EMIAC 86: Oil's Well that Ends Well

Winthorpe, 26th October 2013

Conference Details


This conference explores aspects of East Midlands oil production from the first significant find in 1919 to the present day and how refined product was distributed via the River Trent. It includes a visit to Duke's Wood, the site of wartime oil production.


Organised by the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology and was held on Saturday 26th October 2013 in Winthorpe.

The conference programme:

09:00 Registration with tea/coffee

09:30 Welcome and Introduction

09:40 The Derbyshire Oil Strike of 1919

10:25 Oil - The Secret of Sherwood Forest

11:10 Break

11:25 East Midlands Oil Fields Past, Present and Future

12:10 EMIAC Business Meeting

12:30 Lunch

13:30 Visit to Duke's Wood Oil Museum

13:30 The Development of Oil Traffic on the River Trent

Note: there will be an opportunity for all delegates to attend both the visit and the lecture.

16:00 Tea and departure

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Scothern oil wells
Scothern oil wells.
Surviving well and pump at Duke's Wood
Surviving well and pump at Duke's Wood.

Images courtesy of the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

Conference Report

Cliff Lea

Oil, more correctly an outcropping bitumous substance, had been discovered near Eyam as early as 1734. Seepage of a natural petroleum substance was found in the Riddings colliery at Alfreton in 1847. Initially considered a nuisance it was dumped into the Cromford Canal; drifting downstream sufficient collected near Pickstone wharf whereupon it ignited. James Young, a Scottish chemist, was called to investigate the substance, from which he distilled a light oil suitable for lamps and a thicker oil suitable for use as a lubricant. He set up a small business at Bathgate to refine the crude oil; possibly the world's first [fractionating] refinery. This supply of oil had become exhausted by 1851.

In an effort to reduce the country's dependence on oil imports, the Government set aside a budget of £1m for a systematic survey; the work being undertaken by Lord Cowdray's firm of Pearson & Sons. Three areas were identified as having the greatest potential for oil: the Lothians of Scotland (two sites), the North Derbyshire coalfield area (seven sites) and the Potteries in North Staffordshire (two sites).

Although Brimington was the first well to strike oil in 1919, it was beset by many problems. In May 1919 the Hardstoft well found oil at 3,070 ft producing 50 barrels per week; later tests showed this rate could be doubled. Work started at Heath in 1919, but a number of problems were encountered: an unrecorded coal mine; a large gas field (450,000 cu ft per day) was found between 1,875 and 2,615 ft; a well collapse occurred at 3,000 ft. By 1921 the well had reached a depth of 4,000 ft but still no oil. In an attempt to release oil from the rocks a 1200 lb charge of nitroglycerine was detonated but still no oil. Was this the first example of 'fracking'? The Ridgeway well produced only saltbrine; at Renishaw gas was found at 1,600 ft and 3,000 ft (200,000 cu ft per day) and the Ironville well was abandoned.

Silting up caused production to fall in 1923 and 1924 so the well was converted from a natural flow system to a pumped system. Although this improved production, there was insufficient oil for a commercially viable operation so the Duke of Devonshire, on whose land the well was situated and who owned the mineral rights, used the oil to power the sawmill at Hardwick Hall. By 1938 Hardstoft No 1 was nearing exhaustion so it was deepened to increase production until it closed in July 1945. It was capped in 1957.

Two other wells were sunk at Hardstoft in the 1920s: both No 2 and No 3 wells were abandoned after failing to strike oil.

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Kevin Topham

Britain's first major on-shore oil discovery occurred at the Eakring and Duke's Wood oil fields. The D'Arcy Exploration Company, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Iranian Oil, now BP, discovered oil near Eakring in 1939 as part of a general survey.

At the outbreak of war Britain was dependant on imports for all of its oil. With an increase in demand for its war machine and the loss of convoys due to enemy action, attention turned to on-shore sources and attention was turned to Eakring and its surrounding areas. Churchill despatched Sir Philip Southwell to America to source equipment and, more importantly, skilled workers as Britain didn't have either in plentiful supply necessary for the large scale extraction oil.

Two teams comprising 42 men, complete with their own equipment, travelled to Britain in February 1943: one went to Eakring and the other to Duke's Wood. Living quarters were provided in the Anglican Monastery at Kelham. Unlike the British drill derrick, which was assembled piecemeal from the ground up, the American design was assembled on the ground from a number of sections and then winched into the vertical position. The Americans were able to re-site a derrick in a single 12-hour shift compared to several days for the British design.

By the end of their year's contract 215 wells in the Duke's Wood and Eakring fields had produced 2.3 million US barrels of high grade oil. By the end of the war 4 million barrels had been extracted. Of the 1 million gallons of fuel per day pumped through PLUTO, 80% came from this area.

By 1964 47 million barrels of oil had been extracted. Although Duke's Wood ceased operation in 1965, there are still two production wells at Eakring.

Many modern drilling techniques were first developed at Eakring, including in 1952 the technique of hydraulic fracking to increase an oil well's output.

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Julie Barlow

IGas is the largest independent supplier of on-shore oil and gas with 117 wells across 30 fields delivering 3,000 barrels oil equivalent per day from the East Midlands and the Weald Basin. To date the East Midlands area has produced 31 million barrels of oil from 17 oil fields. Production is primarily at Welton (six fields) and Gainsborough (11 fields). After separation the oil is transported to the Humber refinery in road tankers from both sites; the gas is used for power generation. For operational reasons, refineries found it too expensive to operate railheads and so discontinued their use in 2008.

With North Sea gas supplies declining, alternative sources are needed. IGas's inital interest was in the extraction of coal-based methane (CBM). Water is first extracted from the coal seam allowing the absorbed gas to be collected. If dewatering stops, the coal seam and well fill with water which prevents the gas from being released.

A survey by the BGS suggests that England has a huge reserve of natural gas trapped in layers of shale several hundred or even thousands of feet thick. However the producers need to assess the practicalities of extraction from this resource; first they have to drill to find it and to then to estimate its potential.

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Les Reid

Prior to the new lock being built at Newark in 1952 the size of vessels using the River Trent was limited to the 'Trent size' - 82 ft long and 14 ft wide. During the inter-war years it was common practice to carry the cargo in unpowered barges, containing typically 100 tons, pulled by steam-powered tugs. With the availability of suitable diesel engines in later years some operators opted for powered barges. Although their capacity was limited to typically 80 tons, they required a smaller crew - probably three or four compared to the six for the towed barges. There were several oil depots along the Trent supplied initially from Saltend near Hull and later on from Immingham refinery.

With plans in place for an enlarged lock at Newark, Yorkshire-based John Harker started building a fleet of 142 ft long tanker barges capable of carrying 200 tons in readiness for when the new lock opened. However Newark town bridge remained an obstacle for even bigger barges.

In times of heavy flood water, there was insufficient headroom for the barges to pass under the town bridge. At the other extreme low water levels meant that the barges could not be fully loaded - with consequential loss of revenue. By now the barges were equipped with a number of individual tanks; the early oil barges were single-skin single-tank vessels with the inherent dangers associated with partially full tanks. Another hazard experienced was 'washday foam' in the locks, usually on a Tuesday. This could be as high as 6 ft and almost totally enveloped a barge in the lock chamber.

The last working oil wharf in Newark finished in the 1980s and the final delivery to Nottingham's Colwick depots was made at the end of 1986.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

photograph of a roughneck's helmet
A roughneck's helmet.
delegates looking at a nodding donkey
Delegates discussing the operation of a nodding donkey.
drill bits seen in the museum
Drill bits seen in the museum.

Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.

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