The East Midlands Wartime “Oil Bonanza”

One of the lesser well known events in World War 2 was the UK on-shore oil production in the East Midlands – at Eakring, near Newark in the heart of Sherwood Forest. When the Government Oil Production Committee met early on in the war to discuss the problems of oil Supply, Mr C Southwell of Darcy Exploration (a forerunner of BP) suggested an expansion of the Eakring field. The other committee members had no knowledge that oil had been discovered there in 1939.


The problem was that the oil drilling equipment which was available was antiquated (as, it turned out also were the drilling procedures) and so Mr Southwell was sent to the USA to buy up-to-date equipment. By this time, however, the USA (which was still neutral) had declared oil equipment strategic material and so it could not be bought by foreigners. The only solution was to hire American drilling teams to come to the UK, bringing their own equipment.

Volunteers were found and they came over here, to a country blacked-out with widespread rationing and shortages and were billeted with an order of Anglican monks at Kelham Hall near Newark. Their experiences, and that of the locals, were fascinating and the full story can be read in “The Secret of Sherwood Forest” by Guy and Grace Woodward, published in 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press. There is certainly one copy in the Nottinghamshire Library Service.

With the Americans’ equipment and expertise, nearly one hundred well were drilled within the one year contract period and, after only nine months, the Government’s target of one hundred thousand tons of oil had been reached. Overall, two million barrels were pumped from the “nodding donkeys” and contributed to the war effort.

Fortunately, wind of the oilfield never reached the Third Reich and so it was not bombed. There was one tragedy when an oil worker, Herman Douthit, slipped and fell to his death from the top of one rig. He is the only civilian buried in the American Cemetery in Cambridge.

The area of the oil field is now occupied by the Duke’s Wood Nature Reserve where a couple of nodding donkeys and a statue to the oil workers are also situated. The site is easily accessed from the A617, Mansfield to Newark road. As you head towards Newark, look for a small signpost on your left, signing Eakring. About two miles up this minor road, there is a sharp left bend; entry to the reserve is on that corner.

So, in recent years, Eakring proudly boasted that it was the site of Britain’s first on-shore oilfield. But the claim was soon denied.

In, I think, the 1980’s, a Nottinghamshire resident Mrs Jane Peters, was motoring along a minor road from Chesterfield to Tibshelf when near to Hardstoft, she spotted a garden centre with a strange name – The Oilwell Garden Centre. Her enquiry revealed that the well had started production in 1918 after oil exploration in the area. This had also been encouraged by Government worries about oil supplies. The Royal Navy had, before World War 1, converted some of its ships’ steam raising from coal fired to oil fired and hence the concern. The area had been chosen for exploration since there had been a history of oil seepage into local coal mines since the nineteenth century. (below)

The Garden Centre owner took her to the back of the property where the well, now capped off, still seeped oil with small sample jars of Tibshelf Crude being on sale in the Centre’s shop. Subsequently, Mrs Peters and her helpers set up a display about the oil field at the Garden Centre. The well continued to pump oil until 1945, having produced in excess of three thousand tons of high grade oil, ideally suited for conversion to lubricating oil.

Tibshelf’s claim to be the first on-shore oilfield was hotly contested by Eakring (“You only had one well, we had nearly one hundred”) but arbitration ruled in favour of Tibshelf. So, if you ever pass that way, you’ll find this proudly announced on the signs at the entry to the village.

I’m not sure whether or not the Garden Centre is still operating and so access to the well may no longer be possible.

Jon Layne
Ashbourne Section CROCA.


Lawrence Holmes writes:

I read with interest Jon Layne’s article called ‘The East Midlands Wartime Oil Bonanza’. From 1956 to 1963 I worked at Rufford Colliery as a mining surveyor. Rufford is only 10 miles from the Eakring Oilfield. Rufford was developing the Low main seam of coal which was 1000yds deep and it was my job to keep the many headings on the correct line or direction.

In the late 1950s I was surprised to visit one heading which was supported by steel arches and wooden boards. It was only at the end that I could see the natural shale strata. Much to my surprise there was a stand pipe sticking out of the rock face and it was dripping with a black sticky substance. One of the miners told me that it was crude oil from the Eakring Oilfield which had migrated several miles from the main deposit to be present at Rufford some 1000yds deep. I understand that the colliery tapped the pipe from time to time and put the crude oil into barrels and sent it away. For a time I thought we might have a combined coal/oil mine ! Sadly with reserves still present, Rufford was closed by the Thatcher Government in 1992. All that remains of a once proud work place employing over 1000 people, is a memorial near the main road and some remains of the colliery offices.


[30apr09 17:30]