BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 2nd October 1995 (p.3), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE CANDLE MAKERS

Not only do candles have a long history as domestic lighting, but here in the Peak they had extra importance as an essential to the lead mining industry. So it is not surprising that many mining villages had a chandler’s workshop.

Knowledge of candle making developed from the earliest known lamps, which consisted of a fibrous wick of some sort, stuck into grease or oil which rose up the wick as fast as it burned away. The early Phoenicians are thought to have progressed into making solid candles by running a thread of yarn through beeswax. The tallow candle is probably Roman in origin and utilised the harder types of animal fat, although a few species of trees were found to yield vegetable tallow.

Until late medieval times, simple domestic lighting was provided by rushlights, made in the home by soaking the pith of a rush in melted household grease and leaving it to set. Rushlights were the forerunners of tallow dips - basic candles made by dipping a wick into a tank of melted tallow, drawing it out to set, then dipping and cooling again until it was thickened to size. A simple dipping frame allowed several to be made at once. Metal moulds were also used in the home, turning out perhaps half-a-dozen candles at a time, tapered for easy removal. A thread was run through the centre of each hollow cylinder before the melted wax was poured in from the broader end. Once hardened, the candles were simply tapped free.

Beeswax produced excellent candles but most people knew only the cheaper tallow variety. A combination of mutton and beef fat gave the best quality tallow; plain beef fat was second best and pig fat was cheapest of all, but gave off an unpleasant smoke. In the latter half of the 18th century a new fuel, spermaceti, became readily available. Obtained from the head of the sperm whale, this white waxy substance was also used as a base for ointments. In candle manufacture it was sometimes scented with plant oils, offering a pleasant alternative to smoky and smelly oil-lamps.

CASTLETON INKLE

The first commercial moulding machine with a continuous wick was invented in 1834, producing up to 500 candles at a time. Improvements to candlewick came with the introduction of thin plaited braids made from cotton and inkle (flax). Inkle was one of the products turned out by the rope makers of Peak Cavern at Castleton. This was the scene recorded around 1812: ‘On one side were the young girls belonging to the inkle manufactory, turning their wheels, winding thread, and amusing their companions with cheerful songs’. Elsewhere there is mention of ‘beggar’s inkle’ on sale at Ashford around 1820.

Because early wicks were not completely incinerated in the candle flame, the charred tip needed to be frequently snipped off, or ‘snuffed’. An important new process was invented in 1825, whereby candlewick was ‘pickled’ in a chemical solution. This allowed the burning ash to fuse and become completely consumed.

Derbyshire was the source of the world’s first paraffin wax candles. In 1847, the brilliant scientist Sir Lyon Playfair identified the presence of petroleum oil in a Riddings coal pit. The discovery led to the establishment of the country’s first oil refinery, but the enterprise seemed threatened when the condition of the oil changed. Playfair was consulted and recognised the presence of paraffin in the oil. This he extracted to produce two wax candles, used to illuminate one of his own lectures at the Royal Institution.

Paraffin wax candles came into wide use, often containing stearine as a stiffening agent. Meanwhile, the use of tallow continued for quite some time, especially in mining villages such as Stoney Middleton, Winster - in premises at the top of Woolley’s Yard, and Monyash, where a tallow candle factory operated behind the house known as ‘Chandlers’ on Rakes Road. The proprietors, Messrs Harrison, obtained their tallow from local butchers. And at least two generations of a family named Bobanks made candles near the village green at Tansley. In 1896 their former chandler’s shop and the adjoining properties were converted into living accommodation under the name Fir Cottages.

More than a century on and candles are still irreplaceable, popular now for their perfumed, decorative shapes and essential for occasions from birthdays to barbecues.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 2nd October 1995;
Updated 17th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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