First oil – 1901-1908

The smell was unmistakable. It was a smell you could see. The vapours rose clearly in the sunlight, and stank of rotten eggs. But to the explorer George Reynolds it was the best thing he had smelled in seven years. He instructed the men to keep drilling

William Knox D'Arcy, the founder of BP, with his wife in their Edwardian English home. D'Arcy entered the industry in 1901 by obtaining a concession in Persia

George Reynolds (left), who led D'Arcy's exploration team in Persia, lunching near Masjid i-Suleiman with two of his assistants

The First Exploitation Company Ltd. Cash book with entries dated between 1901 and 1903 seen amongst other early documents

Mr Bradshaw, a British expatriate field manager, on a cart pulled by mules in Persia, during the 1900s

An early Power of Attorney document by William Knox D'Arcy, in favour of John Richard Preece and GB Reynolds. 1905

The discovery well at Masjid i-Suleiman in south-western Persia, where oil was struck in May 1908 - the first commercial discovery in the Middle East

Delivery drivers stand next to their vehicle. Horse-drawn tank wagons, used for the distribution of oil products, replaced barrel-laden carts from the 1880s

Delivery fuel to a filling station during the late-19th century. Horse-drawn tank wagons, used by company liveries for the distribution of oil products from the 1880s

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William D’Arcy – close to despair

Back in England, William D’Arcy was close to despair. He had gambled his considerable fortune on oil, and now he was on the verge of losing it all (both country houses, the mansion on Grosvenor Square). It seemed that the geologists and experts who had wagged their heads encouragingly at him since 1901 had all been wrong about the oil beneath the sands of Persia.

Having never set foot in Persia himself, Mr D’Arcy didn’t even have adventure travel stories to show for his investment. What he had was letters and telegrams from his explorer, urging patience, practically begging to extend the search until every possibility had been exhausted.

But patience, like Mr D’Arcy’s finances, had run out. Even the Burmah Oil Company, whose investment had saved the expedition in 1904 (on the false hope of an imminent discovery, it had turned out) were tiring of finding nothing.

Drill to 1,600 feet and give up

Now Mr Reynolds would be on the receiving end of an insistent telegraph: drill to 1,600 feet and give up.

Giving up was not part of George Reynolds’s character, even if he might admit that this particular search had often seemed doomed. It had taken 10 days just to get to Shardin, eight months to start drilling and six years of toiling to find nothing of any consequence.

Torrential rains had washed away four months of work on a link road to Masjid-i-Suleiman, where two weeks ago a drill bit had fallen off in one of two last-chance wells and taken more than a week to fish out. But vindication was in the air. By the early morning of 26 May 1908, the whole camp reeked of sulphur. At four o’clock the drill reached 1,180 feet and a fountain of oil spewed out into the dawn sky.

Telegrams from Persia

From remote Persia, telegrams were slow. Mr D’Arcy got the good news five days later. “If this is true, all our troubles are over,” he beamed, adding, “I am telling no one about it until I have the news confirmed.”

Within a year, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which would one day become BP, was in business. The press talked up the vastness of the new company’s potential to the point that on the day Anglo-Persian stock opened for trading in London and Glasgow people stood five deep in front of the cashiers at a Scottish bank, desperate to get in on the action.

And William D’Arcy, who had nearly lost everything, was richer than he had ever been in his life.

Key dates

1901

On 28 May, William Knox D’Arcy is granted a 60-year concession to search for oil and gas across most of Persia.

1902

Drilling begins in November in the Chiah Surkh mountains, 350 miles west of Tehran, under the direction of engineer George Reynolds.

1903

D’Arcy forms the First Exploitation Company on 31 May, with a capital of £60,000, following promising signs.

1904

With D’Arcy’s finances stretched and no oil, all operations at Chiah Surkh are suspended on 23 June. But by November, a new deal – the Concessions Syndicate, backed by Burmah Oil – is in place.

1905

A new search for oil takes Reynolds to Shardin, 100 miles north-east of Basra.

1907

Drilling at Shardin looks pointless so Reynolds heads to Masjid-i-Suleiman.

1908

Burmah Oil provides another £40,000 and the drilling of two wells begins. Finally, on 26 May, a 25 metre-high fountain of oil bursts into the sky.

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