100th anniversary of the first UK oil well spud

Materials World magazine
12 Sep 2018

As World War I drew to a close, the government of the day realised how dependent the country had become on oil imports, as Winston Churchill – then First Lord of the Admiralty – had switched the Royal Navy ships from coal to oil-fired steam turbines early in the conflict, to make them faster, more efficient, and reduce the number of stokers required.

It was a success. But having vast quantities of coal with the resources to excavate it, and no national oil industry, this bold decision strengthened the British Navy but also made the UK reliant of foreign imports of oil, opening up vulnerabilities as supply tankers were frequently attacked.

This prompted the UK to seek out and secure its own oil supplies.

The first recorded oil well was drilled as long ago as 1902, at Heathfield in East Sussex, but Hardstoft-1 was the first to actually discover any oil, although the owners had to wait until the following May to see it flow to surface.

So, in partnership with the d’Arcy Oil Company – the forerunner to BP – His Majesty’s government decided to drill a number of exploratory oil wells in East Derbyshire, including Hardstoft, Brimington, Ironville and Renishaw.

The first of these, Hardstoft-1, was a success, it being reported that ‘oil in quantity was struck on 27 May 1919’ – having taken so long to be contracted, equipped and drilled that the war was close to being over. In June of that year, it was announced in The Commons that the well was flowing ‘at the prodigious rate of 11 barrels a day’.

Creating an oil industry

Hardstoft-1 subsequently produced around seven to 14 barrels of oil per day, but it frequently experienced waxing and production rates fell. And although necessity in war times permitted the government to develop the first British oil well, the Petroleum Production Bill sitting with parliament and had not been passed, preventing the country from establishing a commercial oil production.

Hardstoft was eventually suspended in July 1945, and finally capped in 1952. Today, seismic information suggests that only a small fraction of the oil reserves were extracted.

Put out to pasture, the site of the well can be seen today at the Oilwell Nursery, now a garden centre near Tibshelf, Derbyshire, UK, just north of junction 28 on the M1.