Book Review: Port Sunlight And Its People

Jo Birch is clearly very well qualified to write this book. She has lived in Port Sunlight since 2005, has amassed a huge collection of artefacts and curios related to the village (many of which feature in the book, which is lavishly illustrated) and has even slept in Lord Leverhulme’s open air bedroom, which survives to this day on the roof of Thornton Manor. Her intense interest in the history of Port Sunlight, and the huge knowledge she possesses of the subject, is evident on just about every page.

It is of course Lord Leverhulme who dominates the book. He was born William Hesketh Lever in Bolton in 1851. The son of a grocer, he entered the family firm at the age of sixteen. He began manufacturing Sunlight Soap in 1885 and the product achieved huge worldwide success, largely attributable to Lever’s entrepreneurial genius. The soap was made from superior ingredients compared to most of its competitors, but was also attractively packaged and cleverly advertised. Construction of a factory at Port Sunlight on the Wirral began in 1888, followed a year later by the first steps in the creation of Port Sunlight village, a beautiful collection of workers’ houses and public buildings such as a school, a fire station and a church. It’s been described as the most ambitious model village in the country, and stands as a lasting memorial to Lever’s enlightened, paternalistic approach to being an employer.

Jo Birch gives us fascinating insights into Lever’s personality and the secrets of his success. We see pages from his account book, which he started to keep when he was 23 years old. The old adage about taking care of the pennies was obviously one he took to heart. In 1881 he meticulously lists the expenditure required to equip the kitchen of the house in Wigan he and his wife were then living in. Items include a soap box (of course) at five pence, a water bucket at three shillings and a knife board which cost one and six. Elsewhere in the book it’s made clear that he was a philanthropist who generously gave money to many worthwhile causes, but it’s also very apparent that his ability to drive a hard bargain helped him amass his huge fortune. He once commissioned a portrait of himself in mayoral robes which was to be hung in Bolton Town Hall. The agreed fee was three thousand guineas. Lever wanted the portrait to show him standing up, but the artist persuaded him that he should be depicted sitting down. The portrait was completed, but a dispute then arose because Lever argued that as the painting was now a half-length portrait the fee should correspondingly be reduced by 50 per cent.

Birch observes that Lever was the only person in Debrett’s described as a grocer, and describes how he never lost his sense of himself as a working man. The book has a remarkable photograph of him at the Chelsea Arts Ball, an annual fancy dress New Year’s Eve event at which the aristocracy gambolled in exotic, extravagant costumes. Lever’s choice of attire was a battered coat, with frayed collar and cuffs, held in place not by buttons but a large pin.

As the book’s title, Port Sunlight And Its People, suggests, we also learn much about other inhabitants of the village. There’s the woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic and Grannie Hewer, whose visiting relative sends home a postcard with a picture showing the house she’s staying in. There are many interesting postcard images in the book, capturing workers in the factory or relaxing when off duty, and views of the village. We also see advertisements from around the world, testifying to Sunlight Soap’s international fame. Captain Scott, Birch tells us, took several dozen bars of it on his trip to the South Pole. Other memorabilia includes letters, dinner invitations, Christmas cards and invoices.

Later in the book there’s an account of the sale of Thornton Manor and its contents in 2001, following the death of the third Viscount Leverhulme. The contents, which included several very valuable pieces of furniture, sold for over £9 million. It marked the end of an era, but fortunately the new owners of the house, who helped Jo Birch with her research, seem very respectful of its history. And of course Port Sunlight village survives in all its glory, as stunning as ever: truly one of our region’s wonders.

Port Sunlight And Its People by Jo Birch is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99