North East Wales

Oil in them thar Welsh hills: Flintshire's boom and bust

Oil artwork

The tumbling price of oil has been headline news for months.

Right now, prices are around 60% down on July 2014. Supply has outstripped demand - great news for motorists but a disaster for the UK oil industry.

Around 65,000 jobs are estimated to have been lost, many of them in Aberdeen.

It is not the first time a glut of cheap oil has given British businesses a battering. But 150 years ago it was not the North Sea that bore the brunt of the downturn - it was north Wales.

In the second half of the 19th Century, Flintshire struck oil.

Strictly speaking, it struck cannel coal - a dense, smooth, shale-like variety of coal which can be distilled to make oil.

While that admittedly sounds a lot less thrilling than the discovery of a black gold "gusher" under the Flintshire hills, it nevertheless heralded a global investment frenzy to rival the early days of the California gold rush.

Speculators ploughed close to a million pounds into a variety of coal-oil ventures from Mold to Queensferry.

The vast majority of them were to lose their shirts.

"It must have been absolutely astounding," said Dr Robin Chesters, Director of the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry, which has conducted extensive research into the Flintshire "oil-dorado".

"It all happened so fast that some of the oil works weren't actually completed and others were put together so quickly that they began to fall down."

'Great Paraffine Case'

The seeds of the oil rush were sown in 1858 when an industrialist named Ebenezer Waugh Fernie discovered an exceptionally rich seam of cannel coal at Leeswood Green Colliery, near Mold.

Seven years earlier the Scottish scientist James "Paraffin" Young had patented his process of producing oil from coal and established a highly successful oil works at Bathgate in West Lothian.

Fernie suspected there was similar money to be made in Leeswood and he set about building an oil works near the colliery.

But the budding enterprise was hampered by Young's patent and Fernie's numerous attempts at surreptitious oil production landed him in court.

The "Great Paraffine Case" was brought before the Chancery court in London in January 1864. It lasted 33 days, called 73 witnesses and became a cause celebre.

The court found in Young's favour and awarded him substantial damages. But his patent expired a few months later anyway.

That, together with the huge amount of publicity garnered by the case, meant that Flintshire's cannel coal reserves were suddenly ripe for the distilling.

Image copyright National Library of Scotland
Image caption At the height of the boom, 26 oil works were set up in Flintshire, many of them around Leeswood, near Mold

"People who had been reading about this great court case and all the money that could be made realised that they could now go into the business and make their fortune," said Dr Chesters.

Would-be oil tycoons from all over Britain and abroad began ploughing money into coal-oil companies.

A total of 26 oil works and refineries were built in Flintshire, mainly near the collieries where the cannel coal was mined.

People flocked to the area from far and wide in search of work, rents were raised exorbitantly and overcrowding was rife.

Boom and bust

By late 1865, oil fever had Flintshire in its grip.

An account published in the Western Daily Press in November of that year describes the frenzied activity at the height of the boom:

"I pushed for Padeswood, a small station about two miles from Mold, in Flintshire, and landed at once in the very heart of the mineral oil region.

"T'was as if I had fallen asleep in the train at Chester, and woke up amongst the "Oil Wells" at Pennsylvania.

"There was the identical mud, about the same quantity of smell, the same run of land, the same rough people, the same sort of fires and furnaces, cauldrons, retorts, kettles, stew-pans for oil and distilleries."

"There was a mad rush for cannel," says another report in the Oil Trade Review.

"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 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'."

But the boom proved to be short-lived. Just 18 months after the Flintshire oil stampede had begun, the industry was on its knees and cheap US imports were to blame.

"The first oil had come from America in around 1859," said Dr Chesters.

"But from 1861, the Civil War disrupted all of the North Atlantic trade and that meant that very limited supplies were coming through.

"But as soon as the Flintshire industry really began to get into its stride, the Civil War ended and imports started up again.

"The whole price of oil dropped tremendously and what looked like a good industry to invest in in early 1865, became totally unviable part way through 1866."

Image copyright Almond Valley Heritage Centre
Image caption Site of Padeswood oil works - now a green on the Padeswood & Buckley golf course
Image copyright Almond Valley Heritage Centre
Image caption Site of the Leeswood Vale oil works - no physical trace of the once-booming industry remains

Over the next couple of years, most of the oil companies were shut down and local newspapers were full of tales of would be oil-barons facing bankruptcy and ruin.

An 1869 article in the Oil Trade Review paints a gloomy picture: "Dilapidated brickwork, smokeless stunted chimneys and other ruins of manufacturing operations are now the subject of melancholy comment by visitors who formerly were lost in wonderment at the sudden development of its commercial prosperity."

But while its impact on the local area was immense, the story of the Flintshire oil rush remains obscure.

Written accounts are all that remains.

One in particular - by Arthur Robottom, a Birmingham merchant who invested in the Coppa Oil company, near Mold - sums up the high hopes and broken dreams of that extraordinary time: "The steam yachts, carriages, mansions and other luxuries that we had been awarding ourselves in the future all faded away like a dream.

"All of 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."

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