The Oil Refinery fight on Canvey Island in the 1970s

Canvey people fight and win.

1970's Prime Minister Harold Wilson with George Whately (right).
George Whately

This was a massive David and Goliath fight, a clash of the Titans, with the ordinary people of Canvey Island on one side and the might of 2 oil companies, Occidental an American oil company and URL a subsidiary of ENI an Italian state owned oil company plus the might of the establishment.

Up till then no oil company had been beaten. There was no Health and Safety, there was no MOT on shipping (shipping flew flags of convenience), there was little or no information on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) in a background of national economic interest where oil companies were bringing foreign investment to the Thames-side energy industries. Taking the impact to the local community into consideration and to be an environmentalist were considered anti-establishment.

2000 acres of Canvey Island’s approximate 4200 acres would have been taken over by the 2 foreign oil companies and the existing energy companies. On Canvey and in its vicinity there were already:

Fisons – a chemical plant, Mobil – an oil refinery, Shell – an oil refinery, London and Coastal – an oil storage depot, British Gas – a liquid natural gas processing and storage plant with in ground and above ground storage facilities and ammunition loaded off and on at Chapman’s Point and then the threat of 2 more oil refineries Occidental and United Refineries Limited.

There was and still is one access and egress point on Canvey Island that is Waterside roundabout. There was then and still is today no fit for purpose evacuation plan.

The oil refinery fight was a fight by the people for the people that started with 4 people in my kitchen.

That day I was going to work totally oblivious of what was going on around me, wrapped up in my own world of bringing up a family. As I waited for the bus I saw a great number of white wooden stakes planted in the ground on the site of URL. I was shocked to find out it was the site for an oil refinery and a public enquiry was going on in Benfleet that day.

I took the afternoon off work and attended the inquiry where I met 2 men standing over a large map of Canvey Island with nearly half the map showing where the site of the oil refineries were going to be.

I asked them “What is the dark area?” They stated “That is where we are going to build our oil refineries, he is from Occidental and I’m from URL”. I stated “You can’t put oil refineries there, I live there”. They said “go away little man you can’t and you won’t stop us”. Those were the first shots fired in the Oil Refinery War. Subsequently planning permission was granted by the government to Occidental and URL to build 2 oil refineries.

As apathy is the biggest killer for any protester or campaigner, bad publicity is the one weapon the big corporate companies can’t fight as they will spend millions of pounds protecting their corporate image.

I was fortunate enough to be trusted by the people of Canvey Island to lead the publicity war against the 2 oil companies.

A spear is a powerful weapon. I was the point of the spear in the oil war, the strength of the spear was the ordinary people driving it forward. Without the ordinary people standing firm the fight would have been lost. It was like being a bundle of twigs bound together in one cause. One twig can be snapped very easily but if you bind a bundle of twigs together no matter how powerful you are you will never break them.

The Canvey Island Resistance Group was the most successful environmental group in Europe. The ordinary people stood alone and took on the power of the establishment and the power of the energy world and won against impossible odds.

There were many public meetings that galvanised the people into opposing the oil refineries plus there were many peaceful demonstrations and marches to publicise the plight of the people of Canvey Island, it was an all-out fight by the people for the people.

At first the full council was not listening to the people and would not let them speak to them at a council meeting, so the people invaded the public gallery and locked the council in the council chamber until they were heard. The police and the fire brigade had to release the councillors.

There was the ‘Cross for Canvey’ march where thousands carried white crosses and planted them on the proposed oil refinery site.

Open top buses went to London full of people to protest at 10 Downing Street and Westminster delivering a petition.

There was an ‘Armada’ of boats taken up the Thames to Westminster to coincide with the lobbying of Members of Parliament.

Road tankers used to come out of the Texaco depot 2 or 3 at a time making it very difficult to get past them in rush hour. Letters of complaint were ignored so very early one Saturday morning people used their own cars and blockaded the tankers which had been sent out in convoy. After that protest road tankers never went out in convoy again.

After the petition was presented to 10 Downing Street it was decided to do a referendum because a referendum is more powerful than a petition. We used sealed sweet jars with a slot cut in the top and went door to door giving the voting population a chance to say yes or no to the oil refineries. Needless to say the count was 98% did not want the oil refineries. This also gave the Oil Refinery Resistance group a mandate to speak on behalf of the people on this issue.

Sir Bernard Braine led many delegations of the committee to 2 hour meetings with the Secretary of State and other ministers during the fight. He along with others also gave evidence at a number of hard fought public enquiries and meeting with the newly formed Health and Safety Executive. He gave the longest speech in the House of Commons by an MP on the issue.

There were countless radio and television interviews I participated in. Two in particular, namely the ‘Today’ program and ‘Panorama’ type programmes also after the 6 o’clock TV news programs.

The Flixborough disaster was a turning point in the oil fight campaign. At Flixborough there was a ‘Nypro’ plant using Cyclohexane. This plant exploded killing 28 people due to an ‘unconfined vapour cloud explosion’. At the time I exposed on the ‘Today’ program that at one of the storage depots on Canvey Island 5 times the amount of Cyclohexane was being stored as well as a whole witches’ brew of other volatile fuels.

After a lot of pressure was put on the government the Health and Safety Executive was born. The first 2 studies undertaken by this group of scientists into high risk fire industry and the societal risks they impose was the Canvey 1 and the Canvey 2 reports. These reports took 2 years each to complete and cost £400,000 each. These reports are no the corner stone of societal risk and planning law.

During this time there were a number of notable incidents such as a gas road tanker which crashed near a holiday camp in Spain, an ammunition ship which rammed Canvey sea wall, a petroleum  fire incident at Langley in Slough, a terrorist bomb which exploded on a tank at a depot on Canvey, a large spill of high octane fuel at the Texaco depot at Canvey, a gas ship collision in Tokyo harbour, shipping collisions on the Thames and many other incidents. The publicity of these and other incidents were used to gain a number of public enquiries where the peoples’ voice could be heard.

The oil companies employed top legal eagles and the ordinary people took on top barristers at these enquiries which took many weeks. You don’t often score points off these very big QCs, when you do it’s memorable. For example I can remember a man by the name of Bill Deal. He was a fireman union representative being cross examined by a QC. The QC said to Mr Deal “You have told the enquiry it takes 20 minutes to get a foam tender from Basildon to Canvey. Are you a fire officer, do you have this qualification or that qualification?” Bill replied” No,sir”. The QC then said “So how can you tell this enquiry that it takes 20 minutes to get a foam-tender from Basildon to Canvey?” “Quite easily sir”, replied Bill, “I drive the tender”. (I have never forgotten that).

During this time the Richard Crossman diaries (he was Secretary of State for the Environment) were being published in the Times on Sunday. What they exposed was that there was a deal done between the British Government and the Italian government so that BP could build a refinery in Italy as foreign investment and ENI subsidiary URL could build a refinery in the UK as foreign investment. This was a done deal before the inquiry was convened. I tried to use this information at the public inquiry but the QC stated that it wasn’t admissible and it was upheld by the inspector. I left the inquiry stating that I had been gagged. I phoned Sir Bernard Braine at the House of Commons and he said he would raise he matter that day at Prime Ministers question time in Parliament. As I only had a limited amount of annual leave which I used to attend these inquiries, I went back to work at the Bank of England. The next day I got a call at 10 o’clock to attend the Establishments with immediate effect. Apparently Sir Bernard Braine raised the matter at question time to the Prime Minister who in turn questioned the Secretary of State who then stated that my evidence was admissible. They knew I worked at the Bank of England and so they contacted the Governor to give me leave with immediate effect so that I could attend the inquiry.

When I entered the inquiry the QC for the oil companies was in full flight doing his summing up. The Inspector stopped the proceedings and called me into chambers. The inspector said my evidence was now admissible and therefore I was not being gagged and he would take it as written evidence. I challenged him stating that “Is this a public inquiry or not? He was taken aback. I then said that there are hundreds of people I represent and they deserve to be heard in what I have to say in my evidence otherwise I’m still being gagged. He agreed to let me give my evidence in full. We went back to the inquiry and the Inspector told the QC of his decision. The QC could either finish and then they would hear my evidence or he could hear my evidence and then finish his summing up. The QC chose the latter and as my evidence took over 4 hours we went into an evening session. Then the QC finished his summing up and in doing so stated that he and the company he represented objected to me being able to present my proof of evidence. I challenged the QC saying’ you a QC deny me my judicial rights?’ The Inspector intervened telling the QC he was the one who ruled the inquiry not him. (The QC is now a judge. If I ever go up before him I’ll be going down for a long stretch). During the campaign I know I upset a lot of powerful people, but to me the truth had to be heard.

The Occidental Oil Company put up 9 professional public relations officers to combat one spokesman, me, for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group. As I told them when we clashed, you are professionals and I do it part time and weekends.

My favourite incident was when we took 2 coach loads of protesters to the Occidental Offices in London. When we got off the coach to meet the president of Occidental and their PRO man we surrounded them with 4 crying women. Men can’t talk to crying women. At the same time some bright spark in their office decided to put 2 fingers in a ‘V’ sign under a copy machine and then run off loads of copies and throw them out of the window. As they cascaded down I grabbed one and making sure I had the attention of the press photographers I cast it in front of the president and said ‘that’s your answer to the people of Canvey. Needless to say the president stated it was not true and he would sack whoever did it. Their corporate image never recovered from that incident as it went global.

There were lots of stories like this during the campaign and those who stood there and were counted have their own memories.

Both oil companies were held up for long enough for the building of oil refineries to become a non-viable proposition. Ironically when the half constructed refinery was being dismantled for scrap, the taking down of the chimney was going to be done by world famous steeple jack Fred Dibnah with all the local dignitaries watching. After all the years of hard work there was no room at the inn for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group, they were refused an invitation by the council to the celebration.

The day before this celebration, the prepared chimney fell down on its own with no one watching. Eventually the dog leg jetty was also stripped of its wealth.

It’s the first and only time that oil companies were beaten in Europe. That was by ordinary people saying ‘NO’. URL company died that day and Occidental Oil Refinery site RIP – Rust in Peace.

Yes I went on to stop Calor Gas processing and storing liquid natural gas at a later date, but that’s another story. Of all the Thames-side terminals that were in existence at the start of the Oil Refinery Campaign only 2 are left, namely Calor on the old British Gas site and Oikos which is on the old London and Coastal Oil Wharf site.

Canvey is a safer place than it was, but people still need to be vigilant.

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