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William Fraser (1852-1915)


Portrait of William Fraser, Baron Strathalmond © BP plc. Image courtesy of BP Archive (ARC215939/001)

The Late Mr William Fraser

Mr William Fraser, managing director of the Pumpherston Oil Company, died last night at his residence, Scotston, Pollokshields, Glasgow, after a few days' illness. So recently as last Tuesday Mr Fraser was at a meeting of the Board. The following day he became indisposed, and his illness assumed a critical phase on Sunday. He rallied, and hope was entertained of his recovery, but yesterday he relapsed, and he died in the evening. He was in his sixty-third year.

From early life Mr Fraser was associated with the Scottish mineral oil industry, and for the last thirty-five years his name had been prominently identified with it. Beginning in the service of Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, Mr Fraser eventually became general mining and works manager of the late Uphall Oil Company. Severing his connection with that company in 1883, he, in conjunction with his brother, Mr Archibald Fraser, acquired from the late Mr Peter McLagan a lease of the shale in the Pumpherston estate, and formed the Pumpherston Oil Company. During the long period when the Scottish mineral oil trade suffered disastrously from American, Galician, and Russian competition, and a number of companies were forced out of existence, the Pumpherston Company, under Mr Fraser's able and far-seeing management, succeeded in not only surviving, but in greatly improving its position. About fourteen years ago the Tarbrax Company was also formed by Mr Fraser, but the works of that company, as well as the works at Deans, Seafield, and Breich, are now all incorporated in the undertakings of the Pumpherston Company.

Mr Fraser's ripe experience and his tact and judgement made him a valued counsellor on all matters connected with the oil industry, and he was frequently called upon to take a leading part in negotiations affecting the interests of the trade generally. A year or two ago he was largely instrumental in carrying through an important agreement with the British Government respecting the supply of oil fuel for the Navy. In his relations with the workers he was exceedingly happy, and disputes were of rare occurrence. The workers of the Pumpherston Company may be described as living under model conditions.

Mr Fraser also was closely identified with the lead mining industry at Wanlockhead, and he was for a number of years chairman of the local lead mining company. There, too, a somewhat struggling enterprise has been carried to success.

A native of Wanlockhead, Mr Fraser and his brothers, Mr Archibald Fraser, formerly secretary of the Pumpherston Company, and Mr John Fraser, gifted to the upland Lanarkshire village a handsome institute in memory of their father and mother. Through Mr Fraser's instrumentality a similar institute was provided for the workers at Tarbrax, of which company he was then chairman. Mr Fraser was a Justice of the Peace for the county of Linlithgow, but his somewhat indifferent health and constant demand of business upon his time prevented him from taking a prominent part in public affairs. He is survived by Mrs Fraser and a family of four sons and four daughters. Of the sons, Mr William Fraser is assistant managing director of the Pumpherston Oil Company, and two are on war service – one with the Croix Rouge of France and the other with the Scottish Red Cross Society. Of his daughters, Dr Elizabeth (Mrs Butler) has been in France on important bacteriological research work in connection with the war.

The Scotsman Tuesday 15th June 1915


© BP plc. Image courtesy of BP Archive (215305)


Mr William Fraser, Subject of Frontispiece

To bring it to its present high level of prosperity the Scottish mineral oil trade has required a more than usually large proportion of optimists. Problems have presented themselves from time to time which might have been expected to daunt the boldest, but they were fearlessly attacked, and one by one overcome, until the industry has emerged into what experts confidently expect will prove the most remarkable period of prosperity yet recorded in its history. Conspicuous among those who have contributed to this fine display of Scottish shrewdness and indomitable pluck is Mr. William Fraser, the managing director of the Pumpherston Oil Company, Ltd. Mr. Fraser's connection with the shale oil industry extends back for well over a quarter of a century. His experience as a practical shale miner has been a long and varied one, he having held a managerial appointment as far back as 1876. Seven years thereafter he acquired a lease of the shale deposits on the Pumpherston Estate, and was instrumental in forming the Pumpherston Oil Company to work them. Under his management the concern has proved eminently successful, having attained the distinction of being the highest dividend payer of all the companies. To begin with, it was moderately capitalised. Then Mr. Fraser was able to bring his own practical knowledge to the conduct of its affairs, and as anyone at all familiar with the difficulties of the elaborate process necessary for the distillation of oil shale and the refining and fractionising of the crude oil will readily appreciate, there is nothing more essential in the shale oil industry than a good management. Dividends ranging up to 50 per cent. per annum have been paid on the Ordinary shares of the Pumpherston Oil Company, and if rumour - apparently in the present case well-founded - is to be believed, a still more substantial distribution is likely to be made for the current year.

But after making every allowance for Mr. Fraser's technical skill and dogged determination, what has probably contributed as much as anything to the outstanding degree of success which he has achieved is his unswerving optimism. Never during the darkest hours experienced by this much-tried industry has he for a single instant doubted but that it would emerge from the struggle stronger and more able to sustain the buffets of fortune than ever. Time was when the shale oil industry, so far as Scotland was concerned, seemed to be in its last throes. The competition of well petroleum made it apparently more than relatively costly to produce shale oil. But Mr. Fraser realised that the last word on the shale oil industry had not been spoken. He among very few appreciated the importance of the valuable by-products which the crude shale oil contained. He initiated a sustained and systematic campaign to discover ways and means of recovering these in the course of the usual refining process. Gradually, under his long-sighted direction, the process of refining as now perfected was elaborated, the indefatigable perseverance of Mr. Fraser and his colleagues calling forth the frankly expressed admiration of the magnates of the great Standard Oil organisation.

That it was no narrow or haphazard view of the possibilities which Mr. Fraser took is evidenced by the fact that while yet the success of much of the experimental work for the recovery of by-products might be said to be trembling in the balance, he pursued an energetic policy of extending the shale reserves of the Company whose operations he so ably managed. The ground was prepared for judicious extension by the acquisition of the Seafield Works in 1891, the Deans Works being purchased five years later, and the properties of the New Hermand Oil Company in 1903. Only twelve months later he secured the properties of the old Caledonian Mineral Oil Company, which were taken over and reorganised by a new company known as the Tarbrax Oil Company, Ltd. This was really an offshoot of the Pumpherston Oil Company, the directorate being the same. The Tarbrax Company does not undertake the refining of the oil, but sells its output of crude to the Pumpherston Company on terms which have proved satisfactory to both concerns. It might be thought that after such a notably successful career Mr. Fraser would be content to rest on his laurels, but no greater mistake could be made, as he is as indefatigable as ever in seeking the continued success of the concerns with which he is connected.

His oil trade responsibilities, it may be mentioned, include a directorship of the Trinidad Oilfields, in addition to the managing directorship of the Pumpherston Oil Company and the chairmanship of the Tarbrax Oil Company. He is ever inaugurating new developments and improvements at Pumpherston and Tarbrax. At the mines the aid of electricity has of recent years been invoked to a very much greater extent than formerly, while in many other respects the costs of handling the shale and refining the oil have been reduced. Then the methods of distribution have received his usual painstaking attention, with the result that the Pumpherston Oil Company has given the Scottish mineral oil companies a valuable lead in the forward policy in this direction which has latterly done so much to ensure the remunerative marketing of a steadily increasing production. From one point of view the unflagging zeal with which Mr. Fraser has prosecuted his business career has operated to the prejudice of the community at large, as it has prevented him giving that degree of attention to public affairs which his energy and ability called for. He is a justice of the peace for Linlithgow, but is otherwise little known outside of that important branch of the business world with which his name has become indelibly associated.

The Financial Standard, 17th September 1912

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