Gordano Civic Society

Founded 1956

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Petroleum industry

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Portishead Industrial Heritage - Petroleum industry

Because of the difficulties encountered in transporting motor spirit by rail from Thames Haven to the West of England, British Petroleum reached an agreement with the Port of Bristol in 1908 for a lease covering approximately three acres of land situated on the Portbury side of the lock at Portishead Dock.

On this the company built five storage tanks to hold 10,500 tons of refined petroleum spirit brought in by tank steamers. The first shipment arrived on 7th June 1909 in a chartered German vessel named Washington. The spirit was then distributed by railway tank-wagons or in steel barrels to various sub-depots in the South-West.

By 1913, the area devoted to petroleum storage had grown to nearly seven acres (see the 1913 plan of Portishead Dock).

During the early part of the 1914/18 war, the Shell Co. was exporting 70% of all the petrol used by the British Expeditionary Force from its installation at Portishead dock in two gallon cans which were being produced locally at the rate of 8,000 a day.

In the 1915 crisis Shell proposed that toluol, a basic ingredient of TNT, previously extracted from coal tar sources, should be extracted from petroleum. No distillery was available in Britain, but there was one in Rotterdam.

This was dismantled, brought by ship to London escorted by destroyers, rushed by train to Portishead and was erected on a site which had been cleared and laid with foundations for the refinery. In the ordinary way, the distillery would have taken months to build, but it was in full swing within six weeks.

From then until the Armistice, the plant turned out more than a thousand tons of toluol a month, 80% of this country's production, in addition to vast quantities of xylol used in the manufacture of high explosives.

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