Discovery of the Parrot Coal - Mr Young, Chemist, proves its value - Russell & Son secure a Lease - Young's Paraffin Light Company Instituted - Torbanehill Gas-Coal Law Suit - Mr Gardner's Assistance and Reward - The Parrot Bing Fire
While the district was yet thickly wooded and free from tall chimney stalks, now so prominent, two young men named Thomas Marshall and John Andrew, finding coal fuel was becoming a very marketable and profitable product, bethought themselves to sink a pit and supply the growing demand of the locality.
Coal having been found near the surface on the farm of Whiteside, on Boghead estate, they procured from Mr. Durham-Weir, the proprietor, liberty to sink a pit there, close by the side of where the railway now passes.
In the year 1848 the pit was sunk, and the Colinburn seam of coal reached a short distance below the surface. A gin apparatus was erected for horse-power, when the partners were in a fair way of doing good business. The coal was of a rough quality, but there being little or no competition in the district, it was in great demand. Water, however, became troublesome, and a great deal of time was taken up filling the water into a barrel and sending it to the top. The growth of the water became so great that the partners resolved to sink the shaft a few yards deeper, to make a sump or lodgement for it, so that they might be enabled to attend for longer intervals at the production of the coal.
During the process of deepening the shaft they came upon a brown-black seam of close-grained mineral that lay in blocks, such as they had never seen before. Experimenting with a piece of this mineral, they found that it split easily into thin sheets, which, when a lighted lamp was applied to it, burned freely, giving off a great deal of black smoke. Curious about their find, they carried a piece of it over to Boghead House, and showed it to the landlord, who took a deep interest in their operations. Mr. Durham-Weir became greatly interested in the quality of the mineral, and at once submitted it for analysis to Mr. James Young, a chemist, who was a known expert in such matters, and who had just distinguished himself by his chemical discoveries.
Mr Young was not long in finding the valuable properties of the mineral, which was soon to open up a new industry in the district and engage the Court of Session a whole week in determining whether or not the mineral was coal.
Messrs James Russell and Son, coalmasters, Falkirk, hearing of the rich find on Boghead estate, lost no time in proving its extent by boring, and, coming to terms with the Lairds of Boghead, Torbanehill, and Hopetoun, they entered upon a lease of the minerals. A number of pits were sunk, the first, on the Hardhill farm on the Hopetoun estate, at Armadale. All over the three estates sinking was in operation at one time, and many men were attracted to the district, and for the accommodation of these the company provided by building Russell's Row in East Main Street, and Hardhill Row, opposite No. 1 Pit, on the Bathgate and Bathville Road, and also Russell's Square in West Main Street.
The two young men who discovered the gas coal, being unable to compete against their wealthy rivals in developing their find, were thus robbed of its fruits, but they were paid a small sum by way of compensation, and quitted the field.
James Young, LL.D., F.R.S., having distinguished himself in various ways, had set to the work of devising means for manufacturing paraffin oil and solid paraffin from the Boghead and Torbanehill gas coal. His experiments having been successful, he obtained a patent in 1850, and early in 1851 he, along with Mr. Edward Meldrum and Mr. E.W. Binney, Manchester, established Young's Paraffin Light Company by laying down plant in the centre of the mining operations, where a new village sprung up, and was called Durhamtown. In the same year specimens of the oils and solid paraffin, and also a paraffin candle, were exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, London, and a medal was awarded Mr. Young in recognition of his great scientific achievement. These works continued to grow until 1862, when they were recognised as the largest of the kind in the world, covering as they did many acres of land, and employing nearly a thousand men from Bathgate and Armadale.
A flaw in the lease between William Gillespie, Esq. of Torbanehill, and Messrs James Russell and Son, brought the case into the Court of Session in 1853. Messrs Russell and Son leased coal at a lordship of 6d per ton, but after Mr. Gillespie discovered the nature and value of the seam, he came to the conclusion, first, that he was not receiving lordship in accordance with its value, and, second, that it was not coal. The company, of course, refused to alter the agreement, and so Mr. Gillespie, on behalf of his wife, whose estate it was, had recourse to the law courts.
The case proved a. very expensive venture, and Mr. Gillespie was on the point of giving up the fight, when Mr. Robert Gardener, referred to in the preface, who was agent of the "City of Glasgow Bank" at Whitburn, came to his assistance with financial aid. For nearly a week theoretical chemists and geologists, practical miners and engineers, delivered their expert views as to what was and what was not coal. Finally, the presiding judge observed, in his charge to the jury, that to find a scientific definition of coal, after what had been brought to light within the last five days, was out of the question. And since the learned and scientific witnesses were so much at variance as to the nature of the mineral, and it could not be expected that they (the jury) could decide it, the question for them, therefore, was simply, "was the disputed article part and parcel of what was really taken in the lease?"
The jury decided that it was, and gave-their verdict in favour of Messrs Russell.
Advocate Inglis (who afterwards became Lord President of the Court) was counsel for Mr. Gillespie, and shortly afterwards raised a new case to the effect that Messrs Russell and Son had wilfully misled Mr. Gillespie in a letter offering to take a lease of the mineral, which they (Russell) placed at too low a value after having by careful testing proved its superior quality.
Messrs Russell's counsel pleaded that it was not a new case. The Court of Session decided that it was, and the case was carried to the-House of Lords, when Lord Brougham upheld the lower Court's decision. Meantime Mr. Russell, senior, died, and his son James, who was in a weak state of health, being advised to make a settlement with Mr. Gillespie, did so, allowing him, instead of 6d a ton, one-seventh of the output, in addition to a large sum of money in compensation for the mineral that had been extracted. Messrs. Russell and Son hastened to extract as much of the mineral as possible during their 19 years' lease, the mineral on Torbanehill estate being of a richer quality than elsewhere and of a thicker seam.
In 1868 the company, having finished their lease of Torbanehill mineral, began to clear off the ground, but Mr. Gillespie was not unmindful of the good turn served him by Mr. Robert Gardner, the banker, and he sent for him to come to Torbanehill House and talk over a matter of some interest. Mr. Gardner, wondering what the matter could be, walked over to see the laird, but when he arrived at Torbanehill House Mr. Gillespie was deep in study in connection with a book which he was engaged in writing at the time. Mr. Gardner had therefore to wait for a considerable time in a room under the one in which Mr. Gillespie was pacing up and down in deep thought. Just as Mr. Gardner was preparing to go away, the laird appeared, and apologised for keeping his guest waiting, and, pushing him into a room, began to pour forth his gratitude to Mr. Gardner for his great kindness in coming to his aid at a time when he was so much in want of it. He told Mr. Gardner that he had proved a valuable friend to him, and to show his gratitude he offered him the gas coal in the preserved grounds around the house free of cost, if he could find anyone to work it out for him. Mr. Gardner was delighted, and made no delay in securing Mr. Thomas Thornton, of Fauldhouse, to manage the operation for him. Mr. Alexander, a pit-sinker, was engaged, and a pit was soon put down, and in a short space of time a large bing of gas coal, representing almost solid blocks of oil was raised a short distance from the mansion-house.
On Sunday night, 2nd June, 1872, although watchmen were engaged to look after the gas-coal bings night and day, owing to their being so inflammable, this large bing, representing several thousands of tons, was found to be on fire. Fire-engines were sent for to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and all the workmen around about were brought to the spot, but the fire had got such a hold on the mineral that the fire-engines were of no more use to it than if they had not been there. Men were engaged removing the mineral at parts where it was not burning, and others were set to work digging trenches and pits to catch the rivers of oil that flowed from the burning bing. Sixteen men were engaged at each fire-engine pumping water on the burning mass, eight men being engaged two hours at a time, working four hours in a shift of eight hours, for which at first they received 20s, but latterly the wage was reduced to 10s. Many men were booked for two and three shifts during the eight hours, and such was the confusion among the timekeepers that one only required to get hold of the pump handle when the timekeeper came round to get booked for a shift, and when the eight hours were up they went to the big house and got paid.
Barrels were sent by the waggon-train load from Boghead and Bathville Oil Works, and were filled out of the holes that were dug to receive the fluid as it flowed like a river from the melting coal. In this way a large amount was saved, but the conflagration sent up a dense column of black smoke which was seen for many miles around by day, while the flames lit up the heavens by night, for many days, and attracted large numbers from far and near to view the sight. The bing was insured against fire, but great efforts were made to discover who set it on fire. A few arrests were made, and a large sum was offered as a reward to the informer, but all without result, and so till the present day it remains a mystery.
Messrs James Russell and Son continued in the district working the minerals, fire coal, gas coal, and ironstone, on Boghead and Hardhill up till 1879, when they vacated the district, turning the tide in the affairs of Armadale for some time.