15 November 2011

Port Sunlight - a model village for Lever Brothers' workers

You may remember that The Great Western Railway built a small village to house its workers, 1.5 ks north of Swindon town. In the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s the Company built the families’ cottages, railway work shops, a good quality school for the children, accessible health care and dental care, a mechanics institute for adult education, a swimming pool and a library. By the 1860s New Swindon saw its first gas street lights installed and a fresh water supply was piped to the families’ cottages.

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 others) 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 Lever (1851-1925) which influenced him in the future.

Port Sunlight houses facing The Dell

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 Napoleonia - 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.

See two books. 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.


Andrew said...

Not sure why, but I found the name Lady Lever Art Gallery funny. No surprises about who was ruling England when the housing was sold off. Who would have thought the company would become the giant Unilever. I just discovered the company Lever and Kitchen was a result of an Australian merger.

Hels said...


nod. I think William Lever was brilliant in his thinking. Providing top class facilities for workers and their families was good for the workers and therefore, I assume, great for the business. If I had been a worker back in the 1850s, I would have jumped at the chance to live there.

But if a worker wanted to comment on management, or on the product, or wanted better working conditions, I can imagine that he would find himself jobless the next morning. Or if the market fell and the number of workers had to be reduced.

No job at Lever Brothers? No home! The entire family would be homeless and schoolless.

I wonder if workers' lives were just as precarious under Margaret Thatcher.

Hermes said...

I have such mixed feelings about such developments and they were such a small number of homes compared to the demand. I note that the patronage still exists. Although 650n of the homes have been sold off (253 retained by Unilever through a Trust)they are very tightly controlled 'The Trust also enjoys the rights to restrictive covenants that apply to all of the houses that have been sold. Through these, the Trust can also contribute to the control of the village heritage.'

When the slums of Bethnal Green were replaced with modern flats most of the original dwellers opted to live elsewhere rather than be restricted as to what they could and could not do.

Hels said...


you hit the nail on the head - who ultimately owns the houses/flats and who can make the decisions about what happens to them? Even in Utopia.

Port Sunlight really was a model village in its time, but now 'The Trust enjoys the rights to restrictive covenants that apply to all of the houses that have been sold.' And to those not sold, presumably.

Bethnal Green was a tightly knit community alright, and the families must have wept when they were taken to their new suburbs, but it had never hoped to be a model village.

Hermes said...

I don't know enough history Helen. But was it all tied up with the Utopian Socialism that drove people like Morris.

On Bethnal Green : I was thinking the new flats were designed by the middle - upper class and no one bothered actually asking the working class what they actually wanted - in that sense I guess it was the same in these model villages / towns.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
Although we know the Bournville Estate well, we have scant knowledge of Port Sunlight. Certainly the principles behind them are the same and although on the surface it all looks very altruistic, it certainly made good business sense. To this day, there is terrific company loyalty to 'Cadbury's' and a Trust oversees the maintenance of the Bournville Estate which is exceedingly attractive. A green and leafy gardensuburb, an oasis in the industrial city of Birmingham.

P. M. Doolan said...

Loved this post because I knew nothing about Port Sunlight. But you locate Bournville Village in Yorkshire - isn't it just outside Birmingham?

Hels said...

PM Doolan

I am glad someone is wide awake *blush*. Bournville Village was never in Hull; the The Garden Village Society is! Bournville was the model village 6ks south of Birmingham.

I will make the change immediately.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

thank you for picking up the Birmingham glitch as well. I had the opposite experience to you i.e I knew a lot about Port Sunlight but nothing whatsoever about Bournville.

The Garden Village Society said that the Bournville Village differed from other communities such as Port Sunlight because it was a mixed community in terms of both class and occupation: a model of good planning open to all comers, rather than containing only 'tied' houses for Cadbury workers.

I wonder a] if that is true. And b], if it is true, did it make the residents feel more secure.

Hels said...


Utopian Socialism must have been a very different motivation from paternalistic capitalism, with or without Christian charity. The question we have to ask, still I suspect, is how did the recipients of all this benevolence read the situation?

Val said...

I've been to both Port Sunlight and Bourneville. They're both beautiful, and the Lady Lever Gallery is a treat. I was lucky enough to live fairly near, so I went several times. I never visited the other buildings, though.

I've been to Bourneville only once, and found the omnipresent smell of chocolate almost maddening! I'm sure I must have stopped at the first newsagent to buy a Fruit and Nut.

Jim said...

When I saw the name Lever Brothers, I immediately thought of Lever & Kitchen. An interesting read.

Hels said...

J Bar
with good reason! William Lever of Lever Bros, established in Sydney, visited Melbourne in 1914. There he met Kitchen & Sons, who were successful soap manufacturers. They blended the two companies into Lever and Kitchen.

I suppose Yallourn would be the closest example in Australia that fitted the pattern of a planned, company town with every facility known to humanity.

Hels said...

Val S

YES :) I am so glad you found the towns to be beautiful.

I came to the topic via the Arts and Crafts movement - town planners and designers in the 19th century who wanted green, healthy, well planned cities that would meet the needs of all the residents. But I wasn't ever sure if the towns turned out exactly as the Arts and Crafts people had hoped.

P. M. Doolan said...

I like Val S.'s remark about the smell of chocalate being maddening. I teach just a few hundred metres from the Lindt chocolate factory outside of Zurich. The factory is located in the very posh village of Kilchberg, right beside the lake. In the summer we use the nearby lakeside beach. It is a starnge experience to be floating in the clean water with hills all around and the Alps in the distance and a faint but constant smell of choclate in your nostrils. Maddening indeed.

Hels said...

PM Doolan

smells (both attractive and nasty) were something I mentioned in reference to New Swindon but something I forgot in connection with Port Sunlight. These places might have been a workers' paradises but the working hours were still very long, and the air pollution and noise were constant throughout the day and night.

By the way, were there any garden cities or model villages for Lindt workers and their families?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating article Thank you Company villages are quite common in areas of general deprivation Eg in India where people would fight to get a job with Tata or the railways in order to get accommodation in these mini paradises. I suppose the problem is that you end up with these little private towns, amazing facilities protected by small armies of security guards to keep outsiders out Perhaps it would have been better if these industrialists had spent the money on projects that benefited the whole local community Having said that I do wish town planners, builders and architects had taken note This is the sort of environment that people want to live in not the stuff that has actually beeb built since the second world war

Hels said...


I did not know about the planned company towns in India, but it makes perfect sense. The problems you raised for 21st century India are very similar to the problems that beset company towns in the 19th century British experience.

Let me repeart what I said about Bournville. The village needed to be "normal", so the Cadburys people specifically designed a mixed community in terms of both class and occupation: a model of good planning open to all comers, rather than containing only tied houses for Cadbury workers.

Thus it would be possible for your industrialists to be spending money on projects that benefited the whole local community.

askada said...

No entro en pólemica social,creo que el proyecto fue bello y ha llegado a nuestros días con sabor dulce-amargo a chocolate.

Hels said...


Port Sunlight was a revolutionary project in its time and it is still fascinating as a development model today - 125 years later.

peter said...

Helen --

The pre-Raphaelite collection in the Lady Lever Gallery is, as you say, one of the best, and I have visited it often. It never fails to delight. Lever also housed his other art collections in this gallery, and so there are sublime collections of marble sculpture and of Chinese pottery also there.

The Northwest of England was rich in the 19th century, and wealthy people collected the modern of their day, eg, the pre-Raphaelites. As a consequence there are superb collections in Liverpool, Manchester and the region. Even small-town galleries nearby will often have a major bequest or two, such as the Thomas Moran painting "Nearing Camp" in Bolton Town Gallery.

Hels said...


nod... always delightful.

I assumed, in the post, that Lever displayed the taste typical of high Victorian industrialists. They had money and wanted to make their mark in "clean" works, not related to their industry. What better way than collecting and displaying sublime works of art eg by Holman Hunt, Edward Burne Jones, John Everett Millais, Dante Rossetti, Frederic Leighton, Lawrence Alma Tadema, George Watts, Ford Madox Brown and others. And other works of art, as you noted.

If this was true for one successful industrialist in Liverpool, I am sure you are correct about the many other successful high Victorian industrialists in the NW.

Whether the paintings ended up on the family’s dining room walls or were given to public collections largely depended on the industrialists’ children and grandchildren. Port Sunlight may have got lucky.

Andrew said...

Someone else has visited Port Sunlight and taken quite a number of photos, which you may find interesting.


Hels said...


Thank you. I love good links to sources that I would not necessarily have found myself.

Janet said...

Hello. I grew up in Port Sunlight and am currently writing about my childhood there. I had a quick read through your informative article and can I add to the Lever Art gallery. It was built as a dedication to his wife Elizabeth Ellen, who died in 1913. The building was finally completed in 1922 as you correctly say.
Lever was greatly admired and respected by his villagers. My great grandfather and his family moved into the village in 1912 and he worked for Lever all his life on the waterways. He was one of the pall bearers at the funeral, all of whom were barge captains.
The houses were beautiful from the front but less appealing at the back although each had a garden or a small tiled yard. The windows were rather small and my mother used to complain about the lack of light. Inside they were very basic and in the 1960s there was a renovation plan to modernise the housing and put in heating. These took the place of storage heaters which were useless to be honest! We had a coal fire which still got plenty of use!
Lever had a strict code which he expected his workers to live by too, but the payback was to live in a beautiful space which was far more genteel than anybody could have imagined at the time. You have to remember that living conditions for workers in the Edwardian era were appalling and Port Sunlight was an amazingly privileged place to live. Lever also had a much higher percentage of female workers and my great grandmother was never made homeless after my great grandfather died and continued to be housed in the village until she died at the age of 93!

Hels said...


Thank you. I hope your writing project goes well since Port Sunlight was an important model village in its own era.

Whenever Utopian settlements of the late 19th century were discussed, it is difficult for our generation to know how much was ideological commitment and how much was the true experience of contemporary families.

In Fruitlands near Boston, for example, people voted with their feet. But in other cases, we need the evidence provided by people like your grand parents. Yes Port Sunlight was an amazingly privileged place to live in its era, but families still needed heating etc.