Dr George Grant: The Chemistry of Oil and Milk

One of our volunteers, Alexei, has spent the last few months transcribing a fascinating document. The transcribed version should be available in the next few days. It was so interesting that we asked him to write a blog. He very kindly agreed. Over to Alexei:

This latest transcription from the BP Archive is a rather unusual and incredibly interesting one. It is George Grant’s Process Book No.2. Sadly we don’t hold book No.1.

George Grant worked as a chemist at the Pumpherston Oil Works laboratory as early as 1911, and became Chief Chemist sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. His book is dated July 1911, so he must have been employed by the company for some time before that, in order to fill Process Book No.1 (which we sadly don’t have in the Archive).

Pumpherston chemists
Male and female chemists in the laboratory at Pumpherston Oil Refinery, c1970s

It has proven exceedingly difficult to track down information about George Grant. We don’t even have a photograph of him. Normally we would expect to find a few articles in local newspapers, but there are none. In our collection there is a single document, besides his process book.

Scheme of Distillation of Shale Oil in Connected Boiler Stills, October 1913 – a single sheet sign by George Grant. BP Archive 215940

And he is occasionally mentioned in the oral histories. Thankfully, one of these provides an interesting insight into the type of person he was:

Mr Grant and I used to have a kind of row now and again … an argument, you know, he was an awful man, he was a right Tory! Of course, I was a great Socialist! Well, it was something about the Tate Lyle shares had went up, I was reading in the paper that they had went up, and there had been a leak in the Government, and of course, all the boys that had plenty of money were buying Tate and Lyle shares! They went up a good bit too! I went up to Mr Grant the next morning and I was telling him all about it, and he got me by the back of the neck and he ran me out of the office, and he says, “Don’t you come back in here, we’re not wanting you back in here!” He says, “Stay out and don’t come back again!” I said, “You won’t get any samples!” He said, “Well, it won’t matter, stay out!” he says. Oh well, he came round the work that same day and he says, “Listen, you come back as usual with your samples, but we don’t want to hear any more about politics up in that office, from you!” He says, “Mind that!” But he was nice about it, you know, he was quite nice about it!

The book itself is numbered very oddly. It appears that when George Grant first started to keep this record, he went through the volume using only the right hand pages, numbering those with Roman numerals. At some point he tired of these and switched to Arabic numerals. Then he reached the end of the book and went back through it again, this time using the left hand pages, many of which are not numbered at all. Where they are numbered, they just take the number of the facing page followed with a lower case ‘a’ in brackets. Watch out for this – we have presented our version strictly in the order in which the pages appear in the book, so beware!

What the book contains is a large number of tests and processes for analysing materials of all sorts. George Grant didn’t confine himself solely to processes necessary for his professional duties at the oil works, although those are certainly there. Scattered among the tests involving oil, wax, ammonia, and so on, there are processes for a wide array of other substances, some of them quite exotic. There is, for example, tests for ‘Estimation of Uranium’ and ‘Analysis of Milk or Cream Chocolate’, which could hardly have been much use at the Pumpherston Oil Works. Some highlights include a fully worked analysis of beeswax from all over the world, and one of typical beers. Also interesting are the tests to detect adulterations in food, drink, oils and so forth, chiefly because he tells you exactly what unscrupulous producers were trying to get away with circa 1911, for example, that cod liver oil was frequently adulterated with refined seal oil, or rape oil with cottonseed oil.

Page from George Grant’s book detailing the analysis of milk
Page from George Grant’s book detailing the estimation of nicotine in tobacco using the Kissling Method












Page from George Grant’s book detailing the detection of hydrogen peroxide in milk

A very interesting read. And not just for the scientists among us.

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!