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.

The Dalmeny Battery

In 1896 an agreement was reached between Lord Rosebery and the Dalmeny Oil Company for the latter to lease, for 31 years, the mineral rights beneath a relatively small geographic area of land stretching from their current workings to the Firth of Forth. Leases of this type were a common occurrence in West Lothian, and it was in no way contentious.

Dalmeny Oil Company lease
The 1896 lease between Lord Rosebery and the Dalmeny Oil Company for lands stretching to the Firth of Forth. BP Archive 129046.













Lease map
Map highlighting the new area leased from Lord Rosebery, 1896. BP Archive 129046.

In 1912 the Dalmeny Oil Company was actively working shale in this new area, gradually moving north, to a point just south of the Forth Bridge. But in this area was a gun emplacement, erected by the War Office around 1903, called the Dalmeny Battery. James Jones, director of the Dalmeny Oil Company, wrote to the War Office, informing it of the advancing works. Jones believed that the War Office had leased the land from Lord Rosebery.

Alarm bells immediately rang within the halls of the War Office – underground working may cause buildings above to shift, and even a miniscule move would have an impact on the accuracy of a gun battery. A reply was quickly sent to Jones noting that ‘the stability of these defences should in no way be interfered with.’ It then asked the Dalmeny Oil Company to relinquish rights to the shale.

Ordnance Survey map, 1917, depicting the area in dispute. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.



ordnance survey ma
Detail of Ordnance Survey map, 1917, depicting the area in dispute. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.












Although Dalmeny Battery has now largely disappeared, one nearby at Hound Point is still relatively intact. With thanks to Dunfermline Dave for allowing us of his photograph. His Flickr page has additional images of the Hound Point site: https://www.flickr.com/photos/david_love/








Jones quickly replied that should rights be relinquished then his Company would expect compensation. He then dropped the bombshell that shale workings had already moved to within 25 yards of the site boundary.

What followed was months of legal wrangling by letter, with James Jones claiming that because the War Office only lease the land, and not what lies beneath, they have no right to erect new buildings after the signing of that lease that may inhibit the working of shale.

In early June Jones’ patience breaks, and in a letter to the War Office he notes ‘there is no use negotiating on the basis of the legal view you express.’

The following month saw a lull in hostilities due to the War Office failing to reply to letters. Jones had clearly had enough of this procrastination by the War Office and wrote a letter telling them that if no reply was received within one week then his Company would continue to work the shale. He also offered the War Office the opportunity to compensate them for any unworked shale at 1/3- per ton.

And then, just as it seemed the saga was drawing to a close, James Jones died, unaware that he was one letter away from a solution. His son, James Reid Jones, took over his role in the Company.

Soon after, a letter arrived from the War Office noting that they had acquired the land from Lord Rosebery through Compulsory Purchase Order and, as such, the shale under it belonged to them, albeit tenanted by the Dalmeny Oil Company. The saga had ended after six months. But one has to ask why this information could not have been conveyed at the outset of negotiations? Surely someone in the War Office was aware of the purchase. Or why did Lord Rosebery not intervene? He was aware of the dispute. We will likely never know.

Note from the Dalmeny Oil Company minute book transcribing the letter from the War Office that settled the dispute. BP Archive 213069

An aside to this story is that due to the dispute the Forth Bridge Company, owners of the rail bridge carrying trains across the Firth of Forth between the Lothians and Fife, became aware of the potentially detrimental impact that underground working too close to the bridge might have on the integrity of the bridge. However, with no claim to the land the bridge was built on the Forth Bridge Company agreed to compensate the Dalmeny Oil Company for any shale not worked, presumably at 1/3- per ton.

Forth Bridge
The Forth Bridge, c1920. LVSAV2011.090