Photographs and image capture by the author. [You can use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images for larger pictures.]

Church Drive Primary School, by Grayson & Ould (1902-3), seen from the side.

Port Sunlight was designed to be a self-contained village. The aim was to provide the employees of William Hesketh Lever's Sunlight Soap works with all necessary amenities for themselves and their families. One important priority was education for the workers' children. Walter George explains that there were two school complexes in Port Sunlight, housing four schools. He writes: "The buildings themselves are beautiful, built of bright red brick and covered with creepers; everywhere again we find large windows, abundant ventilation, perfect heating arrangements. The schools tell the same tale as all the other public buildings: hygiene, cheerfulness, and beauty" (168).

Left: Church Drive Primary School, three-quarter view from the front. Right: Schools: Main Hall. Source: George, facing p. 174.

With such values in view, attention was lavished on the interiors, especially the halls. George describes each of the halls as "very high and Gothic in design," with oak panelling, and, rather surprisingly, "reproductions of statuary, among which can be seen Apollo, Diana, Venus, etc." As he points out, this was "a welcome change from the over-common set of crude maps which completes the scene of desolation conjured up by rows of forms disfigured by ink stains and the knives of the small boys. At Port Sunlight we receive a very different impression" (168). Unlike other amenities in the village, the schools were obliged to admit some "outsiders" to the community, since they were taken over by the Cheshire County Council in 1902 "in pursuance of the Education Act" (George 168-69).

Two buildings by William Owen or William & Segar Owen. Left: Gladstone Hall (now Gladstone Theatre) on Greendale Road, by William Owen (1891). Source: Davison, No. 26, p. 21. Right: Hulme Hall on Bolton Road, by William & Segar Owen (1900-01). Source: Davison, No. 25, p. 20.

Other communal buildings in the village could be more exclusive. Gladstone Hall (above left), opened by none other than William Gladstone himself, was the earliest of these. With tile-hanging and some half-timbering, it was perfectly in keeping with the earliest houses (and still is, though it was later altered somewhat by John Lomax-Simpson, Company Architect from 1910). Built as an assembly hall, it also provided dining facilities until the factory canteens opened, and was able to seat 800 men (Jolly 76). Lever himself would often speak here (Hubbard and Shippobottom 33). It is now a theatre. Hulme Hall (above right) was also used for communal events but it was built primarily as a self-service dining room for girls, seating many more than the other hall — nearly 2000 according to Leverhulme's biographer (Jolly 76), showing just how many women there were in the workforce. Hulme Hall became a museum and art gallery when the factory canteens opened. More care was taken with its interior plasterwork, which Lever seemed to regret later, as if the money could have been better spent elsewhere (Hubbard and Shippobottom 35).

Left to right: (a) The Bridge Inn on Bolton Road by Grayson & Ould (1900). Source: George, facing p. 116. (b) The Gymnasium, a more utilitarian building, since demolished, was by William & Segar Owen (1902). Source: Davison No. 29, p. 24. (c) The Club on Greendale Road by Grayson & Ould (1896). Source: George, facing p. 128.

Villagers were encouraged to meet and interact elsewhere, too. One such meeting-place was the picturesque Bridge Inn (above left), at the end of William Owen's Victoria Bridge, which is partially seen to the far left of it. This has been enlarged and otherwise altered since first built, but is still a pleasant roughcast building with interesting features like the "ogival shingled roof" over the bay shown in the centre here ("The Bridge Inn"). But, as explained in the introductory section, this was more restaurant than public house. An alternative venue was the large timber-built gymnasium (above centre), a more utilitarian but surprisingly large building, one of several to have been lost over the years. It was first dismantled to make space for the Defence of the Home war memorial, and re-erected nearby, then finally demolished in 1981-82. Interestingly, one of its various functions over the years was to house an "Arts and Crafts and Home Arts exhibition" in 1904 (Hubbard and Shippobottom 67). There could hardly have been a better context for such a display. But perhaps the most important place where the employees could gather was the brick and timber-framed clubhouse (above right), which provided a more relaxed meeting-place for the "co-partners" in the Sunlight enterprise. This is also discussed in the introductory section.

Left to right: (a) The Post Office, originally the village shop, by Grayson & Ould (1891). Source: Davison, Plate 19. (b) The Employees' Provident Stores and Collegium, by Douglas & Fordham (1894). Source: Davison, No. 11, p. 9. (c) The Library on Greendale Road by Maxwell & Tuke (1896), built as a girls' hostel, and later turned into a bank and an office. Source: Davison, Plate 17.

The post office (above left) is another attractive building in local Tudor Revival style, but the Provident Stores group (above centre), with the Girls' Institute or Collegium above it, was more distinctive, with a gabled corner complete with columned entrance and balustrade. It was designed by an important provincial partnership: John Douglas (1830-1911) was "a prolific, talented and individual church builder" in the Cheshire and North Wales area (Hartwell et al. 50), who was in demand for domestic architecture as well. He was in partnership at this time with Daniel Porter Fordham (c. 1846-1899). "There are not many shops at Port Sunlight," writes George, "as the Employees' Provident Society (or co-operative society) caters for the immediate needs of the inhabitants" (121). Sadly, the block was destroyed in the war (see Hubbard and Shippobottom 67).

Lever was a great believer in self-improvement (see Jolly 172), and a good library was among the several other amenities, such as a technical institute, cottage hospital and fire station, provided for the residents of Port Sunlight. The partnership responsible for what became the library building (above right) was also more than locally famous: James Maxwell (1838-1893) and William Charles Tuke (1843-1893) were the architects responsible for the Blackpool Tower, and though they had both died by now, the firm continued under the leadership of Maxwell's son, Francis William (Frank) Maxwell (1863-1941; see Pearson). George criticises the library not for its design, which includes an eye-catching pargetted frieze between its storeys, but for having too much fiction on its shelves — though reading a novel, he suggests, was better than resorting to Penny Dreadfuls! — and for being closed on Sundays (see 118-19).

Workers at dinner in Hulme Hall. Source: George, facing p. 56.

Port Sunlight has been widely praised for its architecture. James Stevens Curl describes it as "an ensemble of motifs culled from the finest precedents, put together with a professionalism and a panache that would put most work in the late twentieth century [when he was writing] to shame" (174). However, its "lavish provision of public amenities (Tarn 160), i.e. its formal planning as a self-sufficient community dependent on the Sunlight factory, made it less of a blueprint for the future than it might have been. In this respect it is often contrasted with Bournville, a southern suburb of Birmingham, which began to take shape around the same time under the aegis of George Cadbury (1839-1922): Bournville's "large-scale development on Garden City lines began only in 1893" (Hartwell et al. 534). Cadbury's aim was not to create a distinct community for his own workers but simply to offer them, and people working for other companies too, better living conditions. In so doing he hoped to establish a precedent for workers' houses in general (see Tarn 160-01).

Perhaps, then, Leverhulme's strong controlling streak as "an autocratic businessman" (Rowan 71) made Port Sunlight something of a special case. Nevertheless, Edward Beeson's book of photographs of it as The Model Village of England, published in New York in 1911, indicates that it certainly was influential. Besides its influence on the Garden City Movement, it also foreshadowed attempts in the modern business world to establish a strong sense of corporate identity.

Related Material


Beeson, Edward William. Port Sunlight, the Model Village of England: A Collection of Photographs by Edward Beeson. New York: The Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 5 September 2013.

"The Bridge Inn, Bolton Road." British Listed Buildings. Web. 5 September 2013.

Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990.

Davison, T. Raffles. Port Sunlight: A Record of its Artistic & Pictorial Aspect. London: Batsford, 1916. Internet Archive. Web. 5 September 2013.

George, Walter Lionel. Labour and Housing at Port Sunlight. London: Alston Rivers, 1909. Internet Archive. Web. 3 September 2013.

Hartwell, Clare, Matthew Hyde, Edward Hubbard and Nikolaus Pevsner. Cheshire. The Buildings of England series. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Hubbard, Edward, and Michael Shippobottom. A Guide to Port Sunlight: Including Two Tours of the Village. Rev. ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996.

Jolly, J. W. Lord Leverhulme: A Biographyy. London: Constable, 1976.

Pearson, Lynn. "Maxwell, James (1838-1893." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 5 September 2013.

Rowan, Jeremy David. "Imagining Corporate Culture: The Industrial Paternalism of William Hesketh Lever at Port Sunlight, 1889-1925." Web. 5 September 2013.

Tarn, John Nelson. Five Per Cent Philanthropy: An Account of Housing in Urban Areas between 1840 and 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts Architecture Housing

Last modified 9 September 2013