The Deans Century

By Helen-Jane Shearer

Article in Konect Livingston September 2011

Driving around Deans industrial estate, it's difficult to imagine that under you are driving over the site of shale mines that sunk to depths of hundreds of feet and of a towering bing that dominated the landscape for miles around.

Over the course of a century, a mind-boggling amount of labour transformed the fields into one of West Lothian's most productive shale oil sites with seven mines and a crude oil works, then removed it all and replaced it with the Deans we see today.

The first Livingston Station works were opened here in 1884, and the industry dominated every part of local life until the last miner's rows and the bings were dismantled in the 1970s, just under a century later. Though there is little left to see today, it has nevertheless left its mark in Deans - not just in the few buildings that do remain, but more importantly in the collective memory. It has been landscaped, built on and incorporated into Livingston but still retains its own community memory of what was life in Livingston Station.

Before the arrival of the shale oil companies, the land was a mixture of cultivated fields and woodland. There is some evidence of medieval farmsteads and possibly an ancient standing stone at Starlaw. In 1884 though, change came with the opening of the Livingston Station oil works here by the West Lothian Oil Company, on the Edinburgh to Bathgate railway. Due to mismanagement the venture was unsuccessful until the Pumpherston Oil Company took over in 1894. They restructured the site as the Deans Works, and the village of Livingston Station was built by them to house its workforce. It was fairly typical of many mining villages in the area.

The Pumpherston Oil Company had a good reputation for providing reasonable facilities for its workforce. The housing consisted mainly of terraced rows of two-roomed houses with gardens and, as was noted in a housing survey carried out in 1914, “a generous scullery”. One room was the living room with the kitchen range for cooking and heating, The other room was where the family slept. Frequently there were two families in each small house due to shortage in housing as the works expanded. Some houses had coal cellars, and the houses on the end of each terrace had an attic bedroom with a window on the gable wall, attracting a slightly higher rent.

The village also incorporated drying greens and play areas. Initially there was no piped water for the houses, so water was hauled in by the householder from shared standpipes in the streets. Also shared were the toilet facilities – some shared between two houses, some for many more.A small amount of further accommodation for Deans workers was at Deans Cottages, thirty six two -roomed houses that had been built by the West Lothian Oil Company and located to the north of the works. The rows formed three sides of a square, with shared privvies in the centre of the square. The M8 now runs straight through the square.

 Institute Hall in Livingston Station in 1950s, showing the bing towering behind

Typical of many mining communities, there was a healthy social life in Livingston Station. An annual summer gala, outings, and the life that revolved around the “store” -the local branch of the successful West Calder Co-operative on the Main Street. Pumpherston Oil Company built a community centre – the Institute - incorporating a library, bowling green and other facilities including showers : the 1914 housing survey notes that “spray baths are to be had at the Institute, for a small charge.” The Institute building still stands in Deans.

There were seven mines in the Deans Works : Mines 1 and 2 known as Caputhall, Deans No 3 known as Starlaw, and Deans Nos 5,6, and 7. They had their share of mining accidents, which were sadly not unusual across West Lothian. Fatal accidents in the Deans mines are recorded at various times as a result of falling shale, runaway hutches and explosions.

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 that 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

Pit ponies were brought up from the mines about once a year. Many were taken to the annual West Lothian Agricultural Society's show in Linlithgow, where the were judged for appearance and condition.

 Competition from cheaper sources of oil led to the closure of West Lothian's oil works. The Deans works closed at the end of the 1940s and over the next three decades the buildings and village were dismantled. Most of the works buildings were taken down in the 1950s; the miner's rows were demolished during the course of the 60s and 70s; the huge bing was quarried in the 70s and used as construction material for the M8.

The workers who lived in Deans Cottages would have found it ironic that the shale they dug up from the ground and piled high on the bings would eventually be taken down again and used to lay a motorway right over their houses! The new Deans is continually evolving as part of Livingston, whilst building, literally, on its mining roots.

Sources for this article:

Hendrie, W.F. 2000 “Images of Scotland, Livingston” Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud.

Almond Valley Heritage Trust