Middleton Hall – from country pile to nursing home

In 1707, as the Union of Parliaments was bringing together Scotland and England, the Rev. George Barclay was utilising the stone from the ruined Strathbrock Castle to build himself an impressive pile in Uphall called Middleton. Over the next 200 years the property changed hands several times, with some of the most notable early inhabitants being David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan and the Threipland family.

bowling club badge
Middleton Hall Bowling Club badge, bearing a badger on the top right of the shield. The badger represents Strathbrock Castle, brock being a Scots word for badger.

In the early 1840s it was purchased by Robert W. Maxwell, who sought to make good use of the 53 acres of land, leading to it being described as having ‘splendid gardens and hothouses’, as well as utilising the conservatory. When Captain William Hankey bought the house in 1851 he

william hankey
Captain William Hankey (in foreground, seated on horse and turning) living the life of a landed gent in the 19th century

filled it with ‘the choicest plants and flowers’. Even by the end of the century it was still regarded as ‘one of the prettiest glimpses of greenwood in the whole parish … a favourite popular resort on summer Sunday afternoons during the season of fruits and flowers’.

Captain John Pender took over the property in 1868 and almost immediately the surrounding lands began to divulge their worth – when workmen were boring for water, natural gas was discovered. On being exposed to a flame, it blazed up and remained lit until it was extinguished the following day. Pender was also instrumental in testing the geology of his new lands, discovering, for example, blackband ironstone in 1868.

james pender
James Pender, owner of Middleton at the beginning of the 20th century

When Pender died in 1896 the property passed to his son, James, who, in 1899, sold the property to the Broxburn Oil Company. For 21 years the property was let out, first as a ‘lunatic asylum’ and later to house convalescing First World War soldiers.

Upon the amalgamation of the six major shale oil companies into Scottish Oils Ltd in 1920, the property was taken over for use as the headquarters of this company, with a third storey being added in 1939. It housed office space and a laboratory, as well as being a training centre for non-mining apprentices.

middleton hall 1924
Middleton Hall soon after Scottish Oils Ltd began to utilise it as office space, 1924
middleton hall extension
The third storey being added to Middleton Hall, September 1939
middleton hall
Middleton Hall after the addition of its extension
middleton hall lab
The laboratory at Middleton Hall
middleton hall staff
Staff outside Middleton Hall, 1950

It remained as such until 1967 when it was taken over by Motherwell Bridge Thermal Ltd for use as office space. Twenty years later it became a nursing home and has remained so ever since.

I wonder if the residents know of their home’s rich history?

Annual Reports

In the past few days we’ve uploaded the last batch of Annual Reports to our website. We don’t have every one – for example, we only have those for Pumpherston Oil Company from 1913 – but what we do have is now available for you to view online.

Annual Report
Broxburn Oil Company Annual Report, 1888

So what do they tell us? Well, they provide a range of information.

  • The company directors
  • The company assets and liabilities
  • Where the company money is invested
  • The dividends paid to shareholders

Looking at each Annual Report, it may seem a little dry; facts and figures relating to the previous year’s business. But those facts and figures can be turned into data that is much more accessible. Take the company dividends for example. A line chart can quickly show the ups and downs of the company, via the dividends given to shareholders (if the dividends are high then the company is making a profit). What immediately jumps out is the ‘down’ period during the 1930s, both preceded and followed by a period of sustained success.

Dividends chart
Dividends given to shareholders

We can then go off on a tangent and ask who were these people being given dividends? Well, they weren’t the men working in the mines and oil works. They tended to be company directors, and people with money, often living many hundreds of miles away from the shale company operations. In fact, many probably never entered a shale works in their lives.

Page from a Pumpherston Oil Co. Ltd shareholders’ book

The office staff, such as those pictured here outside Middleton Hall, would have collated information from a number of disparate sources to create a single, simple document.

Office staff outside Middleton Hall
Office staff outside Middleton Hall

Philanthropy of the Oil Companies

We often look back at the international oil companies and see them as uncaring behemoths whose sole priority was profit, and should the shale miners and their families get in the way of this goal then they would just have to accept the consequences.

And in many ways this view is correct. Workers were killed and injured down the mines and in the oil works in huge numbers, as can be seen on our accidents page. Those working with paraffin wax often fell victim to cancerous growths, as can be seen in this blog post.

But this is not a wholly accurate picture. In many ways the shale companies were quite philanthropic, paying out sums of money, both small and large, to improve the lives of their employees.

One of thousands of letters sent by the Broxburn Oil Company concerning the day-today-running of the Company. (Extracted from BP Collection: 213311)

The Shale Museum holds many folders of letters sent out by the shale companies, some over 1,000 pages long. These mainly detail the mundane daily happenings within the companies, such as requesting rents, paying for damaged land, and the sale of property. But occasionally they throw up other interesting snippets, including highlighting company philanthropy.

gala day
Tarbrax Gala Day, 1933 (Museum Collection: LVSAV1998.027)

Looking at 1942 and 1943 throws up many examples. Gala Day Committees would apply for funds, usually around £2, and were often successful. Pumpherston Oil Company (POC) funded the Seafield and Breich Gala Days, Oakbank Oil Company (OOC) the East Calder and District Gala Day, and the Broxburn Oil Company (BOC) the Broxburn Gala Day. Small payments to public bands were also commonplace, two payments of 5 guineas being made by the BOC to the Broxburn Public Band in 1942.

pipe band
Pumpherston Pipe Band, 1949 (Reference Collection: R10-00687)

Schools were also beneficiaries. For many years up to 1942 the OOC presented watches to the boy and girl dux of the Oakbank Public School. In 1942 this practice was ended, but that year the two winners were given copies of Shakespeare’s Works.

Watch presented to Robert Hay, dux of Pumpherston Public School, 1901-02

All manner of other local organisations would apply for funding, from Sabbath Schools to Garden and Allotment Associations.

But the biggest payouts were reserved for the District Nursing Associations. In 1943 the POC paid £50 to the Livingston and District Nursing Association. Each December the Broxburn and District Nursing Association would receive £50 to hire two nurses, whilst the OOC would pay £25 each to the Mid Calder & Kirknewton Nursing Association, and the Winchburgh, Niddry & District Nursing Association.

nurses at bangour
Nurses at Bangour Hospital, much like those that were funded by the oil companies (Museum Collection: LVSAV2012.046)

So while there are many negative aspects to the working practices of the oil companies, we should bear in mind that they did give some monies to local communities. This money helped build community spirit, and created a foundation upon which today’s towns and villages are built.

Stramash at the Oil Works

In the early 1880s a new Oil Works was opened at Pumpherston, taking in shale from a number of nearby mines. In its early years it flourished as an enterprise and to the outside world all seemed well. And it was. Apart from an internal dispute that, until now, remained hidden from any onlookers, consigned to the pages of the company minute book.

Pumpherston Oil Works
Pumpherston Oil Works, c1922

On 14th September 1886 the Board of the Pumpherston Oil Company received a letter from the Works Manager at the Oil Works, a George David Henry Mitchell, complaining that the foreman was withholding information from him. Nothing else is mentioned in the minutes for two months, until it is noted that the Board is negotiating terms with Mitchell to leave. However, these terms include Mitchell remaining with the Company until 5th April 1887. This throws the Managing Director of the Board, William Fraser, into conniptions. Mitchell has, in his view, ‘brought the company to the verge of ruin.’ As a result he resigns from his position, further railing against Mitchell, called him ‘this man who has done so much already to crash the company’ and noting ‘the utter incapacity of Mr Mitchell to conduct the works in a satisfactory manner’. Within a month Fraser had started calling in his loans to the Company, angered by his former fellow board members bad-mouthing him behind his back. He felt ‘impelled to make my protest against the looseness which is being practised by certain members of your board, their semi private remarks and comments regarding my past connection with the company’ going on to say ‘if your board consider it any part of their present duty to your company to criticise my past doings by all means let them do so, but surely common fairness demands that this should be done direct to me and not behind my back.’

William Fraser Sr
William Fraser Sr

Little more occurs over the following three months, other than an external company being brought in to report on the state of the Works and the retorts. But in February the Board receive a letter from Robert Hill, a cashier, in which he states that Mitchell is stopping him doing his stock duties, and confining him to his office, going so far as to post a sentry on the door. The Board, clearly feeling enough is enough, immediately dispensed of Mitchell’s services. Almost immediately Fraser was invited to return to the Board, but he refused, agreeing to take on an advisory role.

It is not known just exactly what Mitchell did that prompted Fraser’s ire, as no evidence can be found of a downturn in the Company, although an anonymous circular was handed to shareholders at the 1886 AGM (what it contained is never revealed). But he was clearly an awkward character. After leaving it emerged that he had removed all the Company’s works cost sheets, stock sheets, and a private letter book, a matter put in the hands of the Company’s lawyers. Fraser did return to the Board, and remained there until his death in 1915. His son, also William, took over the position of Managing Director when he died, creating a dynasty that lasted until the end of the industry.

If we should come across any more interesting information about this affair, we’ll update this blog!