The drive from Liverpool under the Mersey to The Wirral felt endless; the tunnel seemed to go for miles, and has bends in it – I felt like a trapped rabbit. Eventally I emerged, and found the road to the village of Port Sunlight. In celebration of its 125 years, a few residents have guided tours around the village, and I went on one.
|My 'group' at Port Sunlight|
Lord Lever was a man from Bolton who, at the end of the 19thC, started a soap factory with his brother James. Their soap was made from vegetable oil, rather than animal fat, so it lathered better, and instead of buying a chunk from a block on the grocer's counter, housewives bought their own individually wrapped bar - of Sunlight Soap. Soon new premises were needed and Lord Lever bought a patch of marshy land on the Wirral: it had an established railway line and sea links across the Mersey, and the marsh meant it was cheap.
Lord Lever was a great visionary and philanthropist and had become a very rich man. And he had a passion for architecture. At a time when working class families were living in crowded, unhygenic accommodation, he would have a stronger and happier workforce if he built them pleasant, and comfortable houses.
Different architects were employed to build streets of two- and three-bedroomed houses, all with hot water, a bath, and an outside privvy. They are different in design – Arts & Crafts, and a lot of Dutch influence - and have extravagant design features, intricate brickwork, etc. All of the houses had a small front garden, a back yard and an allotment, and none were passed for building without Lord Lever's close scrutiny. He didn't like ugly washing lines, bins etc to be seen from the front, and all houses were kept immaculately tidy.
His employees were not expected to work late, but to better themselves: attend concerts, etc. This philanthropic 'care' for his workers might sound controlling today. Sunlight women and men had separate entrances to the factory, separate dining rooms, and the women, who were largely employed in the packing department, had to leave if they got married. But they had jobs, and lovely homes – Port Sunlight had 10 households per acre when across in Liverpool there were 40 houses per acre – and probably no hot water.
Today the houses are still lived in by Sunlight (now Unilever) employees, or their descendents; now they have been modernised and have upstairs bathrooms as standard. They look just the same from the front but out the back the allotments have gone and smart cars are parked where the privvies used to be.
The crowning glory of the village is the Lady Lever Art Gallery which Lord Lever built to house his personal art collection and opened in 1922 as a monument to his wife, Elizabeth.
I left The Wirral, my head full of philanthropy, betterment and inspiration, and headed for the north Wales coast where I planned to camp on a grassy knoll somewhere around Prestatyn or Rhyl. Ha! I came down to earth with a bump. There is no space between the trailer parks along that coast. It was seething with people I didn't want to see, and general ugliness, and I ended up at a campsite near Llandulas, in the late arrivals naughty corner, with the the North Wales Expressway (the A5) drumming overhead.