Arthur Beeby-Thompson: Oil Pioneer

Born in Northampton in 1873 and known simply as ‘Beeby-Thompson’, his achievements were such that the foreword to his auto-biography was written by Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the USA
This article appeared in Vol. 14, No. 3 - 2017


In 1873, only 14 years after the world’s first commercial oil well at Titusville, a boy was born in Northampton, England, who was to become known throughout the fledgling oil industry of the first half of the 20th Century, simply as ‘Beeby-Thompson’. His achievements were such that the foreword to his auto-biography, published in 1961, was written by none other than Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States.

Arthur Beeby Thompson. Arthur Beeby Thompson was the son of Beeby Thompson, Headmaster at Northampton Science School, who specialised, perhaps unusually for those times, in teaching geology and physics and was (by Beeby-Thomson’s account), a distinguished chemist. His mother, Emma Thompson, was his father’s cousin from Staffordshire; they had met when she came to live with the Northampton Thompsons. Beeby-Thompson himself described his father as a “martinet … inclined to carry a degree of school discipline into the home”. Despite this, he often joined his father on fossil-hunting expeditions to local clay-pits and quarries, which “nurtured his inquisitive nature and powers of observation”. Leaving school at 16, in 1889, at his father’s insistence, he was articled for five years to a local engineering firm, and so began his long and distinguished career as an engineer. He worked at first in the machine shop, graduating eventually to the drawing office where he learnt to make accurate plans and drawings.

On completion of his apprenticeship in 1894, he joined a firm of waterworks contractors, Duke and Ockendon of Littlehampton as a draughtsman, where he also learnt about well boring and shaft sinking for the first time. In 1896 he applied for a job as a water engineer in Government Service on the Gold Coast in West Africa (present-day Ghana). On arrival, he was horrified by the culture of heavy-drinking that he encountered amongst his fellow ex-pats, in which anyone consuming less than a bottle of whisky per day was condemned as a “bloody teetotaller”!

After eight months of sinking water wells, encountering only heavily saline water in the coastal region, and having survived several bouts of malaria, he returned to the UK for home leave, where he took up a temporary post as surveyor on a London reservoir project. Having added the skills of a field surveyor to his growing list of accomplishments, he readily accepted an offer to return to the Gold Coast to join a survey team working in the uplands, surveying potential water sources.

  • A village group in Ghana, 1896, with Beeby Thompson standing on left behind the chief.

Drilling in Baku

1896 saw him back in England, where he returned briefly to Duke and Ockendon, although he felt that his “inclinations ….. lay elsewhere in foreign fields” and in 1898 he accepted an invitation to join the European Petroleum Company in Baku as a water engineer, although his duties were soon to involve more oil than water. In November of that year, he left London, travelling via the Orient Express to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), onward by boat across the Black Sea to Batoum (Batumi in Georgia) and finally by train across Georgia and Azerbaijan to Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

In the last years of the 19th century, the Baku oilfields covered an area of some 10km2 and by 1900 were producing 75 MMbo year from some 1,700 wells, averaging 300m in depth. This was more than 50% of the world’s output of oil and when combined with that of the US made up some 90% of world production.

Soon after his arrival a severe recurrence of malaria brought him close to death, largely, it would seem due to the daily injections of quinine and arsenic to which he was subjected! Having been “reduced to a skeleton” and lost all his hair, the doctors pronounced him ready for his funeral rites. At which point, he refused all further treatment and subsequently began to recover. During his slow recovery he gradually made himself familiar with the techniques employed in oil drilling. Most wells were drilled with the ‘free-fall’ method, percussion drilling, involving dropping a heavy bit and sinker bar into the well-bore. Average penetration rates were a little over two metres per day and wells took several months to drill. Frequent tool failures resulted in long ‘fishing’ jobs, often taking months and proving very costly. ‘Gushers’ were also frequent and sand entrained in the gas and oil would cut through a 30 cm thick steel plate in just a few days.

In 1900, he was appointed Chief Mechanical Engineer. His duties involved sending a weekly report to London on the condition of all the company’s drilling and producing wells, which involved his gaining familiarity with the entire scope of operations. Under the guidance of one of the of the company’s directors, a retired colonel of the Royal Engineers, he was allowed to experiment with new techniques, including cable-drilling, screw-threaded casing (rather than riveted) and the replacement of steam power with internal combustion engines.

At that time, most wells, after the initial ‘gusher’ phase, were produced by bailing, which required large diameter boreholes. Having been given a ‘damaged’ well with which to experiment, Beeby-Thompson introduced an air-lift system, which increased production five-fold, increasing potential profit for his employers. He also enlisted the assistance of his father in unravelling the mystery of “oil-dirt – a curdled mixture of oil and water which would not separate” and of which “hundreds of thousands” of barrels were burnt or run to waste each year. Such oil emulsions or colloids were then little understood, but a way was eventually found to separate them, enabling the oil to be used; once again adding to his employer’s profits. Beeby-Thompson also entered the field of reservoir geology, making microscopic examinations of sands and claystones seeking clues to the origins of oil generation and compositional variations - knowledge and experience which would again stand him in good stead in later years.

  • Baku gusher on fire 1899. (Source: Tekniska museet)

Life in the Baku oilfields was not without danger; fires were at least a weekly occurrence. The wooden derricks were frequently soaked in oil, with oil stored in adjacent open vats and the fact that no-smoking regulations were generally ignored resulted in many damaging conflagrations. Beeby-Thompson had several lucky escapes, once when he had to run from a burning derrick which toppled in his direction. 

Robbery and murder were also common threats, with robbers frequenting both main roads and narrow city streets, while professional assassins were readily available to settle political and business disputes! As no foreign subject could, by Russian law, manage a business, officials of the company were provided with “shadow” Russian colleagues. Beeby-Thompson’s own ‘shadow’, a young Russian engineer of whom he thought well, was himself murdered on the road for the sake of the few roubles he was carrying, while returning from leave. Crime took other forms, with frequent unauthorised tapping-into or diversion of pipelines and consequent theft of oil.

During the latter part of his time in Baku, Beeby-Thompson undertook field work and spent his spare time studying the geology of the region. These studies which were to aid him greatly in his later career as he also turned his hand to petroleum geology, becoming involved in field mapping and surveying in diverse continents. He also began work on the book for which he was to become best known, “The Oilfields of Russia and the Russian Petroleum Industry”. In 1901, he married Christina, a London-born woman, and by 1904, having had two daughters, and worried by increasing political unrest in the region, he left Baku for London, having resolved to set up shop as a consulting petroleum engineer. A third daughter arrived shortly after their return to London.

  • Baku oil fields early in the 20th century could be dangerous places. (Source: Tekniska museet)

  • Baku oil fields. (Source: Tekniska museet)

More Foreign Adventures

Back in London, he formed a partnership with another former Baku engineer, Campbell Hunter, and duly opened the offices of Thompson & Hunter in Leadenhall Street in the City of London. The same year saw publication of his book on Russia, which went on sale at the princely sum of three guineas. The partnership duly awaited their first client, having been warned by family, friends and businessmen alike of their poor prospects!

'The Oil Fields of Russia and the Russian Petroleum Industry: A Practical Handbook On the Exploration, Exploitation, and Management of Russian Oil Properties. Including Notes On the Origin of Petroleum in Russia'. Nabu Press (7 Jan., 2010) Some months passed before their first commission took Beeby-Thompson back to Baku, which coincided with an outbreak of severe inter-communal violence between Armenians and Tartars, which reinforced his earlier decision to quit Baku with his family. Shortly after returning to London, a new commission from Matheson & Co. took Beeby-Thompson and Hunter to Peru to appraise an oil property owned by the company for some time, about which the owners professed to know very little, their previous resident representative having died from yellow fever, leaving the London-based owners somewhat in the dark concerning their concession.

In 1905, in the firm’s second year, Beeby-Thomson was summoned to the presence of William Knox D’Arcy, the Australian founder of the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., and offered a post in Persia, which he reluctantly declined, preferring London to the “rough living conditions and trying climate” that the new post would entail. This was somewhat ironic, given the conditions he was to experience later in his career.

The firm began to expand and the partners were, for the times, seemingly enlightened employers; “Our staff were treated as colleagues, rather than as employees, and they knew that there was no need to invent sick or deceased relatives as reasons for absence, when important football matches or the Wimbledon finals were in progress”!

The period between 1906, the year in which Beeby-Thompson was elected as a Fellow of the Geological Society of London, and 1914 saw the London investment market undergo an oil boom with many mining companies entering the sector, numerous flotations and speculative ventures and the firm of Thompson and Hunter very much found themselves at its heart. Also among their achievements was to persuade British companies, such as Rustons, Vickers and Marshalls to begin building oil-field equipment, which hitherto had generally only been available in the United States. This opened up new markets for these firms, Britain being somewhat closer to the developing oilfields of Europe and the Middle East.

US President Herbert Hoover was both a friend and work associate of Beeby-Thompson. (Source: US Dept. of the Interior) In 1908, Beeby-Thompson began his long association with Herbert Hoover, who then entered the sector, asking the former’s assistance in securing interests in Trinidad and Peru. Over the ensuing years, Beeby-Thompson was to advise Hoover in a number of ventures and the two became firm friends.

More foreign adventures followed and Beeby-Thompson notes that in the years 1904 to 1914, he worked on projects in some 30 countries over most of the continents of the world, with the exception of Australasia and Antarctica. Given that this was before the advent of air travel, it is perhaps unsurprising that he in the period 1905 to 1939, he spent only two Christmases at home with his family!

Between 1906 and 1912, Beeby-Thompson played a leading role in establishing oil production in Trinidad, each visit requiring a two-week ocean voyage in each direction. Closer to home, another commission involved the investigation of potential commercial levels of natural gas at Heathfield in Sussex, which were being used to supply lighting and heating to the village. Beeby-Thompson was hired by a wealthy peer and investor in the project. He discovered that the natural supply was being supplemented by a coal gas generating plant, and that the actual flow of natural gas was negligible, causing a cessation of investment by his client.

In 1911, he made the first of several extensive visits to India and to Burma, on behalf of the British Burma Oil Company and was in Rangoon (now Yangon) with his eldest daughter for the 1922 visit of the Prince of Wales which involved several days of festivities. He last visited in 1931, where his daughter, Hilda, was now married and living. Sadly, after parting from her some weeks later on Rangoon’s quayside, he was never to see her alive again, as she died in childbirth a few months later, aged only 29.

War Service and US Oil

Beeby-Thompson when serving in the Middle East during the 1914–1918 war. In 1914, with the beginning of the First World War, Beeby-Thompson turned his attention to the security of water supplies, initially for London. Repeatedly turned down for a commission in the army on the grounds of age, in 1915 the War Office asked him to travel to Gallipolli with a hand-picked team to ensure a water supply for the allied troops there. This was major strategic consideration, water supply being one of the reasons that the Germans had advised their Turkish allies that the British and Allied Forces would never attempt a landing there.

After the evacuation of Gallipoli, where he had been hospitalised with para-typhoid, he returned to his civilian occupation and in 1916, travelled extensively in North America in pursuit of his oil business interests, sailing home from New York on New Year’s Day 1917 – another Christmas away from home.

1918 found him back on war service in the Middle East. Expeditions were made to the Sudan, Egypt, Somalia and Palestine, where he met for the first time Colonel T.E Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia”, all in the pursuit of water supplies for the allies.

In the “Roaring Twenties”, Beeby-Thompson also made several visits to Prohibition-era America, where he discovered that ordering a cup of “red coffee” with dinner would lead to the arrival of cup of “decent claret”, topped by a saucer and cream jug! During these visits, he met many of the leading figures in the then burgeoning oil industry. He had by now established a reputation across the oil industry as a skilled and knowledgeable ‘oil-man’, and his reputation preceding him, often found himself feted and hosted at the very best hotels, a far cry from the privations of many of his earlier expeditions.

Opening Iraq

From 1921, Beeby-Thompson began his involvement with oil exploration in Mesopotamia and especially in the area of Mosul. In 1925 he made a highly confidential journey to Angora (present-day Ankara) where he met Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, the recently installed first President of Turkey. The journey was clearly somewhat uncomfortable, with flea-ridden and vermin-infested sleeping cars and hotel rooms. His account of his attempt to negotiate oil-concessions in Mesopotamia at this time, is somewhat puzzling, since by then, Iraq was a League of Nations mandate, under British control. The discovery of oil at Kirkuk in 1927 with an uncontrolled ‘gusher’ reaching 70,000 bopd, spurred efforts by interested parties to secure further concessions in Iraq, and Beeby-Thompson was in the thick of it. His firm was commissioned by the Iraq Petroleum Company to begin drilling operations near Mosul and he made several trips to Iraq, including one when he seems to have visited most of the country, travelling through Kurdistan, noting the profusion of natural oil occurrences and seeps. He made several visits to Baghdad, where he was granted an audience with King Feisal, who sought Beeby-Thompson’s help in improving the country’s water supplies, a challenge he naturally accepted.

In 1934 he noted the problem of “the poisonous character of the gases” encountered in drilling operations in Iraq, saying that “one whiff of the gas” – hydrogen sulphide – “was enough to cause instantaneous unconsciousness and muscular paralysis”. The victims were dragged away and “after ten minutes or so would recover to repeat the experience”! In cable drilling, it was impossible to avoid the gas escapes and so, true to his engineering origins, Beeby-Thompson designed a system of fans and extractors to take out and blow the gas to one side, removing a major threat to the health and safety of the drilling crew.

  • Rounding the western (Syrian) end of Jebel Sinjar, Iraq, in 1932.

  • Working in Iraq.

A Pivotal Role

In his autobiography, Beeby-Thompson says nothing of his activities during the Second World War, and it must be assumed that, by then in his late sixties, he passed the war at home in England, tending to his business interests as best he could. Sadly, his wife Christina passed away in 1941 at the age of 68, having spent much of her married life apart from her husband. In 1946, in what was almost a post-script, he formally changed his surname by deed poll to “Beeby-Thompson”, the name by which he had been known throughout his working life.

After the war, he resumed his international career and in 1947, travelled to Bahrain, where oil had been discovered in 1932 by Standard Oil of California and was then at the beginning of the growth of Middle Eastern oil power. Air travel was by now established and having flown from Manama to Cairo, Beeby-Thompson observed that he had seen “more geology in a few minutes than [he] could have in months of ground work”. During a 1949 trip to Muscat, he spent a night at a remote airfield in the company of the author Neville Shute, who had arrived in his private aircraft, en route to researching a new novel.

In 1948, at the age of 75, he again travelled widely in the United States, where he renewed his acquaintance with Herbert Hoover, who had served as President during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1933. The final act of his career was to publish his autobiography ‘Oil Pioneer’, in 1961. Beeby-Thompson died in London in 1968, having reached the grand old age of 95, despite having suffered from recurrent attacks of malaria, dysentery and typhoid during his earlier adventures.

Beeby-Thompson was a product of his Victorian upbringing. His autobiography, published at the grand age of 88, is almost devoid of detail on his family and friends, but provides a wealth of anecdotes relating to his professional experiences across the first half of the 20th Century. He says nothing of hobbies or interests outside work. His marriage lasted over 40 years, but during that time it seems that he rarely spent more than a few months at a time at home.

Although now largely forgotten, Beeby-Thompson played a pivotal role in the early development of the global oil industry. He covered hundreds of thousands of miles, criss-crossing the globe on journeys that took weeks and months, on travels which took him to the heart of then developing oil industry and he certainly met many of the leading figures of the age. He was an engineer and scientist and, perhaps most of all, an innovator. One cannot help but wonder what he would have made of today’s advances in petroleum geology and engineering with its 3D seismic and reservoir models, large, powerful drilling rigs and modern drilling methods, and what more he might have achieved, had they been available to him.

  • Work party in Iraq.

  • Iraq field work.


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