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In 1884 William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), later first Viscount Leverhulme, as a partner in his father's wholesale grocery business in Bolton, began to specialise in marketing soap which was made to his own formula by others and sold under the name 'Sunlight'. In 1886, in partnership with his brother, Lever moved into soap production at a small factory in Warrington. The rapid success of the business made new premises necessary and Lever conceived the idea of building a new factory with an adjoining model village for his workers (Pevsner and Hubbard 1971).

Lever required a site served by a navigable river, a main-line railway, and a direct highway together with scope for future expansion (Mawson 1911). The site chosen consisted of a wide strip of marshy land divided by tidal inlets leading off Bromborough Pool on the west bank of the River Mersey and bounded by the Chester and Birkenhead Railway and New Chester Road. Initially 56 acres (about 22.5 hectares) were purchased with 32 acres (about 13 hectares) allocated for the village and the remainder, adjacent to Bromborough Pool, for the factory. Port Sunlight was inaugurated on 3 March 1888 and soap production commenced in June 1889. Housing and a number of public buildings in the south-west corner of the site were completed in the period 1889 to 1897 to designs by the architect of the factory, William Owen (1846-1910), and others. This early part of the village was laid out around a drained and landscaped tidal channel, The Dell, with the design apparently by Owen on the basis of a plan by Lever (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988).

The final extent of the village was not determined at the outset and during a world voyage in 1892 Lever made a plan for future expansion and further land was gradually acquired for the final village area of around 53 hectares (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988). Development in the late 19th century proceeded around the boundaries of the site with outward-facing housing in blocks around central allotment gardens. This was followed by similar development, with further public buildings, in the central area where the layout was largely determined by the tidal channels branching north and west through the site from Bromborough Pool (OS 1899; Plan of the Village, 1902).

In 1901-2 the tidal channels were filled in to the high water mark and cut off from Bromborough Pool by a dam. At this time it was intended that the channels would be retained as landscaped valleys, similar to The Dell in the south of the site. They were later completely filled in and levelled however, principally in 1909-10 (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988). Mawson in Civic Art (1911) noted that the original layout at Port Sunlight had been dictated by the channels and that with these restrictions removed 'it was decided to give definite shape and plan to the estate with the new church as a focal point'.

In 1910 a competition was held for the completion of the village among students at Liverpool School of Architecture and Department of Civic Design, which was won by Ernest Prestwich (1889-1977), a third-year architecture student. His plan included the enlargement of 'The Diamond', a central open area running north/south, to form a major formal element intersecting at right angles with a second broad vista, 'The Causeway', which terminated at the church in the centre of the site. Prestwich's plan was broadly implemented with revisions by Lever and James Lomax-Simpson (1882-1977) who took charge of Lever Brothers Architectural Department in 1910. The landscape architect Thomas Hayton Mawson (1861-1933), who was employed by Lever from 1905 on his gardens at Thornton Manor (see description of this site elsewhere in the Register), Roynton Cottage (see description of this site under Rivington Gardens elsewhere in the Register), and The Hill, Hampstead (see description of this site elsewhere in the Register), may also have been consulted (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988).

The layout of Port Sunlight Village and the great majority of building work was completed by 1914 (Plan of the Village, 1914) and between 1889 and the 1930s twenty-nine individual architects and architectural practices were employed. Throughout the village houses were laid out with front gardens. Initially maintained by individual residents these were soon taken over by the company to ensure a neat uniformity; garden railings were removed in the 1920s (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988).

Port Sunlight attracted much comment, with an article in The Illustrated London News as early as 1890, and was regularly featured in the architectural press. Lever's address to the Architectural Association in 1902 was published and was followed in 1909 by W L George's book entitled Labour and Housing at Port Sunlight and in 1919 by T Raffles Davidson's book entitled Port Sunlight. Visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included royalty, politicians, industrialists, officials, and architects from many nations. In Das Englische Haus in 1904-5, H Muthesius wrote that 'Port Sunlight will always be honoured by the highest recognition'. In the handbook to the 1910 International Town Planning Conference in London, which was accompanied by an exhibition including Prestwich's proposals, (Sir) Patrick Abercrombie wrote of Port Sunlight as 'one of the earliest of the self-contained "garden villages", which has exercised an enormous amount of influence on English and foreign planning' (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988).

During the Second World War much ground in the village was devoted to food production. Following the war George Nairn, Chairman of Lever Brothers and a keen gardener, appointed Charles Goldsmith, formerly head gardener at Bostock Hall in Cheshire, as Gardens Manager (Kelly 2001). In 1947 the garden designers Hayes of Ambleside were commissioned to produce a report (now lost) on the landscape and recommend improvements. Post-war changes included the planting of large areas of shrubbery and seasonal planting displays throughout the village.

In the period 1967 to 1977 a programme to modernise the housing stock was undertaken which included the provision of rear gardens and garaging in the former allotment areas. Between 1976 and 1983 nearly 1000 mature trees were lost to Dutch elm disease and a landscape rejuvenation plan followed the appointment in 1978 of consultants Pirkko Higson and Associates of Milton Keynes (Hubbard and Shippobottom 1988), with limes predominating in the replacement tree planting (Kelly 2001). Since 1980 houses have been made available for purchase to existing tenants and on the open market, but with the protection of restrictive covenants.

In 1999 management of the village was passed to The Port Sunlight Village Trust, set up with the primary objective of preserving and maintaining the land and buildings within the Conservation Area of Port Sunlight. Almost all buildings in the village are Listed grade II. The Trust is responsible for the maintenance of all landscaped spaces including the front gardens of the houses, of which about two-thirds are now (2002) in private ownership.

Site timeline

1999: Management of the village was passed to The Port Sunlight Village Trust.

People associated with this site

Advisor: Thomas Hayton Mawson (born 05/05/1861 died 14/11/1933)


bowling green

Port Sunlight Village encompasses a number of other landscaped open spaces, including three bowling greens.