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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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!