"That's Shell . . . .?" was first published as a CD in March 2005, ISBN 0-476-01488-3, and then was later produced in a comb-bound format


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This is a critique of the 2004 book "Shell in New Zealand" by Peter Cooke, a history of Shell operations in New Zealand, a book that too obviously contained many hundreds of errors, errors of fact, incorrect explanations, faulty descriptions of events. It was published by the Shell Heritage Society, a group of retired Shell personnel in and around Wellington, the editor being John Davidson, a former Public Affairs manager. Another Public Affairs man, John Phillips, had already compiled a large collection of items collected by interviewing former company staff. The book was funded by Shell New Zealand. When the book was launched in 2004, it was acknowledged that an appropriate date would have been the company's 100-year mark in 2012 but that it had been brought forward because many former senior staff were ageing. With a long personal and family association with Shell, I was dismayed that a great story had turned out so badly. In this web page I try to suggest how such a significant history contained such a burden of problems and reached the printing presses without their being detected.

A basic problem seems to have been that it was based heavily on staff reminiscences rather than records. Even information from former senior managers had some major faults. Some have told me that they were not even given transcripts of their interviews for checking. As the book was authored by a writer without any oil background, it was not surprising that Cooke added mistakes that no oil-man would ever make. One would have expected, therefore, that the book would have been given very effective editorial supervision. That supervision, however, must have been lacking and there can have been no real checking before publication. I simply cannot believe that Shell's senior staff could have missed many of the very obvious errors. These seem to have been the elements that resulted in a well illustrated and superficially attractive book that I believe was diastrous as a history.

The material from one ex manager was generally very good, and his death before the book was undertaken may well be another reason for the bad outcome. Don Niven was a fund of knowledge and enthusiasm and would probably have been keen to supervise such a project, perhaps ensuring a better result. Even Don, however, has eventually been found out in more errors than I had at first detected.

Thus the book appears to have been primarily a victim of mismanagement.

Errors have continued to come to light. Three times in Chapter 5 the history referred to Wharekawa in the Firth of Thames as one of the chosen refinery sites. It was only in 2009, after a holiday in Thames, that I found that Wharekawa is not on the Firth of Thames but is on the east coast of the Coromandel pensinsula. Peter Cooke may have confused himself by linking Wharekawa with Matingarahi, that being on the western shore of the Firth of Thames. His arithmetic, his history, his geography, his English and his oil knowledge repeatedly let him down.

The Shell Heritage Society, as publisher, had no committee members with a background in Exploration & Production, refining or supply planning, and none with senior background in finance. That is probably why those areas had more than their share of errors or omissions. The faults extend, however, through the book from start to finish. Even material taken from three other books was mangled in the process and created errors. (Those books are Shell's WW2 history, a biography of Len Lye and a trade union history). There are errors in dates, in figures, in quantities, in concepts, in calculations and in the names of many companies involved in the story. I have found errors in other books in the past but nothing on such a scale. It was also disconcerting to find that some significant Shell staff and some essential stories were not included. One would certainly have expected to find Alan Garside and Ian Cameron for example. To find errors in hundreds, and from a source with the reputation of Shell, was a real shock, utterly unexpected, but finding many of those errors took a great deal of research. It seems that the contract with the author was inadequate for the ambitious book that was undertaken, insufficient in terms of funds and time for the research that was really needed, and that was probably another fundamental cause of the book's problems.

Critique of Shell in NZ

Typical errors - Christchurch airport jet fuel 12m litres a year [should be 120m litres], Shell's Auckland depot storage for 170,000 tons [less than 20,000 tons at that time], thermophyllic bacteria [thermophilic], "Shell Guide to New Zealand" published 1968 by Shell and Whitcoulls [1969 by Michael Joseph, London. Whitcoulls was formed 1971], Samuel born during the Crimean War [war was 1854-56, Samuel born 1853], the Boron campaign in 1962 [it was 1961], the impressive Peter Snell Highway from Waipu to Marsden Point [it was and is the modest Peter Snell Road and was only to Ruakaka], most of the old refinery was either demolished or moved [it was upgraded and remained in place], the 34-inch gas line to Huntly [it was almost all 30-inch, 28% smaller], Anglo-Saxon Oil Company and Anglo-Saxon Tanker company [it was only ever Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company], hoards of visitors [hordes], ex-patriots [expatriates], RAP with twin pipelines from the refinery...a spur line to Mangere [RAP was a single line, no spur to Mangere]. These are a tiny handful from over 400 errors. It is a truly awful book. There are also internal conflicts that it is sometimes impossible to resolve. All the errors are presented by the author with total self-assurance. Thermophyllic, for example, was an obvious error in relation to heat loving bacteria, because gardeners, botanists and Greek scholars would know very well that phyllic relates to the leaves of plants. It is on a par with Cooke's reference to ex-patriots but a little less obvious to many readers. His collection of ludicrous errors makes it very clear that little or no checking can have taken place.

That figure of 12m litres of jet fuel would be about 25 tonnes a day, tiny for a major airport.

The writing itself was extremely wordy. For example we read "Not all crude petroleum can be used to produce lubricating oil and certain crudes produce lubricating oils with different characterics". Twenty words can be halved and even made more accurate as "Not all crudes yield lubricants and characteristics differ between crudes". It would have been possible to rewrite the book in in around half its length. That fault must lie at the author's door and could have been rather harder to deal with. One could have grumbled at the author but getting him to rewrite would probably have been impossible.

Errors were often startling. The Refinery-Auckland-pipeline is several times described as a dual pipeline and with a spur line to Auckland Airport. Then comes a statement that it was a single line, plus a separate line from the Wiri terminal to the airport (the correct version). One has to assume that those producing the book were reasonably intelligent and knowledgeable but in a book with so many errors and contradictions it is hard to see much sign of that intelligence and knowledge. There were other descriptions and explanations that bore no resemblance to the truth.

Having known many senior members of the Heritage Society for a long time, I have reflected time and again on how things could have turned out so badly. They are sensible people with knowledge and experience, yet somehow the writing cannot have been properly supervised. I have come to wonder if the writer was not tolerant of interference. If he was on a very modest contract he may not have welcomed delays. He probably worked at home and that would make interference more difficult. Or perhaps he simply disliked being interfered with. The resultant book clearly shows that that interference was absolutely necessary but he may have been able to fend off suppervision and assure the Society that "things were coming along well". Hindsight makes it easy say such things, but it brings us back to lack of supervision as a primary problem.

Having subsequently seen the even more terrible history of the Royal Dutch Shell Group, I am left to wonder how this could have happened twice. Is it simply too hard for a supervisory editing team to control an historian or a group of historians?

That's Shell?

My first rewritten version of "Shell in New Zealand" was called "She'll be Right". It was aimed at correcting, clarifying and often amplifying the original in its contents and its style, generally shortening the verbosity of the original. It lacked the copyright photographs of the book but added a better index, a glossary of terms and some statistics. The corrections were not only to the many wrong facts but also to major misinterpretations of events in Shell's history. It added some important stories that the original missed and rearranged material that was out of date order. It dealt with the internal contradictions. I continued to stumble on new errors as I worked on a second version and then a third, ending up with "She'll be right at last" as my title. On the web page devoted to my history I note the little comment by Hiatt Cox that "We were not very pleased with the results". Clearly the Heritage Society did eventually find that its brain-child was not what they had hoped for, but it disappoints me that they nevertheless tried to stifle my work rather than accepting it and making good use of it.

I am satisfied that my work created a better reference book and added a great deal to the story of Shell's work in New Zealand. It meant that the true story of Shell in New Zealand was on record in the National Library and the Parliamentary Library. Copies also went to Shell Group offices in London and to the regional office in Melbourne.

When I had a later discussion with John Davidson, he still felt that the Shell history was quite good, despite its mistakes, but he did go as far as to say that "Perhaps you and I could have made a better job of it". My feeling has been that the Society had come to recognise the faults in the book, but I have been sad that it has done its best to distribute copies to libraries, museums and the like. At the time of updating this web page, the Society has not yet read "That's Shell?" in its entirety, nor my corrected history "She'll be right at last".

My printed version of "She'll be right at last" is a comb-bound photocopied version in an A4 format. It is available by post within New Zealand at $22 which covers the production cost plus the inland postage, though I could not produce it at that cost now. As indicated above, it omits the photographs of its predecessor but adds a set of useful appendices. It is to be hoped that it now corrects all or most of the errors in the original. The price is less than half that of the hardcover original, for a text where hundreds of errors have been dealt with. It has become a totally new book, acquiring its own copyright.

The Shell Heritage Society did produce errata but they were very scanty and did nothing for the real faults in the original. The error-laden "Shell in New Zealand" will thus continue to sit on shelves in libraries and elsewhere as a wrong and dangerous reference book. My hope is to ensure that my true story will find space on the shelves of libraries and particularly in university libraries. Those people or libraries that happen to have Shell's 2004 history on the shelf would be very well advised to place "That's Shell?" alongside it.

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