A History of the Price's Candle Company
As extracted from the
Light has always been a symbol for human progress. On a spiritual level we move out of darkness and into light. On a practical level we do the same thing. If we can manufacture and control light, then many things become possible. We are no longer bound by the seasons, no longer compelled to rise at dawn or sleep out the winter. Light gives us time to work, to study, to create; light enables civilization.
The candle was one of the earliest forms of artificial light. Simple to produce, portable, adaptable, in some cases edible; for two thousand years it has lit the way for explorers, soldiers, priests and scholars.
Price's Patent Candle Company only started manufacturing candles in 1830. As such they were a comparative newcomer to an ancient trade, yet in their 170 year history have transformed the candle industry.
In the nineteenth century Price's discovered new inexpensive raw materials to replace 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.
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.
The story of the company contains in microcosm many of the elements of Britain's industrial success: risk taking, discovery and invention, scientific breakthrough, expansion, consolidation; and it is a story that continues today as people discover new reasons for burning candles.
"I was at a great
loss for candles; so
that as soon as ever
it was dark, which
was generally by
seven o'clock, I was
obliged to go to bed
……… The only remedy I
had was, that when I
had killed a goat, I
saved the tallow, and
with a little dish of
clay, which I baked
in the sun, to which
I added a wick of
some oakum, I made me
a lamp; and this gave
me light, though not
a clear steady light
like a candle."
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719
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.
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.
To make matters worse, for the last century there had been a heavy government tax on candles. The City of London Livery Companies of the Wax Chandlers and Tallow Chandlers still presided over an industry that was operating on mediaeval principles of small workshops comprising a master and his apprentices. The only major technical innovation had been the invention of candle moulds in the 15th century; candle-makers could now pour molten tallow into shaped pewter moulds. But beeswax could not be so moulded as it stuck to the metal; these candles still had to be made by the traditional processes of dipping and pouring. The only new candle material, derived from the eighteenth century whaling industry, was spermaceti - a white crystalline fat extracted from the head cavity of the sperm whale - which gave a pure bright light but was even more expensive than beeswax.
Even more worrying than the sleepy state of the industry was the fact that it was already effectively obsolete. William Wilson would have heard of the inventor William Murdoch who in 1792 had lit his house with a brand new product, coal gas; perhaps too he had heard rumours about Humphrey Davey who demonstrated his new-fangled electric arc lamp in 1808. Living in London as he did, he could not have failed to notice that for the last eighteen years the streets of Westminster had been lit by gas. He may not have been able to see the 122 miles of gas pipes already laid beneath the city streets, or actually count the 30,000 gas lamps, but they were certainly already there and the long-term future for the candle industry was already looking dim.
"Well,"said Jack, "I really think it will be worth doing. I've never been at the beggar's shop, and they say he lives well."
"Well, aye!" exclaimed his lordship; "fat o' the land - dare say that man has fish and soup every day."
"And wax candles to read by, most likely." observed Jack, squinting at the dim mutton-fats that Baggs now brought in.
"Not so grand as that," observed his lordship, doubting whether any man could be guilty of such extravagance, "composites, p'raps."
Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour - J.S. Surtees 1852
But there was a potential 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 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.
In the 1820's a French chemist, Chevreuil, had published his researches into fatty acids. By mixing a strong alkali with vegetable or animal fats he discovered that the solution separated into liquid and solid components. This technique known as 'saponification', was already used by soap makers, but nobody had employed it for candle manufacture. William Wilson's son, George, experimented with this process; by adding a further distillation using a vacuum or high pressure steam he improved Chevreuil's basic chemistry. Price's were now able to refine tallow and vegetable oils to produce a harder, pure white fat known as stearine. Candles made from this burned brightly without smoke or smell. The same chemistry could also be applied to a range of unsavoury raw materials that had previously been unusable - skin fat, bone fat, fish oil and industrial waste greases could all be rendered into hard white candles.
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.
Another of George Wilson's innovations allowed Price's to exploit a second overlooked tropical product. Palm oil, extracted from the palm nut was harvested and processed in West Africa. Soap makers were already using the oil but its dark orange-brown colour made it unattractive for candle-making. George devised a process for cleaning palm oil with sulphuric acid and a new cheap source of fat was available. There was an additional advantage to using palm oil. The region that produced the oil - the present day Ghana, Nigeria and Togo - was also the centre of the African slave trade. Slavery had been abolished in Britain and its colonies by 1838, but a huge and lucrative market for African slaves continued in the United States, Brazil and Arabia. Palm oil provided an economic alternative to that slave trade and was actively encouraged by the British government. Slavery had become immensely unpopular in Britain and 'politically correct' products like Price's palm oil candles and non-slave produced sugar were very popular.
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.
Price's was a successful company with a successful product; it made inexpensive stearine candles that burned almost as well as expensive beeswax candles. Success meant growth. The first of many takeovers came in 1849 when the business of Samuel Childs, a London nightlight manufacturer, was acquired. 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.
To any Victorian factory owner child labour was logical and attractive: it was cheap, flexible and in some cases carried out intricate tasks that adults were incapable of. At Price's nightlights and candle packaging were "turned out by the deft fingers" of its child employees. But if there was a single issue that enraged the British public as much as slavery did, it was factory child labour. Poets like William Blake and factory reformers like Robert Owen railed against the "dark satanic mills" where children were working for little money and often in dangerous conditions for up to twelve hours a day or night.
Unusually for an employer, Price's shared these concerns. The Wilsons were a deeply religious family. William had worked for the London Missionary Society in his youth and his son James was an earnest and evangelical Christian. James was so concerned for the well being of his child employees that in 1849 he had set up a Christian society at the factory. Each boy was given his "own drawer with lock and key in which to keep his own testament, prayer book, hymn book, arithmetic book, slate and copy book". Boys were encouraged to attend a religious service in the factory in the morning and to go to the factory school in the evening; they were rewarded with games of cricket and outings in the summer.
James's religious and education programme was radical for its time - it was most unusual for a factory owner to be treating his workers in such a way. Other examples of this attitude were the free breakfasts and suppers for night shift workers and warm baths for the boys.
Letters of support from prominent figures poured in. The novelists Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, both wrote enthusiastically about James Wilson's reforms. Beecher Stowe compared his work with her own campaign against slavery in the USA. There were even instances of ministers preaching sermons that urged their congregations to choose Price's products because of the company's treatment of its employees.
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.
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 position on black slavery and child labour added to the 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 1840 Price's had made the mistake of not patenting their composite candles, only to see rival candle manufacturers quickly copy their products. After this error they now protected all their inventions. The very name of the new company in 1847, Price's Patent Candle Company, acknowledged their intention to work patented processes. By 1858 Price's held 114 patents for different candle manufacturing inventions as well as working many other patents under license.
William Wilson's other son, George had become company chemist and, with his assistant George Gwynne, was responsible for many of these new chemical processes. The company acquired a reputation for innovation and it generally had first refusal to work any newly patented inventions. As well as industrial chemistry there was the development of mass production processes. In 1849 they installed a system that moved candle moulds round the factory on a railway. By 1864 a new method of ejecting candle from moulds using compressed air pushed candle production to 14 tons a day. A decade later increased mechanisation enabled Price's to produce 32 million nightlights a year and dominate that market. George was also responsible for the policy of only employing elderly, teetotal men to operate this candle-making machinery. It was believed that they would be less susceptible to the bribery and corruption of rival candle-makers anxious to pirate this new technology.
Price's processes for producing stearine gave them a distinct commercial edge over those competitors who were still making ordinary tallow candles. However there was a problem: the saponification and distillation processes that Price's used required two and a half times the quantity of raw material. Unless they could find a way of using the waste products a stearine candle would remain twice as expensive to produce as an ordinary tallow one.
One of the products separated out by saponification was 'sweet water', subsequently called glycerine. This was a non-flammable liquid and its separation was the reason that stearine candles burned better than tallow. George manufactured chemically pure glycerine by distillation and then actively promoted his new by-product. By 1870 it was being used as a treatment for burns and skin disease, as a food preservative, an additive to paints, a photographic emulsion, a suspension for vaccines and as a base for soaps - which Price's started to manufacture at Battersea in 1856. George Wilson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his pioneering development of glycerine.
The other product, a liquid fat called oleine, was separated from the stearine by compression. Wilson discovered that it could be used as a light lubricating oil and successfully marketed it to English woolen and cotton manufacturers as a 'cloth oil' for mechanical looms where it quickly replaced olive oil. This was the first of a whole new range of lubricating oils that
Price's would go on to develop. Ironically the glycerine and the oleine which Price's had been dumping in the Thames in the 1850's ended up commanding higher prices than stearine for candles.
"The Paraffine is the most beautiful candle material known, being more transparent than the finest spermaceti"
Price's report to shareholders, 1858.
The discovery of oil in Burma in 1854 was to affect many industries, which had previously used vegetable raw materials. Rubber, cotton, celluloid and candle manufacture were all to be affected by the new 'rock oil' or 'petroleum'. A Scot, James Young had already patented a process for making paraffin wax from distilled coal in 1850, but the discovery of oil transformed the new paraffin industry. Price's initially imported large quantities of oil from Burma to develop paraffin wax candles. The simple fractional distillation process then used on the crude oil gave four products: benzene marketed as a cleaning product for leather and furniture, kerosene for burning in lamps and stoves, paraffin wax for candle manufacture and a heavy waste oil for which there was no immediate use.
A large export market to the USA for kerosene quickly developed. This was enthusiastically supplied by Price's until massive oil deposits were discovered at Drake's well in Pennsylvania in 1859. This caused the price of all petroleum products to collapse. Price's were left with large quantities of Burmese Oil or 'Rangoon Tar' that was now only worth a quarter of the price they had paid 5 years earlier and with no market for their kerosene.
Fortunately they were able to turn a setback into an advantage. By experimenting with the heavy waste oil and by blending these mineral oils with animal and vegetable oleines, Price's developed a range of specific lubricants for rifles, sewing machines, bicycles, steam engines and gas engines. Along the way they took over other lubricant manufacturers including in 1889 the Manchester business of J. Veitch Wilson Halliday Ltd. John Veitch Wilson moved to Battersea as the head of Price's Lubricating Oil Department where he was responsible for the firm's later pre-eminence as a manufacturer of lubricating oils for petrol and diesel engines.
For the first thirty years of the twentieth century Price's dominated this market; their 'Huile de Luxe' and 'Motorine' were major products. 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 were 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.
"This flood of American petroleum poured in upon us by millions of gallons, and giving light at a fifth of the cost of the cheapest candle made by the company when it first started."
James Wilson, 1879
Between 1870 and 1900 the candle industry was transformed. When William Wilson had founded his company candles were still a staple product: one of life's essentials that everyone needed to have. Servants were provided with "bed, coals and candles" as part of their terms. Wilson may have been half aware of the threat posed by gaslight in 1830; seventy years later it was for real. Town gas had reached out to the smallest market towns in England. Burning oils like naphtha and kerosene provided a cheaper, brighter illumination than candles. The middle classes were being seduced by the new technology of electric light. Price's no longer had the advantages of patent protection on unique materials or new processes. Paraffin carried all before it. If in 1870 only 12% of candles were manufactured from paraffin wax, that proportion had risen to 90% by the turn of the century. Candle manufacturers were now dependent on a single raw material and were at the mercy of the cartels of Scottish and American oil companies who set the prices.
Price's had to react to these pressures. The new sources of lighting - gas, kerosene and electricity - had sent the price of candles lower and lower. The percentage profit on candles shrank but candle-makers could still remain in business by increasing the volume of their manufacture. Price's invested heavily in new machinery through the 1880's, designing and building 'state of the art' moulding machines and continuous production processes. New foreign markets were opening up in Australia and the colonies. But in an increasingly international marketplace there was sharp competition from Russian, French and Dutch candle-makers. Price's acquired a significant international presence and a new export manager when it took over the candle export firm of Beach & Co in 1892.
Expanding export markets also meant that Price's could run their high-volume plant all year round. Traditionally UK candle-makers had shut down in the summer when the home market was quiet. In a business with increasingly tight margins small companies went to the wall, and in the twenty years between 1892 and 1912 Price's took over eight other London candle manufacturers.
"The company's manufactures are to a large extent articles more or less of luxury." Price's annual report to shareholders, 1893.
Another response to competition was to change the nature of the product. The public might prefer gas or electric light in their homes but there was more than one way to sell a candle, as Price's was to prove convincingly. In 1850 the quality of a candle had been determined by 'technical' considerations - the amount of light it gave, whether it smoked, smelled, dripped grease or needed snuffing. Candles came in white, white or white and the different sizes merely determined the burning time. In 1870 the company had only manufactured eighteen different shapes or sizes. Between 1870 and 1900 Price's reinvented the candle.
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.
The labeling 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. However many wholesale customers required their own name on candles they sold which Price's was happy to supply; they had a design team and printing press on site which produced the tens of thousands of individual labels for customers ranging from Harrods to suburban corner shops.
If the domestic market was changing and shrinking, the overseas markets still remained buoyant. Price's had exported overseas since the 1860's. Many products, like their extra-hard candles for the tropics, were specifically designed and packaged for the climate. This was a market where stearine would continue to be used. Paraffin was a softer wax with a significantly lower melting point than stearine and paraffin candles had an unfortunate tendency to bend and distort in warm weather.
There had been a logic in the 1850's for building a factory at Liverpool to be closer to palm oil imports. Now at the beginning of the twentieth century candle manufacturers took the principle a stage further and started to locate their factories in countries that actually produced the raw material. Nearly all candle production was now paraffin based and Price's new commercial rivals were oil companies who chose to make candles as a by-product. The Burmah Oil Co based its candle production in Rangoon while the Asiatic Petroleum Company, using its Shell trademark had a candle factory on Sumatra in Indonesia close to its oil wells.
There were other compelling reasons for moving production overseas. Land and labour were cheap and production could be closer to markets that would continue to require candles for the foreseeable future. In the Third World countries of South America, Africa and Asia domestic electricity and gas supplies were not yet common. In many areas there were also cultural reasons for increased candle use. Catholic Latin America and the Buddhist and Hindu communities of Asia used candles extensively in religious ceremonies.
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, Morocco, Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
One on-going user of candles whose requirements did not change was the Church. Between 1910 and 1912 Price's took over two London candle manufacturers, Francis Tucker and Charles Farris, who were suppliers respectively to the Catholic and Anglican Churches. Tucker's was an old-established company founded in South Kensington in the eighteenth century before moving to Putney in South West London in search of cheaper land in the nineteenth century. Charles Farris's factory was in the City of London until they moved to Hounslow in West London for similar reasons. In 1906 Tucker's obtained the agreement of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales that all candles burned at Mass should contain 65% beeswax, thus guaranteeing a market for these candles. Both companies survive today as trademark names used by Price's for their beeswax church candles.
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 Artic and Antarctic. And today Price's continues to supply the British Army with their 'Table Lamp No. Two' for the same reason.
Price's had long had a close association with the Royal Family. From the earliest days when the launch of their new composite candle coincided with the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, there had been an ongoing 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 four warrants: in its own name for The Queen and The Prince of Wales and, in the name of Charles Farris, for The Queen and The Queen Mother. The company's special status as Warrant Holder means that it supplies candles for all Royal state occasions - coronations, weddings, lyings-in-state and funerals.
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 wedding and coronation and at the wedding of her son Charles to Lady Diana. Most recently the company supplied the candles for the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
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'. They were now diversifying within the fats market with interests in margarine and other new products. Price's, with its candles, soap and associated oil and fat products, was both a direct commercial rival and a way of diversifying. Significantly Price's factory at Bromborough also occupied the site adjacent to Lever's Port Sunlight works on the Mersey. Three years after the takeover Lever's entered into an agreement with what are now Shell, BP and Burmah Oil to create a new jointly-owned company, Candles Ltd, to take over Price's and all its subsidiary companies.
In 1936 Lever's came out of Candles Ltd, taking the Bromborough works and all the soap manufacturing rights with it. It continued to develop Bromborough for its specialist fatty acid production. The factory operates today as part of Unichems Ltd, producing a complex and sophisticated range of specialist fats and glycerides for the manufacture of cosmetics, polishes, ice cream, confectionery, soaps and detergents, printing inks, plastics and pharmaceuticals - all deriving from the basic industrial chemistry of separation and distillation that George Wilson was first exploring in the 1840's. Many of its employees continue to live in the Bromborough Pool village built by Price's.
Price's candle and lubricating oil manufacture at Battersea remained within Candles Ltd, controlled by the three oil companies. In 1951 the first multigrade oil, Price's "Energol",was developed at Battersea. Increasing demand for this highly successful product led BP to remove all the lubricating oil business to their oil refinery at Grangemouth in 1954 and rebrand it as their own products; this ended Price's hundred years of involvement with lubricating oils. BP and Burmah sold their stakes in Candles Ltd in 1982, leaving Shell as the owner.
Shell, who owned the company after Burmah and BP left in 1982, finally sold Candles Ltd in 1991. After a 145 interlude as a public company Price's Candles became a successful privately-owned business. Turnover increased five-fold between 1991 and 1998 and the company is once again the largest British-owned candle-maker with over 300 employees. The eleven acre Battersea factory site that started life in 1830 as a crushing mill for William Wilson's coconuts and went on to become the largest candle factory in the world, has contracted over the century. Less space was needed as Price's reverted to its core candle business and shed its soap and lubricating oil production.
Up until the 1970's Price's also had an international reputation for designing and manufacturing candle-making machinery; this ceased in 1980 and the engineering workshop space was vacated. Increasing production costs, the logistics of transporting raw materials into and goods out of a central London location and the increase in value of what is now a prime riverside location led the company to reconsider its position. In 1998 it 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 that 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.
Sometimes history does repeat itself. William Wilson set out in 1830 with a bizarre idea for making candles from Sri Lankan coconuts. Now, 170 years on, the company he founded returns to Sri Lanka in search of the perfect candle for the twenty-first century. The brand new factory at Biyagama which opened in 1998 currently supplies Price's distribution companies in America, Australia and Europe and extensive export markets in forty countries. Significantly the factory also houses the company's new Research and Technology centre. One of its briefs is to look again at vegetable stearine from coconuts. Paraffin as a by-product of crude oil, is necessarily a finite fossil fuel, whereas coconuts are a green renewable resource that we can safely and economically return to as a future candle material.
Unfortunately, in 2001, succumbing to the rising costs of raw materials and the vastly increasing competitiveness and price consciousness of the market, Price’s Patent Candle Company filed for administration. An Italian company, Cereria Sgarbi Sp.A., bought the company before, in turn, being bought two years later by SER Wax Industry in the summer of 2003.
SER, another Italian owned company, is Europe’s leading raw wax materials manufacturer and what is now Price’s Patent Candles Ltd. was seen as a sensible acquisition; as a route to market and as an opportunity and challenge to both maintain Price’s heritage and return the company to it's former status. SER, headed by two Italian chemist brothers, Giuseppe and Piergiorgio Ambroggio, has wasted no time in turning the company around, amalgamating production at its site just outside Turin. Having made this move and invested heavily on updating machinery and improving supply routes, the company has come out fighting stronger than ever.
The head office and distribution centre of Price’s UK moved to Bedford, Bedfordshire where it remains today, servicing national stores, thousands of independent shops and exporting to dozens of countries. Whilst Price’s strives to maintain the original feel of the company, still producing candles from stearine for example, it is looking to become once again a world-leading, unified brand. The company aim to achieve this through innovative, quality products and second-to-none customer service.
With a stable platform, products of immaculate quality and a dedicated task force, Price’s will continue to hold a candle to the world.
Still the candle burns…