Soap & Opera

As we were in the area, we decided to visit Port Sunlight yesterday. Port Sunlight is the garden village built by William Lever to house workers at his factory. Think the name Lever sounds familiar? His company merged with a Dutch margarine company in 1933 to become Unilever – we seem to be doing a tour of the history of great industrialists, what with Upton House/Shell and now Port Sunlight/Lever.

Lever’s factory produced soap including Pears, Lifebuoy & Sunlight, hence the village name. Unusually, he believed that healthy, well treated employees would work harder and provided working conditions and benefits for his employees which were almost unheard of. He believed that the cottage was the perfect family home, so created Port Sunlight, a village of 900 cottages with front & back gardens, 3/4 bedrooms and and indoor bath. The toilets were still outdoors but he specified that they must be no further than 7 feet from the back door! The first cottages were built in 1890 – this was a time when many factory workers lived in appalling conditions, often sharing toilets and taps with other houses and having no outdoor space.

Lever believed in equality for men and women – to a point. The village school provided education for boys and girls and there were compulsory evening classes for 14-18 year olds once they had finished their day’s work in the factory. He also provided annual scholarships for 3 boys and 3 girls to go to college and continue their education. However, he still insisted that women gave up work when they married.

He also introduced an 8 hour working day, provided a week’s paid holiday and company pension for his employees and had health and safety rules in the factory. There were also rules in the village – you were responsible for the maintenance of your back garden, but his gardeners maintained all the front gardens. You couldn’t keep chickens in your garden, but most workers had an allotment (provided by Lever) to grow fruit & veg. There was a heated swimming pool, an auditorium, a theatre (where I’m sure there would have been opera), an art gallery, horticultural society, a cottage hospital, volunteer fire & ambulance brigades, day trips for employees – the list goes on. Living and working there must have been a dream compared to some of the alternatives at the time.

Although religious, Lever wasn’t puritanical. A temperance meeting house was built in 1900 – in 1903 it was licensed and has been a pub ever since! The village is an interesting mix of architectural styles as he employed over 30 different architects to design different parts, including people like Edward Lutyens. There are wide streets, lots of trees and green space. It’s really very pretty and not too Stepford Wives.

Unilever sold most of the houses in the 1980s, although the Port Sunlight Trust still owns about 250 of them and operates a small museum in the village. It is an odd place now – part idyllic housing estate, part museum. Actually, I’m not sure how idyllic it would be to live there now – there is nothing for kids to do other than mess about in the fountain outside the art gallery or play with a shopping trolley in the garden centre carpark. And having your house stared at by people like us all day every day must get a bit annoying too!



What a beautiful place – then as now. I wish we had a heated swimming pool. I once worked with a bloke called Kitchen who was from the Lever and Kitchen Kitchens. All the former wealth was gone except he and other rellies had a yacht they could take turns on (ocean-going style).

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