Travels in Search of New Trade Products, 1893
type: Beyond Scotland - Wales
Extract for an autobiography by Arthur Robottom, published 1893 by Jarrold & Sons, London.
Later on, I joined some friends in Flintshire, with some land to shoot over, and we were applied to by the manager of the Coppa Colliery, owned by a gentleman who wanted to sell it. This colliery is not far from Harwarden, and near Mold. The colliery was worked only for home and steam coal. Four of us eventually bought the colliery, and at time of transfer we did all in our power to induce the owner to put in a clause of the agreement that we should not pay any royalty on any cannel or shale we might raise, but this he would not agree to.
The next colliery to this was the Leeswood, owned by a Mr. Jones, a barrister, and his brother, who lived near Ruabon, and they, with other friends, discovered that the curly cannel contained a large amount of paraffin. At this time Mr. W. Mattieu Williams, the chemist of the Midland Institute, Birmingham, was collecting specimens of the various coal of the district, and he came upon a seam of cannel coal, consisting of smooth, curly, and shale; the curly being considered equal to the Boghead mineral. On analysing this cannel coal, Mr. Williams found it suitable for oil making, and Messrs. Jones promised to find the money for him to begin operations, but they did not do so. The matter was put before me, and on its being represented that for an advance of £500 for retorts it was probable some thousands a year profit might be made, I placed that sum in the bank, at Mold, in the name of Robottom & Co., and Mr. Mattieu Williams and myself. Indeed, a general dealer near Hope made oil in the back yard of his garden. Mr. Williams ordered the first retort from a Mr. Cartwright of Birmingham, at a cost of about £70, and a more primitive thing it would be difficult to imagine. Speaking with my present knowledge of such things, I should think that retort would to-day form a very valuable curiosity for a museum. Be that as it may, we made a start with it, and the whole trade began to shown signs of considerable vitality.
The works were built upon a piece of land near the colliery, and additional retorts were put up near the Coppa by Mr. Fernie, my partners selling him the cannel coal from which to extract the oil. Another company, the Flintshire Oil Company, was started near the river Dee, and two other private individuals, a Mr. Green and a Mr. Birkbeck, also began operations in this line.
It was an exciting time; everything seemed to promise a profitable development. Williams and I threw our whole hearts into our enterprise. We took lodgings at a farm-house near the ground at a rent of 10s. a week; but when our undertaking was found to be a success, the rent was quickly advanced to 30s. At the same time the price of labour, rent, and horse hire began to increase in the same ratio.
A poor relation of mine found me out about this time, and entreated me to find him something to do. I had a large wooden house built in a field near the works, and I put him into it as clerk. I began to buy empty barrels, which I sold to the oil works, and the business began to expand in good earnest, and made money very rapidly. My relation got such an insight into the business that he began to think he could do something in this direction on his own account, so I found money to build 12 retorts, at a cost of about £570. and before fire was put into the flues he sold them for about £ 1,200.
It was evident that our original retort was not of much use. Mr. Williams and I had spent about £240 out of the £500 upon it, and a further expenditure was evidently necessary before a proper realization of profit could be arrived at. Mr. Williams and a Mr. Tyndall formed the idea of creating a limited company, and, without much loss of time, proceeded to carry this idea into effect, and the company was formed under the title of the "Williams Oil Company," the agreement with me being that they should take over the first retort, and pay me back the money I had advanced, with interest. This arrangement quite satisfied me, and I contented myself with looking after the development of the other businesses in which I was interested.
The Coppa Colliery Company were in full swing making crude oil, while Robottom and Co., in the wooden house, negotiated the sale of the bulk of the oil. In this way, money was made very fast. I sold lots of this crude oil at about £10 per ton to the paraffin oil refiners. Retorts sprang up in all directions, and our new oil region came to be very much written and talked about. I remember judge Winter and a number of friends came over from America to investigate our operations. He presented his letter of introduction to Robottom and Co., in the wooden house, and my relation was asked to take charge of the whole of his business, which he predicted would yield £20,000 a year to Robottom and Co. My relation, indeed, had come to look upon himself by this time as a very important individual, and as the undertaking had prospered, I had increased his wages. At first he had 24s. per week, then 30s., then £3 with good bonuses, and after a time I gave him £6 per week, to which many little advantages were added. He lived well up to his income and spent money very freely, always travelled first-class, and took in the Times newspaper. He wore velvet coats, and instead of plodding on and saving money, seemed only to live to spend it. At that time he must have been getting something like £20 a week from the concern, and it was apparent to me that if he had been receiving twice the amount he would be able to spend it. In course of time he became so greedy in his demands that I saw we should have to part company.
At this time a bank manager recommended a railway porter to me as a clever, well-educated, and industrious man, and asked me if I could find him employment. I did so, first paying him 28s. a week, and gradually advancing him until he got up to £5, and was well worth the money. Meanwhile, the ambition of my relation had in no way cooled, and he made a startling proposal to me one morning that I should either take him in the firm as a partner, or he would leave me and set up in business for himself. I allowed him to go, and not long afterwards my other clerk left me and started oil works, and did so well that he had money enough after a time to start a newspaper in Mold.
I then started the Padeswood Oil Company, and also commenced building some new patent retorts under the firm of Page & Co. The Coppa Oil Company was then started, and a large refinery was built, which cost about £20,000. Mr. Norman Tate, the analytical chemist, of Liverpool, became the manager of the last-named works, and everything went on swimmingly. The mode of manufacture is very simple and easy. The cannel coal is placed in an iron retort, which contains about half a ton, this is baked, and the vapour flows into a long iron tube, which is kept cool, the lower half being filled with water. The vapour condenses into a thick crude oil. Three tons of the best curly cannel coal will produce about one ton of crude oil, which crude oil is run into a still, the first running yielding what is called benzolene or naphtha. The next gives the burning oil for lamps. The third running yields the lubricating oil, and the residue is pitch or thick, black grease. The solid paraffin is extracted from the heavy or lubricating oil. We had done so marvelously well up to this point, that we imagined we were all going to make fabulous fortunes as cannel coal owners and oil manufacturers. The manner in which we should dispose of our profits was the only thing that troubled us.
Unfortunately, when everything was just getting into order and everyone was looking forward to these splendid results, a railway official, who was travelling between New York and Boston, met with a sad accident. He had heard of the wonderful cures that were being brought about by the oil that was skimmed from the top of the water in Oil Creek, in Pennsylvania. I believe that I am correct in stating that this oil was known to the Indians in bygone times, and was collected by them by placing blankets just under the surface of the oil that flows on the river. The water would run out of the blanket while the oil remained, which was afterwards run off into bottles and sold as a cure for many ills. The railway official referred to was a man of inquiring mind, and wishing to find out where the oil came from, he began to probe the bank of the stream, and after some little time struck oil. Happening to have a friend who was an analytical chemist he submitted the oil to him, and after that the famous oil supplies of Pennsylvania began to be tapped with disastrous results to all the Welsh works.
The American Oil was put into the market at what seemed to us ridiculously low prices— prices, which put it out of our power altogether to compete—our retorts became useless, all our money was lost, and first one and then another of the Welsh Oil Companies burst up. The steam yachts, carriages, mansions, and other luxuries that we had been awarding ourselves in the future all faded away like a dream. The crude oil which we had been selling at £10 to £ 11 per ton, fell to £2 loss per ton. Retorts that cost about £60, we sold from about £ 3 to £4 each for old iron. Some of the interested parties ran away to America never to return. This was my great blow. All my plans had collapsed with a suddenness that nearly drove me to despair, and I began to think that it would be well that I should never again make too sure of anything.