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Let there be light – The City of London and the Tallow Candle Trade

Let there be light – The City of London and the Tallow Candle Trade

Like most livery companies, the Tallow Chandlers’ origins lie in craft and trade. Tallow has been used as a source of fuel for artificial light for the last three millennia, and was the main source of affordable lighting in London for centuries.

A Medieval Market

The story of the Tallow Chandlers of London begins in Cheapside. In the markets of one of the poorest parts of the City, small workshops fronted with little shop fronts were used by candle makers to craft, display and sell their wares. Masters and their apprentices worked upwards of sixteen hours a day in these workshops, transforming tallow supplied by butchers into dipped and moulded candles.

These early Chandlers worked hard to make a living among the busy and often cutthroat trade of Medieval London, often taking on side-line ventures such as trading herrings and butter.

The Drunkard’s Cloak” – A Punishment for Producing Inferior Beer, or Public Drunkenness

Even by Medieval standards, the production of tallow was a disgusting and smelly job, and tallow producers were often moved about the City, due to complaints made about the stench of the rendering down process.

While the City enforced strict punishments for those for those found to be selling inferior goods, (dodgy brewers, for example, were forced to parade the streets wearing huge beer barrels) early craftsmen often had disputes over the quality of their raw materials. The Tallow Chandlers were no exception, with several accounts of them lodging complaints with butchers for supplying tallow that was mixed with butter, pig fat or even animal guts.

Street Lighting – A Tallow Candle

Craftsmen of the Tallow Chandlers Company produced candles that not only lit the homes of Londoners but also their streets. In the early Middle Ages, London’s streets were dangerous places at night, with the risk of accidents and robbery being particularly high. To combat this, street lighting was introduced. To light the streets, home owners were ordered to burn candles outside, and because they were cheaper than their wax equivalents, tallow candles were almost always used.

Challenges – A Gas Lamp Lighter

While earlier Chandlers held a monopoly on lighting in the City, by the end of the 17th century they were being challenged by other trades. In 1663, manufacturers of oil lamps came at odds with the Chandlers over the best way to light London’s streets. While oil lamps were cleaner and more reliable, the Chandlers were reluctant to give up their ancient rights.

The battle between the two parties was bitter, with the Chandlers holding up any plans for the City-wide installation of gas lighting until 1735 by citing various (and often ridiculous) concerns, including claims that lamp lighters would use their ladders to rob nearby homes.

Obsolescence – “Sperm Oil” Made from Whale Fat

While the Tallow Chandlers lost the battle to light London’s streets, they continued to be the main suppliers of light in London homes until the 19th century. However, with the advent of new candle making materials such as paraffin, steric, and whale oils, the Chandlers saw their trade becoming increasingly obsolete.

Eventually, of course, even the makers of these new candles were forced into obsolescence with the advent of electricity, and by this point the Tallow Chandlers had shifted their business interests to charity, education and property management.