The Family of James (Paraffin ) Young (1811-1883)

Figure 1: James Young: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file

James Young was a chemist and industrialist and is known as the father of the oil industry. (1) In the 20th century members of the family of James Young gave paintings, which they had inherited from his collection, to Glasgow Museums in his memory. The paintings form an important part of the museum’s Italian collection. (2) It is therefore fitting that he is considered a donor.

James Young (3) was born 14 July 1811 to John and Jean (Wilson) Young, who lived in the Drygate, Glasgow. The family moved to Rottenrow when James was 4 years old. (4 ) He attended the parish school.  His father was a Master Joiner and James was apprenticed to him. It was said that his life changed when he was sent to Anderson’s college to mend a window, heard Thomas Graham lecturing’ and decided to study chemistry.(5)

A university education was expensive and beyond their means but he was encouraged by his father to attend classes at the Mechanics Institute and also at Anderson’s College. In 1832 he became assistant to Thomas Graham, who lectured in Chemistry, and Young’s lectures were much appreciated because they comprised theoretical and practical sessions.(6) His class included David Livingstone, James Muspratt and Lyon Playfair who all became lifelong friends. In 1837 Thomas Graham went to London as Professor of Chemistry at University College, London, and James Young went with him. (7) In 1838(8) James married his cousin, Mary Walker and needed to support a family. He eventually was appointed manager at James Muspratt’s chemical works in Newton le Willows in 1839. (9)  Muspratt was a major alkali manufacturer.(10)  In 1844, Young was appointed chemical trouble shooter at Charles Tennant’s (11) works in Manchester.(12 ) It was understood that he could continue with his chemical research and could benefit from it personally.  His research diaries held in the University of Strathclyde, contain his experiments. (13 ) and are accessible and interesting. He continued his friendship with Lyon Playfair who was to become Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University and  who later became Post Master General and 1st Baron Playfair.(14 )

Young was told by Playfair of an oil seepage on the estate of Playfair’s brother in law, James Oakes, at Alfreston in Derbyshire.(15 ) Stimulated by Playfair to analyse this , he extracted naptha (rock oil, the thinnest of the bitumens of a yellowish colour) which gave a very bright light on burning. Until then naptha had to be imported from Persia. Young’s stated  aim was to enable cheap lighting for homes. He then set out to find the best sources and discovered that by dry distillation of cannel coal he could obtain oil. He named the products paraffin oil and paraffin wax. (16 ) He had the foresight to ensure that this process was patented.(17) He continued to process patents and to pursue offenders through the courts. There are many interesting descriptions of lawsuits which ensued! (18)

The search was on for sources of paraffin and one was discovered on Torbanhill,  a farm near Bathgate.(19 ) It was named Torbanite , at that time classed as coal but now as shale.(20)   In 1851,with partners Edward Binney, a geologist who first published the theory that coal came from plants, (21 ) and Edward Meldrum  he opened the first commercial oil works in the world at Bathgate to distill paraffin from Torbanite . In 1857, Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania and the American oil rush began. (22) The oil was easily accessible and was to make America self sufficient in oil although Young would argue that the quality was variable.

In 1864, Young split with his two partners and in 1866 he set up Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company at Addiewell. The site occupied 50 acres of ground and he became a major employer in the area. (23)

He and his cousin Mary Walker had ten children, four sons and six daughters. (24)     In 1857, he bought an estate at Limefield House, Polbeth, and lived there for ten years. In 1867, he moved with his wife and family to Kelly House, Wemyss Bay from where he could enjoy sailing. (25)   Gradually he moved away from the Bathgate works and spent more time in Ayrshire, retiring finally in1870. (26)

He re-engaged with Anderson’s College endowing a chair in Chemistry and serving as President of Anderson’s College in Glasgow.

He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1861 and Fellow of the Royal Society in 1873.He was made LLD by the University of St Andrews.

He was Vice President of the Chemical Society 1879 to 1881. (27)

He travelled widely in his yacht Nyanza to Egypt and in Europe,mainly to Italy.

Figure 2. St John the Baptist baptizing Christ by Salvator Rosa © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.
Figure 3. St John the Baptist revealing Christ to the Disciples by Salvator Rosa. © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

 His travel notebooks are in the Strathclyde University Archives. (28)  After he retired, he spent 6 months sailing to the Mediterranean and to Italy where he bought important paintings to bring back to Scotland. There is an interesting account  by Robert Wright, one of the crew, of the voyage which left Largs in November and returned in June.

He built a gallery on Kelly House to house the paintings. They included works by Salvator Rosa, and some at that time attributed to Tintoretto and Botticelli which were bought by his agent Dr  W. Robertson since Young was colour blind. (30)  Four paintings were inherited by the family and bequeathed to Glasgow Museums in 1901, 1902 and 1953. (31)

He had a number of influential friends including Lord Kelvin who lived near him at Largs. Both men had ocean going yachts and shared a voyage on one occasion.(31) A particular friend from his student days was the missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Indeed two of Livingstone’s daughters lived with the Young family after their mother died. He financed some of  Livingstone’s expeditions to Africa , particularly helping with his last and tragic expedition.(32) The statues in George Square of Thomas Graham and David Livingstone were donated by Young. The Livingstone statue is now in the cathedral precinct.

He died on the 13 May 1883(33) and Lyon Playfair was an executor of his will.(34)

Acknowledgement

I have to acknowledge conversations with Mary Leitch and particularly the book written by her James Paraffin Young and Friends which greatly enhanced my knowledge of her great grandfather.

James Young is widely regarded as the father of the modern Petrochemical Industry (35)   and now that shale is headline news again interest in Young has revived.

Paintings from James Young’s Collection

  • St John the Baptist baptizing Christ by Salvator Rosa. Donated by Alice Thom. 1953 Grand daughter
  • St John the Baptist revealing Christ to the Disciples by Salvator Rosa. Donated by the family of John Young. 1952
  • Virgin and Child with the child Baptist and two angels by Raffaelino del Garbo. Donated by Mary Ann Walker. Daughter .1902
  • Virgin and Child with Angels by a follower of Pesselino. Donated by T Graham Young  Son . 1902

References.

  1. engineeringhalloffame.org/profile-young
  2. Humfrey, Peter. Glasgow Museums: the Italian paintings. Unicorn Press, 2012.
  3. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Butt, John.  Young, James 1811-1833. Oxford Dictionary of National Biograph,. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  7. Stanley, Michael.   Graham, Thomas. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  8. Scotland’s People Old Parish registers
  9. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  10. Williams, Trevor J. Muspratt, James. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  11. Murray, John G.  Tennant, Charles (1768-1838). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  12. The Bailie no 370 The Man you Know 19 November 1879
  13. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.  Archives
  14. Gooday G.J.N.   Playfair, Lyon, First Baron Playfair (1818-1898). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  15. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends.  Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  16. Butt, John.  Young, James 1811-1833. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  17. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends.  Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  18. Butt, John.  Young, James 1811-1833.  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  19. ibid
  20. Museum of the Shale Industry
  21. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  22. Encyclopaedia Britannica .com/ Edwin Valentine Drake
  23. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  24. Butt, John.  Young, James 1811-1833. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  25. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  26. Butt, John.  Young, James 1811 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  27. Humfrey, Peter. Glasgow Museums: the Italian paintings. Unicorn Press, 2012.
  28. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Archives.
  29. ibid
  30. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  31. Humfrey, Peter. Glasgow Museums: the Italian paintings. Unicron Press, 2012.
  32. Leitch, Mary. Paraffin Young and Friends. Edinburgh, David Macdonald, 2012.
  33. Ibid
  34. Scotland’s people Wills and probate
  35. engineeringhalloffame.org/profile-young