William Lever built Britain’s largest company and in so doing, made the first modern multinational. And unlike the US Robber Barons, for Lord Leverhulme his workers’ welfare was as important as his wealth. William Hesketh Lever is born on 19 September 1851. After six daughters, his father’s happy he finally has someone to inherit his successful Bolton based grocery business. William’s brother, James Darcy Lever, joins the family three years later. Unlike the robust William, James will suffer from ill health throughout his short life.
Aged 16, William leaves school and joins the family business. In 1874, he marries. His wife, Elizabeth Hulme, not only lived on the same street as him, but attended the same church. The Congregationalist Church infuses him with many of the ideals he will make real with his business empire. The couple will have a number of children, but only one, also called William, will survive.
In 1885, the brothers enter the soap business by buying a small soap and cleaning product works in Warrington. Lever Brothers is born.
They partner up with William Hough Watson, a chemist from their home town. His newly invented soap uses a colonial raw product, palm oil, and glycerine rather than tallow. It’s a free-lathering soap first named ‘Honey’ and then ‘Sunlight Soap’. Thanks to William’s marketing acumen, within a decade of its launch it is on sale in 134 countries. By 1888, they’re producing 450 tonnes. Business is good. Five years after moving into the village of Thornton Hough, William buys the manor there. Next, he’ll buy the village.
Needing larger business premises, William purchases 56 acres of land in Cheshire. He builds on marshes and creates Port Sunlight. The model village is developed between 1888 and 1914.
“Some 30 architects were commissioned to create a complete ‘garden’ village in what was unapologetically called the ‘old English’ style”
Simon Schama, A History of Britain
Two cottages are built as exact reproductions of the farmhouse of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. At a time when urban poverty and overcrowded slums are endemic, William has Jacobean-Flemish gables, exposed timbering and leaded windows in country cottages for his workers. As with the model village of Cadbury’s, Bourneville, the cottages have their own running water and unlike some at Bourneville, all have indoor bathrooms.
Schools are built to educate 500 children. For women and girls, special classes are offered in cooking, dressmaking and shorthand. By 1909, there are 700 cottages, a concert hall and theatre, a library, a gymnasium and an open air swimming pool. Rents are one fifth of the weekly wage.
However, this largesse comes with conditions. William demands observance of strict ethical codes. Breaking them can mean losing your job. And as the cottages are tied to employment, losing your job means losing the roof over your head. William makes many social activities compulsory in his village.
During this remarkable development James is felled by a bout of illness and resigns his directorship. Massively successful products such as ‘Lifebuoy’, ‘Lux’ and ‘Vim’ are launched and subsidiaries are set up in the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Germany. The Port Sunlight plant alone produces 5,000 tonnes of soap a week.
Lord Leverhulme became involved with Freemasonry through his business. In 1902 he was the first Initiate of the William Hesketh Lever Lodge No. 2916, a Lodge founded by some of his own employees. He went on to become a co-Founder of a number of Lodges and gained Masonic recognition including appointment as Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of England in 1919.
Leverhulme saw Freemasonry as a useful tool to promote social cohesion and high standards of personal conduct and actively encouraged membership amongst his workforce. He established a Masonic network at Port Sunlight which deliberately reinforced the existing hierarchy within Lever Brothers. Separate Lodges were created for managers, supervisors and workers. Freemasonry was an important instrument in his paternalistic policy for the welfare of his workers.
Unilever House – London
The birth of Mersey Lodge was a direct result of the merger of Lever Brothers Ltd and Margarine Unie in 1930 and was caused by the relocation of the Lever Brothers Ltd Headquarters in Liverpool to the newly built Unilever House in London. This resulted in many of the staff of Lever Brothers moving as well and this included a group of Freemasons mainly from the Masonic province of West Lancashire who found themselves in London and having difficulty attending meetings of their Mother Lodges
Although they had quickly made some new Masonic contacts in London, the decision was taken to form a new Lodge centred around Unilever employees thereby making it easier for these misplaced Freemasons to continue to meet.