The skilled craft of mak­ing can­dles boasts a rich and fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, says Sue Wilkes

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Sue Wilkes

Back in the early 1800s, can­dles were an ex­pen­sive prod­uct made by hand us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods.

The can­dle man­u­fac­tur­ing process be­gan with fats such as tal­low or beeswax and the two main meth­ods of pro­duc­tion were dip­ping and mould­ing. ‘Dips’ were made by re­peat­edly dip­ping a wick (made from cot­ton threads twisted to­gether) into molten fat. Each ‘ lay’, or coat­ing, was then al­lowed to cool be­fore the can­dle was dipped again. Boys learn­ing the trade of wax or tal­low chandler served an ap­pren­tice­ship.

‘Mould’ can­dles were made by pour­ing hot fat into brass or tin moulds in which wicks were al­ready in­serted. Ten or more moulds were placed to­gether in a wooden frame, and the fat poured in. Af­ter cool­ing, any ex­cess fat was re­moved, and the can­dles taken out of the moulds. Fin­ished can­dles were then strung to­gether and boxed by weight. Can­dles were of­ten made in soap fac­to­ries be­cause both prod­ucts used fat as their ba­sic in­gre­di­ent.

Sper­ma­ceti, a waxy sub­stance found in sperm whales’ skulls, was used in moulded can­dles to give a bright, reg­u­lar flame. Ac­cord­ing to John Guy’s Pocket Cy­clopae­dia, pub­lished in 1810, ‘sperm’ can­dles were uni­ver­sally used in the­atres and draw­ing rooms de­spite their high price.

Beeswax made the finest can­dles but was un­suit­able for mould­ing. Th­ese can­dles were made by re­peat­edly pour­ing la­dles of hot wax onto wicks

In the early 1800s, can­dles were an ex­pen­sive prod­uct

sus­pended from a frame over a vat of molten beeswax. En­sur­ing that the can­dles were of uni­form shape and thick­ness was a highly skilled job – when the can­dles had cooled they were rolled on a smooth ta­ble to make them per­fectly cylin­dri­cal. Wax and sperm can­dles were mostly made in large towns.

Refining the process

Im­prove­ments in man­u­fac­ture re­duced the cost of can­dles and in­creased their lu­mi­nos­ity. In the 1820s, it was found that braided or plaited wicks burnt more ef­fi­ciently. Some can­dle-mak­ing fac­to­ries spun and plaited cot­ton wicks on site, and work­ers tended this ma­chin­ery. Wicks were also dipped in a chem­i­cal to slow down com­bus­tion.

More re­fined in­gre­di­ents re­duced costs, too. Tal­low can­dles were very waste­ful; most of the fat ran down the can­dle in­stead of burn­ing prop­erly. When Michel Eugène Chevreul, a French chemist, an­a­lysed com­mon fats, he dis­cov­ered they were com­posed of stearine, a solid; oleine, a liq­uid; and glyc­er­ine. Stearine can­dles burnt far more ef­fi­ciently.

Dip­ping ma­chin­ery also greatly speeded up man­u­fac­ture. De­pend­ing on ma­chine size, 20 wicks were sus­pended from a rod or ‘broach’; 30 broaches were as­sem­bled side by side to make a ‘ frame’; then 36 frames were at­tached to a ma­chine so that by turn­ing a wheel, each frame of can­dles was dipped in turn into molten tal­low or stearine.

One of the most fa­mous firms was Price’s Pa­tent Can­dle Fac­tory, founded by Wil­liam Wil­son in 1830. The fam­ily may have used ‘Price’, a fic­ti­tious name, be­cause can­dle­mak­ing was con­sid­ered un-gen­teel. In 1840, the Wil­sons cre­ated a ‘com­pos­ite’ can­dle of stearines de­rived from tal­low and co­conut. Th­ese can­dles were cheap, burnt brightly, and needed no snuff­ing. The firm had fac­to­ries at Vaux­hall and Bat­tersea.

A decade later, paraf­fin wax, de­rived from pe­tro­leum, was dis­cov­ered. Paraf­fin can­dles had no un­pleas­ant smell when burnt, and firms like Price’s be­gan pro­cess­ing oil in their fac­to­ries. Price’s also used palm oil. Refining palm oil by steam was much more pleas­ant for the work­ers than boil­ing vats of tal­low over a fur­nace, which was a nasty, smelly job.

How­ever, tal­low was still used for can­dles. In the 1861 census, more than 4,600 peo­ple in Eng­land and Wales were tal­low chan­dlers, in­clud­ing about 200 women; an­other 300 peo­ple were em­ployed in Scot­land.

Moulded can­dles were mostly made in Lon­don, al­though there were some works in Scot­land and Ire­land, too. Chil­dren and young peo­ple com­prised about half of the Lon­don work­force. In­deed, a re­veal­ing ac­count of child labour

can be found in the 5th Re­port of the Chil­dren’s Em­ploy­ment Com­mis­sion in 1866: “The can­dle moul­ders work in gangs... of 11 or 12 male per­sons; one or two of th­ese are adults. Not all ‘gangs’ were this large; ‘Hal­l­i­day’, a 17-year-old lad at a Mill­wall fac­tory, told an in­spec­tor: ‘There are three oth­ers in my gang; all are younger than me... I can’t read well; many of them can’t.’”

The 12-hour shifts

Mould­ing gangs turned on hot or cold wa­ter for heat­ing or cool­ing the moulds. They set the wicks in the moulds prior to the hot fat be­ing poured in and re­moved the can­dles from the moulds when set. Older boys used a small cir­cu­lar steam­pow­ered saw to cut can­dles into uni­form lengths. They worked from 6am un­til 6pm, with 90 min­utes for meal breaks. Satur­day was a half-day. At peak times, the gangs some­times worked un­til 9pm. Sev­eral fac­to­ries worked round the clock, so some lads worked 12-hour night shifts.

The boys in mould­ing gangs at Brom­bor­ough earned 5s to 7s per week. In com­par­i­son, adult paraf­fin can­dle work­ers earned 30s to 42s per week for a ten-and-a-half-hour day. By the late 1870s, Price’s Bat­tersea fac­tory pro­duced 147 mil­lion can­dles and 32 mil­lion night­lights ev­ery year. Ac­ci­dents were seem­ingly un­com­mon, al­though in 1913 28-year-old labourer Ge­orge Henry Thomas died at Bat­tersea af­ter fall­ing through a floor open­ing while push­ing wax cylin­ders into a vat of hot wax.

Can­dle­mak­ing de­clined as elec­tric light­ing be­came the norm. Al­though can­dles are now pri­mar­ily bought for fun rather than do­mes­tic light­ing, they are still made by tra­di­tional meth­ods and ma­chines.

You can search for can­dle­mak­ers’ or tal­low chan­dlers’ records us­ing The Na­tional Ar­chives’ Dis­cov­ery ser­vice ( dis­cov­ery. na­tion­alarchives. or lo­cal ar­chive cat­a­logues. Typ­i­cal records in­clude ac­count books, in­sur­ance poli­cies – can­dle­mak­ing was a fire risk – and ap­pren­tice­ship in­den­tures. His­tor­i­cal trade di­rec­to­ries should list can­dle­mak­ers, or soap and can­dle-mak­ing works.

Birken­head Ref­er­ence Li­brary holds records for Unichema (for­mer Price’s Fac­tory at Brom­bor­ough Pool) in se­ries ZP. The Unilever col­lec­tion at the Pen­sions Ar­chive Trust also in­cludes some Price’s records: ( www.pen­sion­ uk/di­rec­to­ry­o­farchives/ unilever). Glas­gow City Ar­chives holds the Glas­gow Can­dle and Soap Mak­ers So­ci­ety (a trade as­so­ci­a­tion) records 1795–1845, se­ries TD818 (

Fi­nally, the Guild­hall Li­brary holds records (c.1400-1990) for the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Wax Chan­dlers, a me­dieval Lon­don liv­ery com­pany, se­ries CLC/L/ WB, which in­cludes reg­is­ters of free­dom ad­mis­sions and ap­pren­tice bind­ings at

Sue Wilkes is an au­thor who spe­cialises in fam­ily, so­cial and in­dus­trial his­tory

A can­dle­maker pours wax into moulds at Price’s Pa­tent Can­dle Fac­tory in

Bat­tersea, Lon­don, in 1955

The Can­dle Room at Price’s Pa­tent Can­dles in Bat­tersea, Lon­don

A can­dle­maker pours wax over long wicks to make church can­dles at Price’s Pa­tent Can­dles in Bat­tersea, Lon­don, in 1955

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