Vauxhall, the Oval and Kennington
Candle-making was, until the 1830s, a very simple cottage industry. Almost all candles were made out of tallow - a purified form of beef or mutton fat - or beeswax. The former were relatively cheap but smoked, smelled and guttered - i.e. the wax ran down the side. The latter were very expensive. It also looked as if candles were becoming obsolete. William Murdoch had lit his house with coal gas in 1792, Humphrey Davey had demonstrated his electric arc lamp in 1808, and Westminster had been lit by gas for some years.
William Wilson, his partner Benjamin Lancaster, and his son George Wilson, had however developed a new process for making candles, based on new 1820s soapmaking technology. It had been discovered that, if natural fats (from plants or animals) are mixed with strong alkalis then they separate into liquid and solid components. The Wilsons used this technique, and added a further distillation, to produce a harder pure white fat called stearine. And stearine candles burned brightly without smoke or smell.
Wilson's first candle factory was set up in 1830 in the grounds of a riverside villa called Belmont, which gave its name to the factory. The site, at the foot of Vauxhall Bridge, was later acquired by the Phoenix Gas Works, followed in 1962 by the London Cold Store and a lorry park. It is now St George Wharf riverside apartments. The factory at first made candles the old-fashioned way but using a 'composite' of tallow and coconut fat barged down the river from the company's mill in Battersea using coconuts imported from Sri Lanka. By 1835, however, the new technology was ready and the new cheap, high quality candles became very popular. Indeed, as it was traditional for every loyal household to burn a candle in its front room window on the evening of the monarch's wedding, most people in London lit one of Price's candles on the evening of Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840.
Another innovation was to start using palm tree oil, whose export provided an economic alternative to the slave trade, thus making Price's palm oil candles very "politically correct" and popular, slavery having been abolished in the British Empire in 1838. This virtue was emphasised in the advertisement reproduced above. On the left, Africans bring palm nuts to trade. The slave trader stands centre right with one slave at his right, and another with a rope around him. This man is saved by the candle maker in the centre who is surrounded by the tools of his trade and who is using a palm oil candle to burn through the rope. He is also offering the freed slave the red cap of liberty.
The company employed c.2,300 by 1855, of which c.1,200 were boys. But the company was a radical and enlightened employer, by the standards of the times. All employees benefitted from a profit-sharing scheme, and were exhorted to avoid swearing, cigarette smoking and the 'company of disreputable girls'. And the factory contained a schoolroom; each boy was given his own drawer with 'testament, prayer book, hymn book, arithmetic book, slate and copy book'.
But why "Price's", and not "Wilson's"? In England in 1830 there was still unwillingness among the middle classes to be associated with a trade. For a former merchant to turn candle-maker would have seemed puzzling and the tallow candle trade in particular was perceived as a very low class activity, involving dead animals and unpleasant smells. This is probably why the partners used the fictitious name "Edward Price and Co" when they began their business.
And why "Patent" candles? Price's had made the mistake, in the 1830s, of not patenting their "composite candles" only to see rivals quickly copy their products. After this error they protected all their inventions with patents and in 1847 accordingly changed their name to Price's Patent Candle Co.
Price's soon expanded beyond making candles. First, they began to sell the two by-products of the candle making process:- glycerine (used as a treatment for burns and skin disease, as a food preservative, in paints, etc.) and a liquid fat called oleine which soon replaced olive oil as a light lubricating oil in the still young woollen and cotton manufacturing industries. Prices also soon began to benefit from the creation of the oil industry as they distilled the first petroleum oil discovered in Burma in 1854. Price's distilled the oil to make paraffin wax and so paraffin wax candles, and then started selling the by-products benzene (used for cleaning), kerosene (for burning in lamps and stoves) and heavier oils (for sale as lubricants for machines developed during the industrial revolution).
Price's success caused them to build candle factories elsewhere, principally up the river at Battersea, and in Liverpool. They closed their Vauxhall factory in 1855. By the early 1900s Price's was the world's largest candle manufacturer employing 2,150 people. It was taken over by Lever Bros (later Unilever) in 1919 and eventually changed ownership several times, and moved its UK manufacturing to Bicester, in Oxfordshire.
A more detailed history of this fascinating company can be found at the Price's Candles website and in Jon Newman's booklet The Story of Price's Candles.