Barrels in the Wood

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2009

Craig Durham of the Institute’s Petroleum and Drilling Engineering Division talks to Kevin Topham, Curator of the Dukes Wood Oil Museum, about the history of the UK oilfield.

It was described as ‘Winston Churchill’s greatest secret’, a Nottinghamshire, UK, site producing oil during WWII. ‘The oil from Dukes Wood provided a lifeline to Britain’s fuel-starved war effort, and helped fuel the D-Day landings,’ explains Kevin Topham, Curator of the Dukes Wood Oil Museum, the UK’s only such museum.

Oil was first discovered in the UK on 27 May 1919 at Hardstoft in Derbyshire, 14.5 miles west of Dukes Wood. Indications of its presence had been observed in seepages recorded in local collieries, particularly at Langwith and Shirebrook. Production commenced in June 1919, and oil was produced there until December 1927 at an average of six barrels a day.

Changing times

The Petroleum Production Act of 1934 allowed companies to obtain exploration licences for the first time in the UK (previously all discovered oil belonged to the Crown). The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later to become British Petroleum, working through its subsidiary the D’Arcy Exploration Company, was quick to launch a major drilling programme. The first deep well was spudded in January 1936 at Portsdown, near Portsmouth, and drilled to a total depth of 6,556ft into the Triassic, on the way finding a small quantity of oil in the Purbeck Limestones. Several other sites in Hampshire, Dorset and Sussex were also drilled with some oil shows, but were abandoned due to poor reservoir development.

Geological and geophysical work was carried out east and west of the Pennines. Exploratory wells at Gun Hill in Staffordshire and Alport in Derbyshire were unsuccessful, a small, shallow oilfield was found at Formby in Lancashire, but the most significant find was at Eakring, Nottinghamshire.

Well 01 at Eakring was spudded in March 1939, resulting in a noteworthy discovery at around 1,900ft. Further drilling continued and, by the outbreak of WWII, production had reached 3,000t/yr. It took about a month to drill and complete a production well, and almost as long to dismantle, move and reassemble the derrick at the next location, but by 1941 over 50 wells had been drilled and production was up to nearly 30,000t/yr.

However, Britain’s oil stocks were critically low and output needed to be increased. In 1942, Philip Southwell, a representative of D’Arcy, travelled to the USA to solicit help. Lloyd Noble, founder of the Noble Drilling company, agreed to provide three self-erecting rigs, complete with pumps, drilling equipment, and six crews – 42 men in total – to operate them.


The Americans are coming

Shipped over on three separate boats as an insurance against German U-boats, men and machinery arrived safely on UK soil in February 1943 and began work immediately. However the secrecy surrounding the project was under threat as oil stained workers returning from a shift made it difficult to conceal the real reason for the operation within the wood.

It was decided that the Anglican Monastery at Kelham Hall would make an ideal location to house the crews, although the choice was not popular. Food shortages, a heavy workload and wartime rations took their toll, and the men lost weight at an alarming rate. The final straw came when Brussels sprouts were offered for breakfast. With the men threatening to return to America, a deal was struck to provide US Army rations.

Over the 12-month contract, the Americans drilled 106 wells. By the time they returned home in 1944, production had increased to over 100,000t/yr. It was about this time that the veil of secrecy was officially lifted, prompted by an ‘exclusive report on the discovery of Britain’s first oilfield’ in a national newspaper.

War is over

Production continued at Eakring after the war and the D’Arcy Exploration Company became part of BP in 1949. Until 1989 it was BP’s UK Land Drilling Headquarters and was instrumental in planning and drilling BP’s first offshore well in UK waters, at Lulworth Bank in Weymouth Bay. More significantly, Eakring played a key role in BP’s first sortie into the North Sea, the drilling derrick for the Sea Gem jack-up barge was pre-assembled here and many of the local drilling staff were assigned to the rig when it made the first UK offshore gas discovery in October 1965. Tragically, lives were lost when the Sea Gem capsized on 28 December that year.

Today oil production from the East Midlands totals approximately 5,000bbl/d and is operated by Star Energy. The Dukes Wood site is now a nature reserve and location of the museum.

Topham and fellow BP retiree Doug Wallace opened the Dukes Wood Museum in 1995 and continue to look after the site as a historical reminder of oil operations in and around Eakring, and to educate and inform. They are enthusiastic about its historical significance, but concerned for the future. ‘The museum contains many artefacts, reports, photographs and other documents relating to the development of UK oilfields, both on and offshore,’ says Topham. ‘Unfortunately our premises - a former Geodata logging cabin - is no longer suitable and we desperately need to find a new home for this remarkable collection.’


Further information: Dukes Wood Oil Museum