Keepers of the flame

For 155 years Price's has made candles in its Victorian factory on the Thames. But now its future is in doubt. By Monique Roffey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Vats of molten candle wax stand near the walls like dark wells. In one corner long tubes of creamy white wax get chopped into smaller church candles, and then boxed by expert hands. Slabs of coloured wax, like great candy ingots, are piled up in columns. Christmas is a busy time of year at Price's Patent Candle Company, a Victorian factory on the banks of the Thames at Battersea.

"It certainly is," says Berry D'Arcy, the company's marketing assistant. "We sold pounds 8,000 worth of candles last Saturday alone." But while the last decade has seen a boom in the candle industry (since 1987 its worth has tripled to an estimated pounds 75m), at one time the industry was almost completely extinguished. "Around about the turn of the century, when gas was being used and electricity had just been invented, candles went out of use completely," she explains. "Until then, they'd been the only source of artificial light and had been used for centuries - the rich using beeswax, and the poor using the smellier and smokier tallow candles made from animal fat. It's only recently that candles have enjoyed a comeback and have been thought of as gifts."

Price's Patent Candle Company was established in 1830 byBenjamin Lancaster and William Wilson. Both were commodity brokers dealing in Russian tallow, who managed to acquire the new patent for making candles with palm oil. Going into "trade" at the time was rather looked down upon, so to hide their involvement with the business, they gave the company the name of a Miss R Price, Benjamin Lancaster's maiden aunt. They took over the site in Battersea and a 1,000-acre coconut plantation in Ceylon. When the factory first opened, barges carrying the palm oil from Ceylon would pull up at low tide right outside the factory walls, and unload their cargo. In the 1920s the barges were swapped for road tankers, and the palm oil for petrol oil.

Today the factory, a warren of rooms housing machinery and equipment, has changed very little since it was built. While some new equipment has been brought in, many of the original machines still exist. The techniques used include "extrusion", where hot wax is forced through a circular tube then chopped off (household candles are made like this), "compression", where "slugs" of wax are compressed from powdered wax (used for nightlights), and "moulding", where wax is poured into moulds to set (dinner candles are made like this).

One method of candle making practised at Price's dates back to Roman times. This is the hand-making of long church tapers. It is done by continuously dippinglong wicks into hot wax, or pouring hot wax down the length of them so that the wicks thicken gradually into long slender tapers. The process is slow and laborious. The four-foot long tapers hanging from a large wrought-iron carousel during my visit were being hand-dipped two or three times an hour, and would take weeks to complete. They are made on a commission-only basis for church clients. The company also makes enormous, shoulder height, tree-trunk thick candles for St Paul's cathedral which cost pounds 1,000 and take a year to make.

Attached to the factory is a large gift shop selling candles and candlesticks, glass jars, night lights, garden flares and other candle paraphernalia. Church candles are currently a big seller. "These were never considered fashionable for home use until recently," says Berry D'Arcy. "Now everybody wants them." Scented and aromatherapy candles are also a recent must- have."Scented candles were big in the Sixties," she says. "Now they've come round again, people can't seem to get enough of them." Also on sale are boxes of factory soiled seconds, easily good enough to use and almost half the price of regular candles.

Sadly, however, the factory will not be on the site for much longer. Charming it may be; efficient and profitable it isn't. "The machinery is too old and the drains keep getting blocked; we can no longer produce the amount of candles needed to supply demand, both here and overseas," says Richard Simpson, the company director. Over the past two years they have been working on plans to move the factory out to a cheaper site outside London, yet still keep a smaller "heritage" type factory making candles which would be open for the public to come and see.

Wandsworth borough council, however, has just turned down this plan. They were unhappy with it mainly because Price's also proposed a huge retail warehouse selling furniture, carpets and kitchen appliances on the old factory site. "They think we will be taking business away from other local retailers," says Richard Simpson. "But we'd done a professional study to see if this would be the case and found that the effects of our outlet on other retailers would be minimal. If anything, we would have brought more than a hundred new jobs to the area."

Price's may appeal against the decision, but, says Mr Simpson, "That takes a lot of time and money, neither of which we're terribly endowed with. It's all very depressing."

"So this may be the last Christmas at the candle factory," says Berry D'Arcy. "It's very sad for Price's and for Wandsworth because we've been here for so long and we're part of the community. But the harsh reality is that the building is old and the machinery is antiquated - we need today's technology."

All the more reason, perhaps, to rush along to Price's before it shuts. The company continues to make very fine candles, scented or unscented, fancy or plain. And if the late 20th century has finally tolled the death knell of the Battersea factory, it has at least shown that not even electricity can replace the charm of a plain old-fashioned candle.

Price's Patent Candle Company, 110 York Rd, London SW11 3RU (0171-801 2030). The "candle extravaganza" sale continues until the end of December in the shop, open Mon-Sat 9.30am-6pm, Sun 10am-4pm.

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