Entrepreneur and philanthropist William Hesketh Lever made his name and his fortune from soap and his work made an impact on the world that can still be felt today.
William Hesketh Lever was born on 19 September, 1851, in Bolton, an industrial town in the north of England. His father was a partner in a grocery wholesale business, so the family was relatively well-off. William showed intelligence from an early age, as he enjoyed playing with the family's books even before he could read them. He went to school at the age of six in a house opposite his own, and there he met other children including a girl called Elizabeth Hulme. His parents were able to afford to send him to a Church Institute school when he was 13. As well as attending lessons, he organised a reading group in his spare time so as to study the Bible and Shakespeare as well as modern authors such as Charles Dickens.
When he turned 16, his father gave him the book Self Help by Samuel Smiles, a book about men1 who had started from humble beginnings and gone on to achieve great things. His father also encouraged him to join the grocery business.
William became an apprentice, and one of his first tasks was to cut large blocks of soap into saleable portions. He was soon promoted to working on the company accounts but when he learned that more salesmen were needed, he eagerly volunteered. The job required him to travel round the area, and he often found himself in Southport, where Elizabeth Hulme had moved after leaving school. Elizabeth and William were married in 1874.
He was made a partner in the business in 1872 and started to implement improvements. To reduce waste, he and his brother James patented a crate for transporting eggs safely. To increase the number of grocery orders each day, he approached shops in the towns around Bolton and placed adverts for the company's products in local newspapers. As a result, the business became very successful, but William became hungry for a new challenge.
A Ray of Sunlight
In 1885 he established the Lever Brothers company with James and decided to focus on soap, as it was a product he was familiar with and he could see the potential for improvement. He patented the name Sunlight and found a good quality soap that smelled nicer and lathered better than others on the market. The manufacturer wanted a high price for the soap, so William decided to buy the recipe instead.
He leased a soap factory and his team was even able to improve on the recipe. Not only was the resulting soap excellent quality, but it was also well presented. The blocks were cut into bars in the factory, then each bar was wrapped and placed into a Sunlight-branded box ready for display in shops.
Advertisements for the soap were placed in railway stations as well as in publications, and they did well, but the game was raised by rival firm Pears Soap when they used John Everett Millais' painting 'Bubbles' (of a cute boy with a soap bubble) to promote their brand. In response, William purchased William Powell Frith's painting 'The New Frock' (of a cute girl showing off her whiter-than-white dress) to use in Sunlight Soap advertisements.
All this worked well, and Sunlight Soap made a large profit, but demand started to outstrip supply. A new factory needed to be built.
A Great Year
In 1888 William purchased some marshland near the River Mersey, which had the potential for good river, rail and canal transport links.
As well as providing the huge factory building itself, William decided to use the land for houses for the factory workers, plus facilities to create a community of healthy, happy people loyal to the company. The roads through the village were wide, with plenty of green space and trees, and the houses were spacious, with gardens. There were schools, a recreation ground, a bowling green, allotments, a village hall, a theatre, a church and a hospital. The distinctive look of Port Sunlight was created by William's insistence that no two houses should be the same - 29 architects were employed to design the dwellings, and the results were a complete mixture of types, from brick patterned, to painted rendering, to mock-Tudor style.
William also found a home for himself in 1888 - he moved into the nearby Thornton Manor and arranged for an open air bedroom to be built. He was quite obsessive about his health so fresh air and exercise were important to him. His bed was on the roof of the house, with just a canopy over it to keep off the worst of the wind and rain. In his office he had a standing-height desk. He also logged what he ate each day.
As well as that, William's son William Hulme Lever was born in 1888, so it was a great year for him.
Sunlight soon became an international brand. In 1889 salespeople in Europe were recruited to sell the soap. The venture was so successful, demand outstripped supply again - in 1905 the residents of Port Sunlight went on an organised holiday to Brussels to celebrate the opening of a new factory there. Expansion brought risks as William had to delegate the running of the factories to local managers. While Europe welcomed his products, the USA was more reluctant, so after trying and failing to promote Sunlight, William bought an established firm making lower quality soap at a good profit.
William briefly branched out into politics. Gladstone Hall in Port Sunlight was opened by William Ewart Gladstone2 in 1891. William was a great admirer of Gladstone's philosophy and was a supporter of the Liberal Party so he agreed to stand for election as a Member of Parliament. He lost in 1892, 1894 and 1895 but in 1905 he won the Wirral Constituency seat. During his time in the House of Commons, he played an important role in the 1908 introduction of the Old Age Pension. He was made a Baronet by King George V in 1911, so he and his wife became Sir William and Lady Elizabeth Lever.
Still keen for improvement in business, William took an interest in the supply chain for the ingredients in his soap. He invested in coconut plantations in an effort to ensure a consistent supply of oil for his soap, and he visited the Belgian Congo and the Solomon Islands in 1912-13 with Elizabeth.
A Sad Year
1913 proved to be a sad year for William. He was a supporter of Votes for Women, but even so he was high-profile enough to become a target in the Suffragettes' campaign. On 7 July his house in Lancashire burned down while he and Elizabeth were at a dinner in Liverpool with fellow businesspeople plus the King and Queen. Thornton Manor was safe, but William lost a considerable number of valuable paintings and items of furniture that he had collected from around the world and displayed in the other house. Edith Rigby took credit for the incident, but was not charged as she had already been charged in relation to an explosion in Liverpool.
Business had to continue, so in spite of the disruption, William decided to visit his factories in Europe as planned. He set off on 19 July. Elizabeth stayed at home, as she was not feeling well, but she continued to sleep in the open air bedroom. She developed pneumonia and the housekeeper encouraged her to move indoors, but it didn't help. A telegram was sent with the news and William started travelling back to England. On 24 July, a few hours after he arrived home, his beloved Elizabeth died.
Even in his bereaved state, when war was declared in 1914 William was keen to support the war effort in whatever way he could. He joined the volunteer training corps as a private, and 700 men from Port Sunlight enlisted. Hulme Hall in the village was used to house refugees and Thornton Manor became a Red Cross Hospital. The factory's research laboratories developed chloropicrin, nicknamed 'PS gas' after Port Sunlight, which was a forerunner of the Mustard Gas that was used to deadly effect in the trenches of the First World War. The factory was partly converted to producing munitions from the glycerine that was a by-product of making soap. To reduce demand for butter and reliance on imports, margarine was produced from some of the oils that would have been used in soap3. 481 of the Port Sunlight Pals perished but the survivors were able to return to their jobs in Port Sunlight in 1918, as William had held their jobs open. The war memorial that was built in 1921 is a fine tribute to them all.
William had started collecting artworks so that he could use the images in advertisements for his soap. However, he soon moved on to obtaining items that were to his own personal taste, so he didn't have to restrict his searches to paintings of attractive women and children in white clothes. During his lifetime he amassed more than 20,000 items for his collection, including paintings, sculptures, embroidery, furniture and ceramics. He kept many items in his own homes, and also put artworks on display in the buildings of Port Sunlight.
As a tribute to Elizabeth, William decided to build a museum and art gallery in her name, where he could display even more of the items in his collection. King George V laid the foundation stone in 1914 and The Lady Lever Art Gallery was formally opened by Princess Beatrice4 in 1922.
In 1917, King George V made William a Lord. William chose the name Lord Leverhulme, as another tribute to Elizabeth, joining her maiden name with his surname. In 1922 William became a Viscount.
By 1920 the Lever Brothers company had expanded around the world and also diversified in its interests. It had taken over Pears Soap in 1915, and had investments in supply chain operations including plantations, a paper mill and a colliery. An unwise investment in a Nigerian oilseed processing company forced the company to make some of the workers in Port Sunlight redundant, and they not only lost their jobs but also their houses as a result. Strikes were called and the atmosphere in the village soured.
The company was restructured in 1921, with unprofitable interests being closed down and land being sold off as well as the wages of all the staff being cut. Feeling marginalised by the new generation taking over his company, and in an effort to help regain supply chain efficiency, William offered to go back to the Congo in 1923. He had become deaf, but was still physically fit, waking up at 4am each day so that he could put in extra hours of work to try to save the company. William also visited Nigeria. He arrived back in Port Sunlight on 19 March, 1925.
William again went to Europe to visit the Brussels factory and after a brief stay back in Port Sunlight he travelled to London. There he was taken ill. He had contracted pneumonia and died on 7 May at the age of 73.
Lever Brothers continued successfully for five years with William Hulme Lever, 2nd Viscount Leverhulme, as a Governor who delegated the running of the company to the Board of Directors. In 1930 the company merged with a Dutch firm, Margarine Unie, to become Unilever, a global brand with a hugely diverse range of products from soap to sausages via toothpaste and Bovril.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery is now part of National Museums Liverpool and still contains items from William's collection for the public to enjoy, including portraits and sculptures of William and Elizabeth.
Research and development had always been part of the Lever Brothers company work, so in William's will the Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 to provide grants for education and research in the arts and sciences. In 2016, for example, the Trust issued grants and prizes totalling around £80 million for projects including monitoring the activity of the Santorini volcano, investigating new methods for preserving the Mary Rose, and understanding social and political developments in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Thus Lord Leverhulme's legacy has gone from strength to strength.