Crime and punishment

We recently posted about the daring hold-up of shale employees carrying the weekly wages, and the subsequent capture and jailing of the guilty men. Whilst this was a major incident, it was one of only many crimes that beset the shale oil industry, and those that worked in it.

Three robbers
Three men in the dock after a daring hold-up, with the intent of stealing miners’ weekly wages

Fighting, assaults, theft, murder. You name it, some shale employees were taking part in it. There was even another hold-up, in 1913, when Andrew Muir was robbed of the Trades Union collection. And why openly rob someone when you can simply embezzle the funds of the local Reading Room, as shale miner Thomas Brown did at Gavieside!

Underground assaults were commonplace. In June 1872 two miners took an argument with the signalman, John Demsie, a step too far, when they ‘attacked him with great ferocity, knocking him down, and unmercifully beating him.’ They were given their just desserts – 30 days each in prison. Demsie can perhaps count himself lucky – many assaults were aided with the use of implements close to hand, such as shovels and even a snibble.

Snibbles, similar to that used in an assault down a shale mine. LVSAV.1984.001

And miners often took their aggression into the family home. In 1893 shale miner William Easton took a miners’ pick to his wife, cutting a deep gash in her upper arm. He was committed to prison. His wife can perhaps count herself lucky – murders were not unheard of in the shale villages, or even down the mines.

But the most common cause for the police becoming involved appears to have been theft. If it wasn’t nailed down it appears that a small number of those living in the shale villages would try to purloin it for themselves. Coal, shale, beer, brushes, the list is virtually endless. One of the most striking cases is that of the Ferguson sisters, one so young she could not be charged. In 1874 they were stealing lamps and shades from Young’s Oil Works and then selling them to shops in the West Port area of Edinburgh. In the best traditions of Scooby Doo, they would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for the pesky Works’ manager. Passing one of the shops he recognised a lamp that he knew had been stolen and after some investigation the full story became clear.

Young's oil lamp
A Young’s oil lamp, similar to that stolen by the Ferguson sisters. LVSAV1984.117

When the Wild West Came to Mid Calder

James Balfour Sneddon, mine manager at Winchburgh, had a weekly routine. Each Friday he would withdraw around £2,000 from the Mid Calder branch of the Clydesdale Bank, and a chauffeur, a man called William McQuiston, would drive him to Winchburgh where he would pay his workers their weekly wage.

In August 1921 the two men were following their usual routine when they were forced to stop as a cyclist was sprawled across the road, in an apparent accident. On stepping out the car to give assistance the two men were immediately assaulted by the ‘injured’ cyclist and two companions. The attack was clearly planned as one of the men went straight for Sneddon’s bag of money.

Sneddon and McQuiston
Two men, believed to be Sneddon and McQuiston, in court to give evidence

Sneddon and McQuiston gave chase, picking up the discarded bag of money on the way, but were forced to turn around and head for the nearest police station when shots were fired at them from a revolver. The police soon picked up two of the men, with the third being arrested in the following days. Clearly this group – Irishmen from Deans – were not the Wild Bunch.

Three robbers
Coleman, Ruddy, and Dempsey in the dock

By November the three men were in the Edinburgh High Court awaiting trial. The three accused – William Coleman, Thomas Ruddy, and Patrick Dempsey – were jailed for seven, five, and three years respectively.

Sneddon would work in the shale industry for some years, having a distinguished career. He was also heavily involved with community groups, and in 1935 was awarded an OBE for public service.