Heritage: Soap-boiler, social reformer, MP and tribal chieftain - the life of William Lever

William Lever, by then Lord Leverhulme, in 1919. Picture: Unilever plc/Unilever Archives

William Lever, by then Lord Leverhulme, in 1919. Picture: Unilever plc/Unilever Archives - Credit: Archant

In the latest of our series commemorating the life and work of people honoured with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the fascinating history of soap manufacturer and philanthropist William Lever.

Jane Heber-Percy, granddaughter of Viscount Leverhulme, unveils the blue plaque at Inverforth House

Jane Heber-Percy, granddaughter of Viscount Leverhulme, unveils the blue plaque at Inverforth House in 2002. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Soap-boiler, social reformer, MP, tribal chieftain, multi-millionaire and Lord of the Western Isles. He employed workmen from the Mersey to the Congo and they all called him ‘Chief’. His peers knew him as William Lever, later to become first Viscount Leverhulme.

When he was made a Baronet in 1911 he chose the motto Mutare Vel Timere Sperno: “I spurn to change or fear.” Throughout his life his favourite novel was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850). He owned a string of grand houses packed full of antiques, artworks and treasures, all “guarded” by tiger-skin rugs.

He was known to often sleep outdoors, in all weathers, and on a simple iron bed. Evelyn Waugh, a near neighbour, described his house, then under construction, as “Italianite”. His model village, Port Sunlight, near his soapworks in Birkenhead, ranks alongside Henrietta Barnett’s Hampstead Garden Suburb as one of England’s great experiments in town planning. Barnett was also a near neighbour.

The food manufacturer, Sir Angus Watson (1874–1961), described him as “thickset in stature, with a sturdy body set on short legs and a massive head covered with thick, upstanding hair, he radiated force and energy”. Sir Angus continued: “He had piercing, blue-grey eyes which, however, flashed with challenge when he was angry,” and “the short neck and closely-set ears of a prize-fighter”.

William Hesketh Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme (1851–1925), soap manufacturer and philanthropist, was born on 19 September, at 16 Wood Street, Bolton. Seven years earlier, writing in The Condition Of The Working Class In England, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) described the town as “one of the worst in Britain... badly and irregularly built, with foul courts, lanes and back alleys”. Perhaps ironically the site later became home of The Bolton Socialist Club (the oldest remaining independent socialist club in the country) where guest speakers have included Eleanor Marx (1855–1898), daughter of Karl. Lever’s childhood, however, was not set in the squalor which Engels had documented.

Lever’s father, James, was a wholesale and retail grocer, and his mother was a cotton mill manager. He had eight sisters and a brother and was a precocious child. Apparently before he could walk, let alone read, he rearranged the family’s library by height order, a ‘systemising’ which he later said “used to give me such intense delight when I could only crawl to the bookshelf”.

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His parents kept rabbits, but not as pets, and the young William used the opportunity to design a self-sufficient ecosystem. He figured that by growing grass on the roofs of the hutches he could both insulate and feed the animals, with a view to fattening them up for the family pot. William would take the family dog, a black and white collie named Guess, out for long walks, collecting samples of interesting plants and insects which he would later scrutinise under his microscope, a gift from his father.

Aged six Lever attended a private school, in a house across his street, run by two spinsters by the name of Misses Aspinwall. In 1864 he was enrolled at the local Church Institute and by the time he was 14 Tom Brown’s Schooldays, The Water Babies and Alice In Wonderland had all been published.

Lever was a keen reader and a member of his local library. He particularly enjoyed studying the factual volumes he found in the reference section. Other extra-curricular activities included French lessons and learning shorthand. He formed a book club with his best friend, Jonathan Simpson, and the two boys would discuss works by Shakespeare and Dickens or dip into the King James Bible which offered ‘practical advice’. The pair were lucky enough to hear their novelist-hero, Charles Dickens, read excerpts from The Pickwick Papers whilst on a public reading tour. Historical events from across the pond reached him, and in a letter dated 1865 Lever noted that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln “caused a great sensation in Bolton”.

On his 16th birthday his father presented him with a copy of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help. The title was a best-seller and navigates the lives of “great men” who tugged themselves up by their own bootstraps. The book proved pivotal and he later commented: “It is impossible for me to say how much I owe to the fact that in my early youth I obtained a copy.” Throughout his life Lever would always carry an inscribed edition, ready to be presented to the younger generation in the hope that it would inspire and be of use.

Lever was put to work in the family grocery in 1867 and later reflected: “I was never asked if I wanted to go into the grocery business... and it was perhaps a good thing that I was not. My father told me, one day, that I had better get ready to come into the family grocery business, and as the holidays were nearly over, I thought I might as well begin next morning, and I did.” He was admitted to a junior partnership worth £800 a year in 1872.

In 1874 Lever married his childhood friend and neighbour Elizabeth Ellen. She was a kind and resilient woman and gave him an heir, William, born in 1888. The couple remained devoted until her death in 1913.

Lever rapidly expanded his father’s business, capitalising on the marketing techniques which proved so successful in the United States. In 1884 he decided to trade on his own account in a soap made largely from vegetable oils rather than the traditional tallow. Along with his brother, James Darcy Lever (1854–1910), he formed Lever Brothers. Lever’s gift was not technical in nature, but in spotting the potential popularity of soap with housewives. Add to this his savvy branding – registering the product as Sunlight and in easily recognisable packaging – and assurances of quality. Other great brand names associated with him were Lux soap powder and Vim household cleaner, which he registered in 1894.

His innovative advertising, marketing and promotion created a demand which no sensible retailer could ignore. Competitors resented but emulated his methods. His success was prodigious – Lever Brothers was one of the largest British multi-nationals of the time – and he was soon able to develop his interests in architecture and collecting.

Lever travelled extensively, spreading his business overseas, opening branches or agencies in the colonies, United States, and European countries. He made five world tours, always travelling with a large and pretentious entourage. His early writings were published in a book called Following the Flag (1893).

Lever and his wife Elizabeth moved to Inverforth House, Hampstead (also known as ‘The Hill’), in 1904. The residence remained Lever’s London home until his death, and saw him created a baronet (1911), then a baron (1917), and advanced to a viscountcy (1922). The house and grounds were remodelled and extended in various phases throughout his time. Early additions, including the music room wing and china wing, were carried out by the Liverpool firm of architects Grayson and Ould; they also designed the singular garden terrace that was built using spoil from the Hampstead Tube excavation, and to which the noted garden designer Thomas Mawson added a pergola.

In later life he became deaf and one memorable story highlights his strength of character and ingenuity. He’d installed an opulent ballroom in one of his houses as he liked to “have a few young friends about me against whom I can chaff”. Owing to his hearing, or lack of, long after the orchestra had finished playing, he often found himself dancing, twirling an embarrassed partner on the dance floor. His solution: An instrumentalist was paid to switch on a blue light in the ceiling as the dance ended allowing Lever to catch the reflection in his “specially polished patent leather shoes”.

Overwork, rather than his habit of sleeping outdoors, caused his death from pneumonia on May 7, 1925, at The Hill, Hampstead. He was buried on May 11, 1925 at Port Sunlight.