Petroleum in Flintshire, 1866

type: Beyond Scotland - Wales

From Ryland's Iron Trade Circular, reprinted in The Wrexham Advertiser
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A fellow passenger in the train from Birmingham to Chester tells me of his father mentioning the old Lord Dundonald (father of the Lord Cochrane) as making experiments on coal at Tipton, and his lively remembrance of the great iron rooms, rather than ovens or retorts, which the grim old Scotch Earl put up to bake pitch out of coal. People knew nothing of gas in these times (1781), and a sore trouble did its highly explosive qualities, coupled with the evaporation into steam of the water contained in the coal, prove to Lord Dundonald by blowing up his great fire rooms once a month, more or less, to the infinite terror, not to say also malicious satisfaction of the neighbourhood ; for your North Staffordshire men— at that time— hated strangers, detested innovations, and rejoiced greatly in the fall of inventors.

When the Chinese first invented gunpowder they used it only to make a noise with, for the purpose of frightening their enemies and concealing the manoeuvres of their forces in the smoke which it created. So, when the old Lord Dundonald distilled coal, he did so only for the purpose of procuring pitch, and although in the course of subsequent experiments he produced a burning oil, it was so thick and dirty that he only used it for purposes of scientific demonstration and the occasional astonishment of his friends. Thus the concentrated sun-light of millions of ages past — as George Stephenson described it to be to Sir Robert Peel—remained hidden for another generation, when it beamed forth in gas, and for another still, until it woke up as burning fluid somewhere about the year 1810, in a place so out of the way as Prince Edward's Island, although its first brilliant flame was not shown until in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Dr. Gesner lighted the lecture room with it, and soon after sold the first " Kerosine" patent.

And now I see it sputtering forth everywhere on the mountainside, as, coming down from Buckley to the Padeswood Station. I descend into the Mold Valley — a bright, white, brilliant flame, much like the limelight in its vivid clearness — but quite unlike it in its pleasant effect to the sight ; for while the one blinds with an almost fierce intensity and concentration, the other is as actinically diffused, as mellow, and as soft as daylight. The country all round is dotted with works, large and small — which seem by night to be spouting forth gas — real flaring fixtures of the " Jack-o'-Lanterns," that once might have led the traveller astray, but now light him to nests of industry and profit.

Just on the other side of the rail at Padeswood, is a small venture — " The Padeswood Company" — such companies here being formed by three or four well-to- do and intelligent individuals (intelligence, by-the-bye, is the characteristic of the ordinary people of this district), who combine their practical knowledge and their little nest eggs of capital to operate on these new " diggings." Rightly so called, for Ballarat, Cariboo, or Taranki must now all hide their diminished heads. Something richer is to be found in our British Isles. Yes, sir, I declare — not fearless of contradiction— for there are always plenty of " doubting Thomases" ready in their ignorance, or from their interests to contradict what surprises them— l affirm, I say, that coal here is more profitable to work than gold quartz in Australia — for if they get half an ounce of gold out of a couple of tons of quartz after crushing (and that is hard work, as many a poor fellow knows), they reckon to have made a good " strike," and there is a " rush" upon the ground. Now half an ounce of gold represents in value, say, £2. But here, from five tons of coal yon make tolerably sure, at present prices, after paying for easy working — no harder or more skilful than ordinary cooking — not to say coking — of securing a profit of £4 on your oil — and that is equal to an ounce of gold — at one-20th of the labour, one-50th of the cost, and without going away from home and friends.

At another small works in the immediate vicinity, Messrs Ness and Griffiths are carrying on a coal oil distillation. Mr Ness is good enough to dispute the £4 per ton profit, and advices that he will supply the ten tons a week which these works produce at £2 per ton profit. I mention this that he may not be without a customer — and even then he will make a cent, per cent, profit.

There is only one other gentleman in the district who disputes the profit upon the lubricating oil simply — and that is Mr John Gibbon, the manager of the Canneline Company's Works, who proved to me by calculation (he did not know I should quite understand it, or was too hurried, possibly, as he put down the barrels as chargeable to the seller and not to the customer — a nice little item of 36s on the wrong side) — and so, as I have said, he proved to me by calculation that the Canneline Company made their oil for 10s per ton margin — a fact which produced no other impression on my mind than the conviction that the sooner the Canneline Company left off making oil the better — or left off Mr John Gibbon. It is hardly just to say this; for better conducted, and, I believe, better managed works than those of this Company I have never seen. They are high up the valley — close to the Coed-y-Talon whence are taken their supplies of cannel — and they have forty retorts, and produce 10,000 gallons of oil weekly, baying a 6,000 gallon refinery in full work. They are about to put up some upright retorts, and are likely to come to grief upon that experiment. These oil retorts should be after models taken from the old gas retort — as near a D, or rather as near a half egg shape, as is compatible with capacity the better. Too much coal in the retort is like too large a pudding in a pot ; you can't get the heat evenly through it. After all how nearly is practical chemistry allied to mere cooking. This company had some difficulty at first from making experiments with retorts, and it is only since Mr John Gibbon succeeded to their management that they have got quite through it. Their oil stands well in the market, and, as I hear, they are sale for the next two months at least.

The Mold Company, which lies just off the station, is one which is likely to achieve some distinction in petroleum manufacture. It starts with the latest and best improvements in retorts — the flattened ellipse, or half egg shape — holding a large quantity (15 cwt.), but not in too large a mass — more widely spread, and so more evenly exposed to the surface action of the fire. These are known as " Strange's Registered Improved Retorts," of which there are twelve, with twenty-four furnaces and only one chimney — a curiosity hereabout, where in many places we find two chimneys to each retort, causing a singular agglomeration — a crowd of brick columns all over the neighbourhood. These twelve retorts, it is asserted, can " work" more coals than any similar number In any other works, each "charge" swallowing in from 11 cwt. to lo cwt. The vapours issue from the top of the retort and come down through a swan neck pipe, with two valves, to the con- denser, a long vat of sheet iron, the top of which is kept at an adequate coolness for condensation, by a stream of water running over it. Each of these pipes has a double valve — the action of which prevents the water from passing from the con- denser to the retort in charging, as well as relieves the condenser from any over-pressure of steam. Twelve of these retorts require two men, who are called firemen, to charge them once in twenty-four hours, the time occupied in distilling the coal. These men work at day or night, being relieved alternately. Besides these, one man is employed to " back up" the fires and break the coal, which must not be put in too large, say, not much larger than a man's fist. See ! They open the door by " unluting" it, and un-screwing the cross bar that drives it close up to the furnace mouth. The fire is raging within, but we can soon perceive that the coal is all dry bones — coke in fact, with a reddish appearance and a metallic tinkle. This would be good coke for engine purposes, and would add some value to the saleable products, were it not that we want it here to burn the next charge — and so produce more oil and make more coke, and go on ad infinitum, producing, and re-producing. By infinitum, of course, I mean that unfathomable period known only to philosophers, who calculate that in 600,000 years we are all to sit shivering under a hedge-row, while the New Zealander steams away with our last scuttle of coals. The coke is drawn out and the men throw in the charge — another 15 cwt. — with shovels, taking care to spread it well. The coke is then placed in the furnace under the retort, and the work begins again. At the back of the furnace we see the green thick fluid running down from the condenser to the tank.

Of the Coppa Works I have spoken before, but shall have more to say on another opportunity.

Close by the large works of the Coppa Company, I came upon a compact works of twenty-five retorts, belonging to a gentleman, the son of one whose name and fame, in regard to the advancement of educational progress, is only second — if second — to that of Lord Brougham. Inheriting the genius of his father, it was strange to see one so accomplished, and capable of so much, shut up in these mountains, and the companion of uncouth money- makers. But the sons of bishops may be met with in the Californian diggings, and we have heard a ripe Oxford scholar say that he never was so happy as when stock-driving in Australia. This crude oil making was an experiment in science when he first took to it, and courageously worked out the problem ; it is now a profitable manufacture, and pays well for vigilant personal superintendence. Noblesse oblige — how true the proverb! Here, in Welsh mountains, amidst much trade jealousy and very small-mindedness, where every question on was replied to it as if its answer involved the betrayal of a trade secret — when the trade-secret in reality lay in the conceit and ignorance of the person replying, and relying upon his own small chemistry — this gentleman at once volunteered every information, and gave every datum distinctly. Each of his retorts, he said, were charged with from 12 to 13 cwt. — in the proportion, generally, of one-third curly cannel, one-third smooth, and one-third shale. From these proportions he produced 47 gallons of crude oil — worth about 8d a gallon he not " running it over," but selling it to refiners " naked" as is called when merely produced from the coal. The three kinds of coal cost together for the forty-eight gallons about £1, the wages 5s, which therefore made ……..I parted from the hospitable sheds in which we had sat down for half an hour's chat, with considerable reluctauce, and slowly wended my way across the broken tracks and along the railway that spreads out here, up to the colliery in the distant hills like an arterial system.

That one spark of gentlemanly feeling and kindness to strangers had shone out like a diamond on a dunghill. I say there may be many such about, but it has not been my good fortune to meet with them, at least in Flintshire — and yet I am one who have seen men and things — have mixed much among the wise, the witty, the learned, the poor, the rich, the proud and humble — and am by no means hard to please. They only make the lubricating oil, or " once run" here at present. The second distillation requires more expensive apparatus, and the profit of £1 per ton — as it is — is sufficient to content them. I don't think they have any to sell here, for I did not see any barrels about. In fact, all through the district the story runs, "All sold." I cannot well see how it can be otherwise.

The petroleum of Pennsylvania made an immense demand for itself. The light from it is so beautiful — so unlike the muddy yellow of the common oils — with a flame bright, clear, beautiful, and white — all the ugly black blue that you see in the middle of a gas light, having being burnt out in the manufacture — or changed into pitch — or worked off into grease. Hence a preference demand for mineral oil. But this demand the petroleum springs could not supply. They soon ceased "flowing" — neither have the petroleum wells as yet made up the deficiency. Besides which they are uncertain in production — and any uncertainty prejudices the regular going transactions of commerce. Moreover, if a barrel of petroleum that was thrown up by nature for nothing, cost only two dollars in Pennsylvania, (they have now got three or four)— to the wholesale dealer it costs a dollar and a half (now -two dollars), for the barrel, and two dollars more at least to bring it to England. So that, all things considered, it is cheaper to make petroleum from coal on the spot here than to get it for nothing iv Pennsylvania. And so the matter, as it stands, is much in our favour. We have the market, and can make sure of the coal to make the oil from, and therefore can be certain of a Steady supply. At one time the trade seemed altogether in the hands of the Americans, but time, circumstances, experience, and taxation, have brought about a knowledge of the fact — that we can manufacture oil in our own country at a cheaper rate from own coals, provided a supply of the right quality can be procured.

This was the problem to be solved, and the solution of that problem has been worked out at the great works at Saltney belonging to the Flintshire Oil and Cannel Company, where, as I learn, they are making a million and half weekly. This is a commercial enterprise of the highest quality, and deserves the special and separate notice which I propose to direct to in my next. It is a curious fact that the quantity thus made is exactly one-250th part of the petroleum oil produced in the United States. This will show the enormous proportions of the trade with which I am dealing. Meanwhile, while observing the growth of this new industry — the coal oil manufacture — it is impossible not to note the singular corroboration which it has given to the almost prophetic words of Mr Gladstone, who, on " turning the first sod" of a new railway in this district (the Wrexham, Mold, and Connah's Quay), said : —

" There is a district singularly rich it has these two great advantages : in the first place the coal, speaking generally, lies at depths comparatively moderate, at depths which in the .North-east of England they would consider almost nothing ; and in the second place there is an immense quantity of it. I do not speak now of a single seam. I put together the whole number of feet belonging to the various workable seams, beginning with what they call in Flintshire the Rough Coal and Hollin Coal, which you have here under different names, but winch substantially arc familiar to you all. and going down to the cannel recently discovered, and which promises to make a greater addition to the mineral wealth and power of this district than any discovery heretofore made. I believe you may reckon, that there are fifty feet of coal under a' particular spot of ground. That is a very remarkable richness of the mineral and such as I don't believe is to be found in many other districts of the country."

Speaking of the Quality of the coal, Mr Gladstone observed—

"We have a splendid Steam Coal, with an immense demand for it— a demand greater than we can at present supply. This extraordinary treasure of the Cannel Coal, which is, as you know. far better had for the manufacture of gas than any other coal whatever— and with regard to which, I am highly pleased to see in from reviews of the Mineral Specimens at the Exhibition in London that the cannel Coal from Leeswood, near Mold, is considered to be the very finest ever brought before the public— this treasure is really the material on which the Wrexham, Mold, and Connahs Quay Railway has to work. "

The whole of the country about here has, in fact, become an Eldorado, and everyone is on the look-out for cannel. The Flintshire Oil and Cannel Company, although they possess a contract (the envy of all the district), which gives them a certainty of more than 500 tons per week at half-price for the next ten years from the Leeswood Cannel Company, have become proprietors at a cost of £75,000, of tbe Tryddyn Colliery-, and are rapidly pushing down upon cannel to make themselves rich and independent for ever, and extend their business to a greater profit, inasmuch as they will then get their coal at cost prices, which is in profit almost equal to that of the man who " stole the brooms ready made."

Leeswood Main Company have already touched it, and are forming a company to manufacture oil everywhere ; they are sinking pits and going down for cannel everywhere ; and the talk is everywhere of cannel, just as we bear of " diggings " in California. As I walked up the hill towards Buckley from the station, this morning, with the 52nd (or thereabouts) cousin of Henry Vlll.,— (he was Tudor, and evidently of the good old breed— as bluff as King Hal himself) we marked many (I know not how many) cannel pits on the way. Before me lay the famous potteries and brick manufactories that from their proximity to the Dee, and its facilities for shipping to all parts of the world have made Buckley a famous name in every port. Behind us lay the long Clwydian range, the Hope Mountains, and the Mold valley between. To the right, Moel Fammai, on which stands a jubilee tower, 150 feet of which was scattered like feathers in a high wind some ten years since. To the left lay the valley of Wrexham, across which, backed by a bright sunlight that brought it out in strong relief, stood the castled height of Caer- y-Galle, the last resting place of Queen Eleanor, " on her way, Sir," observed a Welsh gentleman, "to play us that trick of having a Prince of Wales born at Carnarvon Castle." That trick! He thought his nation cheated out of their loyalty, and could grumble at it after four centuries ! Verily these Welsh are a strange people. It was only yesterday that I discovered they have a colony in some out-of-the way part of the Argentine Republic, speaking Welsh, and all for the sake of having a place where no other language than Welsh is used, and SO preserving the language of the Principality !

The district of Buckley, always a thriving locality, is about to assume a still greater importance. Its collieries are contiguous to the most valuable of the coal seams of Flintshire; and its fine clay, cheaply and readily got, affords abundant material for a highly profitable manufacture of fire-bricks, pottery, and tiles. In former days there was a large exporting trade along the Dee, and the Main coal about here, as well as the " Hollin " and " Brassey," were extensively worked. There was a large firm of coal owners — Messrs. Rigby and Hancock — who had constructed their tramways from the collieries in this vicinity, and monopolized the supply of Chester, Liverpool, and the neighbouring towns and ports — until the establishment of railways — which took away the traffic, brought in other supplies, and inflicted almost mortal injury on the industry of Buckley.

Recently, however, the proposed Wrexham and Connah's Quay Railway has given new spirit to this part of the country, while the utilisation of cannel has greatly invigorated the speculative spirit, and awakened the energies of the inhabitants to the mineral riches under their feet. It was reading what bad appeared in a local paper that had brought me up the hill from Padeswood Station on this fine December morning, and I looked with some interest for Nant- y Maur, which I found on my left about a mile before reaching Buckley — situate on the side of the little valley or cleft between two gentle hills, which constituted what is supposed, and therefore said to be — for such is mining doctrine according to my experience — the fault — thrown down, or thrown up, as the case may be, of the ordinary coal measures of the district. Here they had got upon the cannel, and were only not working it at the moment, because the water had got upon them ; but that being now-a-days a matter of mere pumping and steam engines, they had sent off for them, and on their arrival would speedily begin to realise their " digging."

This, you must remember, is " great news," for while other coal at the pit's mouth ranges from 5s to 7s at the utmost ; that cannel sells at the pit's month for 28s to 29s 6d. He who finds cannel " strikes oil "or gold. In a coal country your neighbour's good fortune is always a matter of rejoicing to yourself — for it is not easy to believe that a few feet, one way or the other, between you can make the difference of dislocating Nature. A man must have very bad luck, indeed, to live at Wallsend and be without coal. So, on hearing this news, we went on our way, much pleased, to where the old road from Chester to Mold forms the main long straggling street of Buckley. What he saw, and how we fared, and what part we thought might be taken in a new working of these South Buckley collieries, on a take of 200 acres from the windmill down to the church, where the pit open already down to the Brassey coal, will Mr. Editor, with your permission, form the subject of another letter.

From Ryland's Iron Trade Circular, reprinted in The Wrexham Advertiser, 6th January 1866