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!

Polluting the Water and Land

Around a decade after James Young’s first Chemical Works was erected at Bathgate in 1850, concerns began to be raised by communities and farmers near to the shale fields as to the amount of pollutants being dumped into local rivers, lochs, and canals.

Broxburn Oil Works (LVSAV2011.126)

By the 1870s the Breich Water was ‘of a yellow dirty colour, and quite unfit for use.’ Likewise, the River Avon was ‘in a very impure condition,’ whilst the Union Canal was ‘very much polluted.’

Attempts were made to address the issue via the Pollution of Rivers Inquiry in 1870, leading to numerous legal actions being raised by irate farmers suffering from contaminated land and water, and the detrimental effect it had on livestock. Some refuted all responsibility. The West Calder Oil Company called for the pursuers to be barred from complaining of the alleged pollution, arguing that the allegations were ‘irrelevant’. Most held up their hands. Young’s and Oakbank, for example, admitted that by their actions they ‘wrongfully, and to the injury of the pursuers, permitted impurities to be discharged from their works into the waters complained of [and] undertook to take all practical means to put a stop to the pollution complained of, so far as occasioned by them, in all time coming.’

almond aqueduct
Almond Aqueduct over the Union Canal (LVSAV2011.094)

In 1873 the River Pollution Commissioners released figures that added strength to the colour of the water. Between 1861 and 1871 the mortality rate per 1,000 per annum rose from 23.9 to 32.9. The shale industry challenged the figures on the basis that other industries might also be liable.

The prevent the pollution of rivers the River Pollution Prevention Act was passed in 1876, and strengthened in 1893. But companies continued to break the law. In 1905 Midlothian Council won a case against the Oakbank and Pumpherston Oil Companies, forcing them to introduce remedial works to halt pollution of the River Almond from their respective oil works. And six years later the Hog family of Newliston took Broxburn Oil Company to court for allowing soot and noxious vapours to spoil its lands.

Paddling and playing in the River Almond, c.1910. LVSAV 2010.130