January 28, 2017 | 0 Comments | Filed under: 2017, February 2017

At the January meeting of Tideswell Local History Club, Cliff Lea told quite an amazing story about the oil explorations on the east side of the county. These led to an entrepreneur making a fortune out of paraffin, the setting up of the world’s first oil refinery and the Americans even having to pay us to use our patents. Cliff, who himself had spent many years in the oil industry, explained that roughly 250 million years ago this area was right on the equator and part of Pangea – a massive super-continent. Creatures living in the nearby warm seas died and their fleshy parts were squeezed immensely between later strata of rock. This, over millions of years, developed into the oil-bearing seams below the eastern towns of Ridgeway, Riddings, Renishaw, Brimington, Heath, Tibshelf, Ironville and Eakring.

At Riddings in the 19th century, James Oaks sank pits for iron ore and coal and broke into these oil-bearing strata. Unfortunately, his mine drained at surface into the local canal, so it only needed someone to throw their fire ashes into it and whoomph!  Newspapers ran with “CANAL ON FIRE” as their headlines. James Young (later known as “Paraffin” Young) investigated these slicks and found that they contained valuable kerosene, lubricating oils and paraffin wax, which importantly in those days could be used for candles. From these humble beginnings he created the world’s first oil refinery, where he distilled from the oil seven very different and useful products and even went into business making oil lamps.

Early in the 20th century, Winston Churchill, determined that British warships should convert from burning coal to oil and suddenly the product of east Derbyshire was in great demand. American “roughnecks” came over to help with the drilling and struck oil at Brimington at 1000 ft. Sadly they also wasted a vast amount of the released gas – “enough to power a small town”. In 1918, because of their strategic importance, the drillings were granted special powers under the Defence of the Realm act and at Brimington they were even allowed to drill in the recreation ground. At Tibshelf they hit oil at 3000ft. and it produced until 1945, but everything was kept a huge secret and some of the wells yielded a fine light oil which was even used in the Spitfire’s Merlin engines. The drill rigs were powered by huge coal-fired boilers and a young lad trespassing into these works was scalded to death by steam, sadly thus becoming the first oil-related fatality.

Cliff finished on a much lighter note – Daltons of Belper, the manufacturers of Silkolene lubricants became involved, but previously they had made vetinary supplies including footrot ointment – a mixture of copper sulphate, vaseline and gunpowder! But, best of all was an “Invigorating Drink for Bulls”, which amongst many other ingredients included half a bottle of whisky and ceyanne pepper. No need for Viagra in those days!

A brilliant talk – thanks very much Cliff. Do please join us again on February 9th in the Institute at 8pm. when Danny Wells will be talking about Joseph Paxton – “The Busiest Man in England”.


Brian Woodall.


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