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Join our Light Procession and celebrate Kingston's forgotten candlemakers and lamplighters

Updated: Mar 7, 2023


Join us for a sunset procession and unique beacon lighting experience to celebrate the borough’s forgotten candlemakers and lamplighters.

Combining local history, folklore and fun, the free and family-friendly parade, led by the Kingston-based not-for-profit, will take place on Sunday 12 March from 5pm - see event page for joining info.

The route starts in Hogsmill Lane, near the Royal Mail depot, which was the former site of the borough’s largest candle factory from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century. (see the history below)

Participants will then retrace the steps the candlemakers would likely have walked centuries ago, following the course of the Hogsmill River downstream from the factory site to Kingston’s Ancient Market Place, where the company once had its shop.

COME AND SEE OUR GIANT 6-METRE-TALL BEACON


An artist's impression of a light beacon

Remaining off-road throughout, walkers will arrive in the marketplace shortly after sunset where they will be invited to add their homemade battery-powered lanterns to a 6m-tall temporary and upcycled wooden structure — forming a giant community-made beacon of light in the centre of Kingston (see artist's impression right >).


Farah Anwar, who is studying for an MA in Architecture at Kingston University, came up with the bright idea for the light procession as part of her coursework, which was designed in collaboration with The Community Brain and the university.

“Our project brief for this year encouraged us to uncover Kingston’s hidden past, and create a mythical story and character based upon historic research,” explains Farah.

“I was also interested in how the town changes from day to night and what could be added to improve Kingston's nightlife."

As part of the project, Farah also created a legend inspired by Kingston’s bygone lamplighters, who would criss-cross the town at dusk manually lighting the oil, and later gas, streetlamps.

An old-looking map of Kingston
The route of the procession from the former site of the candle factories to the Kingston's Ancient Market Place

A Brief History of Kingston's Candlemakers


In the late 18th century, if you were to follow the Hogsmill River upstream from Kingston your view ahead would likely have been dominated by half a dozen large brick chimney stacks billowing out thick smoke. These were the chimneys of Kingston’s oil mills, which produced soaps and candles for the townspeople.


These factories were so significant to the town that for more than 200 years the road used to access them was called ‘Oil Mill Lane’. Today, we know it as Villiers Road.


Originally, Kingston’s largest candle factory was owned by Mr Robert Raynard. His company produced beeswax and tallow candles, and rushlights, which offered more affordable lighting. Candles produced at the factory were sold from Mr Raynard’s shop in Kingston’s Ancient Market Place.


Around 1810 to 1820, Mr Raynard died, ending his reign as the primary purveyor of candles to Kingston. This role, however, was quickly filled by Mr James Smith, owner of Smith & Son Candles, which sold its produce from a shop around the corner from Mr Raynard’s, between Eden Street and St James’ Street. ome local historians suggest that James Smith worked for Mr Raynard and assumed control of his business on Raynard’s death. While he may have worked for Mr Raynard at an early stage of his career, by the start of the Victorian era, Mr Smith was a candle and oil magnate in his own right.


It is more probable, therefore, that Mr Smith was Mr Raynard’s main competitor in candles, who perhaps didn’t have the same local connections as Mr Raynard; Mr Smith’s candles were made outside of Kingston in factories in Staines and Hampton Wick.


One possibility is that James Smith bought Mr Raynard’s business after Mrs Raynard died in 1831. This would especially have been likely if the Raynards had no children of their own to inherit the business. Such a move would have given Smith the monopoly on candles in the borough.


Around the same time, the candle factory and oil mills beside the Hogsmill River that had produced Raynard’s candles were closed. Despite changing hands several times over the following decades, they were left empty for many years.


WG SMITH BRINGS CANDLEMAKING BACK TO KINGSTON


In 1875, James Smith died and his son W.G. Smith inherited the family business, renaming the brand W.G Smith. On the 14 August, in the same year, the Surrey Comet newspaper, which every week included large advertisements promoting Smith’s Eden Street shop, featured an open message from W G Smith to the people of Kingston. It read:

"W.G Smith, in answer to many enquiries, begs to state that he intends CARRYING ON the BUSINESS heretofore, and trusts to receive a continuance of the confidence with which my late father was so long honoured.”

The message was clearly well received and his business boomed by the latter half of the 19th Century. In 1878, the oil mills in Kingston’s Oil Mill Lane were up for sale again. This time, the advert stated the “oil mills can be worked immediately”. W.G. Smith must have seen the advert as he bought the factory and brought candle production back to the borough of Kingston.

Soon, the factory was back up and running. It reportedly produced as much as 40 tons of candles a week and refined paraffin wax and whale-based oils, which burnt for much longer and with fewer fumes and unpleasant odours, compared to traditional candles.

At the start of the 20th century indoor gas, and later electric lighting, were still only for the very wealthy and, even then, many simply didn’t trust the technology. This meant candles and oil lamps continued to be the main way to light homes for many people in Kingston.


FIRE AT THE MILL

The factory in Oil Mill Lane continued to operate turning out tallow candles and soaps as late as the summer of 1909. In July of that year, however, a newspaper report described how afire broke out at W.G. Smith’s factory in Oil Mill Lane. Fires involving oils and fats were notoriously difficult to extinguish. Fortunately, however, the article reported that fire tenders and crews from Kingston and Surbiton were able to put it out and there were no serious injuries only some “scorched necks”. W G Smith estimated the cost of the fire was around £960 – close to £150k in today’s money – which he said his insurance covered.


Approaching the 1920s, with gas and electric lighting becoming more widespread, W.G. Smith retired and the oil mills and candle factories alongside the Hogsmill River closed for good.



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