Walter Russell Hall and William Knox D’Arcy (image sourced from Wikimedia Commons)
BP is the world’s fifth-largest oil company, turning over $303.7B in 2018 and producing 4.1 million barrels of oil per day.
One of the petrochemical industry’s ‘supermajors’, BP was once perilously close to never existing at all.
The story has its beginnings in the small Central Queensland town of Mount Morgan, just South of Rockhampton – specifically with one William Knox D’Arcy.
D’Arcy was born on 11 October 1849 in Newtown Abbot, England, moving to Rockhampton with his family in 1866, and qualifying as a solicitor in 1872.
D’Arcy did well speculating in land and gold stocks, buying significant portions of land around the Rockhampton area. This included a portion of approximately 23 acres in the Parish of Gracemere (the modern-day town of Gracemere) in 1870 …
… over 145 acres in the Parish of Murchison (the modern Rockhampton suburbs of Norman Gardens and Kawana) in 1880 …
… and 1873 acres in the Parish of Fitzroy (near The Caves) in 1883.
D’Arcy began his involvement with mining in 1882 when three brothers – Fred, Edwin and Thomas Morgan – pegged out claims at Ironstone Mountain (later renamed Mount Morgan).
Unable to raise sufficient funds to exploit the claim, they approached bank manager T.S. Hall, and on suggestion also approached William Pattison and D’Arcy – the three men forming a syndicate which would eventually become the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. in 1886 (after the Morgan brothers sold their interests in 1883).
D’Arcy’s venture into mining made him a millionaire, his social ambitions leading him to return to England permanently in 1887, purchasing Middlesex mansion Stanmore Hall, as well as a townhouse in London.
The opportunity to apply his acumen – and wealth – to a new business venture came in 1900 when former British minister to Teheran Sir Henry Drummond Wolff approached D’Arcy with a proposal to invest in oil exploration in Persia (modern-day Iran).
In 1901 D’Arcy obtained the D’Arcy Concession – a sixty-year contract giving him exclusive rights to explore, obtain, and sell oil over a territory of around 1,242,000 square kilometres (around three-quarters of Persia). And exploration began.
Two years and £150,000 later, no oil had been found. D’Arcy was forced to mortgage his Mount Morgan stock to continue exploration.
Word spread that D’Arcy’s concession was for sale. He received an offer for his rights on 20 May 1908 from the British-owned Burmah Oil Company, in return for 170,000 shares in the company and a payment to cover previous expenses. D’Arcy accepted the offer.
With no hope in sight, the company sent a telegram to engineer George B. Reynolds, ordering him to “cease work, dismiss the staff, dismantle anything worth the cost of transporting to the coast for re-shipment, and come home.” Fortunately, Reynolds delayed. Just six days later, on 26 May 1908, he struck oil, unearthing the world’s largest oilfield.
Burmah Oil later formed the subsidiary Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), of which D’Arcy was a board member of until his death on 1 May 1917. The company, after changing its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, went on to be renamed British Petroleum in 1954.
So, next time you fill your car up at a BP service station, spare a thought for William Knox D’Arcy, the former Rockhampton local whose entrepreneurial success at Mt Morgan would help establish today’s global oil industry.