Yesterday I paid a second visit to Port Sunlight village and visited the museum and one of the workers cottages. The museum is small but well worth a visit if you are the least bit interested in our industrial heritage. As is the workers cottage next door, preserved and showing the living conditions the workers enjoyed.
The museum tells the story of William Lever and his vision in creating this village for workers at his Sunlight Soap factory. The displays explore how the village developed, from the working conditions to the charming architecture and lively social scene. The museum is packed with nostalgia, from vintage soap packaging to the story Ringo Starr’s first performance with the Beatles, which took place in Port Sunlight in 1962. Through film shows, interactives, models and an array of intriguing artefacts you can discover the tale of this inspirational village.
Port Sunlight is arguably the finest surviving example of early urban planning in the UK, and has remained largely intact since its foundation by William Hesketh Lever in 1888.
The village is home to more than 900 Grade II listed buildings set in 130 acres of parkland and gardens. More than 30 different architects created the buildings, monuments and memorials we still see today, and nearly every period of British architecture is represented through revival design. The village is a good example of the aesthetic movement, which emphasised visual and sensual qualities of art and design, and the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its emphasis on traditional craftsmanship.
Lever built Port Sunlight to house the workers at his soap factory, Lever Brothers, which eventually became the global giant, Unilever. The village 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.
Port Sunlight was by no means the first model industrial village, Robert Owen’s New Lanark on the River Clyde in Scotland was developed from 1800, and Sir Titus Salt’s village of Saltaire from 1851. But at Port Sunlight, these ideas combined with provision of green spaces, parkland, and public buildings and were the key influence on the Garden City Movement.
What is fascinating is the philosophy adopted by Lever and the lengths he went to in creating a work environment that was beneficial for the workers and which he firmly believed had a real impact on the companies “bottom line” i.e. profitability.
Moreover, if you read through the extracts I have posted you will see references to issues that are still being argued over today e.g. employee engagement, staff welfare, staff wellbeing, health and safety, rewarding staff, education and development, decent housing. This man was a visionary and we could still learn much from him today!
Having worked myself at a senior level in an HR Function I can see that all the “new ideas” that were constantly thrown up were nothing new. Lever was developing and implement both HR and Leadership / Management policies / procedures at the turn of the 20th century, and which are just as valid today, possibly even more so. he had already used the term “pester power” in relation to marketing and trained his salesmen through extensive programmes.
What we constantly get today is regurgitated ideas dressed up in fancy HR terminology, often used in that familiar game of “bullshit bingo”, ask any manager and they will probably be able to tell you what this is.
During the first world war Lever, who was a man of his time and believed a woman’s place was in the home once married (and all women employed had to resign upon marriage), changed his views after seeing how women took on “traditional mens jobs” and uttered the memorable line “This war has discovered women”.
Every Business Studies undergraduate and MBA student should be brought to Port Sunlight to see the village and visit the museum, it would be a salutary lesson for all.