We Made It: Candle Maker Ted Thompson

Providing the Jacobean glow for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe has made quite a difference to Ted Thompson's candle-making operation. He started Moorlands Dipped Candles in Cumbria over 30 years ago, after stints as a trainee surveyor and a joiner. These days he is a well-known local personality in Alston and his candle-making business, of which the Playhouse accounts for about a fifth of the turnover, is flourishing.

Inspired by a Danish friend, Kurt Saybe, he set about teaching himself the traditional craft of dipping candles, first with paraffin wax and then beeswax, learning by trial and error. "It's very specialised; not many people are doing it. I've taught someone else now how to get the wicks right and learn the properties of wax."

The aristocracy would have had their candles made from beeswax in the Seventeenth Century while the poor made do with cheaper, often smelly, tallow from animal fat. The company does make some tallow candles for "heritage" displays in museums, while churches tend to keep the cost down by ordering 25% beeswax mixed with paraffin wax or soy wax. But, along with most of Moorlands' output, the Playhouse candles are made from beeswax. It is no wonder that it is expensive: "For every 20 tons of honey the bees produce, you get a quarter of a ton of wax," says Thompson. "The best quality is the 'capping' wax which seals the cells [of the honeycomb]".

As far as possible, he uses relatively local wax, often from beekeepers in Yorkshire. When that is impossible, especially late in the year, it comes from other countries, including Poland and Germany. The European wax arrives already "pelleted", in small pieces, the English is cast in buckets. "It can come in all sorts of states, but when it's clean it's a goldy colour", says Thompson.

Each candle is handmade. "You start with the wick and build up the candles by dipping." The wicks, made from threads of bleached cotton woven together (or unbleached for tallow candles), come mainly from Barcelona. "There are different sorts, but these work best".  The candles, in concentric metal frames, are dipped at intervals in the melted wax, heated in stainless steel boilers. "It mustn't boil - it gets darker as it gets hotter." And, of course, it mustn't get cold until the process is complete. Using this method, Moorlands produces a daily average of 450 pairs of candles, joined in twos by the wick at the top.

The tapering candles ordered by the Globe are ten-and-a-half inches tall, three-quarters of an inch in diameter at the base. To Thompson that is a domestic standard size, but it also happens to match dimensions calculated from contemporary records by Professor Martin White, the Globe's advisor on lighting in Renaissance theatres. Six chandeliers hold 72 candles between them and others are placed in pairs in sconces on pillars around the auditorium. That adds up to thousands of candles over a season, each costing 85p and sent to the theatre by courier in batches. The Globe regularly sends the ends back for melting down again.

The candles must burn down evenly during a performance for best effect.  To ensure this, an exacting process takes place whereby they are burned for 1 hour 30 minutes before each performance, at which point they get snuffed, wicks are trimmed and they are relit. The Playhouse also has an air handling system that ensures they burn evenly.

Thompson says that he heard that his company was chosen from 67 researched by the theatre before the Playhouse opened in January 2014. The relationship seems to be flourishing as the Globe takes productions to other indoor venues, including churches (King John is touring this Summer) and the West End (Farinelli and the King will be at the Duke of York's in September) and ever more candles are needed.

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