The Flintshire "Oil Eldarado", 1869

type: Beyond Scotland - Wales

North Wales Chronicle, 16th January 1869
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In 1865 we supplied our readers with a series of articles describing in full detail, and with illustrative engravings, the various mineral oil works of Flintshire. In the number for November 4, 1865, we published an historical summary of the rise and progress of the mineral oil enterprise of the district, accompanied with a carefully compiled map, in which all the than existing works were represented, together with their means of communication and their relations to the collieries from which their supplies of cannel and shale were derivable. This map was reissued, January 6, 1866, with some works added that had been erected in the meantime, We also published a series of articles on the geology of the district, illustrated with plans and sections.

While these were in the course of publication, the district referred to presented a scene of newly created commercial activity, such as is rarely to be witnessed in a sober middle-aged country like Great Britain, and which could only be paralleled by the gold regions of California and Australia in their early days. Capitalists were rushing not only from all parts of the United Kingdom, but even from America itself, for quite a colony of Americans were there, with Judge Winter at their head, bent upon " licking the Britishers" on their own, soil in the beneficent struggle of manufacturing enterprise. Swarms of labourers poured from all parts. Distressed Lancashire operatives, starved out of home by the cotton famine, came here and found immediate employment. Bricklayers were so scarce that they came especially from London and from Scotland, after the surrounding districts had been drained. The little town of Mold became suddenly so important that the inhabitants of the neighbouring city began to consider whether it might not soon become desirable to describe themselves as living in " a place called Chester, near Mold." The rents of all the habitable and several non-inhabitable houses for miles around where raised exorbitantly, and workmen's lodgings were so frightfully scarce that the ingenious arrangements of the enterprising landlady of Messrs.Box and Cox was systematically carried out, night workers and day workers sleeping alternately in the same bed, and the numbers crowded thus both day and night into each room being so great that we are really afraid to repeat the figures which were confidently stated at the first meeting of a sanitary committee, held in the Leeswood schoolroom, when cholera threatened the district. There was a mad rush for cannel. Leases of property known to contain cannel were transferred at enormous premiums, and every other holding of land not known to contain cannel was bored in all directions in the hope of finding it. The "curly cannel," which in old times had only been used to give a cheerful blaze to the cottagers' fires, and was now considered worth special working, rose to the extraordinary price of 30s. and even 32s. per ton at the pit mouth. Seeing that five or six shillings would cover the ordinary costs of raising arid royalties, this enormous profit made cannel mines more desirable than gold mines. Our subscribers will find, by reference to their bound copies, that in the map we published January 6th, 1866, there were twenty-one oil works then in operation.

We had scarcely completed our detailed account of this suddenly developed industry when a change commenced. Prices had fluctuated very threateningly in the latter part of 1865, and in 1866 they came down headlong, till in the summer of that year Welsh refined oil, which, during the flash of its prosperity, had been selling at 3s. to 3s 4d. per gallon, was now offered at ten pence, and was nevertheless acceptable. As this continued with but little improvement when the winter a season came in, the end of 1866 presented a strange contrast with its commencement. Most of the works had ceased operations, and the stream of labourers from Ireland and Lancashire now changed its course, and all returned homewards, and there remained an insufficient demand to employ the native labour. The depression - or, more properly speaking, the suppression of the trade - continued throughout the whole of 1867, and at the commencement of 1868 the rain had about reached its climax. Many of the works which had struggled throwing the first season and held on hoping for a better one to follow, now collapsed entirely, and bankruptcy, forced sales, windings up, &c., were the ordinary course of things The small American colony was; dispersed, and their substantially built works transferred at a great sacrifice to another company ; their projector and original proprietor, Judge Winter, returned to America, and the large capital he, brought to England was all wasted. he died very shortly after, and it is generally supposed in Flintshire that the troubles, disappointment, labour and anxiety he passed through in Wales hastened, if it did not produce, his death. We take this opportunity of assuring his friends in America that they were not alone in lamenting his unexpected death, and that his memory is kindly and respectfully cherished among his old business rivals in North Wales. Judge Winter's was not the only life that was sacrificed by the local troubles of this period. But we will not go further into personal details.

During the whole of 1868 the general aspect of the oil district has been most melancholy. Dilapidated brickwork, representing rows of retorts with their stunted smokeless chimneys, and fragments of condensers projecting here and there, surmounted by headless barrels and other ruins of manufacturing operations, are now the subject of melancholy comment by visitors to the district who formerly were lost in wonderment at the sudden development of its commercial, prosperity. There is one group of unhappy retorts near the Padeswood station whose aspect and history are especially deplorable. They were built with reckless disregard to foundation, either physically or pecuniary. Their projector has bolted, and left all who had any commercial relations with him supplied with substantial reasons for mourning his departure, and the retorts, which were a built with one end resting upon a rock and the rest upon a bog, have been gradually subsiding head foremost in search of some subterranean solid resting place. Several works which were commenced during the short period of prosperity in 1865 were barely completed when the crash came, and the unfortunate investors simply sank their capital, and never even commenced any operations beyond those of buying and building. Eventhe older works suffered it the same manner, especially when the proprietors were of Northern temperament and determined to be perfectly safe by only erecting in the first place a very few retorts by way of trial. The trials were made, the harvest time lost, and the main outlay for large extensions was commenced during the prosperous period, and finished when it ended; and thus, like their junior neighbours, they had their plant completed just in time to be useless, or worse than useless, for it had to be guarded and kept in repair at some outlay. Many had made contracts with cannel proprietors, and thus were compelled to take and pay for cannel when it was useless to them. This drove some of them to make oil at a loss; others sold their cannel for less than it cost, to gas companies; others were so hard pressed that they broke down altogether, and their works are sold by auction for the price of old iron aid waste bricks, In the midst of all this came the failure of Messrs. George Shand and Co., of Stirling. Most of the small manufacturers of crude oil who had no refineries of their own had contracts with Messrs Shand, and were supplying them until neatly the period of the bankruptcy, and thus were heavy losers just at the moment when they could least afford to lose. In like manner some of those who were refining their own produce were placed in it similar position by the failure of the largest buyers of the refined oil of the district, Messrs. Shaw and Co. The result of all these troubles is that of the twenty onee works represented on our maps published in January, 1866, less than half are now remain in anything like working condition. The position of several of the works is so ambiguous and peculiar, that it would not be safe to particularise individually which are surviving, which are defunct, and which are in a condition of suspended animation. The latter condition is that of the majority. Not very long ago, just during the most stagnant period of the stagnation, we strolled round the district, and roughly estimated the amount of capital originally sunk in the oil works and their appliances. Our figures exceeded a million sterling, of which at least nine tenths has been lying quite idle and useless during the greater part of the last two years, and a considerable portion has been broken up and dispersed. The net result of the work that has been done by the few retorts and stills that have been desperately kept going is, we suspect, rather loss than profit.

In the place of overcrowded lodging-houses, the past year has shown rows of empty cottages, others new and unfinished, and the houses of the "Oil Makers'-row" and other newly created settlements offered at about half the rentals originally obtained. The losses incurred have not been limited to those only who were actually engaged in oil making, but building speculators and many others have similarly suffered. The amount of loss in this direction has, however, been considerably. moderated by the development of colliery enterprise, partly brought about by the oil works. The new cannel pits, opened mainly on account of the demand created by the oil works, have not been opened in vain, for the same cannel which was used by the oil makers produces the most brilliant quality of gas, and thus a demand remains at a price which is still highly remuneration, though lower than that which the oil fever produced. Thus the gross population of the Leeswood district is at the present time greater than it was before the oil enterprise commenced. Were it not for this, the collapse would have been still more deplorable than it is. Our space will not allow us to go into further details. As we have stated in another column, we believe that the mineral oil trade has already reached the lowest ebb of its depression and the tide has turned, and it will rise again and flow on with steady prosperity so far as the firms that have survived are concerned. The supplies of cannel, however, do not justify the starting of any new ventures; too many barren pits have been already sunk to render the old delusion of unbounded supplies at all likely to be revived. We sincerely hope that those who have earned their experience, and have paid so dearly for it, will soon commence the satisfactory process of reaping a return that shall cover their losses, and recompense them for past anxieties.

Oil Trade Review, reproduced in the North Wales Chronicle, 16th January 1869