Celebrating 300 years
Tuesday, 08 December 2015 00:00

William Lever: Freemason and philanthropist

Soap and  sociology

Best remembered for bringing soap to the masses, William Lever was driven by Freemasonry’s strong philanthropic values, as Philippa Faulks explains

On 19 September 1867, 16-year-old William Lever received a birthday present that was to not only influence his future profession but also his entry into masonic life. Later labelled ‘the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism’, Self-Help by Samuel Smiles (published in 1859) was a moral treatise on the promotion of self-improvement and the denouncement of materialism. 

Known throughout the world for his industrialism and philanthropy, William Lever had humble origins that were to provide a springboard for his success. Born in Bolton in 1851, Lever was the seventh child of grocer James Lever and Eliza Hesketh. 

His education at Bolton Church Institute and membership of the Congregationalist Church was later reflected in his work and politics. Although an academic non-achiever at school, Lever threw himself into extracurricular activities and aspired to be an architect – but his father had other plans. In 1867, Lever was recruited into the family grocery business, where one of his chores was to cut the large blocks of soap into slices and wrap them for sale. 

Even though he soon progressed through the ranks of the business, Lever was frustrated by his lack of responsibility and channelled much of his energy into his leisure time. He immersed himself in the application of the wisdom of Smiles’ Self-Help, which placed enormous emphasis on the husbanding of time in pursuit of daily self-improvement. When Lever was aged 21, his father made him a junior partner in the business. With this, his salary rose to £800 a year and his dream of marrying his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Hulme, became a reality.

‘Lever immersed himself in the application of the wisdom of Smiles’ Self-Help, which placed enormous emphasis on the husbanding of time in pursuit of daily self-improvement.’

Setting out a strategy

Echoing his rigid yet productive personal routines, Lever’s business model was one of meticulous planning, canny advertising and, in some ways, overbearing paternalism. He was a perfectionist who insisted on managing all aspects of business, much to the chagrin of his co-workers. Nevertheless, this drive would take him to the pinnacle of international success. Not content with the rapid expansion of his father’s business, Lever wanted to create his own. 

Looking at his father’s humble empire, Lever’s gaze fell upon one thing – soap. In 1885, along with his brother James, he established Lever Brothers and brought soap to the masses. After much market research and international travel, they began to corner the market: Sunlight Soap, the world’s first packaged and branded laundry detergent, was born. 

Lever wanted to create something that would be of benefit not only to his closest relations but also to his fellow man. When demand for soap began to outstrip production at the original factory in Warrington, Lancashire, it was time to expand. Thorough searching of land registry maps offered a solution in the Wirral, not far from Liverpool. 

Lever designed and oversaw (along with more than 30 architects) the building of what was in effect a large-scale social experiment. Between 1899 and 1914, 800 houses were built for a permanent population of 3,500-4,000 workers, managers and administrators. Once completed, Port Sunlight housed not only the vast new factory and offices, but also a hospital, church, technical institute, museum and library, auditorium, gymnasium, heated outdoor pool and refectories for workers. 

Such self-contained community living was not entirely embraced by those who felt that business owners used paternalism as a way of controlling their workforce. Nevertheless, those who might otherwise have been living in slums greatly appreciated it. 

Beyond the businessman

Lever was a keen art collector, and often took family and friends on cultural excursions as he travelled the world. One of the most imposing buildings in Port Sunlight today is the Lady Lever Art Gallery, dedicated to his beloved wife Elizabeth. The gallery also houses his extensive collection of masonic regalia and memorabilia, including fine masonic chairs now exhibited in what was once a lodge room.

It was in Port Sunlight that Lever’s masonic career began when a group of local masons, many of whom were employees of Lever Brothers, decided to open a lodge in the village. To honour their chairman, they named it William Hesketh Lever Lodge, No. 2916. Lever was duly initiated at the first meeting of the lodge in 1902 and went on to become Master in 1907. He later formed Leverhulme Lodge, No. 4438; was a co-founder of no fewer than 17 lodges; became Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of England; and was appointed Provincial Senior Grand Warden of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Cheshire.

Lever was also a prominent Liberal MP and instigator of the Old Age Pension Bill. He was made a baronet in 1911 and a peer in 1917, taking on the title Lord Leverhulme (the ‘hulme’ in honour of his wife), and in 1922 was elevated to a viscountcy. His philanthropic reach was large, endowing a school of Tropical Medicine at Liverpool University, while the Leverhulme Trust today provides funding for education and research publications. Lever also made much provision for his hometown of Bolton, responsible for the formation of Bolton School and donating large areas of land to the locals, most notably Lever Park in Rivington. 

Lever died at his London residence in Hampstead on 7 May 1925. The writer and columnist AN Wilson once remarked, ‘The altruism of Leverhulme [is] in sad contrast to the antisocial attitude of modern business magnates, who think only of profit and the shareholder.’ Although his reputation has since been sullied slightly by accusations of exploitation in his business ventures, no one can deny that William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme, was a force for good in a time of great change.

Letters to the Editor - No. 33 Spring 2016

Soap and sociology

Sir,

I write to congratulate you most warmly on the winter 2015 edition of Freemasonry Today, and most especially on the article by Philippa Faulks on Lord Leverhulme.

I am too young to have known William Lever in person, of course, but I had the privilege of working for the company he founded for 39 years, and chairing it from 1992 until my retirement in 1996. The values he inculcated, so well described in Philippa’s piece, and still practised to this day throughout the company’s global businesses, have served to make Unilever the most successful mass consumer goods company in the world. 

My own initiation into Freemasonry, in May 1964 into Lodge Concord, No. 134, on the roll of the Grand East of the Netherlands, was inspired by the same values that had motivated William Lever, but without the knowledge that he had preceded me by 62 years. Thanks to your article I now know that, and a good deal more about the masonic life of our celebrated founder.

Sir Michael Perry, Malvern Hills Lodge, No. 6896, Malvern, Worcestershire

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