When Pumpherston had an empire

by Helen-Jane Shearer

Article in Konect Calders September 2011

The sign welcoming visitors to Pumpherston says “Historic centre of shale oil industry.”

This simple description belies the enormity of the place that Pumpherston had in the Scottish - and indeed the British - economy for almost a century. Between the late 1800s and the mid 1900s, Pumpherston was the epicentre of Britain's most important industry and many villages around West Lothian were practically owned by the Pumpherston Oil Company.

Many companies jumped on the very lucrative bandwagon of shale oil production in the 1860s and 1870s. At one point there were 30 companies in operation simultaneously, furiously milking the oil out of West Lothian's shale at 43 sites.

Founded in 1883, Pumpherston Oil Company was a late-comer to the industry, but shrewd management and innovation, especially the development of a new retort, meant that it purchased and absorbed many smaller companies. It became the largest concern in the oil industry. By 1914, it had works in Pumpherston, Seafield (acquired from the Bathgate Oil Company), Deans (acquired from the West Lothian Oil Company), Tarbrax (acquired from the Tarbrax Oil Company), Mid Breich, Cobbinshaw and Roman Camps. All men at the mines and works were exempt from military service due to the importance of the shale oil industry.

The company built villages to house its workforce at each of the sites, or expanded upon accommodation built by the smaller companies it had taken over. It had a reasonable reputation at the time for looking after its workforce, but looked at through the our eyes working and housing conditions were poor.

Like most empires, the massive riches generated by it were enjoyed by relatively few. For the people who toiled long hours in the mines it was often difficult to make ends meet. Most houses in the mining villages that Pumpherston built had just one or two rooms, with shared wash houses, shared standpipes for householders to bring water into their houses, shared outdoor privvies and shared ashpits for household waste. It took a couple of years after the opening of the Pumpherston works and building of the village for the company to have provided acceptable water supply for the residents. In 1886 and Inspector the Public Health wrote, “That gross iniquity of a want of a good water supply continues at Pumpherston. How long is it to be?” Many families took lodgers into their tiny homes to help make ends meet; it wasn't unusual for a family of five or six to share their two-roomed house with a lodger too.

There was a strong sense of community born out of the hard conditions, and there was a healthy social life in Pumpherston and the other mining villages the company built. The company provided facilities such as institute halls incorporating libraries, bowling greens and, in Deans at least, showers. A 1914 housing survey of Deans notes that while there were scant sanitary facilities in the houses, “spray baths are to be had at the Institute, for a small charge.” The paternalistic approach was of course part and parcel of controlling the workforce. A culture developed whereby the company management intervened in all aspects of their employees lives, even when they were at home. No pubs were allowed in Pumpherston – alcohol was frowned upon by the owners of the Company, so until their influence had waned after the second World War, Pumpherston residents had to go to Mid Calder to quench their thirst!

Big Brother

The tradesmen from the Oil Works, the joiners, plumbers and electricians, attended to repairs and maintenance in the village. This meant that minor damage such as blown fuses, broken windows had to be reported to the management and there were Works Office reprimands for the unfortunate miscreants, whether adult or child. All garden huts and outbuildings and the doors of all houses had to be painted in the same shade of dark green. Gardens had to be kept tidy. Misbehaviour by children out of school hours was followed by a note from the Works Office to the school headmaster. The letter named the guilty child, indicated the crime (most often raiding fruit trees of indulging in divot fights), and invariably ended with the rather ambiguous 'Kindly chastise this boy' ” From Sybil Cavanagh in “Pumpherston, the story of a shale oil village”

Over the years facilities improved and small extensions on most houses provided them with a toilet and a sink. However working conditions were always hard. As further consolidation in the industry led to Pumpherston Oil Company being absorbed by Scottish Oils Ltd in the 1920s, workers were fighting (unsuccessfully) to have their working week reduced to 48 hours. Pumpherston Oil Company's mines had their share of mining accidents, which were sadly not unusual across West Lothian. Fatal accidents in the company's mines at Pumpherston, Seafield, Deans and Tarbrax are recorded at various times as a result of falling shale, runaway hutches, explosions and falls from retort platforms.

Pit Ponies

Ponies were used to haul hutches of shale up from the pits. Unlike coal mines, shale mines had more headroom, up to 10ft, so here not only ponies but much larger horses were used underground, even after the introduction of diesel engines. They lived in stables underground, rarely coming up to the surface, and their living conditions depended on the mine manager. Happily it seems Pumpherston Oil Company's Deans No 5 Mine had a good reputation for looking after their horses. There were 35 horses in the underground stables and each one had a lad assigned to look after it – 'pony driver' was one of the first jobs boys used to get in the mines.


The ostler in charge of the underground stables at Deans No 5 Mine was strict about the conditions his ponies were kept in. His son Jock Gibb started work as a pony lad when he left school at the age of 14 and describes his first pony :

“His name was Star and I used to take him a tattie, but after munching his potato he also used to love having a wee bit of my piece at break time each day. Most of the miners were very fond of their ponies and took them titbits everyday. As a wee pony Star only pulled one hutch at a time and if he decided it was too heavy laden, he was quite capable of tipping the tail chain and getting out of it. After a few months, I was promoted to a much bigger and stronger beast called Bob. He was almost as big as a horse and could pull several hutches fully laden. As the ostler, my father was very strict about the condition the pit ponies were kept in and always watched they were never taken into too low a working. He was very proud of the many certificates which the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals presented to Deans No 5 Mine.” 

Pit Pony in a West Lothian Shale Mine

Pit Pony in a West Lothian Shale Mine

Sources: Most of the material for this article was taken from Cavanagh, Sybil (2002) Pumpherston, the story of a shale oil village. Luath Press.  

 © Lothian Publications Ltd 2014