Price’s Candles : regal illumination

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Prices sherwood dinner candleabra

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Price’s has enjoyed a long association with the Royal Family. From the earliest days when Price’s launched their new composite candle in 1840 coincided with the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, there had been an on-going Royal connection. Price’s has held the Royal Warrant – either in its own name or through its subsidiaries Francis Tucker and Charles Farris – since the 1850’s. Today it holds three Royal warrants: in its own name by appointment to HM The Queen and HRH The Prince of Wales and in the name of Charles Farris by HM The Queen.  The company’s special status as a holder of Royal warrants means that it supplies candles for all Royal state occasions.

royal state banquet buckingham palace

State banquet settings prepared at Buckingham palace

The first state occasion for which Price’s supplied candles was the funeral of the Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Battle of Waterloo, who died in 1852. The six tall candlesticks that surrounded his enormous sarcophagus in St Paul’s Cathedral were not be used again until 1965 when Sir Winston Churchill’s state funeral was held in the same cathedral; an event for which Price’s also had the honour of supplying the candles. Price’s made the candles used at Princess Elizabeth’s (the future Queen) wedding and coronation and at the wedding of her son HRH The Prince of Wales to Lady Diana. Most recently the company supplied the candles for the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.

prices-heritage-sherwood-ivory-dinner-candles

Price's heritage Sherwood dinner candles as provided to the Royal household

Price’s Patent Candle Company started manufacturing candles in 1830 in their 170 year history have transformed the candle industry.

In the nineteenth century Price’s discovered new inexpensive raw materials to replace the traditional and expensive tallow and beeswax. They were the first to explore industrial applications for the new chemistry of fats to produce better products. They brought light to the working classes of Victorian Britain, making cheap nightlights and ‘composite’ candles for people who had previously been unable to afford artificial light. By the 1850’s Price’s was a national household name. By the end of the century the company was the largest maker of candles in the world with a reputation that extended beyond candles to soap, lubricating oils and glycerine.

prices votive candles sandalwood

Price's sandalwood votive candles

Price’s were the first to introduce modern production methods to an industry that had consisted of small, local workshops; continuous production plant and new ranges of candle products swept away the sleepy world of wax chandlers and their apprentices controlled by ancient City Livery Companies. Yet this modernisation was not achieved at the expense of the workers. Company schools, factory villages, paid holidays, pension schemes and profit sharing: these were just some of the pioneering benefits introduced by Price’s for its employees.

In 1830 a middle-aged Scotsman living in London was considering his business future. He was no stranger to commercial failure. As a young man in Scotland he had seen the collapse of his father’s iron works in 1812 during the economic slump of the Napoleonic Wars. He had then traveled south to London and set himself up as a successful merchant in the ‘Russia trade’, importing goods from Moscow and St Petersburg. Now at the age of 58, William Wilson, was approached by his partner, with an invitation to go into a new venture: candle manufacture.

prices chefs candle in tin

Price's chef's candle self contained in a tin

Perhaps it was William’s familiarity with the Russian tallow trade that had suggested the idea. Tallow, a purified form of beef or mutton fat, was the only cheap available alternative to beeswax for making candles at this time. But if William was already familiar with the candle trade, he must have paused for thought. Candle manufacture had barely progressed since the middle ages. The wealthy and the Church burned beeswax candles, everyone else used the cheaper tallow lights which smoked, smelled and guttered. The poor either made their own tallow dips from hoarded animal fat with rush wicks – known as ‘rushlights’ – or lived in darkness.

Despite the new coal-gas works springing up and distribution pipes being laid throughout the major towns and cities in the country, there was still a huge market in England for a mid-priced candle that gave a brighter cleaner light than tallow but was not as expensive as beeswax. What William Wilson and his partner discovered in 1830 was a new raw material and a scientific process that would allow them to manufacture such a candle. The firm they set up, Edward Price and Co, would make candles from coconuts! Wilson took out a license on an 1829 patent for the hydraulic separation of coconut fats, the partners built a candle factory at Vauxhall on the river Thames in South West London, a crushing mill just up river at Battersea and invested in 1,000 acres of coconut plantation in Sri Lanka. The initial results were not that impressive, but the infant company had a couple of good breaks: in 1831 candle tax was abolished and by 1835 it had developed better chemical processes to obtain solid fats.

Prices cancer research charity candle

Prices cancer research charity candle

By 1840 the perfect product was ready for Queen Victoria’s wedding. It was traditional for every loyal household to burn a candle in its front room window on the evening of the monarch’s wedding, and in London on February 20th most people lit one of Price’s new stearine ‘composite’ candles made from a mixture of refined tallow and coconut oil.

In 1847, when Edward Price and Co became Price’s Patent Candle Company, the new joint stock company considered its ethical use of palm oil so significant that it became the basis for the company’s seal which depicted Africans bringing calabashes of palm oil to a seated Britannia figure under a palm tree.

When William Wilson and his partner Benjamin Lancaster had first set up Edward Price and Co they had deliberately avoided using their own names. 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. Perhaps it was for this reason that the fictitious Edward Price was created to front the new business – although there is a suggestion that one of Benjamin Lancaster’s aunts had the name Price. It took less than twenty years for Mr Price to become a household name and he remains one to this day.

In 1853 Price’s looked at the logistics of their manufacturing processes. Liverpool was the port of entry for all West African goods; their imported palm oil had to be unloaded there and reloaded for transfer by boat to London, then barged up the Thames from London Docks to Vauxhall and Battersea for the actual manufacture of the candles. This was expensive and time-consuming; the logical solution was to have a factory at Liverpool. Price’s found a site on the opposite bank of the River Mersey above Birkenhead and constructed a factory. Once production at the new Bromborough Pool factory commenced, Price’s was able to more than double its imports of palm oil to 50,000 tons a year. In 1840 the company employed 84 staff; by 1855, with two factories in London and one in Liverpool, this figure had risen to 2,300 of whom 1,200 were boys.

Price’s benevolent attitude was an enduring one that continued beyond the Wilson family. The company sought to build good quality housing for its workers in London but could not buy any land. However, the Liverpool factory at Bromborough Pool – “our colony on the Mersey” – was a green field site. Here Price’s eventually built a village of 147 houses with church, institute, shop and library for its workforce of “come downs” (the Battersea families who migrated to the new factory). This model village was an inspiration to other employers and was copied at Lever’s Port Sunlight factory adjacent to Bromborough in the 1880’s and by Cadbury’s Bourneville village in the 1890’s. Other examples of the company’s far-sighted approach to its employees included the introduction of a profit sharing scheme for all staff in 1869 and a contributory employees’ pension in 1893 – the first scheme in the country to include floor workers.

Prices provence lantern gift set

Prices Provence lantern gift set

Perhaps James Wilson best defined the company’s attitude in an open letter to shareholders in 1853. He urged them to spend £5,000 a year on providing a school and a chapel for the boys and argued that such expenditure “will produce, by the increased cheerfulness with which the labour of the workpeople will be rendered, and the identification of their interest with yours, an actual gain to the company”. The shareholders were convinced and voted the money through.

Price’s opposition to slavery and child labour added to the positive reputation of its candles. So too did its patriotic donation of candle stoves and lanterns to the British Army fighting in the Crimea in the winter of 1855. £1,000 of equipment and solid coconut fuel was shipped to Russia to a war remembered as much for the appalling conditions in which the men fought as for the glory or folly of its battles. A grateful letter was sent to the company from one of the survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade in hospital in Scutari, “The weather is wretched, snowy, very cold; the candle stove has been alight for the last two days. It answers capitally.” A number of Price’s workers joined the army and fought in the Crimea and a weekly contribution was deducted from all staff in aid of their wives and families.

In the late 19c century as oil was discovered in Burma, Price’s developed a new range of products which included motor oils and other lubricants for engines.

For the first thirty years of the twentieth century Price’s dominated this market; their ‘Huile de Luxe’ and ‘Motorine’ were major products, providing manufacturers such as Rolls Royce.  As early as 1902 an attempt to drive to the South Pole was made using a car lubricated by Price’s Oils as were, more successfully, the Norton motorbikes that won at Le Mans in the 1920’s. Rolls Royce was so impressed with the product that from 1906 and for thirty years after all their new cars were sold supplied with Motorine oil – the Rolls Royce of lubricants for the Rolls Royce of cars. In 1928 Price’s received the Royal Warrant from The Prince of Wales for their motor oils.

prices motorine engine oil

Price's motorine engine oil once supplied with each new Rolls-Royce

By 1900 Price’s were producing 130 differently named and specified sizes of candle, any one of which could in theory be manufactured in 60 different permutations of material, colour and hardness; the company regularly held 2,000 different standard candle products in stock. Candles were created for every conceivable need: carriage candles, piano candles, dining-room candles, bedroom candles, servants’ bedroom candles (that only lasted 30 minutes) photographic darkroom candles, “The Burglar’s Horror!” nightlight (to be lit in every front and back window and guaranteed to scare off criminals) and candles for coal miners, navvies, engineers and emigration ships. To compete with other sources of light candles now needed to be sophisticated. Tapered Venetians, spirals, flutes and candles with self-fitting ends in many colours replaced the utilitarian white, cylindrical products of the mid-century.

In the 1890’s Price’s launched their Parastrine Shade range, an opaque white candle that could burn beneath a shade without smoking and this enabled the candle user to participate in the fashion for decorated lampshades so popular with gas and electric lighting. At the same time a range of intricately hand-painted ‘Art’ candles was launched; popular designs included the blue and white ‘Willow Pattern’ and the ‘Mikado’ decorated with Japanese motifs. These were the first candles to be valued as much as beautiful objects in their own right as for their light. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Price’s designed ‘Art-Deco’ candles and coordinated candlesticks as a luxury range and appealed to the growing children’s market with Noah’s Ark nightlight holders, birthday cake candles and a range of Walt Disney candle merchandise.

Price's luxury fig & black pepper candle

The labelling and packaging of candles was important for advertising. Unlike some consumer products, there was no single brand of candles. Price’s developed its own trademark in the 1870’s – a clipper ship under sail – which it used on all home and export products bearing its name.

In 1910 Price’s acquired its first overseas factories in Johannesburg and by 1915 the company owned six factories in South Africa, Shanghai and Chile. Price’s went on to construct factories in Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), Morocco, Pakistan, New Zealand and Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka).

Another specialist market that Price’s supplied was that for explorers and expeditions who required stearine tallow candles that could, in extremis, be eaten. Famously, Price’s supplied Captain Scott’s final expedition to the South Pole in 1910-11 with 2,300lb of Belmont stearine candles. There is evidence from the diaries of members of Scott’s team that they were eaten (although the Captain was more impressed with their ability to burn at 102 degrees Fahrenheit below zero). Ironically it was malnutrition that was one of the things that defeated Scott’s team. There were also examples closer to home of English coal miners trapped for fourteen days below ground who survived by eating their tallow candles. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Price’s supplied a variety of other expeditions with edible stearine candles: botanical trips to the Andes, unsuccessful attempts on Everest, explorations of Greenland and Mawson and Shackleton’s trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. And today Price’s continues to supply the British Army with their ‘Table Lamp No. Two’ for the same reason.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Price’s was the world’s largest manufacturer of candles. The company employed 2,150 people in its London and Liverpool factories and had an annual output of 25,000 tons of candle and other products. Its London factory at Battersea covered eleven acres including a paraffin distillery and candle, soap and lubricating oil manufacture; it even had its own light railway system for moving goods about within the factory. In the boom years of the First World War the company was at its zenith; in 1917 it announced record profits of £300,000.

But in 1919 Price’s was taken over by Lever Brothers Ltd. Lever’s had come to pre-eminence as soap manufacturers with a trio of extremely successful nationally branded products – ‘Sunlight Soap’, ‘Lux’ and ‘Vim’.

prices sherwood dinner candles

Price's famous Sherwood dinner candles

In 1998 Price’s relocated its UK candle manufacture to Bicester in Oxfordshire, and in 2001 Price’s Head Office moved to Bedford to join the Distribution Centre. On the original site, a Price’s retail shop remains, sharing the Wilsons’ original Battersea site with elegant riverside apartment blocks and a heliport.

In a consumer-led market where 80% of candle sales are now purely decorative, the company has focused on new ranges of perfumed and essential oil candles and aromatherapy products. Price’s design team based in Bedford, less than an hour North of London, is completely in touch with the influential London fashion scene. The colours and designs that première on the London catwalk filter down to the interiors market of which candles are now such an important part. Price’s designers ensure that their products are part of any co-ordinated and fashionable home interior. These candles are now not just sources of natural light but are aesthetic, fragranced and highly designed objects in their own right.

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