Scottish shale Scottish shale

Wareham Oil Works

Alternative names:
Northport oil works
Former parish and county:
Parish of St. Martins, Wareham, County of Dorset
Local authority:
George Wills
production ceased c.1864
Current status of site:
Uncertain, site most likely redeveloped for housing


The precise location of Wareham oil works remains unclear. Sale notices (below) describe the works as being on 9 acres of land adjoining the South Western Railway. Testimony given at the Young v. Fernie trial indicated that "on leaving the railway station towards Dorchester, the works come up to the boundary line of the station within 100 or 150 yards". This suggests that the works lay to the south west of the station, although surprisingly the first edition OS map (surveyed in 1888) provides no clues to the possible site. All evidence suggests that a succession of six oil companies (listed above) occupied the premises between 1848 and 1864, and that the buildings and land were put up for sale in 1868.

The first mention of plans to construct an oil works at Wareham appeared in the press during October 1848. It appears the Bituminous Shale Company, who had acquired exclusive rights to mine shale at Kimmeridge, had initially considered construction of their oil works at a waterfront site in Poole to where shale from the coastal workings at Kimmeridge could have been easily transported by sea. Failing to secure a suitable site at Poole, the company chose to construct their works at Northport, near Wareham, adjacent to the railway station. Although ideally located for distributing finished product via the railway network, oil shale had to transported about nine miles from Kimmeridge by country lane. It seems that the company's decision to construct their oil works at Wareham may have been influenced by plans to construct a canal and dock at Wareham. The Wareham Docks Bill received Royal ascent in May 1849, but seems never to have been progressed.

A number of sources indicate that Wareham Oil Works were initially equipped with De Buisson's patent retorts similar to those used in France to process oil shales from the Autun area, examples of which were trialed, with little success, at Weymouth Oil Works. Evidence given in the Young v. Fernie court case by Edward Heathfield, consultant chemist to the Bituminous Shale Co., stated that, when first appointed in May 1850, the Wareham works were equipped with a single vertical retort and two benches each with five gas-style horizontal retorts (stated elsewhere to be of a D-profile). Later in 1850 a bench of 120 horizontal retorts were constructed which were used to produce a range of oil products including a lamp oil. Other testimonies suggest most oil sales were to the wool industry (most likely lubricating oils), while most advertising carried out by the Bituminous Shale Company promoted the benefits of the spent shale produced as a waste product of oil production as an agricultural fertilizer.


The Bituminous Shale Company quickly got into financial difficulties, and a new joint stock company, the Shale Manure & Naphtha Co. was promoted in 1852, sharing many directors with the original company. This was wound-up later that year, presumably having failed to attract new capital. The works were put up for sale in April 1853. Testimony in Young v. Fernie refers to a new company that operated the works between April and October 1854. Although unnamed, this seems likely to be the firm of Ferguson and Muschamp. The works, and access to supplies of shale, were put on the market again in January 1855.

Early in 1857, the works were taken over by the firm of Wanostrocht & Co. It was said that the firm "removed the whole of the old machinery and replaced it with retorts and other works on new principles which secured the perfect and economical separation of the various convertible products of an oily ammoniacal or gaseous kind." This new investment seems likely to have equipped the works with retorts suited for processing Boghead coal imported from Scotland. This mineral yielded a much better purity of oil and paraffin wax that the Kimmeridge shale, but the production process was governed by James Young's patent. When Young threatened legal action to enforce payment of patent royalties, the works were sold to Charles Humfrey & Son, oil merchants and refiners with various oil interests in London. This firm soon got into financial difficulties, mortgaged the works to George Wills, and eventually was declared bankrupt.

The Wareham Oil and Candle Co. Ltd was formed in 1861 to take over ownership of the works from George Wills. The new firm continued to use Scottish Boghead coal for the production of refined oils and for waxes, and candles were manufactured at the works. The company also established an oil works at Drumgray in Scotland that produced crude oil which was shipped between the ports of Bo'ness and Poole, for refining in Wareham. In 1864 James Young again took legal action for infringement of patent, however the Wareham Oil and Candle Co. Ltd was liquidated before the matter could be taken to court. It seems likely that a major fire at the works in April 1863 serious curtailed production and contributed to the downfall of the company.

The oil works building remained intact until at least 1868, when they were offered for sale.

Number of Retorts: 120 (in 1851).

  • Location map
  • Detailed maps
  • Newspaper references
    • The health of the visitor drew from some of the parties a detail of the proposed works about to be established for the manufacture of naphtha and other commodities. These works will materially benefit the town and add considerably to the railway traffic.

      Dorset County Chronicle, 26th October 1848



      Bituminous Shale Company.—

      The above Company are desirous of receiving SEALED TENDERS, for ERECTING THEIR WORKS NORTHPORT, near WAREHAM. Dorsetshire. Plans and Specifications may be seen at the Office of Mr. C. O. Bartlett, Solicitor, Wareham; whom Sealed Tenders are to be delivered sent (free of expense) on before Wednesday, the day of December next; and further Particulars may obtained on application Mr. Turnbull, at the Red Lion Hotel, Wareham

      The Company do not bind themselves to accept the lowest Tender.

      Wareham, November 25th, 1848.

      Dorset County Chronicle, 30th November 1848



      The Directors of the Bituminous Shale Co are prepared to receive TENDERS for the raising, and Obtaining of BITUMINOUS SHALE or SCHIST, at Smedmore, and Kimmeridge, in the Isle of Purbeck, in the county of Dorset; and also Delivery of the same at the Company's Works, at Northport, Wareham, in the said county, distant about eight miles. Particulars, and Terms of Contract, may be seen on. application to the SECRETARY, at the Office, No. 16, Hanover-street, Hanover-square, London; or to Mr. Wm. C. TURNBULL, at Wareham; between the hours of Twelve and Three, any day after the 1st of March next. No Tenders will be received after the 10th of March. The Directors do not pledge themselves to accept the lowest or any Tender.

      By order of the Directors,

      ALGERNON POLLOCK, Secretary. 26th February, 1849.

      Exeter Flying Post, 1st March 1849


      Wareham - Shale Company.

      Wareham is certainly rising the world, we confidently that in a short time the bill will pass the legislature authoring the construction of Docks, this will be followed in the next session of parliament, by a bill for a line of railway from hence to Swanwich, passing through the heart of the valuable stone and clay districts, the productions of those parts then be brought from the pit or quarry side, without endless shifting now necessitated, to the vessel's side.

      In addition to this, and thanks the landowners of Poole being disinclined to sell unproductive land at a reasonable rate, what promises to be very important company, under the title Bituminous Shale Company, has made arrangements to establish very extensive works at Northport adjoining this town.

      Contracts have been advertised for, and believe entered into for the erection the necessary buildings, and also for the conveyance of the material from Kimmeridge to the works. The following description of the company and the "Schist" we take from the Mining Journal. "On the Dorsetshire coast have been discovered extensive deposits of bituminous Schist, a combination of animal and vegetable matter united a cement, containing as its base silicate of ammonia. This substance on analysis has been found contain pure volatile oil spirit perfectly colourless and transparent, and admirably adapted for lamps; a more dense oil having no tendency to become rancid, and burning with purity in ordinary lamps; a fatty inodorous oil, adapted for lubrication, paraffine or spermaceti in large quantities; a grease peculiarly adapted for locomotive engines; and the carbonaceous residuum is a powerful disinfectant and makes a fine manure.

      The lands containing these valuable productions have been taken by the present holders, and secured by a private Act of Parliament, and is proposed to establish a company with a capital £25,000, shares of £50 each; to be paid down, which will enable the directors to establish the works and make good the expenses already incurred. No further call is to made more than £10, and that by a special meeting of the shareholders. From careful estimates made, and which have been borne out practical results, the raising of only 15 tons per day of shale will produce £32,565 per annum, and deducting working expenses and 10 per cent, for casualties, leaves nearly £20,000 the capital paid up. A respectable directory is formed, and on the appropriation of all the shares, the company is in a position immediately to commence operations."— Poole Herald.

      Sherbourne Mercury, 24th March 1849


      The object of this communication, if you should think it deserving of a place, is to inform your readers that experiments, very similar in character, and with a view of producing very nearly the same results, have been for some time in operation at Wareham, in Dorsetshire, and that the company under whose auspices they are undertaken are now actually erecting in that locality 100 retorts, with a view of immediately bringing their products into the London and other markets. The only difference appears to be in the substance upon which they work, which in this case is what has been usually called 'Kimmeridge coal.' Its more proper appellation should be 'bituminous shale or schist,' being, according to the opinion of geologists, a combination of animal and vegetable remains. It is found in great quantities on a continuous tract of about four miles of land on the coast of Dorsetshire, of which 'The Bituminous Shale Company,' as it is called, are now the sole lessees. The following are the products of the shale after it has undergone what is technically termed a highly destructive distillation — mineral oil or spirit, asphaltum, grease, parafine, the residuum, after being crushed, forming the basis of what it is fully expected will prove an extremely valuable manure.

      Times, quoted in the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 2nd January 1851


      DISEASES OF SHEEP. PURE SHALE SPIRIT is now supplied by the SHALE COMPANY, at 1s. 9d per Gallon at their Works, WAREHAM. This will be found an invaluable specific against Scab. Maggot, &c., and to produce at the same time a healthy Growth of Wool, and is offered at lower price than any other specific of value.

      WILLIAM BALDWIN, Wareham. Manager, Shale Works. A liberal Allowance to Agents. 25th June. I851

      Dorset County Chronicle, 3rd July 1851



      The highly important Premises of the SHALE MANURE WORKS, WAREHAM, DORSETSHIRE. MESSRS. and HORNE are instructed the Directors of the Bituminous Shale Company to SELL BY AUCTION, At the Red Lion Inn, Wareham, on Friday April 8th at Two, the valuable LEASE and the BUILDINGS of the COMPANY'S WORKS, adjoining the South Western Railway, comprising Nine Acres, and held for 95 years at £45. 18s. 9d. but determinable by giving Six Month's notice.

      The buildings, which may all be removed. are mostly of very recent construction, and might be made applicable many manufacturing purposes, for a pottery; but to enable to continue the manufacture of shale manure, naphtha, &c.. option will be given to purchase by valuation the very valuable and complete plant and machinery, erected great cost for this purpose. Particulars may be obtained the office of H.S. Styan, solicitor, 1, Stone buildings, Lincoln's Inn; at the Place of Sale ; and of the Auctioneers. 40, Parliament Street, or Coal Exchange.

      Dorset County Chronicle 7th April 1853


      WAREHAM. —At the weekly meeting of the Board of Guardians held on the 29th instant, report was made of the nuisance arising from the very offensive and sickly smell created by the Manufactory established at Northport, near Wareham, for converting Bituminous Shale into oil, which, it appears is of strong and general complaint in the town and neighbourhood. Was unanimously resolved that the clerk be directed to write to the Poor Law Board and Board of Health, and ask their opinion whether there is any and what kind of remedy existence for abating the nuisance.

      Dorset County Chronicle, 31st August 1854


      THE SHALE MANURE. NAPTHA and MACHINE OIL WORKS, WAREHAM, DORSETSHIRE, judiciously placed adjoining the Wareham Station the South Western Railway, presenting a Public Company or Enterprising Capitalist a most favourable opportunity of entering upon a Manufacturing Business of an important and highly profitable nature.

      MESSRS. GADSDEN, WINTERFLOOD and ELLIS have received instructions TO SELL AT AUCTION, At the Mart, opposite the Bank of England, in one Lot, on Wednesday, 28th February, 1855, at 2 o'clock, the above Valuable PREMISES, consisting Nine Acres of LAND, together with the Buildings which have been erected in the most substantial manner, and titled with all the requisite Plant and Machinery, including Steam Power of superior description, eminent firms, at an enormous outlay.

      The whole is now in perfect working order, and capable of producing weekly many hundreds of gallons of rectified Naptha and Machine Oil, and many tons of Manure, &c., by the most successful and economical methods, thus enabling purchaser at once to commence operations without any further expenditure. The Shale is procurable in inexhaustible quantities in the immediate neighbourhood.

      The Property is held on Lease on advantageous Terms, for 99 years, from Christmas, 1848, at net rent of £45. 18s. 9d. per annum, with power to the Lessees to terminate it at any period, and to remove the whole of the Buildings and Effects therefrom. Samples of the various products may he obtained the Offices of the Auctioneers, or at the Works.

      Printed Particulars and Conditions may had at the Works; of William Parr, Esq., Solicitor, Poole; at Radley's Hotel, Southampton, the Commercial Sale Rooms, Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham, the Albion, Manchester, of Walter Prideaux, Esq.. Solicitor, Goldsmiths' Hall, London, at the Mart, and at Messrs. Gadsden, Winterflood, and Ellis's Offices, 18, Old Broad Street, London.

      Dorset County Chronicle, 25th January 1855



      BALDWIN. - At Northport, Wareham, in 66th year of his age, after a few days illness, Mr. William Baldwin, manager of the naptha works. He was deservedly respected by all who knew him

      Dorset County Chronicle, 9th September 1858


      THE SHALE OR MINERAL OIL WORKS, were originally commenced by an English engineer Mr Braithwaite but the imperfection of the manufacturing processes employed and other difficulties caused the suspension of the works for some years Messrs Wanostrocht of London and Duke Malakhoff the Marshal Pelisaier of Sebastopol subsequently formed a new company about four years since removed the whole of the old machinery and replaced it with retorts and other works on new principles which secured the perfect and economical separation of the various convertible products of an oily ammoniacal or gaseous kind.

      The shale beds of Kimmeridge were taken on a long lease and besides the local manufacture the company undertook to light the city of Paris with the gas. For this purpose a pier to ship the raw material was constructed in the Bay of Kimmeridge and one thousand tons of the raw material were shipped in the first four months and sent to the French capital. The rate of manufacture here was per month about fifty tons of oil two hundred tons of manure and a proportionate quantity of gas which was chiefly used in heating the furnaces and lighting the factory. A suspension from an accidental conflagration took place afterwards and again the works have been for a while stopped to be renewed we trust with increased activity

      Illustrated Historical and Picturesque Guide to Corfe Castle, Wareham, etc. Philip Brannon, published 1860


      Northport Shale Works.—

      On Thursday last, the 27th February, a supper was got up by the men employed at the Shale works, at Northport, near this town, which many of the tradesmen of Wareham attended; the object of the assembly being to testify Mr. Spillman, the manager of the works for the past four years, how much the men under his direction appreciated his conduct, and as a token of their regret at his leaving them. About forty persons sat down excellent supper at the Antelope Inn, provided by Mrs. Walt, in a first-rate style. Mr. C. Groves occupied the chair, and Mr. W. Spicer the vice-chair.

      The usual loyal and patriotic toasts were given the removal of the cloth, with the usual honours. The company increased in numbers; about this time till nearly sixty were present. A handsome testimonial was then placed on the table, being a very elegant and chaste French timepiece, under a dome glass, which attracted the attention of the company, and was much admired.

      The Chairman then rose and called the attention of the company to what might be considered the toast of the evening. “We assemble,” he said, “for a pleasing and very gratifying duty, for I know that you will all admit that we can scarcely realise a more pleasing sight than the one before us—a body of artizans who have long been accustomed to act under and obey the directions of the individual whom they are about now to present a more lasting and pleasing memento of their recollection of his role over them. It is wisely ordained that for the well being of society there should be those who rule, and direct, and guide the manual labours those under them, others to carry out their well matured plans, for the heart may conceive and the head devise in vain if there be not hands willing, and powerful, and skilful enough to second the efforts of those who have to rule and direct them.

      Our present gathering is such as rarely occurs, and while is honourable to the body of workmen we see around us, as showing that their hearts are in the right place, it is doubly honourable to the receiver, showing that his rule has been such as to obtain from them their respect, esteem and gratitude; and I cannot help remarking upon the men and their behaviour upon this occasion, for think you must all admit that so great number, upwards of thirty, you will rarely find such unity of purpose as they now show, or such orderly and praiseworthy conduct. Their liberality of working men exemplified in the very beautiful character ot the testimonial now exhibited, and it must be source of the highest pleasure to you, sir (addressing Mr. Spillman), to find that your rule has been such to give the satisfaction that its presentation implies. (Cheers.)

      Joseph Thompson, as the representative of his fellow-workmen, then presented to Mr. Spillman the testimonial, which was accompanied by a document signed by all the men, as well by those employed in fitting the works, from Mr. Pearce’s foundry, Poole.

      Mr. Spillman rose and acknowledged the gift, and thanked the men for their attention to him as their director the works, and especially for the very handsome present they had made him; and added that wherever his destiny might place him, and whenever looked upon the testimonial they had presented to him, it would bring to his recollection the time that had passed at the Northport Shale-works, and with that recollection would always associated the remembrance of the kind friends he had left behind him. He then paid a high compliment to the men tor their general good conduct, and for the manner in which they had ever attended his wishes, and stated that was pleasing satisfaction to him to find that, while never forgot the duty owed to his employers, he had given such satisfaction to the employed; and where that feeling existed it was always to found that the greatest goodwill also characterized both.

      After inculcating much salutary advice, and thanking all for their kindness to him, especially thanked the workmen for their gift, and his friends the tradesmen of Wareham for their presence, and resumed his sent amidst loud cheering.—The harmony and good feeling of the meeting were prolonged to a late hour, enlivened by several excellent songs, especially by Mr. Spillman, Mr. Tullidge, jnr., and others—the latter giving some of his Irish songs in character, and capital style.

      Dorset County Chronicle, 6th March 1862


      WAREHAM Fire.—On Thursday, owing to the boiling over of one of the stills at the paraffin works Northport, near this town, the buildings were set on fire, and the iron roof, from collapse, fell in before the flames could be got under. About £100 damage was done the premises.

      Sherbourne Mercury, 28th April 1863


      WAREHAM. A Second Fire, attended with more disastrous results took place at the Parafine works at Northport, on Wednesday evening last. This, as well as the former about a fortnight before, originated from incautiously over-heating the still, the pressure being so great as to blow off the heavy head, and allow the atmospheric air to come in contact with the highly-heated petroleum which immediately fired, and a terrific body and smoke instantaneously shot up to a great height attracting crowds of lookers-on from all parts. There were many thousand gallons oil and matter on the premises, and much anxiety was manifested. Every exertion was made by the hands employed in the works, and under the skilful guidance of Mr. Southby the fire was confined to the still-room. From the commencement of these works, first as the Bituminous Shale Company in the year 1848, to the present time, they like a barometer, been constantly rising and falling one time holding out every prospect of long yeas of constant employment and a not-to-be-estimated amount of profit to the fortunate shareholders, and again sinking if possible, below zero. The present undertaking been a decided success. The present operations have carried on with much spirit, producing candles to a vast extent, and of a quality inferior to no other establishment. We trust these mishaps will soon be remedied and that the company will, phoenix like, spring from its ashes with renewed life and spirit.

      Dorset County Chronicle, 30th April 1863


      TO LET by TENDER, for a term of years, —All those Pieces or Parcels of LAND, with the BUILDINGS thereon erected, situate at Wareham, near the Railway Station, lately occupied by the Wareham Oil Company. The Premises contain on the whole about 9 acres. For further particulars, apply to Harry Dibben, Esq., Estate Office, Crichel, Wimborne.

      Salisbury and Winchester Journal 30th May 1868