Spotlight on Port Sunlight

The Merseyside village of Port Sunlight village on Merseyside was founded in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever who created the well-known Lever soap company. The village was built to house the workers at Lever’s Sunlight Soap Factory. The Lever Brothers’ company grew and is now known as Unilever, which continues to manufacture soap and other consumer products.

Port Sunlight’s reputation has grown in sync with its founder’s company. The Wirral is renowned for its architecture and beautiful parklands. It has a thriving community that hosts a number of events that celebrate the heritage of Port Sunlight, and being just a short drive or train ride from Liverpool or Chester, it makes for a fine day out.

The vision of William Lever

William Lever, later to become Viscount Leverhulme, was a visionary businessman. He was one of the first business leaders to provide decent and sanitary housing for his workers that were located in a pleasant environment. This was very different from the city terrace houses provided by other large factory owners that were often named “slums” because of their poor construction and lack of hygiene.

By providing affordable quality housing, Lever developed a sense of loyalty and commitment from his workers. He saw Port Sunlight as a form of profit sharing. He described this form of sharing by saying:

“It would not do you much good if you send it down your throats in the form of bottles of whisky, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant – nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation.”

Lever also provided shorter working hours for his workers and funded educational and medical projects. A cottage hospital was built in the village in 1907.

Even today, Port Sunlight remains a practical demonstration of Lever’s business ethics.

The architecture

William Lever had ambitions to be an architect, but his father persuaded him to work in the family grocery business instead. After Lever founded his soap company and became wealthy, he explored his passion for architecture and art in the houses he constructed in Port Sunlight. His legacy remains intacts, and there are over 900 Grade II listed buildings in Port Sunlight.

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Lever employed more than 30 architects in the Port Sunlight project and this has resulted in many different styles of housing and public building architecture in the village. The majority of the houses and public buildings are preserved as Grade II listed buildings.

All the buildings are in a parkland setting and, to further enhance the environment, there are several statues in the village.

Notable for their distinctive architecture are the main public buildings in the village: the Lyceum, Gladstone Theatre and Hulme Hall.

Lever’s wife, Lady Lever, was an avid art collector. William built the Lady Lever Art Gallery in 1922 to display his wife’s art collection to the villagers,

Most buildings are two stories high and finished in a variety of styles, which some generalise with the label “Old English” as they appear to invoke buildings from England’s past. Though the buildings may have been inspired by traditional architecture, none of them are a literal copy of past architectural styles.

Traditional materials of Cheshire red brick combined with stucco, stone dressing, harling render and black and white half-timber frames are common features on the buildings. Many roofs have spiral chimneys and “four-centred” arches that give them a Tudor look.

Most of the houses were constructed for workers, but there are a few larger houses that were built for the soap factory managers,

The architects under Lever’s direction concentrated on the front of the buildings, often leaving the rear plain or utilitarian.

Visitors who want to understand William Lever’s vision for Port Sunlight should visit the museum, where they can learn about the rich history of the village and its architecture.

The environment

Lever’s vision extended beyond just the appearance of the buildings. He created a safe and clean environment for his workers to enjoy, with lots of open spaces, allotments and gardens.

The density of housing is low, at about nine per acre. This was partly dictated by the marshy ground conditions, with many areas unsuitable for house building.

The village has 130 acres of parklands and open spaces that contain a large number of trees. At the centre of the village is a big tidal inlet that has ‘fingers’ of water that extend into the village.

The Port Sunlight River Park was opened in 2014. This offers views of Liverpool’s Mersey River waterfront.

Social and artistic movements

There are several social and artistic movements that have inspired Port Sunlight. The aesthetic movement focused on the visual and sensual qualities of art. The Arts and Craft movement celebrated traditional craft skills. These movements are reflected in many of the architectural features of Port Sunlight.

The Garden City movement aimed to combine the best of town and country living. It also saw itself as the solution to unhealthy and crowded cities. William Lever was involved in the Garden City movement and helped establish the first garden city of Letchworth in Hertfordshire.

Conservation

Port Sunlight was designated as an official conservation area in 1978, and the Port Sunlight Village Trust was formed to be responsible for the village’s preservation. The trust has a budget of over £2m a year for building, conservation and landscape maintenance.

The village was the first area in the Wirral to create a conservation plan that was funded by English Heritage. The plan recognises that the buildings and the landscape of Port Sunlight have equal importance.

There has been support to make Port Sunlight a World Heritage Site to emphasise its importance as a conservation area.

Port Sunlight’s legacy

Port Sunlight is the expression of William Lever’s vision that provides inspiration for today’s architects and town planners.

A thriving community lives in the village, and they are always only too happy to welcome visitors to enjoy the Port Sunlight experience.

Posted by Mark
December 14, 2016
Features

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