Edward Meldrum who served as works manager and provided many of the technical skills, and with Edward Binney who provided much of the capital and legal expertise.

Bathgate Works

A start was made on construction of these new works in 1851 These were initially on a very small scale; even by 1856, when first mapped by the ordnance survey the “Bathgate Chemical Works” appear as a very modest range of buildings with little indication of the processes taking place within. The plant soon was sometimes referred to as the “secret works, as entry was closely controlled in an attempt to prevent industrial espionage, and a high perimeter fence was constructed and the workforce sworn to secrecy. Surviving notebooks tell of the experimentation taking place inside which was to establish some of the basic processes later used throughout the oil industry. The design of retorts were gradually developed, improvements made to the fractionation of oil products through simple batch refining , the removal of impurities by acid and alkaline washes, and the separation of paraffin wax by use of some of the earliest refrigeration equipment.

Production of oil gradually increased. Initially the greatest demand existed for heavier oils as lubricants for industrial machinery. The lighter fractions, termed naptha, were sold as solvents or for burning in crude flares for lighting industrial spaces such as shipyards, but commanded a much lower price than lubricating oil. When tried in the oil lamps of the day, this dirty and poorly refined naptha proved either dangerously volatile, or contained so much wax as to clog the pores of wicks.

Young turned his attention to creating a market for this by-product; improving refining processes to provide a cleaner product and identifying a design of lamp better suited to burning this new paraffin oil. Cheaper and of a more consistent quality that competing vegetable or animal -based lamp oils, demand for “Young's Paraffine Oil” boomed and from 1858 Young opened the first of a national network of offices selling both paraffin oil, and lamps suited to burning this new product, so cutting out the traditional wholesalers. Young increasingly focussed his attention on the marketing and commercial management of the business, leaving production matters to his partner Edward Meldrum. Young courted and contrived coverage in the press, while a series of high profile legal cases in defence of his patent did much to raise public awareness of the man and his business.

An air of mystery remained around the production process and the raw material used. The Boghead coal, also known as the Torbanite or the Torbane mineral, was a cannel coal particular suited for gas or oil production. It existing in a small mineral field extending for little more than 2.5 square miles. At its thickest, the seam was little more than 2ft thick, but was considered so valuable that at the extremes of the field, seams only 2” thick were worked. Young and his partners contracted to purchase much of the production, but supplies also continued to be sold to gas works.

Many entrepreneurs sought to emulate Young's success and, for a short period, supplies of Boghead coal were dispatched to destinations throughout the world, both to those licensing Young's patent, and to those hoping to go unnoticed. Most remarkable were a number of oil works established on the eastern coast of the USA fed with Boghead coal. In our museum we have a lump of Boghead coal recovered from a ship that foundered off Islay en route to America. Most of these operators very soon realised that there was nothing exceptional about Boghead Coal and that similar cannel coals occurred in most coalfields throughout the world.

New Competition

In 1859, the first successful oil well was drilled in Titusville Pennsylvania and remarkably within 2 or 3 years, large quantities of American petroleum were being imported into Britain and mainland Europe. American kerosene or petroleum, was much cheaper than Young's paraffin oil, but was more crudely refined and soon acquired an unfortunate reputation for causing explosions and house fires. Young's paraffin oil was able to compete as a premium product that burned more safely and cleanly. The Scottish oil industry continued to fight a fierce battle again American competition for the next century.

In the early 1860's other factors were beginning to count against Young's business. The cost of Boghead coal rose as supplies became depleted, would-be competitors became increasingly bold as the expiry date of Young's patent approached, and small scale businesses were established in the Broxburn area based on oil shale – a mineral that which was not considered a coal and therefore not covered by Young's patent. Additionally, tensions rose between Young and his two partners over the future direction of the business. Whilst Young was publicly promoting the idea that the partnership should turn their attention to supplies of Cannel coal elsewhere in Scotland, (perhaps Methil in Fife) he was, unknown to his partners, purchasing on his own account, mineral rights to large areas of oil shale in the West Calder area.

The partnership was dissolved in 1864 on expiry of Young's patent. Bathgate works were put up for sale and ultimately Young bought out his partners interests. The Bathgate works continued in operation as an oil works, refinery and testbed for new ideas until 1887, and until 1953 as a sulphuric acid plant.

The Ambitions of Addiewell

Young however had still grander ideas and began construction of a new works and refinery at Addiewell, near West Calder to produce oil from the oilshales that lay beneath much of the area now known as West Lothian. This was a vertically integrated industrial complex on a scale seldom seen at that date. Shale and coal mines fed retorts that in turn served a refinery and candle works. The works were supported by an engineering workshop, cooperage, brickworks and houses to accommodate 700 workmen.

As this impressive complex neared completion, Young established an limited company; Young's Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company Ltd which then purchased most of Young's interest in the business. Young served as Chairman of the company until 1870 when he retired to enjoy his significant wealth and public acclaim. Until his death in 1883 he remained very much in the public eye, receiving an honorary doctorate, contributing to scientific and business matters, and other affairs of the day including campaigning to raise funds for David Livingston's expeditions and the promotion of adult education.

Young's Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company Ltd became a solid, although never a spectacular performer in the Scottish shale oil industry, being burdened with debt from the outset. The company still exists as an inactive subsidiary of BP.

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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.