Robin Longbottom examines how a Keighley community was once an unlikely base for oil refining

TODAY, oil refining is generally associated with Middlesbrough on Teesside and Runcorn on the Mersey, where crude oil extracted from the earth is refined to make petroleum and mineral oils.

It is, therefore, surprising to find that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, oils were being refined at Thwaites on the outskirts of Keighley.

Until mineral oil became widely available, industry ran on vegetable and animal oils. Lubricants in the form of oil and grease were essential to prevent machinery and gearing from overheating and breaking down. Oil was also required in a host of manufacturing processes, including wool combing and leather production. For centuries the Mediterranean was the primary source of what was commonly known as Gallipoli oil. Gallipoli oil was the principal vegetable oil, it was olive oil and had been exported from Gallipoli in Turkey in huge quantities since the 16th century. Although primarily used in oil lamps for lighting, following mechanisation it was used as a lubricant for spinning frames and power looms and to oil raw wool during the process of wool combing in the worsted industry.

Oil was also extracted from animal bone and the most controversial – outlawed since the 1970s – was whale oil. Both were important industrial lubricants. Animal bone was processed to make tallow, grease and liquid neatsfoot oil. Tallow was largely used for cheap candles and as a lubricant for cart and waggon wheels. Grease was an essential lubricant for heavy machinery and gearing and neatsfoot oil was applied to leather by curriers to make it soft and pliable after the tanning process. Whale oil, particularly that of the sperm whale, was hugely important because of its low viscosity and when blended with other oils it produced one that would not overheat and remained fluid.

Keighley’s oil refinery was the Station Oil Works, which was located near the now-long-closed Thwaites Station on the Midland Railway. It had been established in 1873 by Edward Brooksbank who initially went into partnership with his father, Joseph, to produce oils for the local textile and machine tool industries. The partnership was short lived and dissolved in 1877 after which Edward continued the business as sole proprietor. In 1884 he described himself as an “oil importer and refiner” and was producing a variety of oils. The works had “a series of oil refining rooms, which are fitted up throughout with steam jacketed pans, vats heated by steam, and mechanical appliances of the most approved modern type”. There was also a large warehouse. The oils were refined from olive oil, sperm whale oil, neatsfoot and castor oils and specially blended to suit engines, shafting, gearing, spinning frames and looms. The firm produced its own brand of special cylinder oil from a blend of castor and the finest sperm whale oil and distributed it under the name of Encore Lubricants.

The business was managed by Brooksbank’s nephew, Fred Ogden, and he took over the concern when his uncle died in 1892. Fred converted the company to one of limited liability and subsequently traded as E Brooksbank & Co Ltd. The business expanded under his direction and a depot and refinery, Trafford Park Oil Works, was opened close to the Manchester Ship Canal at Trafford Park. In the 20th century the company specialised in soluble oils, used as a coolant in the machine tool trade; grease for bushes and bearings for drive shafts in mills, and lard oils, a blend of animal and vegetable fat, used as both a lubricant and for industrial soap making.

When Fred Ogden died his son, Herbert, took over the business. The Manchester branch closed in the 1930s and the Keighley works ceased trading after the end of the Second World War.