Grangemouth at 100

Grangemouth Refinery near Falkirk in Scotland began operating in 1924 and celebrates its centenary this year. We look back at its history in this bps news and in the next three editions covering 25 years each time. In this edition, we go back to the beginnings of the Scottish oil industry and the growing need for a large refinery capable of dealing with the growing demand for oil-based products.

The celebration of Grangemouth’s centenary is also tinged with sadness as the refinery’s current owner, Petroineos, a joint venture between the Chinese state-owned oil firm and Ineos owned by Sir James Ratcliffe, has announced the refinery is to cease operations as soon as 2025. The aim is to transform Grangemouth into a pure fuel import and export terminal. It is not yet known what impact closing one of the UK’s six remaining large oil refineries will have on fuel supplies. Hopefully, we’ll learn more as the year develops.

In the meantime, let’s go back to the beginnings in West Lothian and to a man who was responsible for a chemical revolution in the late 19th century – Dr James Young. Young was arguably the world’s first chemical engineer, although at that time the term was not used and he was simply referred to as a chemist.

In 1850, Young took out a patent, No. 13292, for ‘treating bituminous coals to obtain paraffin and oil containing paraffin therefrom’. In 1851 he set up a plant in Bathgate, West Lothian, the first oil works in the world, and began the manufacture of oil from cannel coal, known as Boghead Coal, which was discovered in area only a few years earlier. He was able to achieve 110 to 120 gallons of crude oil per ton of coal and he was so successful with his lamp oil that he became known as ‘Paraffin Young’.

The stimulus for the development of this process came from the rising demand for oils from a fast-changing Britain. The steam engine was replacing the waterwheel and the sail, and over 5,000 miles of railway were in operation. An increasingly urbanised population needed more lighting oils and the new engines needed lubricating oils.

The Scottish oil industry developed out of this growing demand. There were numerous mines and eventually almost 200 different concerns are known to have been associated with the production of shale oil in Scotland. However, many of these had to close as the world price for oil fell due to its commercial development in the USA. By the outbreak of the First World War, only six Scottish shale companies remained, including Pumpherston, Broxburn, Dalmeny and Young’s Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company Limited.

Under government direction, the marketing activities of these six were brought together in 1918 as the Scottish Oil Agency Limited. In the following year, the ownership of the six companies passed to a new company, Scottish Oils Limited, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), predecessor to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and ultimately to BP.

The Scottish Oil Agency Limited required a suite of offices in West Lothian for management to run the companies along with the eventual refinery at Grangemouth. To this end, an estate in West Lothian at Uphall near Broxburn was acquired containing a large Victorian house to be used by the management staff. The building was extended to provide an extra second floor for architectural and engineering staff. The estate also had space for staff housing and workshops that would be required over the years ahead.

With the rapid growth of vehicles in the early twentieth century, oil products from shale could no longer satisfy demand. In addition, crude oil was becoming accessible from other parts of the world such as the Middle East. To supply the company’s European retail markets, new refineries, much smaller than that at Abadan in Persia which had been operating since 1911, were brought on stream. Llandarcy in South Wales began operations in 1921. APOC also looked for suitable land along the Firth of Forth estuary in Scotland to build a refinery. Grangemouth, on the south-west shore of the River Forth, provided a suitable location in terms of ground availability, access to port facilities and labour skilled in the oil technology developed within the shale industry of the Lothians.

Farms were purchased between the River Avon to the east and the Grange Burn to the west and north of Bo’ness Road in close proximity to Grangemouth docks for the import of crude oil and the export of refined products. The area was laid out in a grid format with streets running east to west and north to south. Many of the roads were named after the farms that had once been there.

Oil refining in Grangemouth began in 1924 to meet the demand for petroleum products, such as motor spirit, kerosene and fuel oils, in Scotland, north-east England and Scandinavia. By August of that year it was refining over 25,000 tons of crude oil per month – roughly equivalent to the total capacity of all the shale oil refineries put together. In November 1924 extensions to the refinery were approved by Anglo-Persian. The refinery maintained a throughput of some 360,000 tons a year until shutdown in March 1940 during the Second World War. Grangemouth shut down far earlier than Llandarcy as it was on the vulnerable east coast and so more likely to be attacked.

Grangemouth Refinery cooperage and loading bank

By spring 1940 Western Europe was devastated by German attacks. The fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war on the German side meant the Mediterranean was closed to Allied shipping. As a result, Anglo-Iranian’s tankers could no longer carry their cargoes of crude oil from the Middle East to Europe via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. Instead they had to proceed by the much longer route around Africa by the Cape of Good Hope. With voyages taking longer to complete and tanker losses to enemy action mounting, oil liftings from Iran were reduced and the last cargo of Iranian oil arrived in Britain in August 1941.

The Grangemouth refinery was recommissioned in 1946 and facing Bo’ness Road, three office buildings were constructed of Scottish Oil bricks. Work began in 1949 on the expansion of the refinery to process 2.2 million tons a year. The expansion was completed in 1954.

Grangemouth Refinery topping plant

Scottish Oil bricks?

Your editor admits to being mystified by the use of the term ‘Scottish Oil bricks’ in the construction of some office buildings at Grangemouth. Were the bricks owned by the company or did Scottish Oils actually make them? Well, it appears they made them.

In a wonderfully informative book, ‘Pumpherston – The story of a shale village’*, it states that: ‘During the 1930s the Company started to make use of spent shale bings which had become such a significant part of the local landscape. The spent shale was made into bricks. The process was very different from that of making traditional clay bricks. The spent shale was crushed, and mixed with hydrated lime and water. The mixture was then fed into brick moulding machines and the bricks were dried by stem in autoclaves. Large quantities were used in the shale mines for stoppings. They were also used in building work. Many of the offices and laboratories at Grangemouth were constructed using this very distinctive pink brick’.

*The book was kindly given to the editor by Catherine Shaw of Falkirk following an article in bps news, August 2022 about Catherine’s father and a family chest from Kuwait.

In the 1940s the Distiller’s Company Limited was investigating synthetic processes for the production of alcohol to replace the traditional fermentation process using molasses and so resolve issues with unreliability of supply and the associated cost fluctuations. This business need combined with BP’s interest in petrochemical development resulted in 1947 in the formation of a joint company, British Hydrocarbon Chemicals Limited. The new company located its site adjacent the existing BP Grangemouth Refinery, utilising available feedstock from the refinery by-product streams. The petrochemical plant was commissioned in 1951, the first in Europe.

When writing this history of Grangemouth Refinery, your editor has drawn on an article written by Richard Gordon entitled ‘The centenary of Grangemouth oil industry’ and on a pamphlet entitled ‘BP in Scotland’ kindly provided by Ian Woods, bp archive manager who also provided the photos. Richard Gordon lives just a few miles from the refinery and worked there from 1979 to 2002 for BP. His article was written for the Falkirk Local History Society for publication in their own annual newsletter ‘Calatria’.

In our May newsletter, we’ll look at the next 25 years of Grangemouth Refinery – 1950 to 1975. We’ll cover the expansion of the refinery in the 1950s to include chemicals production, through the discovery of North Sea oil in the Forties field to Queen Elizabeth II operating a switch in the BP Dyce control room to start oil flowing through the 130 mile pipeline to Grangemouth in November 1975.

If you would like to share your memories of these times, we’d love to hear from you. Please include the dates you worked at BP and your job role. Our contact details are on page 2 of the printed bps news.

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