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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Price's candles were originally made from coconut oil and tallow; they were cheap, and burnt brightly and clearly.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.