More than twenty years ago, family history research was inspired by a distant kinsman who, with his wife and his sister, travelled hundreds of miles to reunite our families after a gap of nearly a century. His accounts of Russell family life at the start of the twentieth century, received from his mother, enlarged my own inherited view of family history, which was enhanced also by very old photographs handed down from one generation to another in both families, but printed (about a eighty years previously) from one set of negatives or plates.

One thing undoubtedly leads to another, and in due course photography (a lifetime hobby) was combined with family history in the reproduction of old portraits, so that they could be shared with others and incorporated in computer files for adding to family trees; and a set of First World War photographs, including one of my father in a German prisoner-of-war camp, copied, reprinted and supplied with new negatives, was donated to the Royal Scots and United Services Museums at Edinburgh Castle. Old photographs raise questions of time and place which can sometimes be answered by clues such as uniform, cap badge, rank, long-service chevrons, etc., and these were enough to lead me to the war diaries of the 9th Royal Scots and the Battle of Arras, 1917, in which my father was taken prisoner.

Research into family history extended also into mining history when I was asked by Leonie Knapman, author of Joadja Creek, The shale oil town and its people 1870-1911,1 to enquire into the outcome of a famous 19th century civil jury trial at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, concerning a mineral lease at Torbanehill, in West Lothian. She had identified the litigants as Gillespie v. Russel and, after consulting solicitors about the importance of the case, had mentioned the trial in her book, in the belief that the father of two of the Joadja mine managers, James and Alexander Russell, had been ruined by its outcome. As the family name has been spelt with one “l” as well as two, and as mining and mineral-oil histories which mention the Torbanehill dispute tend to identify the defenders as Russell & Co. or Russell & Son, it seemed possible that the Australians knew something about Russell family history which had escaped the notice of generations of their Scottish kinsmen, but I thought it very unlikely that any of my ancestors were in a financial league in which they could have had the means to defend such a case. The question of identity was settled by reference to law reports, including transcripts of the shorthand notes of the jury trial, which named the defenders as James Russel & Son, of Blackbraes, Falkirk, for many years very extensive workers of coal and other minerals, particularly in the counties of Linlithgow and Stirling, who in, and prior to, January 1850, were lessees of the coal and other minerals in the lands of Boghead, which adjoined the pursuers’ property of Torbanehill. The pursuers were Mr & Mrs W. H. Gillespie, who, from about 1852 to 1860, engaged James Russel & Son in a dispute about a mineral lease of the property at Torbanehill, of which Mrs Gillespie was the proprietrix. The issue was whether the material mined at Torbanehill was coal, as claimed by the defenders, or a substance not prescribed by the lease, as claimed by the pursuers.

The case was tried in the Court of Session, Edinburgh, before the Lord President and a Jury, on 29th and 30th July and 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th August 1853. Seventy-nine witnesses, including distinguished scientists, mining engineers, coal managers and miners, were called to give evidence. There are two transcripts of shorthand notes taken at the trial, one by Alexander Watson Lyell (Bell & Bradfute, Edinburgh, 1853), the other by J. Irvine Smith (Neill & Company, Edinburgh, 1862), both of which provide a verbatim record of the examination and cross-examination of witnesses, counsels’ speeches and the Lord President’s address to the Jury.2

 Notwithstanding the verdict of 1853, the rejection of a motion for a new trial in the Court of Session (1854) and the failure or withdrawal of appeals to the House of Lords (1859), the dispute between the landowner and the coalmasters appears to have ended in a settlement in 1860, according to James Urquhart's biography of William Gillespie.3 Reference to a voluntary agreement “whereby Gillespie was paid one-seventh of the value” is made also in H. R. J. Conacher's contribution to The Oil-Shales of the Lothians.4

James Russel was probably one of the most distinguished entrepreneurs of his generation: in addition to being a well-known coalmaster he was also a lawyer, banker, shipowner, ironmaster and founding partner of the Falkirk law firm, Russel & Aitken. Through his company, James Russel & Son, he was owner or part-owner of collieries employing, at the time of his death in 1858, some 2,000 workers. According to Professor Butt’s biography of James “Paraffin” Young, the usefulness of Young’s patent for a process of extracting oil from the material supplied by James Russel & Son depended on its classification as coal, so the Court’s decision protected the value of the patent and a long-term contract for the supply of the material, thus enabling his firm to continue production until the expiry of the patent and the start of the shale oil industry in 1863.5

Robert Russell (1817-91), the father of the two Joadja managers, had no connection with James Russel’s family or with the Gillespie v. Russel dispute, but further enquiry by an Australian descendant and by Leonie Knapman, who were sure that Russell had come to grief in the Court of Session, suggested a connection with the Clydesdale Chemical Company of Cambuslang, Lanarkshire, for that company’s operations, like those of James Russel & Son, had brought them to a famous jury trial. The pursuers, E. W. Binney & Co., were joined by James Young and his fellow directors, who claimed that the Clydesdale Company had infringed Young’s patent for a method of obtaining oil from coal. The trial began in the Court of Session on 1st November 1860, requisitioned the services of the country’s most eminent scientists (on both sides), lasted more than a week and ended with a verdict in favour of the pursuers, whereupon Young relieved the Clydesdale of such a substantial sum that it was completely ruined by 1862.5 The name of Robert Russell, who was a mineral borer, is not among the litigants listed in The Scotsman report of the 1860 trial, but if that was the one which damaged his mining career, it could have affected him adversely only if he was a subcontractor, an unpaid creditor or an employee of the Clydesdale Chemical Company at the time of its liquidation.

Whatever his connection (if any) with the Clydesdale Chemical Company may have been, Robert Russell was certainly a partner of Alexander M. Fell in the firm of Fell, Russell & Company, among the first to exploit the Lothian shale seams. Fell’s Shale was the principal shale of the West Calder area and was mined at Tarbrax, Hermand and Loanhead, first worked by A. M. Fell at Gavieside, where, in 1863, Fell, Russell and Company set up a works which, in his thesis of 1984, John McKay described as extensive but never quite on the same scale as the nearby Addiewell Works of Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company Ltd. The company also provided as many as 126 houses for their workers and their families.6

Robert Bell of Clifton Hall, Linlithgowshire, may be credited as the first in Scotland, or one of the first, to produce oil from shale, following its discovery in 1859 in a search for coal at Broxburn,7 but J. F. G. Carne, F.G.S., Assistant Government Geologist in the Department of Mines and Agriculture of New South Wales, in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, reports a claim by Alexander Russell that his father Robert Russell and A. M. Fell Snr. began retorting oil-shales at Levenseat and West Calder several years before Robert Bell started operations.8

The Fell-Russell partnership was dissolved in a manner which, according to Australian family history, brought great distress to Robert Russell. There may have been a dispute about patent rights or royalties, but no evidence of that has been found and the circumstances in which the partnership was dissolved remain a mystery. In 1868, the Gavieside Works were sold to the West Calder Oil Company (limited in 1872), who purchased from Fell and Russell mineral leases which they had acquired in 1861, 1863 and 1865 (McKay). The new company (in which neither Russell nor Fell had a share) employed at least one of Russell’s sons, namely Alexander Russell, who was its mine manager, and possibly his older brother James. When it went into voluntary liquidation in 1879 its works were purchased by Young’s Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company, who dismantled all the apparatus that was of any worth and transferred it to their Bathgate and Addiewell Works.7 The stage was now set for the emigration of the Russell brothers to Joadja Creek.

In the meantime, Alexander Fell had emigrated to Australia (following other members of the Fell family), arriving in Brisbane about 1875, according to Owen Colverd, and was thereafter retained by the Australian Kerosene & Mineral Oil Company as General Manager of their shale mine at Joadja Creek, near Mittagong, New South Wales.9 In that capacity he returned to Scotland to recruit skilled labour for the company, so it seems possible that it was he who engaged the Russell brothers to manage the Joadja mining operations, while other members of the Fell engineering family operated the refining process, employing William Russell, a brother of my great-grandfather, whom I found in Leonie Knapman's book and in the 1881 Census of Carluke – William was a cousin of James and Alexander Russell, so at least three members of the family were employed at Joadja Creek. Carne’s memoir records Alexander Russell as having been engaged in 1879, in Scotland, “to come out to the Joadja Mine, having previously occupied the position of mine manager for the West Calder Oil Company, and shale inspector for Young’s Paragon Light and Mineral Company (sic).”  Leonie Knapman's history of Joadja Creek refers to John Fell, A. M. Fell and James Fell as Managers and to James Russell and Alexander Russell as Mining Managers (one succeeded the other).

The recruitment of miners for employment at Joadja Creek was concentrated in Glasgow and Longridge, a mining village in the parish of Whitburn, in West Lothian (Linlithgowshire). If the company’s agent or agents preferred shale miners, they may have engaged them in West Lothian rather than Glasgow, for seams of oil shale were found mainly in the Lothians, where the majority of shale miners were employed. The Scottish birthplaces named in the Joadja Creek records are widespread, but it would not be surprising if many of the miners recruited by the Australian Kerosene Oil & Mineral Company in the latter part of the decade were already in West Lothian, where almost half of the population were from other Scottish counties and from Ireland and England, some working for firms such as the West Calder Oil Company, Young’s Paraffin Light & Mineral Oil Company and the Broxburn Oil Company. In the period (of about ten years) up to 1876 there were 44 enterprises, but of these only five survived into 1877,6 so the area may have provided a large supply of unemployed miners or miners facing the prospect of unemployment. However that may be, Dr McKay’s thesis suggests that the 1870s ended in the depression of Scottish industry, a condition which would provide the “push” for emigration, while the “pull” factor was no doubt represented by the level of wages offered at Joadja (£3 per week, less 5s. passage money), more than twice as high as those of the Scottish miners (£1.3s. to £1.5s. per week).

Other researches into family history have disclosed that in the 19th century, during which the Russells migrated from Dumfriesshire to Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, the Lothians and Fife (as well as to the more exotic destinations of Tasmania, Australia and South Africa), many of them made their living as miners in a wide range of employments. Some worked at the coal face, while others were mining engineers and mine managers, including my great-grandfather, Alexander “Sandy” Russell, who managed coal and shale mines at West Calder and Dalmeny. One or two of the Russells reached the status of coalmasters; and directors of the Coltness Iron Company, one of the great Scottish companies in the coal, iron and steel trades, whose history was written by John Carvel,10 included Robert Russell, Chairman from 1918 to 1923, and his brother Thomas Russell, a director from 1916 to 1925, both mining engineers and cousins of my great-grandfather.

Leonie Knapman’s Joadja Creek is a fascinating, well-illustrated history of an Australian shale-mining community of mainly Scottish origins, but it is also a treasure-trove for family historians, listing the names of many of the Joadja miners as well as those of their wives and families. A database of more than 500 Joadja births and family records has been compiled from manuscript notes supplied by Leonie and has been produced as a resource for family history research in Scotland and Australia. In Scotland, Joadja Creek, printed copies of the records and a statistical summary of the database may be viewed in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.


1.   Leonie Knapman, Joadja Creek, The shale oil town and its people 1870-1911, Alexandria, NSW, 1997.
2.   The 1862 transcript has been reproduced by R. N. Russell and published by Atholl Press (Edinburgh 2001), with a preface by William Anderson of  Russel & Aitken,  the  law firm of which James Russel was a founding partner.
3.   James Urquhart, The Life and Teaching of William Honyman Gillespie of Torbanehill, Edinburgh, 1915.
4.   H. R. J. Conacher, History of the Scottish Oil-Shale Industry, The Oil-Shales of the Lothians (3rd edition),
Edinburgh, 1927.
5.   John Butt, James “Paraffin” Young, Edinburgh, 1983
6.   John H. McKay, The Social History of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry 1850-1914 (unpublished PhD Thesis, The Open University, 1984).
I. I. Redwood, Mineral Oils and their By-products, London 1897.
8.   H. R. J. Conacher, History of the Scottish Oil-Shale Industry, The Oil-Shales of the Lothians (3rd edition),
Edinburgh, 1927.
9.   Owen Colverd, Hartley Vale – its Fells and shale, Petroleum Review, Vol.22, Nov. 1968 (
10. John L. Carvel, The Coltness Iron Company, Edinburgh 1948.

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