The Boghead Boom and the Great Engine Sale

Pits in the Boghead estate

F22014 - first published 13th August 2022

russel engines

By the middle of the 19th century many towns and villages had their own gas works, producing “town gas” for street lamps and lighting within private homes. The local supplies of coal used in gas works often produced a low-quality gas that gave a poor light in the simple forms of gas burner then in use. The solution was to mix in a little “gas coal” with local supplies to boost the calorific value of the gas. Good quality gas coal (also called cannel coal or parrot coal) was only found in a few locations (such as Lesmahagow and Methil) and sold at a premium price.

There were clues that an especially rich gas coal might be found near Bathgate. Fragments of an unusual coal could be picked in fields that would burn like a candle – and there was a local legend that Bathgate folk once found their way though the dark streets using lanterns that burned lumps of this strange rock. In the early part of the 1840's there were a number of efforts to find and mine this mineral, but all failed when faults were encountered, seams narrowed, or workings became flooded.

James Russel, a Falkirk coal-master and a man of the law, brought a new professionalism to this prospecting. A large number of bores were sunk across the district, revealing that the seam of “Boghead Gas Coal”occurred across an area of about three square miles to the east and south of Bathgate. The seam was seldom more than 2'6” thick, but varied unpredictably; and was commonly less than one foot wide, and was absent altogether in some areas.

During 1849 and 1850 Russel negotiated mineral leases with various landowners across the areas where reserves of gas coal were suspected. 25 year leases were signed for the Boghead estate, where the coal had first been found, the lands of Torbanehill where the seam was at its thickest, and the lands of Inchcross, Torbane, Trees and the Earl of Hopetoun's Ballencrieff estate.

No time was lost in opening up workings in the Boghead Gas Coal, which proved richer than any other gas coal on the market. Supplies of Boghead coal were exported through Queensferry and Bo'ness to ports throughout the UK, to various European destinations, and as far as the east coast of the USA. The availability of this gas (and oil) rich mineral led James Paraffin Young to set up his first oil works in Bathgate, where he used Boghead Gas Coal to manufacture his patent Paraffine Oil. This substantially increased demand, and further enhanced the reputation of this remarkable mineral.

The seam of Boghead Coal lay close to the surface (some pit shafts were only 15 metres deep) and the workings were only 5ft or so high – just sufficient to extract the precious Boghead gas coal along with some poor quality ball coal and ironstone nodules. This suited the sinking of many small pits, worked by the longwall method and linking underground to ensure that every part of Boghead coal could be worked out. In the Boghead, Torbanehill and neighbouring estates, almost 40 pits were sunk during the course of the 1850's. In the Hopetoun lands (to the north of the Bathgate to Armadale road), a further dozen pits were sunk. Here the seam of Boghead coal was deeper and thinner, but worthwhile reserves of common coal and ironstone were often worked from the same shaft.

The best and thickest areas of Boghead coal were soon exhausted, and the thinner, more problematic reserves became increasingly expensive to work. Mining contractors were paid premium rates to work seams little more than 3” deep. Nevertheless the fame, reputation, and demand for Boghead coal continued to grow, sustaining every higher prices.

At the height of the Boghead Coal boom, the landscape to the south of Bathgate must have been a remarkable sight, with a mass of little engine-houses, pitheads, and smoking chimney stalks in all directions, and the ever present clatter of machinery.

As operations wound-down, Russel & Son sold off their pithead machinery in a series of auction sales. The programme for these sales reveal a wonderful range of old steam engines, and other mining equipment, that seem to have been hurriedly assembled to serve the rapid proliferation of pits. The arrangements made for the sales are also interesting. A sale in 1869 began at “Two Trees” pit, and timed to suit those arriving on the 12.00 train to Bathgate. For a great sale of eight steam engines that took place in 1870, a special train was laid on between Bathgate Station and Hopetoun No.9 pit

The sale of a large pumping engine in 1875 seems to mark Russel's final withdrawal from the area, following the expiry of the last of their mineral leases.

There was no further mining in the southern parts of the lands until the value of the fireclay that it contained was recognised early in the 20th century. Some of Russel's pits in the Hopetoun lands of Armadale were developed under new ownership to work seams of common coal.

For many years the landscape of the great Boghead gas coal boom remained peppered with numerous small bings of mine waste. As time has moved on, most surface traces have been cleared and the land either returned to agriculture, or built upon. One place where some traces remain is the site of Boghead No.5 pit, located close to where Russel's mineral railway once joined the main line. Here, beside the nation cycle path, a picturesque clump of Scots pine still shade the gentle mounds of the 150-year old pit bing.