The Canadian Driller: A Life in Oil

Bert Blanche started his long career in the oil industry as a roughneck in Texas in 1930. His son Bruce, who became a geologist in the oil industry, tells us his story.
This article appeared in Vol. 10, No. 3 - 2013


Edwin Josiah Blanche on left front, Herbert John Blanche on right front. Source: Author’s collection My father, Herbert ‘Bert’ John Blanche, was born in Montreal, Quebec on the 16th of September, 1909. His father, Edwin Josiah Thomas Blanche, had served with distinction in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War, where he had been a ‘tunneller’ on the Western Front. On his return, he resumed his career with the Canadian Pacific Railway and the family moved to Regina, Saskatchewan.

Bert Blanche’s first car – improvised from parts, c. 1933. Source: Author’s collection Bert was educated at the Holy Rosary School and Central Collegiate l in Regina. In 1925, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Royal Canadian Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J G Bayner. At the same time, Bert was employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company in Regina. The experience and engineering knowledge that he gained from his 12 years in the militia stood him in good stead as a roughneck and driller.

The Lone Star State

Al Goodman and Collie Brandt, fellow roughnecks. Source: Author’s collection In 1935, at the age of 26, Bert Blanche left Canada to stay with his elder brother Ted in Dallas, Texas. Ted was a well-respected oil field chartered accountant who also financed and invested in wildcat drilling in Texas. He had a lot of contacts – and a private pilot’s licence so that he could fly to drilling sites around Texas.

As a result of his brother’s contacts, Bert Blanche was quickly drawn to work as a roughneck in the booming East Texas Basin, which had become a prolific oil province in 1930 with the discovery and development of the East Texas oilfield. He started his long career in the oil industry with drilling contractor, the Big West Drilling Company.

During his time as a roughneck and driller in East Texas, Bert drilled wells for a number of oil companies. Operating conditions were arduous and often dangerous and serious accidents were commonplace amongst the drilling crews. The most notable well he was involved with was Brooks-1, drilled in 1936 near Silsbee in East Texas by the Big West Drilling Company for the Republic-Houston Oil Company. The well was drilled to 2,088m and then caught fire and blazed for three months.

He also drilled wells in East Texas and western Louisiana in 1937 near the town of Beaumont, in the vicinity of the giant Spindletop oil field discovered in 1910 by the Lucas gusher (GEO ExPro, Vol. 5, No. 3). The Lucas geyser, located at a depth of 347m, blew a stream of oil over 30m high until it was capped nine days later and flowed an estimated 100,000 bopd. This started an oil boom in East Texas, increasing the population of Beaumont five-fold.

Crossing the Pond

The crater caused by the fire at the Brooks-1 well. Source: Author’s collection In late 1937, Bert Blanche left for a new life in the United Kingdom, arriving by ship in Southampton in September 1937. He was employed by the Anglo-American Oil company, the British subsidiary of Standard Oil (New Jersey), later Esso, and was to become the head driller for the company, primarily exploring in and around the East Midlands of England, which became one of the most prolific hydrocarbon provinces in the United Kingdom.

He also drilled in the Midland Valley of Scotland around Dalkeith in Midlothian, which was the ‘home’ of the Scottish oil industry. This area lies within the Late Palaeozoic Midland Valley faulted basin, which has a proven hydrocarbon system. Exploration for hydrocarbons had initially taken place during the period 1919–1922, when gas was discovered, together with oil, but the latter not in encouraging quantities. The first oil discovery was made by Anglo-American with the Midlothian-1 well near Edinburgh in 1937.

Bert was involved in the drilling of both Midlothian-1 and -2 and the five follow-up wells during the period 1937–1940. The field was shut down in 1967, having produced 330 MMcfg (Hallet et al 1985).

Declaration of War

 Sgt H J Blanche. Source: Author’s collection At the declaration of war with Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, Bert Blanche was drilling the Midlothian-4 well. The first German raids were in October 1939 on the Firth of Forth, very close to the drilling operations near Dalkeith. During these dark days of WWII when Britain stood alone against the Nazi regime, there was a great need to increase oil production from indigenous hydrocarbon resources. The strategic importance of discovering more oil in the UK was becoming critical to the war effort. Bert Blanche, by virtue of his experience, was given ‘reserved occupation status’ and was exempt from military service, much to his disappointment.

By 1940, fuel shortages and food rationing were all imposing difficulties, together with regular air raids against targets of value to the war effort, including oil and gas installations which had to be camouflaged to conceal them from any airborne reconnaissance. In 1940, Bert was transferred from Scotland to England to the East Midlands to drill exploration wells.

Midlothian-1. Bert Blanche at the drilling brake. Source: Author’s collection

Despite the war, the move to England, and drilling wells in Nottinghamshire, Bert Blanche still had time to get married to Janet Rowland, a young lady he had met in the blackout during his time in Scotland. They were married in the small border town of Coldstream in Berwickshire on 10 June 1940.

The strategic importance of discovering more oil in the UK was becoming critical by 1942 as a direct consequence of the continued German U-boat threat to UK-bound convoys in the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes. Both the Anglo-American Oil Company and D’Arcy Exploration Company accelerated their exploration efforts accordingly. By the end of the war some 170 ‘nodding donkey’ pumping units, one per kilometre, were each producing an average of 64 bpd. Both Eakring and Dukes Wood were eventually depleted and shut down in 1989.

  • Midlothian -1, 1937. Note the steam rig and boiler house Source: Author’s collection

To the Wilds of Borneo

Bert Blanche was released from his contract with the Anglo-American Oil Company in 1947 and was offered employment as a driller in Borneo by the Shell International Petroleum Company. He departed the UK for the Sultanate of Brunei and the Seria oilfield in November 1947. There were no seats available on the fledgling BOAC service to Singapore, so Bert was transported to Labuan by an RAF Short Sunderland GR IV flying boat – a journey which took a total of fourteen days.

Bert was deposited on Seria beach via an Australian Army landing craft. Although production had been restored and oil exports to the Lutong refinery near Miri, in north-east Sarawak, had recommenced in November 1945, 38 oil wells were still burning following the Japanese oil denial programme and Allied bombing.

At first he lived with other expatriates on ‘batchelor’ status in pre-war wooden bungalows which had been occupied during the war by Japanese officers. However, my mother Janet, brother Edwin, aged 7 years, and myself, aged 2, left the UK by sea for Singapore in 1948. From there we were transported as passengers on a Shell tanker to Miri in Sarawak where we landed at the British Malayan Petroleum Company Ltd (BMP Co Ltd) facility at Lutong. We completed the journey to Seria by ferry and dirt road along the beach – a journey that took about four hours – arriving at the BMP Co Ltd oil camp at Seria on 6 June 1948.

Operating and living conditions were difficult and the field infrastructure was poor in the immediate post-war period. Occasionally, the local wildlife would make their presence felt; crocodiles in particular were a danger in the rivers and the river mouths. Major supplies of food and other essentials were imported from Australia by sea every few months. Adequate housing was also a problem along the narrow strip cleared from jungle. Staff family accommodation was in wooden kajang bungalows; snakes, scorpions and other wildlife lived under the house.

At the time of Bert Blanche’s arrival in late 1947, the priority was to rehabilitate the war-damaged Seria Field, increase production and discover additional reserves by drilling both onshore and offshore along the shoreline. In the early 1950s, BMPC operated five aircraft from its airfield at Anduki, to enable the rapid supply of remote jungle and offshore drilling locations. The aircraft also provided transport for staff and their families and vital logistics support to operations.

  • Source: Author’s collection

Exciting Times

Dyak headman, Subis 1951. Note the ceremonial dress to welcome visitors. Source: Author’s collection Source: Author’s collection Bert was responsible for drilling or supplying drilling materials for several wells during the period 1951–1960, designed to test the hydrocarbon potential of deltaic sands in faulted anticlines in the onshore Baram Delta province. The remote jungle locations in Sarawak often resulted in contact with the local Dyak tribal communities who lived in longhouses, usually close to rivers. The Dyaks were attracted to the drilling camps, perhaps looking for the opportunity to trade jungle goods and native crafts for salt or western food. Cultural honour dictated that the hospitality given at the drilling locations would be reciprocated to the ‘ex-pats’ who would be invited back to the longhouses. The visits to Dyak longhouses by Bert Blanche and his colleagues are recounted by Stanton Hope in his book The Battle for Oil, which was published in 1958. Following one of these visits to a longhouse, Bert Blanche wrote an account of his time with the noble and hospitable Dyaks entitled The Dyak is a Gentleman.

The two British colonies of Sarawak and North Borneo, with the small Protectorate of Brunei sandwiched between them, occupied a 1,290 km strip of territory along the north-western seaboard of the island of Borneo. The rest of the island belonged to Indonesia (Kalimantan), whose President Sukarno had ambitions to bring the whole island under Indonesian leadership and control. When, in 1962, plans were drawn up in Whitehall and Kuala Lumpur to link Brunei, North Borneo, Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore into a Federation of Malaysia, President Sukarno saw his plans threatened and encouraged the People’s Party in Brunei to rebel.

The Brunei revolt started on 8 December 1962. Some 43 Europeans and Asians, including Bert Blanche, were held hostage as bargaining tools. Bert managed to escape in the confusion after he and several other male hostages had been used as ‘human shields’ in an unsuccessful attempt to storm a police station, although several hostages were wounded and one was killed. He went to ground for several days in the jungle, before being rescued on 15 December by British troops brought into assist the Sultan in defeating the insurgents.

A few months later, after 15 years in Brunei, Bert was eligible for retirement. He left Brunei Shell Petroleum Company Ltd in March 1963 at the age of 54.

An Easier Life

Rig and boardwalk at sunset immediately offshore, Seria Field. Access to shallow water wells was via wooden boardwalks. Source: Author’s collection Bert Blanche returned to the United Kingdom in April 1963. After a period of retirement, in 1971 he became a director of a new company, Oil and Mining Ltd., offering drilling and other related services to the international upstream oil and gas industry.

My father finally retired in 1980 at the age of 71, after a long and interesting career in the oil and gas drilling business. He died at home on 31 March 1987 at the age of 78.


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