How William Lever brought soap to the masses

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

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

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.

William Lever had humble origins that were to provide a springboard for his eventual success. Born in Bolton in 1851, Lever was the seventh child of local grocer James Lever and Eliza Hesketh. His education at Bolton Church Institute and membership of the Congregationalist Church were later reflected in his life’s work and politics. In 1867, Lever was recruited into the family grocery business, where one of his chores was to cut large blocks of soap into slices and wrap them so they were ready to be sold to customers.

A HEAD FOR BUSINESS

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 the Lever Brothers company and brought soap to the masses. After much research and international travel, they began to corner the market: Sunlight Soap, the world’s first packaged and branded laundry detergent, was born.

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 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.

SUNLIGHT SUCCESS

Once completed, Port Sunlight housed not only the new factory and offices, but also a hospital, church, technical institute, museum and library, auditorium, gymnasium, a heated outdoor pool and refectories for workers.

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 Elizabeth), 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 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.’

Did you know?

As well as housing and the factory, Port Sunlight had its own hospital, museum and library, and even a heated swimming pool

Did you know?

The Lever Brothers’ Sunlight Soap was the world’s first packaged and branded laundry detergent soap

Words: Philippa Faulks

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