Bathville Works Rich and Poor - Scott's Oil Works - Extensive Oil Works – Brickworks - Failure of Messrs Watson - The Advent of Mr. James Wood - Iron and Steel Works - United Collieries Company - Changed Conditions of Labour
Messrs John Watson and Sons, on opening up the minerals of Bathville, found ironstone, steam coal, shale, and the famous Torbanehill gas-coal in abundance, but it was not until the close of their lease of the minerals at Newarthill in 1861 or 1862 that they turned their attention seriously to Bathville. Mr. Walter Gibb, who was works manager to the Watsons at Newarthill, and who also superintended Bathville in its mineral development, removed to Bathville in 1862, when a house was specially built for him at the south-west corner of the estate, and devoted his whole attention to the works, with the result that in a short time the seams of gas-coal and shale lying so near to the surface caused the Watsons to consider the erection of an oil work to convert the raw material into a finished product, on the same lines as Young's works at Boghead. Old Mr. Watson, about this time, died, and the responsibility of the oil works undertaking devolved upon his three sons, and by 1864 the centre of the estate was a conspicuous landmark by reason of the many chimneys built to carry off the black smoke in the course of the manufacturing process. These works were first placed under the management of John Meikle, and later John Glen, both of whom had gained experience at the Boghead works, and were soon employing a large number of men, and their products were known far and wide.
Mr Peter Scott, who had come from Bathgate and opened an ironmongery shop, influenced by the great profits that were believed to be made from the oil industry, induced Mr. Duncan Livingston, a well-to-do miner, to join with him in building up an oil work a short distance east from the South Street railway level crossing. Here, in 1865, they sank a pit to a seam of shale, and erected plant for extracting the oil. The deposit of shale, however, did not prove of a paying quality, and after a short experience, in which the partners lost heavily, the works were abandoned, the only thing left to mark the spot being a small bing of burnt blaes and the office and weigh-house, now owned and occupied by Mr. William Paul.
With the leading mining proprietors, ironstone was the principal mineral they were in search of, and this was found in good quality, especially where the gas-coal was absent. From the centre of Barbauchlaw estate eastwards, gas-coal was found a few feet above the ironstone seam, but further west there was none to be found. Where the gas-coal was found, a high tonnage was paid for it. It was gathered like gold, and when sent to the top it was watched day and night by a watchman against anyone setting the bing on fire or carrying any of it away with them, since it was a very light substance. When a large quantity had been gathered together, and an order secured, all the men engaged in the particular pit from where the order was going were set to work to load the waggons, a task that was seldom given up till the order was filled, the manager generally keeping the men well supplied with drink and food.
The gas-coal seam soon became exhausted, but the ironstone remained to employ all the miners, who made good wages for a fair darg. Troubles between the miners and the employers occasionally arose over the rate of tonnage, and when an amicable agreement could not be come to, the miners refused to work, and a strike was declared.
The first strike of importance in Armadale was in the year 1856. On this occasion Mr. Alex. MacDonald, who afterwards became the miners' champion in the House of Commons, was the miners' counsellor, and he addressed a mass meeting on the site of the present gas works. Funds were raised to support the miners on strike, but the treasurer disappeared, and the sinews of war having been removed, disorder prevailed, and the best terms possible under the circumstances were accepted, and the men resumed work. The next general strike was in 1863, but, profiting from past experiences, instead of drawing money and entrusting it into the hands of any individual to pay out to the miners on strike, large quantities of food were ordered and sent to Mary Campbell's Hall, where the committee doled it out to families according to their number. Several strikes have taken place in the history of Armadale causing considerable distress in the ranks of the workers, but the most foolish one on record was that of 1873.
After the close of the American Civil War, the United States offered a splendid opportunity to miners, who continued to flock out west until by 1871 Scotland was becoming depleted of ironstone miners. At the close of the Franco-Prussian War in the latter year, when iron commenced to rise in the market, iron-stone was soon in great demand, and wages rose rapidly, until 20s a day became a common wage, with plenty employment at that. Naturally there was a rush of miners back to enjoy the big wages, but by 1873 the iron market changed and took a backward turn. Meantime the miners had been fortifying themselves against such an emergency by uniting and paying into a fund. Armadale belonged to Falkirk district, and when the wages or any other condition of labour became affected generally, the representatives of each branch of the district met in Falkirk to discuss the subject.
Early in 1873 a reduction of wages was intimated to the ironstone workers, who were preparing to resent it when they were advised by Mr. Alex. MacDonald, M.P., to accept it. Having great faith in Mr. MacDonald's wisdom, they accepted the first reduction, but had not got accustomed to it when another was enforced. Again Mr. MacDonald counselled them to yield, but the miners, believing that Mr. MacDonald was going back on them, ignored his counsel, and at Falkirk in the month of May, 1873, lots were drawn by the branch representatives, when Mr. Weir, the chairman of the Armadale branch, drew the ticket for strike. Armadale was in this way chosen to fight the battle against the ironmaster, and immediately the tools were lifted and the war started, on the understanding that each member of the Union would get 10s per week and 1s per week each for wife and children.
Messrs Barr and Higgins had just then reopened Nos. 7 and 11 Pits on Barbauchlaw estate, and were developing the main coal seam, so that many of those forced on strike found employment at the coal.
The iron market continued to depress, and after a three months' struggle, in many cases with hunger and starvation, the miners asked to be permitted to return to their work, which they had to do at a greatly reduced rate of wages to that against which they came out.
Mr John Watson, who had died soon after having acquired Bathville, left the responsibility of the great concern with his three sons, William, Thomas, and David, who, however, were unable to make ends meet, and by 1872 found themselves on the bankruptcy list. The firm was placed under a trustee, and the mines carried on under the management of Mr. Archibald Robertson, until 1874, when the estate was put into the market and bought by Mr. Jas. Wood, a coal merchant at Paisley. Mr. Wood had but a short time previously acquired Nos. 7 and 11 pits of Barbauchlaw from Messrs Barr and Higgins, and was in a position to weigh up the coal resources of the district.
On the entry of Mr. Wood to Bathville, the dark cloud that was hanging over the trade affairs of Armadale began to lift. Many houses had been emptied, and grass was growing before the doors. Houses were offered at 9d and 1s a week, but still they stood without tenants, until Mr. Wood commenced to open up the coal seams, and at once Armadale renewed its activity, and gained ground every day.
On the Shotts Company finishing their lease of the Polkemmet minerals, Mr. Wood entered into possession of the coal field, which had hitherto been little touched. Several old pits on the north-east side of Barbauchlaw were also re-opened by Mr. Wood. Even Colinshiel was re-opened by him, after three companies had given it up, and, indeed, all these old pits seemed to yield more profit and employ more men under Mr. Wood's operations than at any other time.
Bathville works grew and multiplied rapidly. The oil works had gone down with the Watsons, but still Mr. David Watson kept his oil connection through having a patent process for refining crude oil, and he continued his office and refinery at Bathville, making a decent living until his sudden demise in January, 1878.
Under the Messrs Watson, Brick Works were early established at Bathville, and after Mr. Wood had devoted himself to the development of the coalfield with great success, he turned his attention to the Brick Works to such an extent that again the ground was studded with tall chimney stalks, and the output of bricks for building purposes was something enormous. These works are fitted with the most up-to-date machinery for making brick and the most approved kilns for burning them. On the site of the original brick works, Messrs Robertson and Love, in 1882, instituted a fireclay pipe work, in conjunction with brick manufacturing, and have greatly extended their operations by many additions.
Ever on the outlook to introduce new industries into the district, Mr. Wood encouraged a Mr. Stevenson, who founded the Bathville Steel Works by erecting a small furnace near to the railway level crossing on the Bathville and Bathgate Road, where small iron castings were turned out and a good trade connection made.
Messrs Dickson and Mann followed, and settled down on the site of the old oil works as carriage and waggon builders. By and bye Mr. Stevenson was followed in the Iron Foundry by Messrs Dickson and Mann, when crucible steel castings became their speciality. To this they added steel bridge building and machine-construction shops, and gradually grew out of the carriage and waggon-building trade. The large demand for this work's produce necessitated the extension of the works in 1892, for which purpose the firm was floated and formed into a limited company, since which time the dimensions of the works have been steadily growing, until they are now the largest of their kind in Scotland, with everything of the latest, especially in steel manufacturing.
Mr Wood's success was Armadale's great gain. Many believed that the great prosperity that Armadale was enjoying would be short lived, but the tearing down of the old Bathville Mansion-House and the building of a more modern one on its site at the commencement of the last decade of the nineteenth century was in itself so reassuring that private enterprise took a new lease of life, and soon buildings were again being erected in all directions. Up to this period Armadale practically terminated on the south at the railway crossing, but since then every foot of ground on the street line has been feued and built upon up to Bathville Cross, and beyond the boundary line of the burgh towards the railway station, while a new street, named Lower Bathville, has been formed from Bathville Cross to the railway crossing on the Bathgate Road, where many workmen's houses and cottages of a superior quality have been built.
From the date of Mr. Wood taking over Bathville to the present day, Armadale has more than doubled its population, and the conditions of labour under his employment were more agreeable to the working man than could be found elsewhere. But, alas, combination set in to acquire collieries, and Mr. Wood having nearly exhausted the present resources of the coal pits, yielded to the desire of the Collieries Company and sold out his works in the district to them, and also Bathville estate, and quitted the field as an employer, to reside on his newly-acquired estate of Wallhouse at Torphichen.
Mr Wood did not neglect to show his goodwill to Armadale on many occasions, neither did Armadale fail in its appreciation of him when opportunity afforded. At the formation of the County Council, in 1889, he was returned at the first election to represent Armadale, and, with the exception of a short term of retiral, he has continued to represent the burgh. The principal act of his generosity to Armadale was to present it with a public park on the 26th June, 1902, the original day fixed for the King's coronation. The ceremony of the presentation was preceded by a brilliant demonstration of school children, who, under the conductorship of Mr. John Black, first assistant teacher in the Public School, sang a commemoration song of the event, specially written by Mrs James Aitken, and Mr. Adam Wilson, Provost, in the name of the Armadale Town Council and inhabitants, presented Mr. Wood with an illuminated address.
Next to the Laird of Barbauchlaw, Mr. Wood's annual prizes of two silver watches to the Public School take precedence, and the poor of the town are always agreeably reminded of Mr. and Mrs Wood's munificence on Christmas week.
Mr Wood's only connection now with Armadale as an employer of labour is the gas works, but he is the proprietor of the lands of Hardhill, on which a large portion of the upper part of Armadale is built.
Since the taking over of the works by the United Collieries Company, Limited, in 1902, Armadale has been in a state of depression, and the condition of labour has been made less favourable to the working men.
Gradually, by the efforts of the Miners' Union, great improvements have been made in the relationship between employer and employed. The tremendous loss of capital caused through strikes culminated on an understanding being come to between both parties after the great national strike of 1894. Between the employers and the employed a conciliation board was formed, and a basis of wages agreed upon, a circumstance which has doubtless prevented many a strike. The liberty of the miner to have a say in the conditions of labour has made great strides within the last quarter of a century, and miners are now no longer looked upon as a sort of freed slave, but as a body of intelligent men, many of whom pass from labouring in the bowels of the earth to fill high commercial and professional positions. From the mines, Armadale has sent many of her sons to college, and the medical profession and the pulpit have been graced by not a few of them, while the technical classes organised by the County Council have prepared many who have become first-class mining engineers, and are now entrusted with the management of great mining concerns, both at home and abroad. There are always, however, a certain section of every class destitute of ambition, who remain at the bottom, and from this class the miner is too often judged by the ignorant, who, if themselves placed in such an unenviable position would stand a much less chance of rising to the surface.