There's oil in the dyke: How boom turned to bust after black gold was struck in Norfolk village
PUBLISHED: 07:43 09 February 2019 | UPDATED: 12:51 09 February 2019
EWW/King's Lynn Forums
A Norfolk village was at the centre of an oil rush after prospectors struck black gold beneath its fields.
The bizarre tale of boom and bust began around the end of the First World War, in 1918, when oily deposits were seen on the surface of the Puny Drain at Setchey, near King’s Lynn.
Drainage workers had found an outcrop of shale whilst digging ditches nearby.
Experts were called in. Bore holes were sunk at Setchey, West Winch, Wormegay and Shouldham. Oil was struck and the boom began.
The EDP later reported: “In the space of 18 months, the normally-tranquil Setchey was transformed into a noisy, bustling hive of industry.
“Up went the distillation works, retorts, refining plant and workshops which were needed for the oil producing process and a railway was built to link the sprawling complex with the main line between Lynn and Ely.
“A wooden township sprouted beside the Lynn to Downham Market road, providing offices and accommodation for the hordes of men and their families who poured into the village from far and wide.”
A public company called English Oilfields was formed. Investors snapped up almost 1m shares, which quadrupled in price, as the company announced encouraging finds.
“They employed no end of men at the place,” villager Percy Harrod, then in his late 70s, told the EDP in March 1983. “They built the camp with wooden huts, of course and put up a canteen and it was quite a busy affair all in all. The local pubs were chock-a-block with lodgers as well.
“At the time, men were not short of a job there and the money was good - not by today’s standards, but of course it went a long way in those days.
“I seem to remember there was even a football team of workers while I was there.”
Shale was quarried at opencast works beside the Puny west of West Winch and taken by rail a mile or so to the English Oilfields works on what is now part of the industrial estate on Garage Lane, off the A10.
Up to three gallons of oil could be refined from 20 tons of shale.
But almost as soon as production began, the bubble burst for Norfolk’s burgeoning oil industry.
After it was extracted by heat, the oil was found to contain sulphur. English Oilfields concluded it was not commercially viable to produce suplhur-free oil.
The boom turned to bust. The workers melted away, leaving their makeshift camp empty.
Oilfields reverted back to farmland. Equipment was sold. Shares in the company tumbled.
Part of the works remained to extract sulphur for medicinal uses, while shale ash went to be turned into fertiliser and some experimental work continued at the plant until the 1950s.
English Oilfields went into liquidation in 1960. Its one and only dividend to shareholders was paid out that same year, after the plant was sold.
In 1961, a 150ft chimney on the site - its best-known remaining landmark - was demolished.
“After dominating the little village on the A10 to Cambridge for 40 years the giant stack now lies a river of red brick across the common,” the EDP reported. It added a crowd gathered “to watch the death of the giant”.
Little remains today. The pits beside the Puny Drain have been filled in. The works, which stood north of what is now Garage Lane, west of the A10 have long gone.
Part of the lane follows the route of the railway siding which brought shale to the works for processing.
The Puny flows under a bridge as the road peters out into haulage yards and piles of rubble.
A car dealership now stands on what was once the main site office at the junction with the busy A10. Three of the large sheds next to it survive today, while Beers of Europe now stands on what was the centre of the works.
The idea of refining oil from west Norfolk’s shale deposits resurfaced in a government report in the 1970s. But it acknowledged the land might be better left to farming and the threat of open cast mining never became a reality.