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16. Put the Light On?


How many lights are there in your house? Or even just one room? Across the canal was Broxburn Oil Works, one of the most successful of the shale boom. More than anything, what it made was light. Imagine your home without electricity. What does that mean for heating, or working? Light is something we take for granted, we don’t see it. Broxburn helped make Victorian homes brighter.

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Coopers employed at Broxburn, making barrels for oil, during the first world war. Source: Almond Valley Heritage Trust

Broxburn Oil Works began in 1877, with the modern equivalent investment of nearly £22 million, to turn shale into oil and then to refine the crude oil into useful products. Included in the processing was the candle works, so Broxburn made both lighting oil and lighthouse oil and paraffin wax candles.

What made shale oil so good for lighting? Think about how your house smells – fairly clean, perfumed or just natural smells? Now imagine what it would smell like if you burnt tallow candles or whale oil in every room. Your whole house would smell of last weeks’ rancid cooking fat. Refined oil and paraffin wax candles have no smell giving a cleaner space. They also burn cleaner so there was less smoke in the house. But more importantly they burnt brighter so you got more light for your money.

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Boys making boxes for candles at Broxburn Oilworks. Source: Almond Valley Heritage Trust

What does more light mean for people? What can we do in the evening with the extra light? It means that our lives are no longer tied to natural light but we can work, read, study, spend time together through into the night. Access to affordable lighting can make radical changes to the quality of peoples’ lives. In Britain this was through James Young’s work and the West Lothian oilworks.

Although the oil works and the refinery closed in 1926, the refinery was not demolished until the 1960s. And the candle works? Still working making Prices Patent Candles until the late 1950s, and many people may remember reaching for Prices candles in the 1970s power cuts.

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Broxburn Candles, brighter, cleaner and less smelly than tallow candles. Source: Almond Valley Heritage Trust

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