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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Child Candlemakers

My latest feature for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine is on candlemaker ancestors.One of the most famous candlemaking firms was Price’s Patent Candles, founded by William Wilson (1830). The firm had a two acre site by the banks of the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, and another large works at Battersea.
Price's candles were originally made from coconut oil and tallow; they were cheap, and burnt brightly and clearly. In the 1840s the firm expanded and took over Samuel Child’s night-light works at Brompton. The night-light manufacture was moved to Vauxhall; the factory was enormous. Another night-light factory (Albert’s) at Belmont was taken over by Price’s, and moved to new premises under the arches of the South Western Railway.
By the early 1850s, Price’s switched to making candles from palm oil, which were marketed as an ‘ethical’ product. Palm oil exports were more profitable for African producers than slavery, which still thrived even though it was banned in Britain and the colonies since 1834.
The palm oil ships unloading their freight at Vauxhall were known locally as the ‘African Blockading Squadron’. Every Price’s candle burnt was said to ‘put out a slave’ (Fraser’s Magazine, July 1852).
The candle factory would find it difficult to market itself as an ‘ethical’ concern nowadays because of its heavy reliance on child labour. The children often worked nights from six p.m. until six a.m. The ‘patent’ candles were made by huge machines which processed the fat into giant ‘cakes’. The cakes were melted in vats, and the liquid poured into moulds (unlike traditional candles made by repeated dipping a wick in tallow or wax). Boys helped move the cakes of fat to the vats ready for melting. Children packed the candles in boxes.
When the firm took over Child’s night-light factory it acquired more child workers (children’s nimble fingers were well-suited to making night-lights)  A writer who visited the factory thought the production line, with its ‘little army of boys in clean blouses and caps’ and ‘long rows of girls in pinafores’ looked like a school-room. 
Boys punched out cardboard and tin components to make ‘cups’ to hold the fat in the night-lights. Some fixed the wicks in the lights, and others filled the cups with the fat or ‘stearine.’ Girls plaited cotton wicks for the night-lights.
James P. Wilson, managing director of Price’s Patent Candle Factory, was deeply religious, and wanted to look after his young workers’ health and morals.  In 1848 Wilson set up schools at his own expense for his child factory workers. Wilson's factory schools became famous, and he was swamped by letters of congratulation from well-wishers including factory inspector Robert Baker and writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mrs Gaskell. 

Price’s Patent Candle factory. Record of the 1862 Exhibition, (William Mackenzie, c.1863).
Mrs Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell and Knutsford, 2nd edition, Clarkson & Griffiths, Manchester, 1905. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Waterloo Bicentenary

Wellington and Napoleon.
There's a quick round-up of Waterloo 200 commemorations here on my Jane Austen blog.

Austen-era Fabrics

This week fellow Pen & Sword author Catherine Curzon has kindly invited me to write for her wonderful Madam Gilflurt blog on Georgian history, and you can read my post on fashionable Austen-era fabrics here.
Image: A morning dress on display at Jane Austen's home: Chawton Cottage, Hampshire. © Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Lion Salt Works Re-opens!

Restored Stove House 5, with salt pan in foreground.
Last week I was lucky enough to enjoy a sneak preview of the Lion Salt Works' fabulous new visitor site at Northwich. Over £10 million has been spent on this mammoth restoration project, and the result is an outstanding new heritage attraction - unique in the UK.
The Salt Works, founded by the Thompson family in 1894, made salt by boiling brine in large open pans.
Open pan salt making, 1850.
The brine for the pans was pumped up from underneath the site, and you can still see the remains of the 'nodding donkey' pump. The site was in a very poor state of preservation prior to its restoration, but now visitors can explore two restored pan houses and three stove houses.

The former Red Lion pub at the site entrance has displays relating to the salt workers, and local artefacts, including a pretty salt ship.
The Salt Works will open to the public on Friday 5 June. There are lots of fun interactive exhibits for children in the museum, and a playground, and butterfly garden to explore. Entrance is free to the cafe and play area.
Huge salt crushing mill, Lion Salt Works.

There's a special offer, too, if you are a Salt. f you can show photo ID proof that your name is Salt, you can visit the museum free of charge. (This offer runs until 31 May 2016).
All author photos © Sue Wilkes. Video courtesy of West Cheshire museums.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Making Enough Rope

We recently enjoyed a very interesting visit to the Ropery at Chatham Historic Dockyard. Although it's now called the 'Victorian Ropery', rope has been made on this site since the early 17th century, and the Ropery itself dates back to the late 18th century.

The Royal Navy required lots of rope to equip its ships; a vessel like Nelson's flagship, the HMS Victory, (which is celebrating its 250th birthday this year) needed at least 20 miles of rope just for the rigging for its sails.

Laying a rope, and construction of a rope.
Ropes were usually made from Russian hemp. But first, the hempen fibres needed to be cleaned and straightened.
A man 'heckled' or 'hatchelled' the hemp strands by whacking them against a spiked semicircular wooden apparatus.

The cleaned fibres were far too short to make a rope, so they were spun into yarn - this was a highly skilled job. A trained spinner could make a thousand feet of yarn in 12 minutes.

The spun yarns were then treated with tar (so they didn't rot at sea), then twisted again ('registered') into strands. The strands were taken to the 'laying-walk' and 'laid' to make a rope. Three strands twisted together made a 'hawser' rope, and three hawsers twisted together made a 'cable'.

The strands were fastened to hooks attached to a rotating wheel at one end of a long room (the rope-walk), and then fastened to one hook, also attached to a wheel, at the far end of the room. The strands were threaded through a wooden block or 'top' to ensure that the rope was evenly tensioned when the two wheels were turned (in opposite directions). Turning the wheels twisted the strands together to make the rope. All this work was human-powered until Captain Huddart introduced steam machinery in the early 19th century (at Limehouse). I had a go at turning the wheel and I can tell you that it is hard work!

Although young children worked in ropewalks in the West of England and other places in the early 1840s, they do not seem to have been employed at Chatham at that date. In the 1860s hatchelling and spinning machinery, which could be operated by women (who were paid less than the men) was introduced at Chatham.
The women had their own entrance to the works - to stop them getting up to mischief with the male workers!
The Ropewalk, Chatham.
Women workers' entrance.

 Rope is still made by traditional methods at the Ropery at Chatham, although several different materials are used nowadays. 

All author photos © Sue Wilkes, and photo of me by Nigel Wilkes. All engravings from Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts, Vol. I, c.1862.
Video copyright Nigel Wilkes.

Here's one I made earlier; the rope I made is on the left. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Nelson and Emma

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World looks at Emma Hamilton's affair with Lord Nelson. You can also find out more about Cheshire-born Emma Hamilton's early career here on my Jane Austen blog.

Image: Lord Nelson, Heroes of the British Navy, Frederick Warne & Co., c. 1900. Nigel Wilkes Collection.