1. OIL & THE OLD DEEPS COLLIERY
The Old Deeps was a colliery owned by James Oakes & Company. It was located near to the Pinxton Branch of the Cromford Canal, by the side of Bridle Lane between the canal and the Ironworks site at Pye Bridge. In 1847, a decision was made by the company to extend the shaft to a deeper level to extract coal from the Kilburn Seam. It made the Old Deeps one of the deepest collieries in the country. As mining operations continued at the lower level, a torrent of salt water burst through the workings. In order for mining to continue a sump was constructed at the shaft bottom to collect the water, which was then transferred at night into tubs, taken to the surface and disposed of in the Cromford Canal. The Cromford Canal Act of Parliament obliged all colliery owners in the vicinity of the canal to discharge water from their mines and collieries directly into the canal.
In time the flow of water diminished and it was followed by a black treacle-like substance which began oozing into the workings. Considered just another hindrance to mining operations, it was similarly disposed of into the canal.
Much of the contaminating substance found its way along the canal to Pinxton Wharf, where it is said that children, during the autumn nights of 1847, used to set the canal on fire by pitching hot cinders and burning twigs into the water. The proprietors of the Codnor Park Brewery also began to raise concerns about the water from the canal, which had been finding its way into the brewing process and giving their ale an odd flavour.
Finally realising that something needed to be done about the situation, James Oakes himself began an investigation and contacted his brother-in-law, the eminent scientist Lyon Playfair, for help with the problem.
2. LYON PLAYFAIR & JAMES YOUNG
Lyon Playfair had already become a familiar face at Pye Bridge and Riddings, as three years earlier in 1844 he had carried out research there. The scientist had been searching the country for a suitable location for investigating the chemical operations of blast furnaces. Playfair later wrote in his memoirs: “After corresponding with various iron manufacturers, I found that Mr. Oakes [James' father] of Riddings, near Alfreton, in Derbyshire, was the person most likely to give us ample facilities for the research.” Whilst at Riddings Playfair had met and married James’s sister, Margaret Oakes in 1846.
In the autumn of 1847, at his brother-in-law's request, the scientist tested a sample of the substance from the Old Deeps Colliery. He discovered it was the mineral then commonly known then as naphtha, [and also known as rock oil]. Today we would call it crude oil. Although familiar around the world from ancient times, it was considered of little commercial value.
Whilst James Oakes could see that the oil had business potential his expertise was in iron making and not in chemical manufacturing. Playfair offered to contact a college friend named James Young, from Scotland.
PHOTO LEFT: Lyon Playfair [1818-1898]
James Young was born in the Drygate area of Glasgow, the son of John Young who was a cabinetmaker and joiner. He became an apprentice to his father and attended evening classes at nearby Anderson’s College [now Strathclyde University]. He met Thomas Graham whilst at college, who had just been appointed lecturer on chemistry. In 1831, Young became Thomas Graham’s assistant and in 1837 published a scientific paper [on Voltiac Batteries] in his own right. He moved with Graham to University College, London in the same year, but by 1839 had been appointed manager at the chemical works of James Muspratt & Company in Newton-le-Willows. In 1844 he worked for Tenant, Clow & Company in Manchester, another chemical manufacturer.
With the agreement of James Oakes, Lyon Playfair immediately wrote to James Young at Manchester to inform him of the discovery at Pye Bridge. On the 3 December 1847, he wrote to Young explaining the situation “My Dear Young, You know that mineral naphtha is a rare product, no spring of it occurring in this country, all being imported from the continent or Persia. Lately a spring of this valuable product has been discovered on an estate belonging to my brother-in-law (Mr. Oakes), near Alfreton, Derbyshire. It yields at present about 300 gallons daily. The naphtha is about the consistence of treacle, and with one distillation it gives a clear, colourless liquid of brilliant illuminating power. It dissolves in caoutchouc easily.
PHOTO LEFT: James Young [1811-1883]
My brother intends to set up stills for it immediately; but as they are ironmasters, this would be a separate industry, so I have advised them, if possible, to sell the naphtha in the crude state to chemical manufacturers, and thus avoid carrying on an industry foreign to their occupation. Does this possibly come within the province of your works? If it do [sic] I will send you a gallon for examination. Perhaps you could make a capital thing out of this new industry, and enable my friends to do the same. You are aware that naphtha is now largely used for adding to the illuminating power of gas and that the tar residue is a valuable product.”
James Young took up the challenge. After conducting a series of experiments he succeeded in producing two different oils by distillation. The first product was a heavy oil ideal for lubricating machinery, which found a market among the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire and elsewhere to replace the use of whale oil for lubrication. The second product [later known as paraffin oil] was found to give a fine white light and was perfect for burning in lamps. Early in 1848, Young leased the rights for the oil from James Oakes, left Tenant, Clow & Company and set up a small business refining the crude oil at the Pye Bridge works with his friend and assistant Edward Meldrum. Edward Meldrum was a chemist who had met James Young whilst working for Muspratt’s Chemical Works in Newton-le-Willows, when Young was the manager there. This was the world’s first oil distillation and refining plant.
At one point in his investigations, Young noticed that the oil had begun to turn cloudy. It was Lyon Playfair who recognised that this effect was caused by the presence of another little-known substance, namely paraffin wax. At the suggestion of Playfair, Young and his assistant separated this waxy substance from the petroleum and further experimentation succeeded in creating paraffin wax candles. Although the process was difficult and expensive, [each experimental candle costing around 20 shillings to produce], Playfair asked Young to make two candles for a lecture he was giving to the Royal Society titled “Petroleum and Its Products". It is believed that Sir Humphrey Davy, President of the Royal Society and inventor of the miners’ safety lamp ceremoniously lit the candles at the beginning of the lecture. The candles burned with a clean bright and odourless light unlike the animal fat or beeswax candles that were used at the time. According to Playfair in his memoirs, James Young kept the remains of these candles as mementoes.
James Young also involved another associate, Edward William Binney, in his investigations. Binney had previously read a paper published in 1843 titled “An Account of the Petroleum found in Downholland Moss”, which showed that such a product could be produced from the decomposition of peat. Both he and James Young went to Downholland, in Lancashire, on 26 November 1848, when Binney showed the deposit of petroleum to Young and explained how it had formed. Binney made a statement to the Philosophical Society, which was subsequently published in the “Proceedings of the Society, Vol 8”:- “This was before I accompanied that gentleman to Riddings, at Easter 1849, and went down Mr. Oakes’s pit, where the deep coal was wrought, and petroleum flowed from the roof. At both these places the supply of petroleum was not sufficient for commercial purposes on an extensive scale...”
Young and Binney had the foresight to carry out investigations underground at the Old Deeps Colliery, in an effort to understand where and how the oil had originated. Their investigation concluded that the oil may have originated from the action of heat at low temperatures on the coal seam and thought that it might be possible to produce the effect artificially from shale. Through further experimentation Young was able to distil a product similar to that found in the Old Deeps mine and which could be refined in the same way. On 17 October 1850, Young patented the production of paraffin wax and oils from coal and with his colleagues, Meldrum and Binney and entered into a partnership under the title of E. W. Binney & Co. at Bathgate, West Lothian and E. Meldrum & Co. at Glasgow.
By 185l, the flow of oil at the Old Deeps mine had begun to reduce. A new works at Bathgate, completed in the same year, became the first large scale oil refinery in the world, based on the work carried out at Pye Bridge. The small plant at the ironworks was no longer required, although how long it continued to operate is not known.. James Young would later state in a lecture given on 13th March 1865, [reproduced by E. M. Bailey in the Institute of Petroleum Review, 1948], that “The quantity of petroleum from the mine gradually diminished, and that petroleum work came to an end, but it had served a useful purpose, it had proved that petroleum could be turned to good account”.
Despite Young’s comments, the flow of oil from the coal mine, though reduced in quantity, did not cease, and continued for many years. Young continued to buy the oil for refining at the Bathgate plant until 1859, when barrels were shipped from Pye Bridge via the port of Hull. This fact was stated in a letter from the Alfreton Iron Works dated 26th March 1859.
The Geological Society Special Publication No. 465, titled “History of the European Oil and Gas Industry” records that James Young made a “…nostalgic return visit to Riddings from Scotland on 1st February 1868 and noted in his pocket diary ‘Wandered about H&R with Mr. Oakes looking at old places. The petrol is coming out at a rate of 200 galls a week. The old man Sawyer is working it under Mr. Horsley senior’”. Mr. Horsley, to whom Young refers, was an engineer and former Iron Works Manager, having been superseded by his son, Thomas Horsley a few years previously.
Years later, oil was still flowing, although apparently only used by James Oakes & Company. A letter from a W. Thompson was published in the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald on 21st November 1947 regarding an anecdote told to him by his father, who worked at the Iron Works. He told his son that as late as the 1880’s oil was still being raised to the surface of the pit, and used for the lubrication of wagons and trams at the collieries owned and operated by the company. The Old Deeps Colliery finally closed in 1888.
Sadly, the exact site of the refinery at the ironworks is not known.
3. YOUNG’S PARAFFIN LIGHT & MINERAL OIL COMPANY
James Young had resided in Manchester at this time, but in 1852 he moved back to his homeland of Scotland.
The Bathgate works produced oil from torbanite [an oil shale] and bituminous coal deposits found locally. Young took out a United States patent for the process, which he then licenced to US companies. When the reserves of torbanite eventually ran out, the company moved on to pioneer the extraction of oil shale deposits known as lamosite, in West Lothian. The distillation plants began production in 1862 and by the 1900’s nearly 2 million tons of shale had been extracted.
In 1865, Young bought out his partners and built a second, larger works at Addiewelll, near West Calder and the following year sold the concern as Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company.
PHOTO: Impression of the Young's Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company Works at Addiewell
Young quickly became a very wealthy man. Although he remained within the company that carried his name he took no active part in its affairs, instead occupying himself with the many estates he had purchased from the money he had made. As the company continued to grow, it expanded its operations by selling paraffin oil and paraffin lamps all over the world and earned its founder the affectionate nickname “Paraffin Young”. James Young died in 1883, at the age of 71.
4. THE OIL INDUSTRY
James Young granted Licences to American companies to use his patent for the production of petroleum and its derivatives. They initially distilled the product from coal, but such was the demand that alternative methods were sought and quickly found.
The first borehole to strike oil was in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, just twelve years after the discovery of oil at Pye Bridge.
Despite the industry being founded in Britain most of its oil was imported, but during the First World War it became a critical commodity. Steps were taken to search for oil on land, and the D’Arcy Company began exploratory drilling at Pye Bridge and Riddings in the hope of locating a reservoir of oil. Although they did not find any oil reserves, other wells had also been drilled and the first oil well in the country was established at Hardstoft, in the parish of Tibshelf, Derbyshire in 1918, just a few miles from Pye Bridge where the original refinery was built.
To the end of his days, James Young never forgot how it had all started. He was said to be grateful to Lyon Playfair for contributing to his success and also to James Oakes who had first recognised the importance of the discovery of oil in the Old Deeps Colliery. As Lyon Playfair wrote in his memoirs many years later, “...the small spring of naphtha in Derbyshire became the parent of the gigantic petroleum industry all over the world”.
5. NEWSPAPER ARTICLES ON THE SUBJECT
Over the years many newspaper articles have been written referring to the discovery and refining of oil at Pye Bridge. Sadly, almost all of these, as well as many other documents, refer to the location as Riddings. Whist at the time Pye Bridge was within the parish of Riddings it should be remembered that the hamlet had existed long before the discovery of oil in 1847. The issue arises mainly due to the fact that the James Oakes family is wholly associated with Riddings.
Two interesting newspaper articles are transcribed in full below [the first referring to Pye Bridge!]:
1. From the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, published on Friday 30 August 1918: – “DERBYSHIRE OILFIELDS – Prospecting in the Codnor Park District – It is understood that the government experts are to prospect for oil in the Codnor Park and Pye Bridge districts, and preparations are being made. The little hamlet of Pye Bridge, which is a few miles distant from Alfreton, fathers the enormous petroleum oil industry, for the first stream of oil was discovered in 1847 in a little coal pit, long since closed, belonging to Messrs. James Oakes and Co., the well-known coal and iron masters. The oil was commercialised by Lord Playfair, a great scientist, who was the brother-in-law of the late James Oakes, and an oil for illumination and lubrication was produced, and also wax candles from the residue. The stream produced about 300 gallons daily and then ran dry. It is computed that the cradle of the huge oil industry was something like an acre in extent. Since the stream gave out, no sign of oil has been seen locally.”
2. From the Derby Daily Telegraph, published on Saturday 14 March 1914: - “TOWN AND COUNTY GOSSIP … In Part l0 of “Wonders of Land and Sea" published Messrs. Cassell and Co., there is an interesting article on "The Romance of the Oil-fields,” by Mr. Ernest A. Bryant, a journalist well-known in this district, and author of the ''New Self-help.'' Mr. Bryant traces the inception of the oil industry to the Derbyshire village of Riddings, near Alfreton - a fact of which probably few of our readers are aware. Mr. Bryant says:—"As two or three hundred distinct industries are supplied from mineral oil, it cannot be too liberal an estimate to put the figures for petroleum and its product at £100,000,000 per annum. And this colossal sum is the gift of the Derbyshire village of Riddings, of which millions of people, even in England, have never heard. Riddings is little place three miles from Alfreton, with a population of 6,000, who depend for their livelihood upon the coal mines and ironworks in the vicinity. In this unimpressive village was cradled the industry which is now world-wide in its ramifications; an industry which has worked the biggest revolution in the world since steam was first harnessed for the service of man; an industry which enables us to soar towards heaven's gate by aeroplane and airship, which enables us to plunge into the depths of the ocean, safe, so speak, within the submarine; which has given us the motor-car, that permits to live next door to everywhere. It tars our roads and scents our linen; it flavours our confections, and fertilises our fields; it lights the cottage of the shepherd and drives the sledge across the Antarctic snows; it cleans a greasy motor coat or pair gloves, and propels the ship of Amundsen half-way round the world to discover the South Pole. It is all Derbyshire born! Petroleum is older than man, and has been used for various purposes since days before the dawn of history, but men only skimmed it from the pools of water into which it had oozed from the earth, or collected it in shallow hollows roughly scooped in the soil."
"Nobody knew much about it when in 1847 James Oakes, an ironmaster in a small way, was working coal and iron at Riddings. It was his good fortune to have for a brother-in-law Lyon, the future Lord Playfair. Playfair was a great practical scientist. He was the man who initiated the late King Edward into chemistry, and made him prove his faith by plunging his naked hand into a cauldron of molten metal. Associated with him at Glasgow University had been a humble carpenter, James Young, the man who prepared Livingstone's way of house building in darkest Africa by teaching him the use of tools. Young was employed at the University to repair scientific instruments in the laboratory and by industry and acumen acquired considerable attainments. Towards the close of 1847, Oakes, when boring for coal, came upon a stream of oil, and consulted Playfair as to its meaning- Playfair saw once that it was petroleum, and appreciated its significance as a commercial product. He knew the oil could have no value for his brother-in-law, but it occurred to him that the skilled industrious Young could profitably turn it to account. As the entire industry of petroleum and its products arises from this little find in a small industrial village in Derbyshire, the letter upon which it was founded may well be read with interest. The letter was as follows: 26, Caste!nau Villas. Barnes, Surrey. 3rd December, 1847.—My Dear Young.—You know that mineral naphtha is a rare natural product, no spring of it occurring in this country, all being imported from the Continent of Persia. Lately a spring of this valuable product has been discovered on an estate belonging to my brother-in-law, Mr. Oakes, near Alfreton, Derbyshire. It yields at present about 300 gallons daily. The naphtha is about the consistency of thin treacle, and without distillation it gives a clear, colourless liquid of brilliant illuminating power. It dissolves caoutchouc easily. My brother intends to set up stills immediately: but, as they are ironmasters, this would be a separate industry, so I have advised them, if possible, to sell the naphtha in the crude state to chemical manufacturers, and thus avoid carrying on an industry foreign to their occupation. Does this possibly come within the province of your works? If it does, I will send you a gallon for examination. Perhaps you could make a capital thing out of this new industry, and enable my friends to do the same. You are aware that naphtha is now largely used for adding to the illuminating power of gas, and that the tar residue is a valuable product'.
Young accepted the offer, and with the help of a friend erected a refinery, and produced, after distilling, a light oil for illumination and a heavy oil for the purpose of lubrication. For the first time England had mineral oil for lighting its lamps in place of whale-oil. Not long after Young’s refinery had been started, however, he went with a grave face to Playfair to report that the oil was clouded and turbid. Ruin, he thought, had come upon him. Could the scientist account for the untoward condition? He could. “The cloudiness is due to a rare substance known as paraffin” was the answer. Playfair comforted his protégé, and asked him to extract some of the residue for him. Young produced enough to make a couple of candles, and with these Playfair lighted his desk at the Royal Institution, for a lecture on "Petroleum and its Products". These candles, the first ever made of paraffin wax, cost a sovereign each to produce. They were the parents of the enormous industry in paraffin wax candles with which the homes of the poor have ever since been lighted. Similarly, the little stream at Riddings gave rise to the vast petroleum industry, but less directly. The stream only produced 300 gallons a day for two years, and then ran dry. As it is found that good petroliferous land yields rather more than 200,000 gallons of oil per acre, we may take it that the cradle of the industry comprised of just an acre of land. Quite recently a second source has been tapped at Newark, in the adjoining county of Nottingham, so, presumably, the field was wider, if intermittent, than was imagined 60 years ago.
The impending failure of his oil-well compelled Young to cast about for other supplies, and he made a brilliant guess at the origin of the liquid. It was but a guess, and it would be but a guess to-day. No man can say even now from what petroleum is truly derived. Some think that it has been distilled at a low temperature, under high pressure, from coal. Others hold that it arises from vegetation decomposed under pressure, while a still more formidable consensus of opinion has it that every drop of petroleum comes to us from the remains of sea organisms of other epochs. Young's guess was that he could artificially obtain a similar oil by distilling coal. And he was right. When the oil ceased to flow at Riddings, he patented his process in 1850, and establishing himself at Bathgate, Scotland, began the manufacture of mineral oil from coal. He gave the world a new light, a new lubricant, a new fertiliser, and a new prime mover. Licenses to use his patent were granted to American manufacturers, where, for several years, coal was distilled for the production of petroleum. The process eventually directed attention to the vast natural resources of the land. Young had begun with natural oil and gone on to coal; his imitators, using his patent, had begun by distilling coal; they now turned to the source whence he had first drawn his riches. The petroleum fields of the United States were tapped for commercial purposes; those of Russia, Romania, and Galicia, of Burma and Algeria, Japan and the Dutch East Indies were afterwards laid under contribution and to-day practically every feasible portion of the earth's surface is being surveyed and probed for this liquid gold of ten score uses.”
3. From the Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald, published on 29 December 1939: “HOW PETROLEUM WAS FOUND AT PYE BRIDGE - It is a little staggering to realise that in the unimpressive little hamlet of Pye Bridge, consisting of a few houses on either side of the one road through the village cradled an industry world-wide ramifications, and one that has worked the biggest revolution in the world since steam was harnessed for the service of mankind, and which the prime importance in waging a successful war and the destruction of a world it was designed to benefit. Petroleum is doubtless older than man who once skimmed it from pools of water into which it had oozed from the earth of collected it in shallow hollows roughly scooped in the soil. It is said to have been used in a crude way before the dawn of history. Little was known in this country about it before 1847, in which year James Oakes, of Riddings, the founder of the house which bears his name, was working coal and iron at Pye Bridge. It was his good fortune to have for a brother-in-law Lyon, the future Lord Playfair, who was a great practical scientist in his day. WHILE WORKING COAL - Toward the close of 1847, Oakes, while working the coal shaft at Pye Bridge, quite close to the canal, came upon a stream of oil, and he consulted Playfair as to its significance. The scientist saw at once that it was petroleum, and appreciated its value as a commercial product, although it was recognised that Oakes could not turn it into a profit. Lord Playfair in those days was acquainted with an industrialist, (James) Young who with the aid of a friend, erected a refinery and turned the petroleum into a profitable business. They produced, after distilling, a light oil for illumination and a heavy oil for lubrication. For the first time England had a mineral oil for lighting its lamps instead of whale oil. Not long after Young’s refinery had been started e discovered thatb the oil became cloudy and turbid. Lord Playfair found that it was due to a rare substance in those days in the oil – paraffin. FIRST PARAFFIN WAX CANDLES - Young produced enough to make a couple of candles and with these Lord Playfair lighted his desk at the Royal Institution for a lecture in his time on "Petroleum and Its Products”. These candles, the first ever made of paraffin wax, cost a sovereign to produce. They were the parents of the enormous industry in paraffin wax candles with which houses were lighted for many generations. Similarly, the little stream at Pye Bridge gave rise to the vast petroleum industry, but, of course, less directly. This Pye Bridge stream produced only 300 gallons a day for two years, and then ran dry. It was calculated at that time that the cradle of this industry comprised about an acre of land. Old miners in the Riddings district who worked down this little shaft often related incidents of this oil production. Those were the days of long hours, and tallow-candle mine illumination, when gas in the shallow seams was of no importance from a working standpoint. The failure of this oil stream at Pye Bridge compelled Young to cast about for other supplies, and he made a brilliant guess at the origin of the liquid and came to the conclusion that he could articially obtain a similar oil by distilling coal. OIL FROM COAL PROCESS - When the oil flow ceased at Pye Bridge, he patented his process in 1850, and established himself at Bathgate, Scotland, where he began the manufacture of mineral oil from coal. He gave the world a new light, a new lubricant, a new fertilizer and a new power. It is a far cry from those pioneer days to modern installations so necessary in the nation’s industrial undertakings and the successful prosecution of a world war, but Pye Bridge will ever be associated with the discovery.