Let there be light!

By Maggie Chaplin, First Published 2016

This time of the year brings shorter days and the nights draw in. Suddenly the lights dim and die signaling a power cut. Not such an unusual occurrence in the villages of the Four Shires. Now where on earth did you put those candles? After groping around in the dark and bashing your shins on the coffee table you finally locate where they were hidden. Thank goodness the matches were in the same drawer, but it takes several attempts to get one to light.

Today we’re used to getting illumination at the flick of a switch, but many of the Four Shires villages didn’t get electricity until the 1950s. Imagine it – within living memory, in rural areas there were no electrical goods such as fridges, freezers, irons, ovens, toasters nor kettles. There was no TV and more importantly, although it may not seem like it, no electric light. In the dim and even not so distant past, our forebears were very much governed by day length. In the winter months the past really was dim and if anything was to be achieved some form of artificial light was essential.

One attribute that marks man out from the rest of the animal kingdom is his ability to exert some sort of control over his environment. There’s archaeological evidence that as far back as 70,000 years BC our primitive ancestors were creating a form of portable lighting to augment firelight. Dried moss, grass or wood shavings, soaked in animal fat would be placed in shells or small hollow rocks and ignited with embers from the fire. It would be a dim light and there’d be lots of smoke. If hunting was poor you’d have a choice: satisfy your hunger or get a glimpse of your surroundings after dark.

The candle came much later – probably around 3000BC when the Egyptians were known to have used the principal of wrapping solid or semisolid inflammable material around a fibre wick to provide artificial light. In Britain it’s unlikely that anything resembling a candle was used before the Roman Invasion that started in the 40s AD. From then on, for the next 1800 years the candle, in some form or other was probably the most ubiquitous form of lighting used.

Light was regarded as being very precious, and so gained sacred connotations, and in the Middle Ages candles featured prominently in religious ritual. Generally, though, they were out of reach of the general population because only the wealthy could afford them. Even then the light they provided was meagre compared with what we’re used to. The BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall that was shot by candlelight confirmed that.

During the sixteenth century ordinary people’s living standards improved and candles became commonplace as is evidenced by the appearance of candlesticks in household inventories. Even so, the rising and setting of the sun still had a tremendous influence on people’s way of life, and in the long winter evenings, families would gather round the hearth for light as well as heat. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century when technological developments meant candles could be mass produced cheaply that their use was widespread in all homes.

Before that was there no better means of providing cheap domestic lighting than burning greasy moss in a hollow stone? Well, yes, there was – the rush light, which could easily be made at home. The common rush Juncus effusus grows in damp meadows and is widespread. The stems that are about 2mm in diameter are green and tubular and contain a soft white absorbent pith that when soaked in waste kitchen fat made a passable taper that would burn for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Rushes reach maximum size in late summer, when they were collected, topped and tailed, and most of the skin stripped off to leave a thin strip to support the fragile core. This was a fiddly job. When dry the prepared rushes were drawn through melted fat in a wide boat-shaped pan on legs, called a grisset, which had been heated on the fire. Care was needed not to set the pan alight! Then the soaked rushes were laid out to dry on a piece of bark. The dried spills were burned at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees in the jaws of a special rushlight holder, usually made of wrought iron by the local blacksmith.

Rushlights continued to be used in rural areas, wherever the common rush was to be found, at least until the late nineteenth century. Although candles were available, they were expensive – hence the expression: “The game isn’t worth (the cost of) the candle”. Candles were taxed and whereas an Act of Parliament in 1709 banned the making of candles at home without a licence, this didn’t include rushlights, so they were a cheaper option – if you had surplus fat available to make them with. Agricultural labourers were poorly paid and could often only afford a little meat once a week and any surplus fat was eaten as bread and ‘dripping’, and so in winter a significant portion of the family budget was spent on candles.

Up until the 1709 Act, in rural areas candles would be made on the farm, from the fat or tallow from bullocks or sheep. Mutton tallow produced the best candles because it was hardest; cheaper ones were made solely from beef tallow; generally a mixture of the two was used. You’d not want to use pig fat unless you were prepared to be enveloped in a thick black cloud of foul-smelling smoke when you lit your candle. Whatever the source of the raw fat, processing it to remove impurities, such as bits of skin and membrane, was not the favourite job on the farm. A cauldron full of hot animal fat was smelly and a potential fire hazard.

The simplest home-made candles were produced by threading a series of cotton wicks on to a rod – called a broach – and then dipping them into a vat of molten tallow. They were dried on a rack then repeat dipped until suitably thick. Better, more uniform candles were made in moulds. The wicks were threaded through holes in the conical ends of the moulds, and the other ends looped over a wire rod to keep them taut. The finished product was stored in specially designed metal candleboxes, to avoid being devoured by hungry mice!

In the towns and cities candles were made in bulk from the same raw materials as had been used for thousands of years. This changed when a process was discovered to separate out one of the components of tallow, stearine that made harder, brighter burning candles. This was in 1825, and soon after that, paraffin wax was developed, which meant that even better quality candles could be produced relatively inexpensively.

At around the same time, technological advances in manufacture and the repeal of the candle tax of 1709 led to commercial production of candles on a grand scale. In the mid-nineteenth century cheap, bright candles became widely available to everyone.

To be useful, candles needed to have holders so they could be positioned to best effect. Only the wealthy would have fixed wall brackets, chandeliers or candelabras. In the ordinary domestic household candlesticks made from wood, or metal would feature. In medieval times the candle would be fixed on a spike or pricket at the top of the holder. Later a socket to fit the candle in was more common. Getting the stump of the old candle out could be a problem, and you wouldn’t be aiming for the extensive dribble down the side favoured by some dimly lit restaurants today, so candlesticks were often equipped with a lever to eject the plug of old tallow.

You’d take a candle with you upstairs to bed in what was termed a chamber stick. This had a short holder, a wide drip tray for stability, and a carrying handle. Sometimes you’d need illumination outdoors and for this the candle needed protection against the elements, so various forms of lantern were developed with panels of glass or thin translucent horn, and top louvres for ventilation. Lanterns were also safer to use in farm outbuildings to reduce the fire risk posed by a naked candle.

Candles were superceded as a source of artificial light at first by oil lamps, then gaslight, which was mostly only available in towns and cities and it wasn’t until the 1950s that almost everyone had access to electricity. Candle production though is still a significant industry.

Candles can serve special functions: in churches, as night lights, to remember loved ones, to deter insects or to perfume a room. They can be jelly-like, made of shaped wax, or of rolled beeswax and may be coloured or elaborately decorated. To hold them a variety of unconventional containers are often used: glasses, bowls, teacups and tins for example. We’ve all got some in the house – somewhere. Fancy a touch of romance? A few strategically placed candles should do the trick. And what would a Christmas carol concert be without the gleaming light of hundreds of candles?

Although no longer a part of everyday life, candles will never be obsolete. A soft flickering flame has a timeless charm, but an hour or so is quite enough and it’s a great relief to hear that reassuring clunk when the power’s restored after an outage. Let there be light!

With thanks to the Filkins Museum for information and access to their collection of lighting artifacts.