“ A model village on the Wirral Peninsula, Merseyside, England. It was built due to William Hesketh Lever's idea for a soap factory. The name is derived from his popular brand of soap - Sunlight! „
Lord Lever is famous for the creation of Sunlight Soap - a brand which still exists but has now developed into Unliver who make many of the household cleaning products today.
He decided to build a factory on the Wirral (across the Mersey River from Liverpool) and set about it in a unique way. Lord Lever was a visionary of his time and in an era of back to back terraced, poverty and squalor he decided that it would make good social (and business of course) sense to build decent homes for his workers. Therefore he built a village (known as Port Sunlight) where his factory workers had access to village greens, community halls and a public house. He also introduced pensions for workers, decent wages and allowed more leisure time than most of his counterparts. His theory was that a happy workforce is one which is more productive and apparently he was right.
Most of the Port Sunlight village still stands as it did today. The factory still produces cleaning products and you can buy some Sunlight Soap as a souvenir. There is a visitors centre which explains the history of Lord Lever (born in Bolton, Lancashire - he married Elizabeth Hulme and later upon her death took her maiden name to become Lord Leverhulme). Also, the histroy of the village. There are many things to see including an art gallery which is larger than it looks from the outside and you can buy a map from the visitors centre to guide your own walk through the village to see the way the people used to live. Port Sunlight is a normal village so people do live there today (including some of Lever's relatives). There are a number of cafes on the way round to take a rest and a pub. The main attraction is trying to imagine life there in comparison to the conditions in the other industrialised north-west towns.
General information - visitors centre including a map costs around £4 each and parking is free in the village. Definately watch the short film in the visitors centre which is on a loop so you may have to wait a short while. There is also some stuff for kids such as interactive models of the village and the opportunity to design your own house using ink stamps.
Overall this is a nice peaceful, interesting afternoon out.
This review is in two parts. The first is a look at the history of Port Sunlight and the second looks at what a visitor can expect to find at Port Sunlight today.
~~~Building a philanthropic dream~~~
It seems odd now, to name a village after a bar of soap but that's exactly what Lord Lever did in 1888 when he began building his 'Model Village'.
He owned the massive soap works in Warrington, (Now Unilever's) and had a vision of a healthy, clean and spacious living environment for his workers and families.
Lord Lever was a Victorian industrialist and philanthropist. He described his building of Port Sunlight as 'Profit sharing', arguing that if he shared his profits with his workers by giving them money, that they would drink it away and waste it in other ways. He said that providing them with good housing 'shared his profits' in a more long lasting way that benefited his worker's families as well. So he obviously wanted to help the working classes but at the same time didn't have a very high opinion of their ability to manage themselves!
The village stands in 130 acres. 30 different architects contributed to the design and each of the seperate blocks of worker's housing was created by a different architect. All the blocks are different but the overall effect created is of a harmonious 'Old English' style. The site was landscaped with trees, lawns and flower beds.
As you wander round the village itself it is possible to see the various provisions Lord Lever provided for his factory workers. Not only did he provide decent housing but he also built shops, a church, meeting rooms, a school for the 500 children (which is still in use). There was an open air swimming pool which is now a garden centre. A theatre and concert hall, library and gymnasium.
He had seperate institutes built to educate the male and female villagers. He wanted to provide everything a worker needed to stay healthy physically, intellectually and spiritually.
At the time it was a hugely innovative project. Eventually the site held 700 houses, all occupied by his workers. The rent was roughly one fifth of their wage. For the time this was very reasonable and places in the village were very sought after. This meant that his workers were a very well behaved and industrious bunch. Nobody wanted to lose their job and their beautiful new home!
I like the description of the way the women had to collect their soap allocation every week. Woe betide any woman who did not take and use her generous allocation of soap "For the alleviation of dirt and disease for her family".
Can you imagine the gossip and comments in the weekly soap queue if Flo' didn't turn up for her ration? Her name would have been mud!
The village was built on reclaimed marshland and was close to the railway station. In fact some of the housing faces the railway lines so that passengers could see "The pleasing aspect of the housing." (A bit of self advertisement there I think!)
I assume there was a direct link to the factory in Warrington because that is built next to the railway too! It would be a long way to work otherwise! Perhaps there was a soap factory nearer, I am not sure about that.
Villagers had high expectations placed on them. They were expected to take advantage of the benefits offered to them and were not favoured much if they didn't. They were 'encouraged' to prove they were trying to improve themselves by using the education, meeting, sport and cleaning facilities provided.
Inhabitants of the village were expected to do their christian duty and attend church services regularly. The village was dry and the meeting places all 'temperance'.
Lord Lever's paternalistic views resulted in him being dubbed a "Benevolent Despot" by people who didn't share his views on what a working man or woman needed.
Lord Lever started a trend and other industrialist saw it as their Christian duty to look to the welfare of their workers. Other model villages were built around Britain. Cadbury's Bournville being another famous example. Before this era of responsibility began, workers lived in appalling conditions and were dismissed by many factory owners as sub human. Many philanthropists of the time had to endure a lot of criticism from their peers who did not want to take any responsibility for their workers. Change came about slowly. Port Sunlight was a huge and very visible investment and demonstration of "Putting your money where your mouth is!" as we would say in Liverpool.
~~~Visiting Port Sunlight today~~~
Nowadays it is possible to visit the village and see many of the original buildings. Some are still being used for the purposes they were built. There is no charge to enter the village and the fountains and lawns in the area arond the Art gallery are a great place to have a picnic.
Entrance to the Lady Lever Art Gallery is free (as it is for all the Liverpool galleries and Museums). The cafe/restaurant under the gallery is very good and a local pub also serves food if you want somewhere to eat.
The Port Sunlight Village Museum is very interesting indeed. It costs £3.75 to enter. That includes a village trail guide which walks you around the village and informs you every step of the way! I really enjoyed the walk and information!
The museum is a well laid out and incredibly informative place. The pictures of the village and villagers are stunning. My favourites are the pictures of the beaming children. The ideas and ethos of the village are explained well and you leave with a good idea of who Lord Lever was and what it was like to live there. I really appreciated the way the museum effortlessly educates and entertains visitors. It is obviously run by people with a great love and understanding of Port Sunlight.
Disabled access is fine and concessions are available for children and OAP's.
The little shop has some great postcards and gifts all relevant to Port Sunlight. I didn't find it too expensive either, as some of these shops can be.
My favourite view is down the long avenue. There are houses down both sides and a long water feature flanked by flower beds runs along the middle. Framed at the end is the elegant Lady Lever Art Gallery. This gallery houses Lord and Lady Lever's private art collection. It was opened by Pricess Beatrice in 1922. I love this gallery, it houses a huge and disparate collection of art and artefacts. I am particularly fond of the large amount of Pre Raphaelite paintings housed here. The rather 'busy' setting seems just right for them. (I hope to review the Art gallery seperately as I couldn't do it justice in this review.)
I think the best way to see Port Sunlight properly is to park by the gallery which is free, walk across to the museum. Look at the displays and talk to the staff, take the trail around the village which takes about an hour all told. You can finish up by visiting the art gallery then have a well earned drink and perhaps something to eat downstairs.
You can travel there by train or bus from Liverpool or Chester. It is quite well serviced by public transport.
By car you come off the M53 at junction 4 and follow the brown and white signs. If you are coming from Liverpool come through the Birkenhead (Queensway) Tunnel and follow the signs to Bebington and the Port Sunlight. It is well sign posted from any direction.
It is a lovely place to walk around. The layout is pretty and engaging. There is something picturesque or interesting to see around each corner. There is so much history to absorb here and yet it is still a living village. People live and work here. A great deal of effort is taken to maintain the place as it looked when built and the residents are justifiably very proud of it.
Part of the pleasure and fascination of the place for me is imagining the delight of the workers of the 19th century as they moved into what must have been a kind of paradise for them.