William Hesketh Lever (later Viscount Leverhulme) built Port Sunlight to house the workers at his soap factory, Lever Brothers, which eventually became the global giant, Unilever. The village holds a unique place in the history of urban planning and represents one man’s vision to provide industrial workers with decent, sanitary housing in a considered architectural and picturesque form.
However, rather than a philanthropic venture, Lever claimed it was all part of a business model he termed ‘prosperity-sharing’. Rather than sharing the profits of the company directly with his employees, Lever provided them with decent and affordable houses, amenities and welfare provisions that made their lives secure and comfortable and enabled them to flourish as people. It was also intended to inspire loyalty and commitment.
Lever also campaigned for better welfare and a shorter working day, and supported education and medical projects. His passion for art and architecture can be seen throughout the village, not just at the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery, making the village an enduring testament to his remarkable achievements.
I last visited Port Sunlight in 1978 and even back then was impressed by the quality and standard of the houses built for the workers as well as all the other amenities. I think it is fair to say that the general perception of 19th century industrialists is that of “slave drivers and exploiters of the working man, woman and child” However, there were those who adopted a different philosophy about “treatment of the workers” and these men are usually overlooked in any review of that historical industrial era.
In addition to William Lever, there were such luminaries as:-
- Titus Salt, the creator of Saltaire Village, housing for his workers in West Yorkshire
- George Cadbury, creator of the Bournville Village for his workers
- Montague Burton (Lithuanian immigrant) – he became one of the first to instil formal welfare provisions in the workplace, introducing food halls, leisure groups and activities such as theatre, dance and sports teams. He took an interest in maintaining the wellbeing of workers through health clinics and rest rooms.
- John Rylands, he made considerable philanthropic donations to the town of Stretford which included the founding of orphanages, homes for the elderly and the donation of a Town Hall
Perhaps there is much that we could learn from these men even today, in this “hire and fire” workplace mentality that seems to exist where loyalty is a dirty word, desirable of course from workers but without any reciprocal commitment from organisations.
I spent some time wandering around the village and was again impressed with the beauty of the houses, tree lined avenues, two museums and a war memorial that would do credit to any town or city. This is part of our industrial heritage, and something we should be proud of. Go and visit Port Sunlight and be amazed.
Photographs (c) Kindadukish 2017