She'll be right at last

This page describes an oil industry history, from the early days of the industry in New Zealand and its earlier beginnings in the USA and Britain. Within that setting, it tells the story of Shell in this country, its marketing, its ventures in oil exploration, its involvement in the joint-venture refinery and coastal shipping. The story brings us into the early years of the 21st century, with some of the problems that now seem to face mankind. The story is entitled "She'll be right at last" (ISBN 0-473-11518-2) and was written as a correction of the erroneous history "Shell in New Zealand" (2004). It is the culmination of nearly three years of intensive and dedicated research.

So what about that 2004 history?

It was a uniquely defective and disappointing history.

In 2004 the Shell Heritage Society, a group of retired Shell staff based in Wellington, New Zealand, published a history of Shell in this country, sponsored by Shell New Zealand Limited. It was prestigious in appearance but research quickly uncovered hundreds of errors. I embodied these in a critique entitled "That's Shell?" and New Zealand's universities and the larger libraries have bought copies of it.

The 2004 history was entitled "Shell in New Zealand" and the writer was Peter Cooke. He was provided with material by the heritage society and seems to have been told that it had been well checked. Clearly it had not. This was probably the first time within Shell that such an ambitious work had been entrusted to a group of retirees, amateurs in the fields of research and publishing.

The errors suggest lack of supervision of the writing and no real checking of the results. I later heard via a friend of a member of the Heritage Society (a member who was involved in the production of the history from its outset) that he was told by him that "we were not very pleased with the results". In making such a comment to someone with a love and respect for reliable history he took a risk. The remark, by an incredible chance, was passed on to me. That member, as Heritage Society chairman, was one who had emphasised to me the society's unwillingness to consider a second edition. He had tried ineffectually to stifle my work by talking about my infringing the society's copyright, not at all the reaction that I as a long-time Shell man would have expected from anyone with a feeling for Shell's standards and reputation. Nor, of course, was it a reaction that was compatible with the comment about the Shell history as a displeasing result. It made me even more determined to proceed with the corrective research and rewriting.

She'll be right at last

That remark, coupled with an earlier comment by the society's book committee that an expensive authorship quotation had been turned down on cost grounds in favour of a cheaper author, shed a very different light on the Society's imperious attitude to my efforts, declining to admit to its failings or to act positively to correct them.

When I discussed my research with Shell New Zealand, it was clear that the Heritage Society alone was still seen as responsible. It was probably felt at that time that the Society would be able to prevent an embarrassing situation by threatening me with copyright concerns. There was probably a failure to appreciate that my research was creating a completely new version of Shell's history. Copyright principles made it clear that a new and independent creation faced no copyright problem.

The position taken by Shell New Zealand has led, now that my version has developed into a substantial new history, to the strange situation that my book has been widely circulated and is held by universities and many other libraries (including the British Library in London) but neither Shell New Zealand nor the Shell Heritage Society seem to have read it or developed any view on its contents. There has been no objection to any of my text, despite its detailed comments on the errors in Shell's own story.

My motivation came from a very long family involvement with Shell. My own life in Shell, and my father's, my sister's and my brother-in-law's, both in direct employment and in retirement, amount to well over 170 years, plus 17 years in the industry joint venture in refining and shipping in New Zealand. It was a background that made me unable to ignore the need to correct the false history that had been written. I enjoyed research and was interested in exploring the history. Discovery of more and more errors simply fuelled that interest. My new story developed and grew.

She'll be right at last

The resistance by the Heritage Society must have reflected a wish to avoid having to admit that such a major piece of work was so defective. A further worry may have been the cost of a second edition, though my authorship was offered at no cost and I was ready to help fund it. The Society stone-walled and tried to stifle my work. It was sad to see a group of senior and devoted Shell people trying to suppress an honest and corrected version of a bad Shell history. I saw the 2004 history as a danger to the future of historical records in New Zealand. A history clearly branded as coming from Shell would surely be accepted as true by future historians.

The 2004 book was not only sad but extraordinary. Many books have the odd error or perhaps a handful. Few, if any, can have errors on anything like the scale of Shell's history. To my mind it was tragic and was a disastrous addition to the story of New Zealand.

A good history needs careful planning and considerable skills. The omission of significant Shell people from the story and also some significant parts of the company's operations shows defective planning. The book used recollections recorded by former staff and many such memories were faulty. Even material from senior staff, including former directors, contained errors. A history must be based on records.

The errors were not just simple factual errors such as wrong dates, wrong names, wrong quantities. There were many major errors in the descriptions and explanations of events in the life of the company. Much showed a lack of oil industry knowledge on the part of the author. There is erratic historical sequencing and a failure by the author to spot the significance of many events. For it to have got as far as the printing presses can only mean that the project was inadequately managed. I was shocked by the errors that I found on a first reading.

To cite just a handful of its many errors, "Shell in New Zealand" gave three different years for the introduction of electric petrol pumps, it gave two different levels of government participation in BP in 1947, it said that kerbside pumps arrived on the "Athenic" in January 1926 but it is easily found that she was then in European ports, it described expatriate staff as ex-patriots and hordes of visitors as hoards. Information on many of Shell's oil wells in New Zealand contained errors and conflicts. There are errors from one end of the book to the other. The clear impression is that neither the author nor the Heritage Society had the slightest expectation that the history would ever be questioned.

She'll be right at last

Even where the Shell history took information from other books, it managed to create errors. Its simple arithmetic was mishandled, with figures failing to add to stated totals, or wrong percentage calculations. Conversions of oil quantities between weights and volumes were faulty and misunderstood. All such elementary errors in a so-called Shell history, and they were many, condemn both the writer and the whole process of checking what he had written.

Many statements in the book were simply incorrect, implying that they were made by some informant who was ignorant of the true facts. Some have been detected by good fortune. One item about the early days at Marsden Point was jumped on by my friend and former boss who was there at the time and was personally involved in that particular event. Other wrong information about refinery tanks could be checked and corrected because I happen to have that information in my own collection of working papers. Other information has been checked and corrected by oil companies, former oil engineers and by direct reference to authoritative sources and people. Shell's history had been put together by the uncritical and unresearched acceptance of material given to the author by the Heritage Society. It proved badly defective.

A former general manager of Shell BP Todd has told me that much of the work on exploration and production seemed to have been written by senior staff in Wellington who had little real knowledge of that part of the business.

Librarians and academics have expressed dismay to me that such a faulty history could have come from a source that is generally considered reliable.

2005 to 2008 - The corrected story

With a life time of experience in the oil industry, in Shell or in closely related work, I wrote a new history entitled "She'll be Right". With nearly two more years of dedicated research, I extended that history through two more editions entitled "She'll be right shortly" and eventually "She'll be right at last" at the beginning of 2007. It drew on a wealth of sources and was a totally new book.

The early history of cars and petrol in New Zealand was researched and developed, beginning to fill a void that existed in both the Shell and Mobil histories. More information was added on climate change, oil depletion, Maui depletion, aircraft emissions, refinery development, other Shell group developments overseas, Shell people, LPGs and innumerable minor additions and changes.

Many Shell publications and news reports continued to bring the overall picture up to date. Shell's 2004 history was a decade or more out of date in some areas of its story when it was written. My story grew in size and the index was reworked and extended. The preface was reworked and the story of this whole research was encapsulated in a poem.

My story became more relevant to the changing energy scene since the millennium. Subjects such as the energy outlook and the emerging problems of climate change were missing from the 2004 history. Thus my new Shell history is a book of more topical and general interest.

My history also makes it clear that other oil histories, such as those of Mobil and New Zealand Refining, had errors of their own, errors that then tended to be copied across by the Shell author without being questioned or checked.

I believe that my story can now be read by general readers as a book of considerable interest, a story that is informative and significant. When I have needed to dip into it occasionally I have been glad to find that it reads well. Beyond the merits of its own, it has its original purpose of being the antidote to the catastrophic version of 2004.

The errors in the Shell history were presented with total confidence. It is clear that Peter Cooke was assured that the material could be trusted. Some errors, such as obvious internal contradictions, must be blamed on the author, as can wrong word choices such as the ex-patriots mentioned above.

My work has tested all information as far as possible and more errors in the original story were found in that process. I have since found only a couple of slips in my own work. One professional historian has told me that he often works under pressures of time and cost and that mistakes do indeed occur in such contract work.

I received encouragement from some former directors of the company and help and cooperation from many former members of Shell and associated companies. "She'll be right at last" has been written independently, not relying on any support from Shell New Zealand or the Heritage Society. That has made it possible to write more frankly and to venture into areas that would not appear in a typically sanitised sponsored history. It has been possible to make it a more realistic historical story.

My book not only "invisibly mends" many of Shell's errors. It also makes a point of discussing some of them so that the reader can see the differences between the two books. Examples are the correction of some of the dates, the book's arithmetic and simply wrong statements in the original history.

Copies of my work are now held by many libraries in New Zealand. The new story has been read by a number of former Shell staff and they have been enthusiastic about it. Copies of the final "She'll be right at last" will be donated to those libraries that have bought earlier versions as it would feel unfair to suggest another purchase of what has been a progressively developed story.

Contents of the history

All histories of Shell in New Zealand are going to have similarities in structure but they can differ greatly in content. Two artists may paint the same countryside but will see it differently and create different pictures. They will see different details, emphasise different forms, paint in different colours. Their pictures are not complete and never can be; they are different impressions of the same reality, even if the artists have been conscious of portraying the same subject and have tried to paint realistically. As it is with paintings, so it is with histories.

Opening chapters in Shell's history and in mine describe the origins of Shell and then its arrival in Australia and New Zealand. The early steps in shipping and marketing in New Zealand describe the case oil trade and then the move into bulk storage and shipment by all the companies operating here. That early period then leads into WW2, with its rationing and with the involvement of Shell staff in local defence and in the armed forces, leading through to what looked like a comparatively unchanged post-war economy. My story, however, adds much that is new. It often draws historical conclusions that Shell's author, though claiming to be a historian, failed to notice because he seemed to know too little about the material.

The two decades after WW2 were dominated by successful oil/gas exploration and by the creation of the Marsden Point refinery (each of which has a chapter). The refining venture brought with it a local coastal tanker operation, again as a joint venture between the local oil companies. It forms another separate chapter. There were also many changes in the market place and those are covered in a long chapter, long because the oil companies in New Zealand were predominantly marketing companies. Another topic in the book is chemicals, also getting a small chapter.

Government involvement in the oil industry here was a major factor from the 1930s to the 1980s. Prices were closely regulated and the industry's hands were so closely tied that there was little development in service stations and internal distribution. It was not until the 1980s that a free market became government's new objective and the retail oil market was revolutionised. During this whole period there were the oil shocks of the 1970s, changing the costs of what had once been a very cheap commodity. OPEC remains a major factor in oil pricing.

Finally, as with the Shell history, my story looks at a variety of topics, diversification ventures, training, computing, sponsorships, public relations and many others. This raft of subjects is grouped into the last three chapters. The subjects as a whole may be much the same but the contents are very different throughout. The style of the text is very different and much more compact than the wordy text of 2004 (where much text could be reduced by 50% with no loss of meaning).

One great difference throughout the new story is that I could write objectively and sometimes critically in a way that Shell's contracted author could not. Having spent a lifetime in the oil industry, much in Shell, my writing has had an autobiographical element to it. I have had an involvement in the shipping, refining, economics and supply areas of the industry. I have had extensive personal records to draw upon. All these factors have ensured that my new history is very different and very independent.

There are people who see the oil industry as "the enemy" in the problems of climate change that have surfaced so dramatically in the past few years. My story makes it plain that the fundamental cause has been the immense rise in world population from one billion in 1900 to 6.6 billion at present. It happens to have coincided with the "oil age" and has both been fuelled by oil and has driven the demand for it. If population had risen to around two billion, we would not now be facing the twin problems of climate change and oil depletion and the world would still have most of its rain forests and oceans as full of fish as they used to be. Malthus was right after all.

My index has become very much more detailed. I also have a good glossary that is almost a story in itself. There are appendices dealing with Shell products, oil wells in New Zealand, condensate shipments and product demand. It is an informative book. The appendices and good index make it a good reference book.

Many Shell people (and some others) get a mention in the new book but it is much more than a simple story of Shell staff. It is a history of events from a Shell man's perspective, a somewhat different approach from Mobil's centenary history. Both are very readable as New Zealand histories and both are inevitably founded on the individual companies. A student of history should really read them both and would get a rounded and very detailed picture from doing so.

2008 supplement

A supplement to "She'll be right at last", published in 2008, has added very significantly to the story of the early days of motor vehicles and oil supplies in New Zealand. Thanks to newly developed digital versions of early New Zealand newspapers, it has proved possible to uncover new material much more easily. The first decade of the 1900s has revealed an astonishing growth in motor vehicles and in their fuel supply. A motor car first drove over the Rimutaka Hill in January 1901. Parcels of benzine were arriving by the turn of the century. Shell companies registered trade marks as early as 1904.

The development of the motor vehicle was astonishing in the first decade of the 1900s and it was obvious that New Zealand must have had imports of petrol. The digitisation of early newspapers has made it possible find reports of many shipments of petrol and kerosine in that decade. Petrol was commonly called benzine, and sometimes naphtha. Motor fuel began to arrive in Australia in the early 1900s in bulk and it is clear that merchants were responsible for arranging shipments across to New Zealand. It has also become clear that the major companies such as Shell and Vacuum saw the need to establish their names here, and this supplement records early trade marks which those companies registered. Thus it grew to a slim book of 50 pages, packed with hitherto unpublished information on "early oil".

2008 supplement

A critique - explaining the errors

At the outset of my work on the history, I listed the errors found in it and as it steadily grew I passed copies of this "critique" to the heritage society. I gave it the name "That's Shell?", reflecting the old advertising slogan "That's Shell that was" but now with a question mark.

The critique was published as an A4 comb-bound volume, eventually going through three editions as more and more errors were found. The 3rd and final version has been slimmed down by giving it a more compact format. It has a preface outlining the problems and background to Shell's 2004 history, setting out what seem to be the many reasons why its production went so badly off track. The body of the critique is a systematic listing of errors great and small. Actual errors run to more than 500, and other points and criticisms that cover grammar, punctuation and the like probably take the total well over 1000.


"She'll be right at last" is available from the author, Michael Whitfield Foster, 30 Campbell Street, Karori, Wellington 6012, at NZ$25 by post within New Zealand. It is in a comb-bound format of A4 size, a format that opens flat on the table. If handled carefully, it lasts very well and I find it good to use. The pricing is the barest minimum to cover printing and binding cost. Overall it has been a loss-making project.

"She'll be right shortly" is still available in a "perfect bound" soft-cover version at $32. It is a stronger and more durable binding, titled on the spine and looking better on a bookshelf, but doesn't lie quite so conveniently flat like the comb-bound version. It is, however, produced by a good book-binding firm, with attention to the grain of the paper, and does open well. The cover has been laminated.

The critique "That's Shell?" is also available comb-bound at $20. It is the final tidied-up version.

"She'll be right at last" is a book of 271 pages and nearly 200,000 words in the main text. There are several appendices and a very extensive index. A glossary has many "oil words" for which no dictionaries will provide adequate answers. ISBN 978-0-473-12257-7.

Copies of the soft-cover version can be mailed overseas, eg to Europe, by economy airmail, at around $19 compared with the inland postage of $3.50, giving an all-in price of about $46 or about GBP 16.

The 2008 "Supplement" runs to 50 pages packed with information, and can be mailed within New Zealand for $12.


Just before Shell New Zealand reached its centenary, Shell decided to quit the retail market in New Zealand and the business was sold to the Greenstone operation of Infratil. It has now, in 2011, been decided to drop the Shell name and symbol. I have been in touch with Greenstone management and have been able to point out the problems with Shell's 2004 history.

Mature petrol markets are no longer seen as the best areas for oil industry investment. The skills and resources are now being pointed towards the various aspects of supply operations, a logical move when peak oil appears imminent or, in the opinion of some, may already have happened. This situation appears to be coinciding with what many scientists are seeing as an acceleration of climate change. The apparent stability of life in the "oil age" of the 20th century seems to be moving into a century of change and unpredictability.