Magazine article History Today

Oil Wells That End Well

Magazine article History Today

Oil Wells That End Well

Article excerpt

Oil men prospecting for hidden reserves should forget the Middle East and head straight for the unlikely setting of Warwick University. Sadly for would-- be wildcatters the deposits there are not liquid ones, but rather the historical archive of one of the world's largest oil companies: British Petroleum.

In an unprecedented act of commercial glasnost BP has given over almost 100 years of company files, covering two shelf-miles, to the university's Modern Records Centre (a pound 5 million joint venture between Warwick and BP) which opened in July. Annual reports, accounts, registers of shareholders and personal effects, such as the family photo albums of William Knox D'Arcy, BP's founder, are all included. The novelty is that this is the first time the company's records have been open to outside scrutiny since its founding in 1908 as the Anglo-Persian (later Iranian) Oil Company.

The archive's opening is largely designed to complement the publication of BP's official history (volume I is already in print, with volume II, covering the years 1928-54 due in 1994). This partly explains why the archive only covers the years up to 1954; the company's official historian gets first refusal on post-1954 archives. Another reason, say BP, is that the politically sensitive nature of many later documents rules out their immediate release, although they will emerge 'in due course'.

This sounds a little vague and could lead to claims that the archive is holding back important documents. Jim Bamberg, archive team leader and BP company historian, realises this and stresses the openness of the archive, and claims that 'it is not just a PR exercise, but a genuine historical record'. This will probably be tested when researchers probe into more turbulent periods from BP's history, such as the Oil Crisis of 1951-54, a watershed in the company's development.

The nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry by the nationalist leader Mossadeq in 1951 rocked BP. Operating under the name of Anglo-Iranian until 1954, the company had links with Iran going back to 1908 when it discovered oil there, and still relied heavily on its Iranian interests. The fight against nationalisation ended in victory for the oil companies in 1954 with an agreement that reopened the wells and gave BP (as it was now called) a 40 per cent stake in the consortium of eight oil companies operating in Iran. …

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