The early history of shale oil production in Broxburn is complicated. At least eight small-scale oil works operated within Broxburn during the 1860's and early 70's. All these enterprises were linked to Robert Bell, who ultimately became chairman of the Broxburn Oil Company on its formation in 1877.
Conditions were described in evidence presented to the Royal Commission on housing conditions in 1914:
" The Broxburn Oil Company own or lease over 600 houses in and around Broxburn district. The houses are mostly built in rows ; some form three sides of a square; they are in blocks of six, eight, sixteen, and twenty houses each, the two latter numbers consist of two-storey blocks. There are about 130 single-apartment houses, many of which are back to back. The rental is 1/8. to 1/1. per week, inclusive of local and county rates. Most of these houses are provided with an outside water-closet for every two tenants, and a washhouse for every four tenants. The water is supplied by a limited number of stand-pipes, and the drainage is by open channel. They are, in the main, kept as clean and orderly as is possible under such insanitary arrangements. There are also some 470 houses, about one-half of which consist of room and kitchen, and the other half of room, kitchen, scullery with sink, and water-closet. The dimensions of these houses vary considerably, the following is an example:- Room, 11 ft by 10 ft, also bed-recess ; kitchen, 13 ft by 10 ft, also two bed-recesses. Single apartment, 13 ft by 10 ft, also bed-recesses; height of ceiling, 9 ft. For two-apartment houses the rental is 2/3 to 2/9 per week, and where sculleries, sinks, and water-closets are provided, the rental is 3/3 per week, inclusive of local and county rates. In some cases two single apartments are made into one house, and the rent charged is 3/8 per week. Washhouses are provided for every four tenants. The refuse from all the houses is deposited in ash-pits, which are a serious source of trouble in summer time. These ash-pits are built between the blocks of houses. Clothes poles are studded in the space between the backs of the rows. The existing privies are such that women cannot use them, and men should not. They should be done away with absolutely, as should the ash-pits, and a daily system of refuse removal adopted. The pathways are made of ashes for the most part."
Some of those directly employed by Bell were housed at Holygate and at Bell's Rows. Other companies also constructed housing for their workforce. The 1871 census revealed oil workers living at:
- Bell's Row, containing 12 households. The precise location is this housing is certain; perhaps the two rows of six dwellings on the west side of Greendykes Road, immediately north of the Liggat Syke (55.935950, -3.4670041)
- Steel's Row, containing 4 households, presumably serving Steel's Works, precise location unknown.
- Poynter's Row containing 10 households, presumably serving Poynter's Works. This is thought to have been located on the east side of Greendykes Road, immediately north of the Liggat Syke (55.935953, -3.469688). The OS maps shows this as a single row of 10 single-roomed dwellings.
Poynter's Row was probably demolished c.1932 (West Lothian Courier 22-01-1932)
The Broxburn Rows were constructed to serve the new Broxburn Oil Works which went into production in about 1878. Houses were built either side of the existing Greendykes Road, along with three parallel rows to the west creating Back Street, Mid Street and West Street. Most of the rows lining Greendykes Road were two storey buildings with an external stair case to the rear. There were three blocks each with ten back-to-back single room homes facing either Mid Street or Back Street. Most other homes appear to have had two rooms. Sculleries seem to have been fitted to most homes early in the 20th century.