Did New Swindon become a role model for other employers looking to build villages for their workers? Looking At History blog suggests there were many models in the last half of the C19th, with a range of industrially paternalistic, humanitarian, philanthropic and Christian motives. And, the blog noted, it was in the industrial Midlands and north that the most significant contributions were made: Lever’s Port Sunlight in 1888, Cadbury’s Bournville in 1895 and Rowntree’s New Earswick in 1902.
Why would the Lever Brothers (and other capitalists) care about their workers? Clearly the growth of the factory system and the increase in population caused by the demand for labour, coupled with the influx of poor immigrants, had led to disgusting living conditions and disease. The sight of such wretchedness and poverty left an impression on William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) which influenced him in the future.
In 1887, Lever Brothers Co. began looking for a new site on which to expand its soap-making business, on which they could also build housing and services for their workers in the soap factory. They bought 56 acres of flat unused marshy land very close to Liverpool that looked uninviting, but was well located near a railway line.
The site became Port Sunlight, where William Lever built his industry and his model village. The name was derived from Lever Brothers most popular brand of cleaner, Sunlight. Lever personally supervised planning the village, and employed many architects, commencing in 1888. He wanted a healthy, happy and productive workforce.
By the time WW1 broke out, 800 houses had been built to house 3,500 people. As well as allotments, the garden village had communal buildings including a cottage hospital, schools, a concert hall, open air swimming pool, church and a temperance hotel. Lever introduced welfare schemes and provided for the education and entertainment of his workforce, especially in all the arts. Later the Lady Lever Art Gallery was established.
Lever claimed that Port Sunlight was an exercise in profit sharing, but rather than share profits directly, he would personally invest them in the village. He recommended that the workers leave their profits with him and he would provide everything that would make their lives pleasant. I wonder if he “recommended” that the money be handled this way, or he “insisted”. I also wonder if all decisions were made unilaterally by the employers or if a town council of workers and employers decided collectively.
I assume that community decision-making did eventually become democratic because Lever himself had originally established a temperance hotel in the village. Only later did the good citizens vote overwhelmingly to have a licence granted and a proper pub established.
The timing was perfect for Lever to adopt the architectural and landscape values of a Garden Suburb. Although the garden city movement approach to urban planning was not formally founded until 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard, Ruskin, Morris, writers, artists, architects, designers and craftsmen were already dreaming of a picturesque, green Arts and Crafts utopia when the village was started. So each house in Port Sunlight was individually designed, complete with half-timbering, carved woodwork and masonry, ornamental plaster work and moulded chimneys.
The Lyceum, originally a school
Other communal buildings of importance included the Lyceum (which had been a school), the Gladstone Theatre and Hesketh Hall. The village contains a church and opposite is a small primary school. Port Sunlight’s open air swimming pool, now a garden centre and café, was the recreational centre of the village.
Lever was created a baronet in 1911 and raised to the peerage as Baron Leverhulme in 1917.
But for a small town, the most amazing facility was the Lady Lever Art Gallery which didn’t arrive until after WW1 (1922). A dedicated art collector, Lever was very proud of his treasures. This art gallery reflected Lever's personal collecting principles, and is particularly strong in Pre-Raphaelite art - Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt. I am assuming that Lever was displaying the taste typical of high Victorian industrialists, especially his gorgeous Alma Tadema, Watts and Leighton paintings.
What I could not have predicted was that Napoleon Bonaparte was Lever's political hero and that a special part of the Lady Lever art gallery would be dedicated to Napoleonic artefacts - busts, portraits, furniture, books and paintings.
So was the town a socialist utopia for workers? The design of Port Sunlight certainly expressed the utopian ideal espoused by theorists – equality through labour, and top quality housing and communal facilities available to all. It worked! The workers must have been delighted with the lifestyle their families could enjoy. But the village’s development was based on wealth generation by a large, privately owned company, not by the workers themselves.
Still, one has to assume that the workers loved William Lever. When Lord Leverhulme died aged 74 in 1925, his funeral was attended by 30,000 people.
Port Sunlight contains 900 Grade II listed buildings, and was declared a Conservation Area in 1978. At that stage, all residents were still employees of Unilever and their families. However in the 1980s the houses were sold off.
Lady Lever Gallery.
Arts and Crafts Tours recommend visits to the planned communities of Port Sunlight, Saltaire, New Earswick, Bournville, Letchworth Garden Suburb and Hampstead Garden Suburb. As well as understanding how late 19th century workers lived in attractive and well equipped villages, modern visitors can visit the homes of many of the Victorian patrons, the churches they built, and the art galleries and museums which now house their collections.
Two books have been useful. Edward Beeson's Port Sunlight; Model Village of England, a Collection of Photographs (New York, 1911) concentrates on town planning. Edward Hubbard and Michael Shippobottom's A Guide to Port Sunlight Village (Liverpool UP, 2005) considers the village in its historical context, with particular emphasis on the architectural aspects.
It will be interesting to see how much Bournville Village in Birmingham, built for Cadburys' workers, was based on the Port Sunlight village. Both projects commenced in the late 1880s.