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The Wigan area was renowned for a especially rich form of cannel coal, much prized for enriching the calorific value of town gas. Wigan cannel was used in gasworks throughout the north of England, and considerable quantities were exported as far as the eastern coast of the USA.
It seems that the poorer quality "cannel slack", mined along with the best quality cannel, was once used for oil production. Several newspaper references from the mid 1860's indicate that some works were equipped with retorts to produce a crudely refined "black paraffin" used mainly to lubricate mining machinery.
Several oil works in the Wigan area had a long life, serving the needs of the many mines and factories of the area. It seems likely however that, (at least in later years), the starting point for their processes were the products of coke ovens and gas works, natural fats, or imported petroleum, rather than producing oil directly by retorting coal.
22nd February, James Nicholas of Aspul, near Wigan, for improvements in the process and appartatus for producing oil and coke for coal and slack.
Wigan Observer 25th August 1865
A patent for extracting oil from coal shale has lately expired. During its operation the proprietor has drawn a large revenue from the royalty for its use in Scotland, but hitherto it has not been much adopted in Lancashire, on account of the terms required for its use, but as the patent is now public property, no doubt steps will be taken for utilising the large beds of shale which exist in the coal fields of the country, and thus a new and important trade created in Lancashire. In Wales, already, a large number of works have been erected with the view of thus utilising the shale beds
Preston Chronicle, 27th January 1866
Mr. J. Nicholas, of Aspull, near Wigan, proposes to produce oil and coke from coal and slack, and from condensable vapours. The oven should be capable of being made steam-tight, and the top are two apertures, one communicating with condenser and the other with the air. The oven is charged in the usual manner, and the draftholes and all apertures are carefully closed, with the exception of the aperture leading to the condenser. The products are condensed and purified in the usual manner.
Birmingham Daily Gazette, 29th January 1866
Mr. J. Nicholls, the Mineral Oil and Chemical Works, Aspull, near Wigan, corrects the notice of this invention which appeared in the Mining Journal of January 27, follows;—
The invention is improved coke ovens, and mode of working them, which permits of gaseous products, now lost in the cooking of coal or slack, being collected and condensed first, if the material was only distilled to procure oil. The production the oil is the principal object, but not the only feature. The yield of coke is larger, and any description of coke, from soft smithy coke to hard blast furnace coke, can be produced at the will of the operator, which is in itself very considerable advantage over those ovens at present in use. The great value of the invention is, However, the production of the oil; and the fact is apparent, when it taken into consideration that every ton of material, whether coal or slack, used to produce coke will yield, at a rough avenge, at least 20 gallons of coal oil by invention. Were the coking ovens of this country constructed and worked on this principle, the production of the oil wells of America would suffer by comparison with the quantity oil that would be produced here.
The cost of the erection of those ovens is but little more than of those at present in use, and their action efficient and expeditious. There cannot be doubt but that if coal oil could be obtained cheaply enough, use as fuel for steamers and for the production illuminating gas would very soon be generally adopted. The advantages that would accrue from such application are too numerous to be touched upon here. By my plan I quite expect to be able, in a reasonable period, to reduce the cost of crude oil from £6 6s. per ton (the present price of that distilled in this district) to 25s. per ton. Of course, some time will elapse before I can induce the alteration of present coking-ovens; but I believe it is only question of time. As coal oil distiller, it has for long time been apparent to that the system of obtaining coal oil by distillation in retorts is not the correct one, when the vast quantities of gaseous matter hourly evolved from coking-ovens is allowed to go waste, as it is, several attempts have been made to collect and condense the gases from coking-ovens, but they have all failed, from the fact that they all more or leas permitted combustion to occur in the ovens, whereas in my ovens and my process distillation and combustion are recognised as two different things. The charges in ovens, when undergoing distillation, produce oil. These charges, after distillation, being allowed to ignite, get converted into proper coke, and the heat generated by the combustion of these distilled charges is made the agent for distillation of the charges in the other ovens
Wigan Observer and District Advertiser, 2nd March 1866
The bed of coal for which the district round Wigan is pre-eminently remarkable is the peculiar seam of cannel. In appearance it is quite unlike coal, showing no signs of stratification remains of plants. On the other hand, many fish remains have been found in it. It breaks with smooth, fracture, and does not soil the fingers, It burns with bright light and crackling noise. Its main use, however, is in the manufacture of gas, which it yields a large volume on distillation, and this of high illuminating power. Nothing is more striking than the difference between the excellent gas in Wigan, Manchester. Liverpool, &c.. and the wretched production supplied to the inhabitants of London, manufactured with ordinary coal. It is, indeed, difficult to understand why the metropolis is content to be served with an article as inferior as London gas, when, by the use of cannel, it would be all that could be desired. It may be remarked that of late years a very large quantity of “cannel slack" has come to be used in the manufacture of paraffine oils, a branch industry which is extending with enormous strides.
Reprinted from the Scientific Review in the Wigan Observer, 6th April 1866
Mineral oil works—wanted, an immediate Purchaser, before 30th June. For Inventory, apply Lamb & Son, Auctioneers, Wigan.
Dundee Courier, 19th June 1868