Turtle Bunbury

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WILLIAM KNOX D’ARCY
The Irishman who became the world’s first oil tycoon.

As he inspected the wells and rigs of his vast oil fields in Persia (Iran), Knox D’Arcy must have marvelled at the manner in which his fortunes had turned again. In 1908, his drilling team discovered the first commercial oil field in the Middle East. World history changed overnight and Knox D’Arcy became a multi-millionaire. Knox D’Arcy had already been a multi-millionaire once before, courtesy of a mountain in Australia he bought that turned out to be stuffed with gold. His life was an epic in itself, an extraordinary rollercoaster ride through all the soaring fortunes and bitter disappointments we have come to expect from our tycoons.

When I first began to look D’Arcy up on-line, I saw him continually referred to as an Englishman. While the Corrib gas protestors might not thank me for this, I am now able to refute this claim because William Knox D’Arcy, founding father of the petrochemical industry, was in fact a good Mayo man.

D’Arcy is one of those French surnames that have become distinctly Irish over time – like Butler, Lacy and Power. In our own time, we have Today FM DJ Ray D’Arcy and rugby star Gordon D’Arcy. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Jane Austen based the character of D’Arcy on her childhood lover, Irish solicitor Tom Lefroy. It was a good choice of name – hints of the romantic knight with a dash of bold and dastardly.

The D’Arcy family descend from David D’Arcy, a French nobleman who lived at Castle D’Arcie outside Paris. His great grandson accompanied William the Conqueror to England. In 1323, Edward II appointed Sir John d’Arcy as Lord Justice of Ireland. By the 16th century, Sir John’s descendents were scattered all across Ireland. Among these was James D’Arcy of Kiltulla, Co. Mayo, nicknamed ‘Seamus Riveagh’ or ‘James the Swarthy’, who was appointed Vice President of Connaught by Queen Elizabeth.

James the Swarthy’s grandson John D’Arcy, a farmer, settled at Gorteen, a rural boggy townland west of Charlestown in north-east Mayo. Three generations later, Francis D'Arcy of the Gotreen branch married Lucy Knox, daughter of William Knox of Cartron Rath, Co. Roscommon. Francis and Lucy were the great-grandparents of Knox D’Arcy, the oil tycoon.

Knox D’Arcy’s grandfather, Lieutenant William D'Arcy was born on the farm at Gorteen in 1780. Like many a young Irishman, he joined the British Army and fought the French. He later married a Devonshire girl and settled in Kent. His son William Francis D’Arcy, father of the tycoon, was born in Mayo – presumably at the family farmstead - but relocated to his mothers’ home county of Devon during the 1830s. He settled in Newton Abbott where he became a solicitor and married the local Rector’s daughter. William Knox D'Arcy was the sixth of their seven children – and their only son.

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Above: William Francis D'Arcy, father of Knox,
photographed in Rockhampton between
1866 and 1870.

Born in 1849, Knox D’Arcy, as he became known, was a 16 years old red-head at Westminster School in London when his life literally turned upside down. In 1865, his father went bankrupt. The D’Arcy family were obliged to skip town and head to Australia. It took 105 long days for the ship to reach Sydney. Once on dry land, William D'Arcy made for the new colony of Queensland where he recommenced his practice as a solicitor in Rockhampton. It was a good time to arrive in the colony as, due to recent bank failures, land prices were low. However, the bankruptcy and the voyage had clearly taken their toll on the Mayo man and, less than five years later, he was dead. William’s widow decided to return to England with most of her daughters. His son, Knox D’Arcy, now 23, opted to stay put and run the legal practice.

Shortly after his family left Australia, brawny Knox D’Arcy married Elena Birkbeck, a half-Mexican blonde beauty nine years his senior. With Napoleonic confidence, he rapidly established himself as one of Rockhampton’s most influential citizens. In 1882, he formed a syndicate with the Morgan brothers who held the mining lease on Ironstone Mountain (later re-named Mount Morgan) outside the town. It turned out the mountain was pumped full of gold. In 1886, Knox D’Arcy bought the Morgans out and became a director and major shareholder of the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company.

By 1890, Knox D'Arcy was one of the wealthiest men in the British Empire, with a fortune equivalent to that of Bill Gates today. An inexorable capitalist, he sought to ingratiate himself with the highest echelons of British society. He purchased two large mansions in England, town-houses in Paris and Brussels and a substantial chunk of Grosvenor Square, London. He commissioned the Holy Grail tapestries from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, thus financing one of the supreme achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement. He commissioned Frank Dicksee to paint a portrait of his wife. * He hosted dinners at his private enclosure at the Epsom Racecourse, held long shooting weekend parties on his Norfolk estate and threw wild parties in London where guests twirled to the voices of Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso.

In 1895, his 23-year-long marriage collapsed. Elena D'Arcy, mother of his five children, declared that all the ‘flattery and success has turned his head' and blamed all the ‘misery and unhappiness’ of her life on Knox’s infinite wealth. There is a suggestion of infidelity on Knox’s behalf. The break up was harsh. When their daughter was married in 1897, Knox refused to allow Elena to attend the wedding. Deeply depressed, Elena died shortly afterwards.

Two years later, Knox D'Arcy married secondly Nina Boucicault, daughter of Irish-Australian newspaper boss Arthur L. Boucicault. There were no children from this marriage. (Nina was a first cousin of her namesake, Nina Boucicault, the celebrated Irish stage and film actress and daughter of Dion Boucicault).

By 1900, Knox’s knuckles were crunching restlessly. Gold was all very well, but wasn’t there a way to make even more money? That same year, this elegantly moustachioed lion of London society received a visit from Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, former British Ambassador in Tehran. Sir Henry explained that he had lately met with some high-ranking Persians who believed Persia (now Iran) possessed vast, untapped oil reserves. Iran was, in the words of one geologist who had surveyed its terrain, ‘unquestionably petroliferous territory’. All the Persians needed was a financial backer.

Muzzaffar-al-Din, the Shah of Persia, who all but owned the country, was a kindly but decadent individual. Like his father, who was assassinated in 1896, Muzzaffar was completely out of touch with his people. He spent vast fortunes on his grand tours of Europe while the Persians suffered chronic unemployment, food shortages and rampant inflation. For an unscrupulous soul like Knox d’Arcy, the Shah was the perfect person to strike a deal with.

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Above: A Lucky Strike.

With the prospect of a major European war never far away, D'Arcy understood that the world's increasingly mechanized armies would need to be fuelled by oil. Lots of oil. He recognised that internal combustion engines would soon revolutionize every aspect of human life. Whoever controlled oil would hold the key to world power. He also realised that, when it came to oil supplies, the British Empire was shockingly empty. Oil had been discovered in the Caspian Sea, in the Dutch East Indies, and in the United States, but neither Britain nor any of its colonies produced or showed any promise of producing it. If the British could not find oil somewhere, they would no longer be able to rule the waves or much of anything else. Whether such imperial concerns preyed upon Knox Darcy’s mind is unknown but in 1901 he made the Shah of Persia an offer he could not refuse.

The D’Arcy Concession, as this rather scurrilous deal became known, was signed on 21st May 1901. D’Arcy gave the Shah a down-payment of STG£10,000, with a further £20,000 to follow, plus 20,000 shares in his new oil company. He also promised a 16% cut of future profits. In return, the Shah gave D’Arcy exclusive rights for 60 years for the exploration and exploitation of petroleum throughout 490,000 square miles of the Persian Empire, a territory larger than Texas and California combined. This was probably the single most lucrative deal in the short but frantic history of the petroleum industry.

Deal done, Knox recruited a gung-ho engineer and self-taught geologist called George Reynolds to start drilling. Over the next seven years, Reynolds and his team moved across Persia in pursuit of oil. The costs of equipping and maintaining this drilling party (including 900 mules) were astronomical. Month after month, year after year, D’Arcy wrote checks to support the venture. His spirits soared in January 1904 when Reynolds struck oil near the Iraqi border but crashed a few months later when the well ran dry. Bit by bit D’Arcy’s fortune slipped away. His patience and resources were sorely tested.

‘Good news from Persia would be very acceptable now’, he dryly advised Reynolds in May 1905. That same month, he was obliged to sign a deal with a Glasgow-based syndicate, the Burmah Oil Company. In return for some of D’Arcy’s Persian rights, the Glaswegains agreed to continue funding the exploration and so the search went on.

By 1908, Burmah Oil had had enough. They had sunk more than half a million pounds into their Persian venture and had come up with nothing. At the beginning of May, Reynolds received a telegram from D’Arcy saying he had run out of money. Reynolds was ordered to ‘cease work, dismiss the staff, dismantle anything worth the cost of transporting to the coast for reshipment, and come home’. Sporting his pith helmet, the trademark of the British explorer, Reynolds sat down and considered the options. After seven years of the most trying conditions imaginable, he was still not prepared to give in. Legend has it that, even as he read the telegram, an old timer with a drill told him, ‘I can feel a strike in my bones’. Reynolds told his men that in such a remote region, telegrams could not be trusted. They must continue working until the message was confirmed by post.

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Above: Driller George Bernard Reynolds, 'master of the oil springs'
(far left) lunching in Iran.

Three weeks later, Knox D’Arcy received a telegram from Persia. At 4 o’clock in the morning of May 26 1908, Reynolds team had struck oil in Masjid-i-Suleiman, southwestern Iran. Today, a large signpost in Persian and English at the entrance to this prosperous town of 150,000 people, proudly announces that this was the site of the first commercial oil well in the Middle East. It was also the largest oil field then known to the world.

Winston Churchill was one of the first to recognise the massiveness of this discovery. He described D’Arcy’s find as ‘a prize from Fairyland beyond our wildest dreams’. In 1909, the D’Arcy Concession was reborn as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, with D’Arcy as a director. The company would later become British Petroleum. In 1911, the British Government purchased 51% of the company, thereby ensuring the interests of Britain and Anglo-Persian became one and the same. A few months later, Winston Churchill announced that the driving systems of all vessels in the Royal Navy would be converted from coal to oil. It was not without good reason that Lord Curzon later wrote how the Allies ‘floated to victory on a wave of oil’.

At the time of Knox D’Arcy’s birth in 1849, Persia was still a proud and prosperous land, with a rich history stretching back to the glorious Achamenian Empire. By the time D’Arcy died in 1917, the country was riddled with tribal warfare and effectively controlled by Britain. Indeed, until the founding of the OPEC cartel (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in 1959, Britain held the monopoly on oil in Iran. If left to prosper without interference from foreign military might, it is expected that Iran can provide between 10 and 12% of the increase in world demand for oil by 2050.

As for D’Arcy, he lived out the last of his years at his country mansion in England. He appears to have become estranged from his family, apart from his sister Bertha whose grandson lives in County Cork today. Like many magnates from Henry VIII to Citizen Kane, Knox D’Arcy died bloated and largely unloved.

For more on Knox D'Arcy, click here.

* Ref. to Dicksee in The Irish Times. Friday, May 9, 1902 , p. 2.

This article was commissioned in December 2008 by the Irish Daily Mail.

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