Delve into flenting history! The following is greatly abridged from volumes 3 through 11 of "Sine Qua Non: A Brief History of Rentisham's" by Guy Rentisham and Michael Rentisham-Ffoulkes (Casterville Press, 1955).
History does not reveal the identity of the first Englishman to blend waxes, oils and subtler ingredients into the emollient and flegative compound that was the ancestor of Rentisham's Traditional Flenting Wax. Primitive urns found in the West Kennett Long Barrow show residues of what some archaeologists believe to be a primitive flenting compound, but extensive analysis has failed to settle the matter one way or another.
There are few biblical references to flenting (the most notable exceptions being 2 Timothy 3:13 and Micah 1:4), and it may even have been suppressed over unfounded fears that it encouraged an unseemly over-appreciation of suppleness and comfort. Even the Romans seem to have overlooked flenting (if, indeed, it existed at that time) during their stay in these blessed Isles, even as the British climate wreaked havoc with their ballistae and onagers.
The first definitive references to flenting are, perhaps not surprisingly, from sailors and milliners who had long relied on the flegative qualities of flenting wax. Each trade claims for itself the invention of true flenting wax, and this centuries-long dispute is still remembered in the ceremonial "passing of the bands" by the Most Forthright Guild of Milliners, and by the "pusser's toast" aboard Royal Navy ships, though few understand its significance.
Quite how flenting - and the formulation of the wax - slipped into wider English culture is something of a mystery. Some say that, toward the beginning of the Norman Visit of 1066-1089, English sailors sang a popular ditty praising the central role which flenting had played in keeping their vessels seaworthy through one of the worst winters on record. ("Se cielegiclas niþeronwend fram se húnsporwas/Ac se flenþan weax beláf on ahlog andlong", set to the traditional folk tune of "The Otter's Lament"). This ditty circulated first among the alehouses of Southampton, and then made its way north, giving many inland people their first encounter with the term.In any event, flenting wax was being produced in sufficient quantities, and was held in sufficient esteem, that settlements known to produce it were noted in the Domesday Book.
One of the several entries in the Domesday book dealing with flenting wax. This entry records the production of flenting wax in communities in the English midlands
By about 1250, we find records of its usage not only by sailors and hat-makers, but by archers, fletchers, coopers, tanners, book-binders and, perhaps surprisingly, bakers - though nobody has ascertained for what purpose. By about the middle of the last millenium, however, flenting receives little mention in recorded history; it had become so widely established in so many areas of life that it attracted little attention.
Canoeing further along the river of time to the 1700s, we come to Plassey's ill-fated voyage to the Andaman Islands. You will no doubt be familiar with the general nature of the misfortunes which befell his party, but perhaps not with the ultimate cause of the tragedy which cost the lives of Plassey over two-thirds of his men in the fetid jungles of that ill-starred land. Popular history, of course, makes much of Plassey's inability to distinguish between the dipthongs "-aio'e" and "-eio'e", and hence between the local words for "palace" and "gentleman's facilities"; and it is quite true that it was this misunderhension which led to his men having to flee across the interior of the island. But even then, they might all have survived had it not been for the woefully inadequate qualities of their supply of flenting wax.
In the humid heat of the Andamanean rainforest, their flenting wax "did cloud and run forth from every crevice where it had been so laboriously applied, causing rapid deterioration of the parts so treated". With their supplies, harness, crowthers and even the leather-bound handles of their machetes failing before their eyes, they had almost abandoned hope. Plassey himself broke down under the strain and eventually succumbed, along with the greater part of his men, to amoebic calumnitis.
It was at this juncture that the youngest and most inexperienced member of the expedition, slumped fevered against the base of a towering Myanmar Palm, had the revelation that saved the day. Its leaves, he observed, were coated with a waxy substance which, when scraped off with a triping blade, remained firm and supple even in the infernal heat.
That young man was Benthamby Rentisham. Within four days, Benthamby and the rest of the men had harvested enough Myanmar Wax to re-flent their failing essentials, and set off once again on their eastward journey. It took them over a month to cover the forty or so miles and, during that hellish battle with heat, insects, and all the rude insults which the jungle affords, Benthamby made a solemn vow: if he survived and saw England again, he would make it is his life's work to ensure that no Englishman should ever be placed in peril for want of a good flenting wax.
Benthamby Rentisham, our Founder.
The party eventually emerged on the eastern shoreline where they were able to rendezvous with the expedition's two remaining ships and, three months later, finally set foot on the waters of the Thames from which they had sailed with such high hopes two years previously.
Benthamby was as good as his word and, together with the First Mate 'Salty' Purvis of the "Islet of Langerhans" (who had lost an elbow to bacterial sepsis on the voyage home), established a small laboratory in the grounds of Rentisham Manor and set about formulating what he determined would be the finest flenting wax possible. He quickly found that Myanmar wax, though extremely good in a warm climate, crystallized in the chill of an English winter. Carnauba wax, on the other hand, remained pliant, supple and flegative over a wide temperature range and formed the ideal base for the composition.
A recontruction of the laboratory in which Benthamby conducted his early trials. This laboratory forms part of the 'World of Flenting' tour at the modern Rentisham's factory.
However flegativity is, of course, only one of the qualities essential to a good flenting wax. Emollience, stability, ease of application, lack of irritation and chafing... a good flenting wax must have all of these properties and more. Benthamby's notes, preserved in the Rentisham Archives, detail over seven hundred formulations which he tried. "January 12th, 1794 - carnauba, ouricury, turpenteen [sic] and carrageenan, 8:3:1:1. Blends well, gacks like a charm, looks promising."; "January 13th, 1794. Another combustion; Salty's beard irredeemably damaged- this is more than a man can bear." - these brief extracts from his notebook give a flavour of the trials through which he went. But, on June 21st 1796, we find the last and triumphant entry in his journal: "Composition 766 - flegative, emollient and more! My search is at an end. Salty much relieved."
Within a year, Benthamby had obtained Letters Patent for his "Superior Flenting Wax Suitable for Application to All Necessary Parts in All Climes", and the first canisters with their distinctive green and yellow markings appeared on the shelves of Beddis and Beddis (now, alas, no more). For the first five years, all of the wax (known then simply as "Composition 766") took place in the former malting barn of Rentisham Manor, and Benthamby himself oversaw the assaying of the ingredients and the processes of blending, gacking and maturing. He and Salty were soon overwhelmed by the demand and, over the next seven years, the staff of the embryonic Rentisham's grew to twelve people.
The Move to the Richmond Road mill
By 1804, the facilities at the Manor were proving inadequate to meet the growing demand for Composition 766, and the move was made to the purpose-built mill on Richmond Road. A growing workforce, and sound business sense, saw annual production pass the 100,000lb mark in 1809.
Demand from the armed forces (who had, hitherto, delegated the manufacturer of military flenting waxes to the Royal Armouries) further doubled output by 1811. The British Army had for many decades lagged behind in the implementation of flenting, relying on outmoded techniques and on very sub-standard and inconsistent waxes. It was not until Lord Arthur Wellesley's men at Assaye suffered heavy losses in the Anglo-Maratha conflicts in 1803-4 that a real effort was made to rectify matters. Wellesley's army, exposed to heat, humidity and the extensive chafing consequent upon long marches across rough country, lost more men through inadequate flenting than through enemy action and, upon his return to England, he instigated a thorough review of flenting practices and supplies. He concluded that only two waxes - Rentisham's 'Composition 766' and Bister & Fopp's 'Universal' - were potentially suitable to address all the needs of infantry, cavalry and other uses. To decide which was the better of the two, he instigated the 'Poona Trials', pitting one wax against the other. Over two thousand men were divided into two groups, each using one of the two waxes, who marched, rode and manoeuvered for over four weeks in the heat and humidity of the Indian summer. A detailed examination of the men and their equipment revealed beyond doubt that Composition 766 alone had retained its emollient and flegative qualities, and henceforth Composition 766 became standard issue for all British armed forces. Wellesley's efforts were fully repaid during the Napoleonic Wars, when the superiority of Composition 766 over the waxes (often tallow-based) used by the French forces was a telling factor in many skirmishes. Bister and Fopp remained in business for many years, but the business gradually contracted before consolidating itself as 'Fopp' in 1877 and concentrating on the civilian recreational market.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 - 'Composition 766' finally gets a name!
At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Composition 766 was proudly exhibited at a prominent position in the Great Hall. The demonstrations of 'flenting ancient and modern' ran twice daily, and were performed by employees to specially commissioned music performed by the Rentisham's Brass & Theremin Ensemble. The Rentisham's exhibit was honoured by the presence of Her Majesty, and Benthamby himself was proud to be able to present her with a ceremonial gold brining awl and a scale model of her State Carriage fashioned from Composition. During their conversation, Her Majesty remarked to Benthamby that neither she nor Albert travelled 'without a small tin of your traditional flenting wax'. This remark caused Benthamby to rename Composition 766 "Rentisham's Traditional Flenting Wax", the name it retains to this day.
The Rentisham's assaying and formulation lab, ca.1812. An elderly "Salty" Purvis is standing just behind the sink, supporting his right arm with its prosthetic elbow;he is seen discussing the latest test results with the then assistant blender "Lofty" Tallperson, wearing the fireproof boots and neck-brace. In the foreground, seated, is Coley Bempton, grandfather of Alden.
Shortly after the Exhibition, Benthamby was laid low by a return of the amoebic calumnitis which he had contracted in the Andamans, and which had lain dormant for almost sixty years. Fevered and wild-eyed, he passed away a few weeks later, soothed by the knowledge that he had founded an empire which would outlive him in the hands of his two eldest sons, Arthur and Richard.
Dark days - 1895 and the infamous "bad candelilla wax" incident
As the century approached the point of beginning to draw to a close, production at the Richmond Road mill was running like a well-flented machine, with demand always rising just ahead of supply. Perhaps the long years of peace and prosperity had led to the faintest whiff of complacency, or perhaps no-one could have foreseen and forestalled the events which were about to unfold.
Reports of "something not quite right with the Wax" started to trickle in toward the end of 1895. A colonel in Dorking had lost the greater part of his hair in what he had described as a "quite unprovoked conflagration"; a hedge-layer in Thepple Boskett reported being blown "half way through the wickets" in a small explosion involving a near-empty canister of Rentisham's; and the pleasure steamer 'Agapantha' was lost when fire broke out in a small cabin in which Rentisham's was stored.
The tragic fire on the "Agapantha", as depicted in a contemporary lithograph.
Urgent investigations were begun, and it was soon established that all three incidents - and a number of lesser ones - involved Rentisham's manufactured in August and September of that year. For the first and only time in the history of the company, a recall notice was issued for all Wax from that batch.
Analysis by Rentisham's chemists quickly established that the fault lay in a bad batch of candelilla wax, which had been 'stretched' by an unscrupulous supplier by adding a large percentage of pistachio oil. This oil, in turn, had slowly reacted with the carnauba and, upon contact with air, was found capable of spontaneously combusting under certain conditions.
The news rocked the flenting world and, for a time, Fopp took a dominant position in the market as Rentisham's licked its wounds, tried to re-establish confidence amongst its customers, and sued the candelilla merchant for an undisclosed sum. Trust in the Wax was barely restored by the turn of the century, and it was only the personal assurances of Arthur Rentisham that led to Scott taking Rentisham's with him on the Discovery expedition of 1901. Tragically, on the later Terra Nova expedition, Scott had left the supply specification to Oates who, having lost a great-aunt on the "Agapantha", substituted a lesser brand in place of Rentishams. Historians agree that this substitution played a small but perhaps pivotal role in the tragic outcome of that venture.
World War I - Rentisham's takes to the air
The English pioneers of powered flight had found that the continuous and rapid airflow called for some form of protection, for man and machine alike, and few of the early airmen left the hangar without discretely applying a dab or two of Rentisham's where it mattered.
With World War I, thousands of young men found themselves grasping their joystick and hoping for the best. The Royal Flying Core was quick to appreciate the need for a steady supply of flenting wax, yet most of the available stock had been taken for the cavalry. In 1916 Asquith himself sent a Section 34 to Stopes Rentisham (who had taken over as director in 1904) requesting that two thousand pounds per annum of flenting wax "of a lower yet still serviceable grade" be made available, and that it was to be supplied "at cost" which, the relevent ministers had determined would be no more than one shilling per pound!
Stopes was said to be apoplectic upon receiving the Section 34, not because of the impossibly low price but because, as he put it, "the phrase 'lower yet serviceable grade' is not a bloody part of Rentisham's vocabulary!". He promptly had the entire stock of Rentisham's finest stamped with "Grade B" and ordered it delivered immediately to the Flying Core headquarters. Stopes' refusal to lower standards even in wartime ate deeply into the comany's fortunes, but neither the Flying Core nor the cavalry ever went into action inadequately flented. For many years after the war, Stopes would occasionally be accosted by former pilots or cavalrymen who told him that the 'Grade B' had saved their lives, and was 'very nearly as good as the regular stuff'!
You may also be interested to know that, during the War, Rentisham's found a number of other uses. Its well-known flammability meant that it could be used to fashion improvised flares which burned with a bright grey flame and an odour said to be unmistakable. Gunners also discovered that a thin coating of Rentisham's on artillery shells not only helped to reduce wear on the barrel of the gun, but also caused the shell to glow brightly in flight. This, of course, led to the development of 'tracer' rounds which made possible the accurate aiming of guns at night.
World War II - Rentisham's find new uses
In 1938, Stopes Rentisham passed on the baton to his seventh son, Guy 'Boffo' Rentisham - then a snip of a lad and just down from Cambridge, where he had been Senior Wrangler of his year in Topology and Linguistic Mechanics. World War I had taken its toll on Stopes, and as the stormclouds gathered for a rematch, he knew that a younger man was needed at the helm.
Boffo set about modernising and expanding the business, launching a range of flenting accessories and introducing new packaging and new pack sizes aimed at professionals and amateurs alike. He also saw to it that Rentisham's was the first product to be available to English consumers in the form of an aerosol canister - at least until safety concerns led to this line being withdrawn. Rentisham's technical department has revisited this topic several times over the last few decades, but the ever accelerating pace of health and safety legislation has always kept one step ahead of him.
During the late 1930s, Boffo could see which way the wind was blowing, and had already begun to stockpile Wax and to prepare the Richmond Road mill for increased production. So, when another Section 34 arrived in January 1940, Rentisham's was able to take the sudden increase in demand in its stride.
Churchill personally signed the Section 34 issued to Rentisham's in 1940, ensuring the continued supply of the Wax throughout the war years.
Many people have commented on the adaptability of Rentisham's Traditional Flenting Wax to the many new demands placed upon it, and have tended to assume that the Wax was reformulated and 'modernised' to cope with these demands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst production methods were updated and improved regularly, the formulation of 'Composition 766' has proven time and time again that perfection cannot be bettered.
To list the roles which Rentisham's played in World War II would be to list the events of the War itself. The 'bombes' of Bletchley Park, the 'mousetrap bombsight' used by the night-fighters, the throaty roar of the Spitfire's engine...all depended upon one of the few constants in a world of turmoil - Rentisham's Traditional Flenting Wax. One little-known fact is that the release gear for Barnes Wallis' famous 'bouncing bomb' depended upon Rentisham's, which lubricated the heavy drive belt that set the bomb spinning before it was dropped. In the famous 'Dambusters' film of 1955, this fact was alluded to in the original script; but specific mention of Rentisham's was removed at the request of the War Ministry before the film reached the screen.
Spitfire production line at Castle Bromwich. Rentisham's was used extensively in the assembly of the sliding canopy from 1942 onwards, where it was found to be far superior to the banana oil used hitherto.
Allied Prisoners of War, in particular, were grateful for the supply of Rentisham's in Red Cross parcels, and were particularly imaginative in finding new uses for it. In the famous escape from Stalag Luft III (immortalized in the film 'The Great Escape'), it was empty Rentisham's tins, joined end-to-end, which provided the ducts used to ventilate the tunnels. (During the making of the film, this fact was glossed over due to restrictions on apparent advertising of particular products.) Rentisham's was also found to be capable of turning German-issued blankets a grey-blue colour, and was used to create fake German greatcoats for the escaping PoWs.
One amusing use for Rentisham's, devised by PoWs, was in the writing of 'invisible' messages. German guards had long since realized that many of the letters sent home by the prisoners contained hidden messages written in lemon juice, which could be made visible by heating the letter over a candle flame. The guards therefore took to holding all outgoing letters over a flame to discover such messages. The PoWs were well aware of this, and one Scots prisoner (Ralph 'Second Degree' Burns) devised a wheeze of writing the 'secret' messages in Rentisham's instead. The guards, watching closely for the hidden message to appear over the candle flame, would just have time to read "Hitler has only g.." before the inevitable conflagration.
By close of play in 1945, over 17,000 tons of Rentisham's had been supplied for combat. Boffo was honoured with an OBE in 1947, although the full role played by Rentisham's was not appreciated until many years later, as documents were declassified.
The '60s - Rentisham's and the space race.
Despite the long and illustrious history of Rentisham's, it would be a mistake to think that it belongs to a bygone era. This fact was driven home during the '60s, in one of the few instances where 'Composition 766' has been supplied transatlantically.
In the wake of John Glenn's pioneering orbital flight of February 1962, celebrations at NASA were tempered by the knowledge that the successful conclusion of the Mercury mission had been achieved by only the narrowest of margins. Both before and during the mission, valves controlling the flow of liquid oxygen had given problems, failing to open promptly or to close fully. This, in turn, caused caused a near-disastrous problem with attitude control.
Hardware for further missions as far ahead as 1965 was already under construction or completed, and a solution to the problem could easily have entailed a major redesign, at a cost of thousands of millions of dollars. It was only the purest good fortune that one of the senior engineers at Rockwell was an Englishman who not only understood the problem, but was also famliar with Rentisham's. With the future of space exploration on the line, and following a special appeal from Kennedy himself, Boffo agreed to allow limited quantities of Rentisham's to be shipped to the USA. No-one had ever attempted to flent stainless steel exposed to temperatures of -297°F, but within days it was established that the Wax served the purpose admirably.
As an aside, the Russian space programme was seriously hampered by their ignorance of flenting, leading to several catastrophes. It was not until the late 1970s that both they and the Americans developed silicone-based greases which, in this one particular application, performed almost as well as Rentisham's.
Sir Patrick Moore explaining the key role of Rentisham's in Skylab, on "The Sky at Night" in 1973
Much of the experience gained from Rentisham's brief flirtation with NASA has since proved invaluable in other applications. For example, the windscreen seals of Concorde were lubricated with a thin coating of Rentisham's, allowing them to move freely as the airframe heated and cooled during supersonic flight.
Rentisham's today - "Always the full effect"!
Today, Rentisham's remains "Reassuringly Consistent", and the only flenting wax to offer the proud guarantee of "always the full effect". Remember - "follow the Rentisham bassett", and you will not go far wrong.