Brendan McKeown, OBE: Norfolk petroleum engineer bought first North Sea oil ashore in a pickle jar

Petroleum engineer, Brendan McKeown, who brought the first North Sea oil ashore in a pickle jar, has died aged 86.

Under a shroud of secrecy, he took the container to Amoco's Great Yarmouth office on South Denes in September 1969, where the sample was tested. It was only when it was poured into an ash tray, sniffed and set alight that his boss Mitch Watt knew they had struck oil.

It became one of Britain's biggest industrial successes as the North Sea Oil Boom transformed the UK's economy in the 1967 post-devaluation days of Harold Wilson's government.

Mr McKeown, who was living at Hoveton, near Norwich, was Amoco's drilling superintendent, based at Yarmouth. Commuting to Aberdeen three times a week, he had joined Amoco in 1967 to spearhead the search for oil. When the Sea Quest drilling rig struck oil 130 miles off the Scottish coast in well 28/18-1 (now known as the Arbroath field), he was called from his bed.

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'There was something there but the people on board wouldn't bring it to the surface until I got there. I caught the 7am chopper and on September 16 we started the tests.'

With success in his sights, he commandeered a pickle jar from the canteen and filled it with the first commercial find of North Sea oil. It was imperative to maintain secrecy as a large area of exploration licences for North Sea acreage were about to be awarded. And rivals Total, Shell and BP had been drilling in the area for years, apparently without success.

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But he had another security problem - the Sea Quest was owned by BP and not all the crew worked for Amoco. So, top secret radio messages were sent, transcribed into a code based on American High School football teams to preserve secrecy. And it was because later attempts to prise information from Amoco staff in Yarmouth's pubs and clubs were fruitless until the time was deemed right about six months later.

Belfast-born, Brendan Gerard McKeown graduated from Queen's University with a BSc in civil engineering in 1946. After two years in local government at Stormont, he joined the Kuwait Oil Company in 1949. Then in 1956, he did a post-graduate diploma in oil technology at London's Imperial College before spending the next 10 years drilling in the deserts of Kuwait, working alongside Red Adair fighting oilfield fires, and later in offshore Iran.

Mr McKeown later ran Amoco's Bacton plant. From 1980, he was divisional production manager responsible for Amoco's southern sector gasfields in the North Sea until his retirement in 1986.

He was voted Great Yarmouth's first oil baron of the year by the town's Society of Petroleum Engineers. In the 1986 Queen's Birthday Honours, Mr KcKeown, was appointed OBE for services to the oil industry.

But 1969 was remarkable. 'I imported the first consignment of oil from the North Sea into Great Yarmouth, South Denes Road. Now if there's anything bigger than that in my lifetime I have done nothing to deserve it,' he said.

A founder of Lions International in Wroxham, where he lived for 45 years, in retirement he was also a keen golfer playing at Sprowston Manor and also Mundesley.

Married to Sue for 60 years in September, they moved to Newcastle just three weeks ago. He leaves three children, Connie, John and Martin and six grandchildren.

A Requiem Mass will be held at St Mary's RC Church, Whickham, Newcastle upon Tyne, on Friday, November 25 at 10am. A Remembrance Mass will be held at St George's RC Church, Sprowston Road, Norwich, on Friday, December 2 at 10am.

Michael Pollitt

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