Written by Caroline Boobis
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)
“But isn’t that where they make soap?” The incredulous response to my suggestion for an outing to Port Sunlight was understandable if not entirely accurate.
It is indeed the site of a well-known soap works, but it’s also a perfectly preserved model village on The Wirral built by philanthropist William Hesketh Lever (later Lord Leverhulme) for his factory workers in 1888.
And when we drive through the stone portals and step from the car, the ghosts of young factory girls seem to flutter around the village like the birdsong that greets me. Rows of neat streets, floral verges and houses fan out hierarchically, just as they did 130 years ago. Terraces are closest to the factory with smart villas surrounding the central fountain and rose beds.
An anti-slavery liberal and self-made man, Lever created parkland with around 900 houses, almost all of which are now Grade-II listed. Being an art and architecture enthusiast he enlisted the services of 30 different architects to create the many different styles of housing, and in the belief that good housing would ensure a healthy and happy workforce, he added a church, community hall, infants’ school, Girls’ Club and green spaces, thereby creating the perfect environment for his workers.
Those factory girls would have learned to read and write at the little school, their homes would have running water, electricity, and their families would have access to the doctor and nurse in the village. Perhaps they would go to the Girls’ Club later in the evening, or to choir practice in the church.
Ignoring the fact that as with any semi-feudal system, the entire family could be evicted from the village if perhaps a worker had ‘a wife of objectionable habits, or may have objectionable habits himself…’, nevertheless Lever’s workers were clearly intensely loyal to him as illustrated by the Leverhulme Memorial they paid for and erected after his death, a great obelisk dominating the central ‘boulevard’.
The workers are long gone but the factory building remains and the houses are occupied, or so I’m told. But by whom? These days the houses can be bought on the open market just like any other, yet wandering along the pristine avenues I encounter only tourists like myself. They park their cars in the main square, walk their dogs around the manicured verges, take photos of the famous war memorial, then leave.
Certainly the houses are furnished and gardens planted, but the only sign of life is the occasional twitch of an upstairs curtain. So I tiptoe down the side of a mock-Tudor house and to my relief, see an army of bins huddled untidily round the back.
A great collector of art, Lever added the Lady Lever Art Gallery to Port Sunlight in 1922 in memory of his late wife, to house his ever-growing collection of paintings, furniture and famously, Wedgwood. The gallery is an impressive structure built in the classical style, squatting at one end of the central avenue behind the towering Lever monument.
At the other end, the outstanding War Memorial that shares Grade I listed status with The Cenotaph overlooks perfectly symmetrical gardens with the fountain, monument and gallery beyond.
On this sunny Sunday afternoon it’s easy to imagine yourself in Versailles instead of Merseyside, but still the streets are deserted. No children playing, no cars being washed, nor hedges trimmed. No-one chatting over their fence, or cycling, or even posting a letter in the old King George post-box. Only birdsong.
Inside the gallery I stand before Millais’ famous ‘Bubbles’ painting, the ubiquitous Pears’ Soap advert. An enthusiastic fan of the early 20th century American model of using art for advertising, Lever would buy paintings such as this and Frith’s ‘The New Frock’ and use them unashamedly to promote his soap products, much to the artists’ chagrin.
And for those interested in Wedgwood, the gallery also houses a vast collection of unique Jasperware in its very own ‘Jasper’ Room.
Just before I leave, I wander up to the church and gaze at Lord and Lady Leverhulme’s grand effigies that eclipse the tiny churchyard.
The birdsong is growing louder now as I walk back to the car past the old Girls’ Club, now the Port Sunlight Museum. And I’m sure I glimpse two young girls walking arm-in-arm, giggling.
POSTED 16th APRIL 2017 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of CAROLINE BOOBIS. Photographs 2, 3 and 4 were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged. Photographs 1 and 5 are from the Port Sunlight Museum collection and were kindly supplied by the Port Sunlight Village Trust.