The firm was founded in the 1830s-1840s by Joseph Watson (1814-1873) of Leeds, who set up in East Street, Leeds, as a hides and skins dealer supplying the city's thriving leather industry. The sale of tallow candles, tallow and grease products for industrial use and solid bars of tallow soap developed as a side-line using the by-products of this trade.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMPANY to 1913
In 1861 a new factory in Whitehall Road was purchased, which had the advantages of a frontage on the River Aire and proximity to a railway junction. By 1877 the company managed four premises: Leadenhall Street and Manor Street in Leeds, at which tallow and fat products were manufactured; and Filey Street, Bradford and Whitehall Road, Leeds which were used for the handling of the hides and skins.
As the nineteenth century progressed the domestic consumption of soaps rose dramatically in response to a number of factors, including a growing population living in expanding towns and cities with an increasing per capita income and
an increased awareness of the importance of personal hygiene.
The two sons of Joseph Watson, Charles (b.1838) and George (b.1840) who had taken over the business on the death of their father in 1873, realised both the growing importance of the soap industry and the uncertainties facing the leather industry as improvements in shipping and an increase in imported skins and leather threatened the trade of dealers in native hides. During the 1880s the brothers decided to expand their soap-making activities, and when in 1897 the company was incorporated as a public company with an authorised capital of £1.4 million, they were producing domestic soaps that had become household names, including Watson's Matchless Cleanser and Venus. However, it was not until 1911, with soap output and sales growing rapidly, that the hide and skin business was finally sold to concentrate on soap-making.
During the 1890s the son of George Watson, Joseph Watson (1873-1922) joined the firm, becoming a strong and dynamic influence in the company. He introduced several national advertising schemes influenced by the advertising activity of William Lever, head of one of Joseph Watson's biggest competitors, Lever Brothers. One of the most successful of these was the 'prize wrapper' scheme by which prizes were offered in exchange for wrappers of Watson's products. An early advertisement for such a scheme for purchasers of Venus soap, in 1893, listed clocks and watches in the prize list; by 1924-5 top prizes in exchange for wrappers of Watson's products included a motor car, a house, or £10 000, with a huge variety of smaller gifts including towels, handkerchiefs and cutlery also on offer. Joseph Watson was also a pioneer of mobile advertising with the employment of travelling salesmen provided with specially decorated horse and carriage to promote Venus soap.
In 1906, in response to the heavy costs in advertising caused by the fierce rivalry between soap-manufacturers, and a decline in the supply of imported raw materials, Joseph Watson joined William Lever and other leading soap manufacturers to form a soap combine, to co-operate in keeping these costs down. However campaigns by some newspapers to boycott members of the combine, which became popularly known as the 'Soap Trust', portraying it as an attempt to monopolise the soap industry, led to the abandonment of the scheme later that year. Watson's went on to sue the Daily Mail for libel, eventually settling for £60,000 - £30,000 in cash and £30,000 in advertising space.
In 1906 the company's leading brands included multi-purpose household soaps Matchless Cleanser, Venus, Nubolic disinfectant soap and Sparkla for polishing and scouring. Several other types of soap were also produced. Later brands
added to the range included Snowdrift soap flakes, Radiant toilet soaps, the Venus range of toilet soaps and shaving sticks, and Panshine household polisher, which appears to have replaced Sparkla in around 1930.
ACQUISITION BY LEVER BROTHERS AND REORGANISATION 1913-1962
On 1 April 1913 Lever Brothers acquired half the issued ordinary capital of Joseph Watson and Sons, and on the retirement of Joseph Watson in 1917 the rest of the shares in the company were acquired by Lever Brothers.
In 1914 Planters Margarine Company Ltd was formed, a joint enterprise between Lever Brother's and Joseph Watson's. In July 1915 the company passed into Lever Brothers' control.
With the formation of Unilever in 1929 the company began to undertake some reorganisation in line with the corporate strategy of rationalisation of Unilever's many operating companies.
During the 1930s production of household soap within Unilever became concentrated at Whitehall Road and later in this decade the Whitehall works became the centre of development for soapless shampoo and shampoo powders, with manufacture of Eve shampoo for William Gossage and Sons commencing in 1933.
In 1936 Whitehall Road was designated as a specialist manufacturing unit, and a separate trading branch of Watson's was established in association with Gossages.
In 1940 the sales side of Joseph Crosfield and Sons Ltd was added to this marketing body to form Crosfield, Watson and Gossage Ltd.
Toothpaste production and packaging began at the factory in 1940 or 1941, at which time the company took over the manufacture of SR toothpaste for D&W Gibbs. In 1952, with the introduction of chlorophyll toothpastes in the UK, a new toothpaste, Mentasol, was produced by and launched from the factory.
Following the Second World War more radical changes took place. All Unilever soap output was transferred to Port Sunlight and in 1952 production of household soap was finally discontinued at Whitehall Road. Watsons experienced a period of transition during 1953 towards its conversion to the UK Toilet Preparations Unit of Unilever, producing and packing toothpastes and dentifrices, shampoos, permanent waving lotions, perfumes and toilet waters.
In April 1953 the production of Pin-Up Cold Perm lotions was established in Leeds, and the manufacture of J&E Atkinson's products, including toilet water, perfumes and hair lotions, was transferred to a new perfumery block in
Whitehall Road from Bermondsey in 1954.
By 1955 over 100 commodities were being produced at the Whitehall Road factory for several selling companies within the Unilever Group, including D&W Gibbs (UK) Ltd, Pepsodent (Sales) Ltd, J&E Atkinson, Crosfields (CWG) Ltd; and A & F Pears Ltd.
On 1 January 1963, in line with a strategy of rationalisation, Joseph Watson and Sons was integrated with two of Unilever's other leading toiletry companies with which it already enjoyed close relations, D&W Gibbs Ltd and Pepsodent Ltd, to form Gibbs Pepsodent Ltd (see Elida Faberge information sheet). The Whitehall Road factory, known by local tradition as 'Soapy Joe's', continued manufacturing operations for the new company until the gates were finally closed in Nov 1987. By this time development and manufacturing for the company, now Elida Gibbs Ltd, had moved to a single, more spacious site on the outskirts of Leeds at Seacroft. As a tribute to the historic links with Joseph Watson and Sons the new factory at Seacroft was named the Watson building.
(For history of Gibbs Pepsodent Ltd see introduction to Elida Fabergé Ltd: EFL)