MY ANCESTOR WAS A... CANDLEMAKER
The skilled craft of making candles boasts a rich and fascinating history, says 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.
gov.uk) 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.pensionsarchive.org. uk/directoryofarchives/ unilever). Glasgow City Archives holds the Glasgow Candle and Soap Makers Society (a trade association) records 1795–1845, series TD818 ( goo.gl/v1tDgc).
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