British Mexican Petroleum Co., Ltd.
From 1901 onwards there had been great expansion in Mexican oil production which, by 1921, reached twenty-nine million tons, about one fourth of the total world production of that year.
The largest developing area was in the state of Vera Cruz, the great oilfield of Poza Rica becoming the major producer in Latin America.
This was the peak of production and development then dropped, with some wells drying up. Legal difficulties between the Mexican and United States/United Kingdom governments also emerged and in 1938 some British and American companies were expropriated, with compensation being paid later.
The progenitor of the British Mexican Petroleum Company was E. L. Doheny, one of the most powerful personalities of the United States petroleum world in the early 1900s. It was he who, in 1900, purchased 400,000 acres of land in the Mexican states of San Luis Potosi and Vera Cruz and laid the foundations of the big Doheny interests in Mexico. It was also he who, in 1915, with Europe in the early battles of the Great War, put before the principal steamship companies a plan for the substitution of oil fuel for coal throughout the mercantile marine. Nothing could be done during the turmoil of war and some years were to go by before-without much publicity-there was registered at Somerset House, London, in 1919 a private company of considerable significance to the shipping industry. Its title was British Mexican
Petroleum Company Ltd., its authorised capital of £2 million split equally in A and B shares.
The objects of the company were to enter into an agreement with Huasteca Petroleum Company (controlled by the Mexican Petroleum Company of which E. L. Doheny was President) to refine and deal in oils, petroleum, gas and minerals and their by-products and ingredients. The company was to build and operate storage bases in England, South America and other world centres and a fleet of tank steamers was to be constructed to distribute the oil to various ports. A contract was agreed whereby the Doheny group would supply British Mexican with its requirements of oil at fixed prices for a number of years. Half of the capital stock of British Mexican was purchased by the Pan-American Petroleum Company, which controlled the Mexican Petroleum Company; the other half by the shipping
companies of Britain, practically all the larger companies taking shares. It was significant that British Mexican was launched at a time when the shipping industry was threatened by a coal famine.
Tank depots were to be constructed at the major ports of Britain for the bunkering of oil-driven ships and the intention was that refineries were to be erected in Britain, the crude oil being brought over in the company's ships.
Orders for bunkering barges were quickly forthcoming and eleven were ordered from Harland and Wolff Ltd., six to be built at Belfast, five at Govan.
At Liverpool, British Mexican established an oil fuel storage and bunkering depot at Dingle Bank.
Four huge, cylindrical oil tanks capable of storing 32,000 tons were built with a 3,000-foot 10-inch feeder pipeline to the Herculaneum Dock. The oil was pumped by two of G. and J. Weir's largest pumps. This was in addition to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board's facilities for bunkering oilburning ships, also at Dingle Bank.
Within a year or so, more fuel oil depots for bunkering ships had been sited at the main British ports, Southampton, London, Liverpool, Avonmouth, Belfast, Hull and Newcastle.
The first ocean tanker acquired was the War Hagara, a British war-built standard ship which was renamed Inverarder; the first distributing ship was named Invercorrie and was formerly the Admiralty oiler Palmol. Both of these were acquired in 1920. Another seven "N"-type standard ships were built up from war materials on hand when war ceased and by 1926 the fleet comprised twenty-three ships; eight ocean tankers, four distributing ships and eleven bunkering vessels. From the beginning the fleet was placed under the management of a major British shareholder, Andrew Weir & Company, the early ships carrying Weir's "Inver" style of nomenclature. An early success was in securing the contract to supply oil fuel to the big Cunarders, Aquitania, Berengana and Mauretama, after their conversion to oil burning. At that time the Mauretania held the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, which she was to hold until 1929. The important Cunard contract was held for many years, the company supplying up to 30,000 tons of fuel oil weekly during the halcyon years of the North Atlantic giants.
In 1923 British Mexican Petroleum Company acquired the A.G.W.I, refinery at Fawley. Two years later, in 1925, the Pan-American Petroleum Company announced that it had sold its holdings in the British Mexican Petroleum Company to the Anglo-American Oil Company. However, the sale did not include British Mexican holdings in American properties, which included Lago Petroleum and Lago Oil and Transport Company, those interests being transferred to, and retained by, Pan-American Petroleum Company.
The assets of British Mexican acquired by Anglo-American included a large oil importing organisation, ten storage and bunkering plants, a large fleet of vehicles and the distributing business of "Redline" petrol, marketed by the British Mexican subsidiary, Redline Motor Spirit Company. There was also a fleet of ships. The deal included an interest in the A.G.W.I. Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (itself acquired by British Mexican in 1923) and was followed by complete control of A.G.W.I, in 1926.
The most valuable A.G.W.I, asset was the refinery at Fawley, which was then processing some 350 tons of crude oil each day.
The Glico Petroleum Company was acquired in 1927. Like Anglo-American, it had been formed in 1888; in 1931 it was combined with the Redline Company to form Redline-Glico Ltd.
Management of the British Mexican Petroleum Company's fleet was transferred in 1930 from Andrew Weir and Company Ltd. to Anglo-American Oil Company Ltd.
During the 1930s there were some further ships placed under nominal British Mexican ownership.
One was the Francunion, acquired from the Lago Shipping Company in 1933 and used for coastal and bunkering work, mainly at Southampton. The sisterships Narragansett and Seminole both built in 1936 were added, and the German-built Victor Ross was included shortly before war began.
Also under the British Mexican heading was the Beaconstreet, the only tankship of the Beacon Transport Company of Canada Ltd. (operated by Colonial Beacon Oil Company Inc.) which was taken over by British Mexican in 1935.
A number of vessels were transferred to Anglo-American in 1938 and by mid-1939 only four remained listed under British Mexican management. Two were lost in the war and in 1944 the remaining pair were also transferred to Anglo-American.
Over the years British Mexican established its name as an international bunkering company, and at the end of war in 1945 new depots were planned for a number of strategic points on the world's shipping routes. The company was particularly associated with ports of the Atlantic Islands and in the Mediterranean where it acquired facilities at Port Said in 1948. In the same year installations were completed at Algiers where, until then, customers had been supplied from floating oil hulks and barges. The new facility, operated by the British Mexican agents, Cie Venture-Weir S.A., was situated on a small offshore island. A condition of the lease was that no equipment should protrude above the island skyline. As this was only some six feet or so above the water, undersea rock was blasted away and the entire installation, including the huge storage tanks, placed below sea level.