Our Evolving Collection: From Pumpherston to the Wolgan Valley

In 2015 we put up a short story about a Pumpherston man called William Findlay.

The story began in June 1907 when William Findlay, a retort bricklayer, left his home in School Row, Pumpherston, to undertake a one year contract for the Commonwealth Oil Corporation to build the Bryson patent ‘Pumpherston’ retort at Newnes in the Wolgan Valley near Sydney. Findlay was paid £300 per annum, with his passage to and from Australia paid.

William Findlay
On the extreme left of this 1908 photograph is Pumpherston man, William Findlay. (R10-00385)

Retoring began at Newnes in 1911, but soon stopped due to financial and technical issues. The latter related to the inability of the retort to cope with the rich Australian shale. The retort was replaced in 1913 and operations began again, under a new company, and continued successfully for many years.

Share certificate
Share certificate relating to shale mining operation at Newnes in Australia (LVSAV2011.101)
Pumpherston Retort at Newnes
A 1908 photograph of the bench of Bryson patent ‘Pumpherston” retorts built at the foot of ‘shale mountain’ at Newnes, in the Wolgan Valley. The shale was hewn from the mountainside and brought out from shafts to be taken directly to the adjacent retorts. (R10-00370)

And there the story ended because we knew nothing more of William Findlay. So, imagine our surprise when his daughter and grandson walked into the Museum with a collection of photographs (originals of the copies we already had) and documents belonging to William.

William had returned home, continued working in the West Lothian shale fields, and lived to be a good old age.

William Findlay
William Findlay, aged 90, at Pumpherston Bowling Club (LVSAV2018.079)

This is just one example of how our collection evolves over time, when local people bring in objects and items that augment what we already have.

Limefield House: lawyers, explorers, pig breeders and a bed for the night

Sitting just off a walled and wooded road east of Polbeth is an old mansion house, along the corridors of which, according to folklore, roams the ghost of a black Labrador, perhaps hoping for a pat on the back by a fellow apparition who is looking for ‘the little girl.’

Limefield House
Limefield House, LVSAV2016.141

Limefield House was built around 1805 for Thomas Gloag, a Writer to the Signet. It was one of the finest houses in the region, ‘elegant, commodious and substantially built [with a] dining room, drawing room, parlour and six bedrooms.’ As Gloag sauntered out his front door he would have been welcomed by around 60 acres of surrounding estate ‘well stocked with fruit trees.’

Gloag did not garner much benefit from his new mansion; he died in 1810. The next 40 years saw it become part of the Midlothian (now West Lothian) landscape, but its sheer size and cost of upkeep meant it was frequently on the market for rental. That is until 1855 when a chemist called James Young purchased it.

Young had recently been successful in producing oil from cannel coal. The extent of his success was clear to see in his purchase of Limefield House. But he also set about upgrading it, adding ornate banisters, and installing gas lighting and electricity throughout.

David Livingstone
David Livingstone, Scottish explorer

One regular visitor was the adventurer David Livingstone, who Young knew from his time spent lecturing at Anderson’s College in Glasgow. Years later local people would reminisce about him alighting the train at West Calder, or being driven through the town. One man even recalled handing the trowel to Livingstone as he laid the foundation stone of the Addiewell Oil Works.

Limefield Falls
Limefield Falls, LVSAV2011.135

So close were the pair that Young had a waterfall erected on Harburn Water, a miniature Victoria Falls, in tribute to his friend. Other remnants of Livingstone’s time at Limefield still exist. A sycamore tree planted by him is still flourishing in the grounds. But perhaps the most incredible story is that of a replica African hut built by Livingstone for Young’s children. For years it sat in the grounds of Limefield, but by the early 1990s had been seriously vandalised. A local man asked if he could take it for his garden and it was agreed he could. So, it was dismantled and taken to the garden of a house in Langside Crescent in Polbeth. There it sat for 13 years, replete with pink interior and lace curtains, hosting picnics for the owner’s daughters, until it was worked out exactly what the structure was and returned to Limefield.

In 1891 the house survived the fate of many of its contemporaries when the quick actions of servants helped stop a blaze – ironically caused by hot ashes coming into contact with paraffin oil.

Loudon MacQueen Douglas
Loudon MacQueen Douglas

For some years the property passed to Young’s daughter and her husband, and around 1930 it was lived in by Loudon MacQueen Douglas, an engineer, author and pig breeder. Douglas died in 1944. In the post-war period the house passed into the hands of Young’s grand-daughter, Alice Thom, and in 1955, exactly 100 years after her grandfather acquired it, she bequeathed it to the local Council for the benefit of the people of Polbeth and West Calder. For some years it served as a nursing home, but by 1989 it was in disrepair and a short report was written, possibly by a Community Councillor, calling for it to be converted into sheltered housing or a convalescent home.

There were real fears that it could be demolished, but thankfully it was sold to a private owner who refurbished it and opened it up as a quality bed and breakfast. The monies raised were in part used to fund the opening of the Alice Thom Memorial Suite at the West Calder Community Education Centre.

So Alice Thom’s wishes were adhered to, and West Lothian retained one of its finest buildings. We’re sure the black Lab is pleased he still has a corridor to roam through!


From Pumpherston Pond to the Blind Nullah

Assam Oil Company refining plant between the Digboi and Blind Nullah rivers, 1895

Occasionally we come across an oddity in our collection that we think warrants a small mention on this page. We’ve scanned all our maps and have started the slow process of digitally stitching the bigger ones together so you can view them as one image. When we finished scanning one particular map it was clearly somewhat different from the others – it wasn’t Scottish. After a little research it became apparent that it related to an oil refinery in Assam, India. The map is dated 1899, and given that the refinery opened in 1901 it appears to have been a plan of the proposed layout. It shows the refinery sitting between two rivers – the Blind Nullah and the Digboi (the latter apparently coming from the phrase shouted at local workers by an English engineer when attempting to discover if the black stuff on his elephants’ legs was oil – dig boy, dig). The refinery is still in operation today.