The soap formula was invented by a Bolton chemist named William Hough Watson, in 1884. His process created a new soap using glycerin and vegetable oils, such as palm oil, rather than tallow (animal fats)
William Hough Watson soon became an early business partner of the Lever Brothers.
The brothers invested generously in Watson’s soap invention and its initial success came from offering bars of cut, wrapped, and branded soap in their father’s grocery shop. Prior to this, commercially made soap was bought in long bars, an early labour-saving device, for the housekeeper. Designed for washing clothes and general household use, Sunlight Soap was to become the world’s first total laundry soap.
The company subsequently bought 56 acres (230,000m2) of flat unused marsh land south of the River Mersey. It was large enough to allow space for expansion and had a prime location between the river and a railway line.
It was on this site, in 1888, Lever Brothers began to build Port Sunlight. (The name is derived from Lever Brothers most popular brand of cleaning agent, “Sunlight Soap”)
It was built specifically to accommodate the workers in its soap factory. William Lever personally supervised planning the village, and employed nearly thirty different architects. Between 1899 and 1914, 800 houses were built to house a population of 3,500 (4.5 persons per household).
The garden village had allotments and public buildings including the Lady Lever Art Gallery, a cottage hospital, schools, a concert hall, open air swimming pool, church, and a temperance hotel. Indeed, like the town of Bournville established by Cadbury’s, Port Sunlight was an alcohol free zone.
Lever introduced welfare schemes, and provided for the education and entertainment of his workforce, encouraging recreation and organisations which promoted art, literature, science or music. William Lever’s aims, like those of Mr Cadbury, were “to socialise and Christianise business relations and get back to that close family brotherhood that existed in the good old days of hand labour.”
He claimed that Port Sunlight was an exercise in profit sharing, but rather than share profits directly, he invested them in the village; “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.”
The open air swimming pool is now a garden centre and café. Until the 1980s, all residents were employees of Unilever and their families. During this decade the houses were first sold privately. The former village school is now a working men’s club.
By 1900 “Lifebuoy”, “Lux” and “Vim” brands had been added and subsidiaries had been set up in the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Germany and elsewhere. By 1911 the company had its own oil palm plantations in the Belgian Congo and the Solomon Islands.
Lever Brothers Ltd. also acquired other soap companies across the region including A&F Pears, Gossage’s of Widnes, Watson’s of Leeds, Crosfield’s of Warrington, Hazlehurst & Sons of Runcorn and Hudson’s of Liverpool.
Lever Brothers rode the cresting late-Victorian consumer revolution to build a vast worldwide industrial empire. Four years after William Lever’s death in 1925, his enterprises were amalgamated as Unilever.
By 1930, the company employed 250,000 people and in terms of market value, was the largest company in Britain. Even today, over 120 years later, the name of Lever is still incorporated in the company titles.