Monday, 8 August 2011

Port Sunlight, Merseyside

It was a long time ago as a young traveller that I noticed Port Sunlight from a train window on a journey from Southport to Chester. Even though I could only glimpse the perimeter of the village, it was enough to make me want to return to this amazing place. The journey home from North Wales (in the previous posts) was my opportunity of a lifetime as I have never visited this village before.

Following the invention of a soap manufacturing process by William Hough Watson, the Lever Brothers (William Hesketh Lever and James Darcy Lever) decided it was the business for them in 1885 and joined forces with the inventor to make the production of "Sunlight soap" a reality. After a few years in their small premises in Warrington, business took off in a big way and a larger factory was needed. A large marshy site became available to William Hesketh Lever and he named it Port Sunlight.

The bosses office ... better not park here !!
On my arrival it was difficult to find a car parking space due to being a residential area with a large craft fair taking place in key buildings. Once I found a place to park, my exploration and hunt for the Visitor Centre with no street plans to hand proved a little difficult and I seemed to discover a lot of sites first without the large fold out map. I guessed that the above building was the factory as the original external wall stretched to the left as far as the eye could see.

In order to get the best from his employees to make them healthy and happy, William Hesketh Lever who was concerned about the poor living conditions of the time and possibly through his early involvement with the Congregational church, had contacted 30 architects to design a village to house his workers from which he took rent through their wage packets. The social lives of the workers were often watched to ensure that they were reputable otherwise evictions and the loss of the job would occur.

As a result of this initial groundwork, over 900 houses in the village today are grade II listed.

The first architect to be employed on the Port Sunlight site was William Owen who designed the above row of houses completed in 1892. It is interesting to note that he worked for Mr Lever at his previous soap factory in Warrington. Owen went on to become a close friend and later a director for the company in 1897.


Certain key buildings were completed in the previous year of 1891. The successful village shop extended it's business into a Post Office within three years of opening. It continued in that capacity right up until 2005 at a time when the Government were wanting to streamline the Post Office service by closing less profitable or branches nearer a more successful one. Thankfully someone spotted a business  potential ....

New life to an old building !

The Gladstone Theatre was opened by the British Prime Minister of the same name in 1891. The building is literally across the the road from the Bosses office and was used as a lunch time dining room for the factory workers for about 20 years. Plans of a works canteen within the factory site came to fruition in 1910 and ....

... the building was converted into a theatre with occasional films being shown. The building as you can see is still in use today.

   (... and the date of the show is a reminder of how far I am behind on this blog !!!)

A dual purpose building of both school and church was built over a period of two years and completed in 1896. Later in 1902 a separate church and school were built next door to each other several streets away. The Lyceum, as it was later re-named, found a new use as a as a staff training college in 1917 and is currently the village social club... it seemed like it was headquarters of todays craft fair !!

Although I haven't done the huge village pub much photographic justice due to the large amount of parked cars outside (the double yellow lines at the front helped... but my restricted viewpoint didn't !!), the story of it's history is just as interesting. It originally opened as an alcohol free Temperance house in 1900 and a close vote judged by Mr Lever a few years later revealed that the locals wanted more from the premises than soft drinks. A license was granted in 1903.

C H Reilly, a promising architect, oversaw his work on a row of cottages being completed in 1906 and mentioned in a letter to Mr Lever that he wished that they were further from the road with a village green. Nevertheless, his work around Liverpool in the following years earned him the OBE in 1920 and he became the Director of The Liverpool School of Architecture.

Green space ... Bowling Green
From a personal point of view, although my tour of the village provided a surprise around every corner, I was shocked at the scale of this project and the wide open spaces that seem difficult to comprehend for properties of that time. It is worth reminding ourselves at this point that to a manual worker in a factory in the early 20th century, these houses were like palaces for them.

Mr Lever believed that well spaced and good housing gave people the chance to be the best workers and something to be proud of. The flower and vegetable competitions in which entrants could display their talents are still held today during July after 115 years.

The girls club building was opened in 1913 and designed by the main architect of the village, J L Simpson. This was the building I was meant to find originally on my arrival which now houses the museum and makes plenty of noises about the past glories that I have echoed here.

"Making noises now outside the museum"

The centre piece of the village is a tree lined boulevard with houses running behind it. A war memorial built during and after World War I stands at one end.

The monument has a selection of figures on all sides and speak of the defence of the home looking after the women and children.

"Will he return ?"

At the other end of the centre piece is The Lady Lever Art Gallery which is another grand building designed by William Owen.

It was built and opened in 1922 by Mr Lever in memory of his wife who died in 1913.

Mr Lever believed that he could improve the lives of those who worked for him by providing opportunities that other contemporaries didn't have by helping them indulge in Art, Education, Industry and Charity.

This building was the final piece in Mr Lever's village Jigsaw but it is amazing to note it's location and importance in the site.

It is unfortunate that today was not a great one for learning about Art, Education ... , although I did have the place virtually to myself and ... helped with my art !! In the next post I'll try to discover where all the people are !!

House for sale !!
The business that Mr Lever left in good hands, Unilever, has in recent times been trying to preserve the legacy of the village. The company took a decision to sell 650 of the houses during the 1980's at a time when the Government allowed council houses to be sold to their tenants. Nearly all of them were grade II listed and are governed by strict planning rules that ensures the external historical decor. A Charitable Trust was set up to look after the remaining 250 houses in 1999 with financial backing from Unilever until 2017. The idea is that the village will achieve financial independence through the rent of these houses and halls. The Trust is also responsible for looking after the green spaces and so see that everything is in place....

One that was overlooked  !!!


  1. I was reading this post like I was watching a very interesting movie. My interest was caught by Mr. Lever's story, I suddenly want to google him and read more about him.

    If this will be made a movie, you'll be the best writer slash director of photography. Port Sunlight is a catchy movie working title.

    Love all your photos as always.

  2. It is so easy to get behind on blogging! What an interesting post--love all the old buildings. Of course, the church and the Girl's Club "caught my eye"-beautiful architecture. Sunlight Soap--what a "catchy" name. Always fun to see "where you have been". Have a nice week. Mickie :)

  3. As always, this is a wonderful look into the history of a place I'd never have found on my own. I like it that Mr. Lever cared about the people who worked for him, and his art museum is breathtaking. Great photos, J.

  4. The detail on the buildings is quite lovely. I must say that the art museum is stunning.

  5. Yet another place I've never been so thank you for the tour. It is an area that has much to recommend it. The converse is also true but a visit to Port Sunlight combined with The Anderton Boat Lift, I think that at the ship canal end of the Weaver Navigation there is a barge museum.
    Another superb post.

  6. such places always remind me about old good literature, all the novels that describe small towns:) I like the architecture of the gallery very much

  7. It's a place I definitely have to put on my 'places-to-visit' list! I love this timbered houses so much, and really miss the decent tee in cosy tee room:)

  8. A very interesting post, J_on-Tour! I love to read about places I have never been before, not to mention to look at the photos. I like all your photos in this post. Thank you for sharing with us this story.

  9. Another very interesting post!
    Thank you for all the details!
    I love the old architecture of the houses!!!

  10. Mr. Lever was right to provide housing and social environment to the workers of his soap factory. His deeds were a good display of both understanding of human needs and understanding of what was good for his business.

    The architect hired for the housing project proved to be the best for the job. The houses are beautiful!

  11. Take a look on this post is a wonderful holiday trip. The old houses and the details are so interesting! Hugs from Luzia.

  12. I picked up the brochure for this village, but we did not have time to get there. Very interesting post and enjoyed reading about it. similar idea to Hershey, PA and Bourneville (Cadbury). Nice to know they are doing something to preserve the village area.
    So Jay I guess you are living faster than the speed of blog then? Well there will be colder winter days that we can catch up on our old posts I think. Got to enjoy the good English weather while you can.

  13. Another great post....although I have visited Port Sunlight it was grand to visit it again through you blog...thanks j


  14. This is a fascinating post! is there a name to the peninsula of land between River Dee and River Mersey on which Port Sunlight sits? It's posts like this that make one leave the M roads and get into the most interesting places.

    The Sunlight Soap box looks like a butter box here.

    The social good that the owners undertook for the welfare of their employees reminds me of the Wesley and Whitefield revivals of the eighteenth century which were spiritual revivals, but followed up with social change. Wesley was convinced that 'the making an open stand against all the ungodliness which overspreads our land as a flood, is one of the noblest ways of confessing Christ in the face of His enemies.'

    Mr. Lever's evident care for more than just the work of his employees is a good example for us today. I would love to visit this village and that amazing museum!

  15. A very interesting post and the buildings are fascinating This is another place I have never been but I am sure I would enjoy it.

  16. What a gorgeous little place! I love it when towns are mostly constructed in the same (beautiful) style and there's a flavor continuity. I'd love to visit there someday!


  17. Very beautiful houses and buildings,
    I believe there is a very relaxing place!

    The Lady Lever Art Gallery is amazing!

  18. Wow what a jewel of a place to find, and a photographs dream to shoot. Loved the post.
    Jan and George x

  19. Well, how do you manage to know all this informations and to write here so clearly?
    And above all, to make so great images!
    I will not say ' how interesting article' how wonderful post' because you already know this !

    But I will tell you that I like very much to come here and to get lost in your space, to listen your words, your stories .I wonder if I will see in this life something from the places you have shown here.
    Maybe, I don't know!

    Lucky me, a house for sale!
    To buy it or...?


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