This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine
Merseyside has more than its fair share of fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but the quantity and variety of those to be found at Port Sunlight on the Wirral is extraordinary. In fact it’s a perfectly preserved pre-First World War village (with over 900 Grade II listed buildings), and one of the most complete surviving examples of early urban planning in the UK. The village has a complex and fascinating history, but what we see today was of course essentially the vision of one man: the dynamic industrialist William Lever, founder of the company known today as Unilever.
William Hesketh Lever (1851 – 1925) was born in Bolton. He was the son of a wholesale grocer, and at the age of sixteen entered the family firm, quickly making his mark and becoming a partner at twenty one. Under his guidance the firm began to specialise in the marketing of soap, and in 1885 he and his brother James founded Lever Brothers, a company dedicated to the manufacture of Sunlight Soap. The soap was made from superior ingredients compared to most of its competitors, and was attractively packaged and cleverly advertised. The company initially leased a factory in Warrington, but as demand for Lever’s product accelerated new premises were sought, and in 1888 construction of the factory at Port Sunlight began. In the years that followed the firm continued to grow, as international markets were conquered and other businesses (including margarine manufacture) developed. A few years after Lever’s death the company merged with a group of Dutch manufacturers to form the giant Unilever organisation, which still has a plant at Port Sunlight today.
Lever had a Liberal, Nonconformist family background and briefly served as Liberal MP for Wirral. He was made a peer in 1917 and in 1922 became Viscount Leverhulme, the title incorporating the maiden name of his wife, Elizabeth Hulme. He had a strong social conscience, and was a philanthropist who supported many deserving causes. As an employer he was paternalistic, firmly believing he knew what was best for the moral welfare of his workers and their families, but his initiatives (such as the introduction of shorter working hours and welfare schemes) were often humane and progressive.
The crowning example of his enlightened approach is Port Sunlight, which has been described as the most ambitious model village in the country. Lever intended from the beginning to provide housing for his employees, which explains the size of the site he acquired. There were other industrialists and social reformers who shared Lever’s desire to provide decent housing for working people, and some model workers’ villages had already been built (one of the earliest examples was Bromborough Pool on the Wirral, built in 1853 for the employees of Price’s Candle Company). But Port Sunlight was exceptional in two respects. The first was the quality of the village’s architecture, a reflection of Lever’s strong interest in building design and town planning. (The results of this can also be seen elsewhere on the Wirral: in the five miles of avenues he planted – notably the Lever Causeway – or at Thornton Hough, rebuilt so it resembles a postcard image of the perfect English village.) The second difference is the picturesque landscaping, which with its abundant greenery and pleasant sense of spaciousness gives Port Sunlight the atmosphere of a middle class garden suburb.
Several of the public buildings in Port Sunlight served a social or educational purpose: there was a school, a church and later an art gallery. Others (such as the fire station) reflected Lever’s intention that it should be a community that was almost completely self-sufficient. Work on the village began in 1889, and continued in stages through to the 1930s, though most of the houses had been built by 1911. The original village was planned around a series of tidal inlets that crossed the site. These were subsequently filled in, though Dell Bridge, built in 1894, has been preserved as a landscape feature. Lever employed many of the leading architects of his day, including several from the North West. The earliest buildings were designed by William Owen, who had worked with Lever in Warrington. Other notable architects who contributed to the development of the village included Maxwell and Tuke (who created Blackpool Tower), H.Bloomfield Bare (responsible for many of the decorative features in Liverpool’s Philharmonic pub, including it is thought the extravagant Art Nouveau gates) and Edwin Lutyens (designer of the Cenotaph in Whitehall).
The range of architects used is reflected in the variety of the village’s buildings. The houses are arranged in blocks, each of which has a different style, although certain elements recur: the buildings often have an Elizabethan or Jacobean character, and there is much use of black and white half-timbering, red brick and sandstone (especially in the earlier buildings), ornamental plasterwork and carved woodwork. The blocks back onto areas that used to be given over to allotments but which are now often occupied by garages (the backs of the houses – much plainer than the fronts – are intentionally hidden from view). The interiors of the houses generally conformed to two standard types: the ‘kitchen cottage’, which had a kitchen, scullery and three bedrooms, and the ‘parlour cottage’, which had in addition a parlour and a fourth bedroom. In both cases there was a bathroom on the ground floor and an outside W.C. The houses have since been modernised internally, but the frontages have been carefully preserved. Some of the four bedroom houses were occupied by Lever Brothers clerks, and there were larger houses for management staff. There are approximately 1,000 houses in total, of which around 250 belong to the Port Sunlight Village Trust. The others are privately owned, having been sold by Unilever in the 1980s.
Houses worth seeking out on a visit to Port Sunlight include Bridge Cottage at 23 Park Road, where Lever himself lived between 1896 and 1897, while alterations were taking place at his nearby mansion, Thornton Manor. Nos. 23-24 Windy Bank have a deliberately Flemish look, complete with a large corner turret and a cone-shaped roof. Even the bricks were imported from Belgium. Lever’s plan at one stage was for the blocks in the village to represent the different countries where his company had factories, but the idea was soon abandoned and most of the houses have an unmistakably English appearance.
The two most prominent public buildings in the village are the Lady Lever Art Gallery and Christ Church. The art gallery, which opened in 1922, was designed by Geoffrey Owen, a son of William Owen. It was built by Lever as a memorial to his wife, who died in 1913. He was closely involved in its design, which is neo-classical in style. Outside, to one side of the gallery is the Leverhulme Memorial, unveiled in 1930, five years after Lever’s death. The south side of the gallery faces the Diamond, a long vista of carefully tended lawns and flowerbeds. A recent addition here is the Diamond Jubilee Sundial, installed earlier this year. It is unusual in that it uses the shadow cast by a person to tell the time of day – weather permitting, you can test its accuracy by following instructions on where to stand. A little further on is the dramatic War Memorial, designed by Goscombe John and unveiled in 1921. Rifle-wielding soldiers guard women and children; as has been observed, it is as if they are defending the village from attack.
Christ Church, a large, Gothic style building in red sandstone, dates from 1902-1904 and was built as a memorial to Lever’s parents. Outside, at the west end, is an enclosed area (open at the sides) which contains the tombs of Viscount Leverhulme and his wife, with bronze effigies by Goscombe John.
Other notable public buildings include Hulme Hall, built 1901-1902 and originally a women’s dining room – an attractive building with Jacobean style mullioned windows and large half-timbered gables. During the First World War it was used as a military hospital and a hostel for Belgian refugees. Ringo Starr’s first appearance with the Beatles was at a performance here on 18th August 1962. On the same date this year there’ll be a 50th anniversary concert featuring a Beatles tribute act. Used more often for shows and plays these days is the Gladstone Theatre, formerly the Gladstone Hall and opened by the great man himself in 1891. Other facilities for village residents included an open air swimming pool, which until 1971 stood on the site now occupied by the Port Sunlight Garden Centre. The original village school was in a building called the Lyceum, again in the Jacobean style and with a clock tower and spire; it’s now the village social club. The school on Church Drive that replaced it in 1903 is still in use today. The village hospital is now the upmarket Port Sunlight Hotel and Spa. The Bridge Inn on Bolton Road was originally a temperance hotel but Lever reluctantly consented to it becoming licensed after putting the issue to a residents’ vote.
The Unilever factory is at the southern end of the village, along Wood Street. The impressive office building (1895-96), which provides a grand entrance to the factory, can still be seen. There was heartening news for the local economy recently when the company announced that although it would be closing four sites in the UK, it would be investing £40 million in its ‘historic home’ of Port Sunlight, creating 150 new jobs. It’s expected that the factory, which manufactures a range of products from Persil to Radox, will see its workforce rise to 2,000.
Relatively few of these workers now live in Port Sunlight, as most of the houses are in private ownership. In 1999 the Port Sunlight Village Trust, a registered charity, took over from Unilever the management of the village’s public areas and communal buildings, as well as the remaining houses. The houses and apartments they control are rented out, and two are available as holiday lets.
The Trust also runs the excellent Port Sunlight Museum, which charts the history of the village and has many interesting exhibits. The museum occupies a prominent position near the Lady Lever Art Gallery and is in a distinctive stone building, with attractive high bayed windows (it was built in 1913 as a girls’ club). In the museum shop you can buy a useful Village Trail booklet, which has a map and information on several of the village’s key locations.
Port Sunlight is a fascinating place to visit at any time of the year, but there are frequent special events (organised by the Trust) which draw particularly large crowds. The BBC’s Antiques Roadshow attracted around 2,000 people to the village in June 2012; for Fiona Bruce (above) – whose father worked for Lever Brothers – it was a return to the Wirral, where she lived as a child. Last year’s summer festival in August (with stalls, rides and international Beatles tribute bands) was also a great success. There are regular afternoon tea dances at the Lyceum, craft activities for children during the school holidays, ghost walks and much else besides. William Lever, who after all wanted his workers to be happy and fulfilled, might well have approved, especially as the architectural character and pleasing landscape of his unique village remain remarkably unspoilt.
Thanks to Liverpool Record Office for their help in the preparation of this article.
For more information on Port Sunlight, visit www.portsunlightvillage.com
Further reading: A Guide To Port Sunlight Village by Edward Hubbard and Michael Shippobottom (Liverpool University Press)