Four candles and the tragic tale of the Croydon tallow chandler

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: There was a time when those fragranced candles you might be burning to celebrate Advent were an essential part of people’s lives, as DAVID MORGAN explains

Advent candles: Croydon Minster’s first light of the season

December is a month for candles.

Their glow and significance in churches during Advent is a wonderful tradition.

Add in, too, the candles lit for the Jewish festival of Hannukah.

Candles are lovingly wrapped up for presents and can add something special to a home when they are burned to release a special fragrance. Spiced Clementine and Pomegranate, Lemongrass and Rosemary, Scottish Bluebells…

In the burial records of Croydon Minster there can be found the names of a couple whose lives depended upon candles. Thomas and Elizabeth Mackinder ran a tallow chandler business in the early years of the 19th Century. This would have involved the making and selling of candles and soap.

Their business could be found in commercial directories of the day. The earliest mention was in 1812 when Thomas Mackinder had premises at 4 Blandford Street in Marylebone. In the 1818 Johnstone’s London Commercial Guide they were operating from a shop at 1, East Street, off Manchester Square in Marylebone, as well.

After Thomas’ death in 1826, the business continued to trade successfully. Two new partners, Mr Harris and a Mr Bowles, opted to trade under the Mackinder name, it was so well-established. By 1842, the business had a second shop at 97 Crawford Street as well as the Blandford Road one.

Waxing well: the work of a 19th Century tallow chandler was hard and very smelly

A note in the burial register at Croydon Minster states that Thomas died on November 26 1826, aged 55, and that he passed away suddenly on the same day as Ann Harris.

Ann Harris was Thomas’s sister and was married to his fellow chandler, Samuel Harris. Samuel and Ann were married in May 1799 at St Giles-in-the-Fields, Marylebone, lived close to Thomas and Elizabeth Mackinder when the tragic deaths occurred.

A short newspaper entry reports Thomas’s death as happening first, with his sister dying away five hours later. Ann Harris was interred in the Croydon Parish Church graveyard. She was 56 when she died.

An inquest was held into Thomas’ death, convened by the coroner Richard Carter with “a respectable jury of gentlemen”, at the Half Moon tavern. The jury heard how Thomas had eaten a meal at “the usual hour on Sunday and was in perfect health”. After visiting his sister, who was ill, he returned home and went into the parlour. The maid heard a crash, followed by Elizabeth Mackinder screaming and found Thomas dead on the floor.

The coroner court jury’s verdict was “Death by a visitation of God.”

A tallow chandler’s business would have been a tough one, though the demand for candles would have been high. Some country folk would have made their own candles but the people living in the quickly expanding towns and cities needed tradespeople like the Mackinders.

It wasn’t until the development of the gaslight that domestic use for candles began to fall.

The word tallow refers to the substance used to create the candles. Tallow was made from animal fat. The quality of the candle depended on the type of fat used. A mixture of fat and water was boiled and then the mulch was pressed. The juice, or tallow, then cooled and was used to make the basis of the candle. Better quality candles had the impurities taken out. The boiling process would detach the muscle and membranes. Candles produced this way were often smelly, filled the house with smoke and the wicks would have needed to be constantly trimmed.

Two innovations would have helped Mackinder’s business during his lifetime. First, there came oil from the head of a sperm whale which could be made into a better-quality candle. Called spermaceti, this oil was crystallised to form a solid wax. When burned, there was little smell and it was likened to candles made from beeswax, which were the very best ones for customers who could afford them.

Growing business: a directory from the early 1800s shows Harris and Bowles continuing to trade under the Mackinder name at two shops. Not the distinction made between the chandlers using wax and those making candles from the cheaper tallow

The use of spermaceti allowed for the mass production of candles in the second half of the century using moulds and machinery patented by Joseph Morgan in Manchester.

The second innovation was in the improvement of wicks. Back in the 18th Century the better wicks had a few strands of animal hair or hemp fibre added to them so that the candles didn’t splutter so much. In the 19th Century the wicks were plaited so that as they burned, they curled. The tip burning off meant that the wick didn’t need to be trimmed all the time. The curl was achieved by the plait or braid of the wick being woven asymmetrically, with a few extra strands in one thread.

Tallow candles needed to be kept in candle boxes. If left around the house, they would soon be nibbled by vermin because of the animal fat from which they were made.

We discover a little more about the Mackinder family from Elizabeth’s will. After her husband died, she was able to continue living in the Coach House in Broad Green. Elizabeth was able to benefit from the rents of the houses on her late husband’s land during her lifetime. The profitable tallow chandler business had seen them comfortably off, with a large house in Broad Green away, from the centre of London.

Vital detail: Elizabeth Mackinder’s will, after her death in 1833, saw the break up of the estate around a house in Broad Green

The land and buildings had been held in trust until Elizabeth’s death, when they were to be disposed of and the money split three ways, between Samuel Harris, George Mills Rush and George Martin. Harris, the brother-in-law, was the tallow chandler who ran the business in Blandford Street. Rush was a linen draper from Bridge Street in Westminster, while Martin was a linen draper from Blandford Street.

The fixtures from the properties were to be valued after Elizabeth’s death and the proceeds from the sale to be split between three trustees.

No children from the marriage were mentioned in the will. Elizabeth had a brother, William, who was living in Red Rock, North America (she is no more specific than that).

She left some money to five named children who “are reputed to be William’s”. Elizabeth went on to say that there were three more children, unnamed in the will, who could have been fathered by her brother. They would also get an inheritance if paternity was proved in their favour. Such bequests depended on William being alive at the time of her decease. The wording of the will suggested that Elizabeth did not keep in regular touch with her brother.

Before her death, Elizabeth had added a codicil, to divide her clothes and wardrobe between her nurse Fanny Kimber and her servant Mary Charman.

Elizabeth lived as a widow for seven years after her husband’s death, dying on June 1, 1833, aged 69. She was buried with her husband in the Croydon church graveyard, though their headstone is one of several that have been lost over the last 180 years.

A Victorian cracker joke about tallow chandlers might have brought a Christmas giggle, or groan, to the dinner table…

Q: Who is the most evil tradesman on the high street?
A: The Tallow Chandler, because everything they do is wicked and all their wicked works are brought to light.

Happy Christmas.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

David Morgan, right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.

To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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3 Responses to Four candles and the tragic tale of the Croydon tallow chandler

  1. Margaret Chan says:

    As usual, an informative and very interesting piece of Croydon’s social history! I really look forward to David Morgan’s stories of life in Croydon in years gone by.

  2. John Ackland says:

    This a delightful insight into what would have been part of everyday life at that time.
    The tallow candle had an interesting evolution!
    I quite like the clever play on words of the Christmas Cracker joke.
    Thank you again, David for bringing the past to the present and increasing our understanding of our local history!
    A joy.

  3. Ed says:

    The Tallow Chandlers Company (a City Livery Company) historic hall exists next to Cannon Street station in the City

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