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Price's candles were originally made from coconut oil and tallow; they were cheap, and burnt brightly and clearly.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


Tony Grant said...

When I drive into the centre London, during a mental aberration,who would want to drive into the middle of London, I pass Prices factory at Battersea.
The entire building is still there and a good part of it is a very trendy shop selling, you guessed it, Prices candles. The nice scented up market sort of course.
Very interesting article as always, Sue.

Sue Wilkes said...

Thanks, Tony, interesting to hear that the building is still there! Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sue,
I really enjoyed this article. Interestingly enough, I was reading about cottonseed oil this morning. During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a severe shortage of oils in England (for cooking, heating, candles etc.) due to the blockades. Sooo...some enterprising people figured out how to press oil from cottonseed kernels - a waste product. Nowadays, cottonseed oil is used in a lot of processed foods, as it costs a lot less to produce than olive oil. I'm not sure you can make candles from it. I have also seen palm oil on food labels too.

Yes...child labor was very prevalent in England and America during these times, especially in factories, textile mills, workhouses, and coal mines. Charles Dickens worked in a blacking factory as a child, glueing labels onto shoe polish jars. His income, as little as it was, helped support his family in the Marshalsea debtor's prison.
Once again, thank you for a great post!😊
Sarah Fredericks

Sue Wilkes said...

Thanks very much for dropping by, Sarah. I don't think cottonseed oil was used for candles - I think it was primarily used for foodstuffs and soap. Yes, Charles Dickens was a child worker, too - you can read about his work as a social campaigner here: