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British Industrial History

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North Staffordshire Oil Co

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In the year 1851 a Mr. Young patented a process for obtaining paraffin oil from cannel coal, and erected large works for extracting the precious liquid, at Bathgate, in Scotland. Other extensive works under the same patent were soon afterwards established in Scotland, and four years ago a gentleman named Mr. Fernie, in company with several other gentlemen, began the manufacture of the same article at Saltney, in North Wales, his example being quickly followed by other mine owners in the principality.

A little over three years ago a gentleman, formerly in the employ of the patentees, discovered that the coalfield of North Staffordshire abounded in a material which, after undergoing the above-mentioned process, produced oil equal in quality, though not in quantity, to that obtained from cannel. This material was simply shale — a stone which is exceedingly abundant near our seams of ironstone. It abounds to an almost unlimited extent in North Staffordshire, has hitherto been considered quite useless, and the thousands of tons which have been necessarily brought to the surface in the course of the excavations connected with ironstone mines have been considered as worthless refuse, a premium having been generally paid for its removal. The person who made the discovery at first only communicated his knowledge to one firm of colliery proprietors, who erected retorts for carrying out the process at Stanfield, near Burslem, keeping the matter a profound secret, and actually obtaining the bulk of their supply of the raw material free of cost from the neighbouring mine owners. But the latter, though ignorant at first of the object for which the refuse from their pit mouths was carted away so readily, were not long in suspecting the nature of the mysterious operations at Stanfield, and having by dint of a little tact and perseverance gratified their curiosity, showed that they were " wide awake " by at once demanding 5s. per ton for their shale.

In the meantime, Mr. Young's patent expired, and the process became common property; the result was that retorts began to spring up in all directions, and at the present time many tons of oil are manufactured weekly within short distances of Burslem and Tunstall, though the trade, as compared with its probable magnitude in the future, may be said to have been scarcely begun. The discovery of this process of extracting a very valuable liquid from a hitherto almost worthless material, lying in millions of tons near our coal and iron — a discovery more important than that of manufacturing gas from coal — has, of course, worked a revolution in the value of mines in this district. The shale, which several years ago, was worth nothing at all, will now fetch between 5s. and 6s. per ton as raw material, each ton yielding from twenty to thirty-five gallons, according to the quality, and to a proprietor who chooses to extract the oil from it himself it is worth 10s. per ton, thus becoming equal in value to either coal or ironstone. Many iron-stone mines, which have been worked to their full extent and have been long closed up, abound in shale, and will, of course, be re-opened, and afford a lucrative return to the fortunate proprietor.

The oil thus obtained, however, is in its crude state, and requires refining, and has to be conveyed, by rail or canal, at a considerable expense, to the nearest refinery. It was ascertained that the erection of an oil refinery on the spot, would be a saving of £3 per ton to the producer, in carriage and leakage. In these days of enterprise and speculation, a seriously felt public want does not long remain without some attempt, more or less successful, being made to meet it. In most instances, where the undertaking is a large one, capitalists combine, and establish a limited liability company.

This has been done in the present case. Some half dozen gentlemen in Tunstall and the neighbourhood, including several extensive owners of shale mines, have formed themselves into a company called the North Staffordshire Oil Company (Limited). The process has just been commenced on a small scale, but it will be several months before the works will be in full operation, and then the company will be able to refine 100 tons per week, finding employment for between eighty and ninety persons. As the crude oil trade expands, the company purpose increasing the size of the works untd they are enabled to refine 200 tons per week. The works from beginning to end have been erected in first-class style, and on the newest principles, by Messrs. Barker and Cope, of Burslem and Kidsgrove, who have also provided the boilers, engines, tanks (all iron) and in fact the whole of the machinery, We believe this is the first time a local firm has undertaken so difficult and extensive a work, and Messrs. Barker and Cope are to be congratulated for the successful accomplishment of their task. We understand that the total cost of the works will be- nearly £12,000. — Staffordshire Sentinel.' [1]

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Sources of Information

  1. Sheffield Independent, 15 January 1867