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William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) joined his father James's grocery business in Bolton at the age of fifteen in 1867 and in 1872 became a partner. A branch of the business was later opened at Wigan in 1877. Lever was soon to recognise the marketing opportunity in branding and packaging soap and as a result Sunlight soap was launched in 1884 as a value for money soap tablet in branded packaging. The soap was noted because it provided a much better lather through its unique blend of vegetable oils and animal fats.
Lever was keen to cut out the middleman and whenever possible, bought direct from the manufacturers. He set up Lever & Co in 1884 and rented a factory at Warrington the following year from the local chemical firm Winser & Co. With the injection of cash and know-how the firm was producing 450 tons of soap a week just two years later.
Because of his increased use of advertising, demand quickly outstripped the production capabilities of the Warrington site, so in 1887 Lever bought an open site on marshland at Bebington, the Wirral, which offered both a river frontage for the import of raw materials and a nearby railway for transporting the finished goods. Initially he acquired 56 acres of a site that would become 170 acres. Factory construction began the following year.
The first 'boil' of Sunlight soap at the new site, from which the village was to get its name, was completed in 1889. In the first full year of production, the factory processed 15,688 tons of soap. In the years ahead, output rose annually by 3,000 to 5,000 tons.
Port Sunlight was not only an enormously successful business venture but also a social experiment. William Lever introduced many pioneering welfare schemes for his employees, including pensions, sickness and unemployment insurance, shorter working weeks, holidays with pay, dining rooms and medical and recreational facilities. The company funded the creation of what is now a picturesque garden village with well-built homes for employees and every facility a worker and his family could need.
In 1890 Lever began to widen his manufacturing activities and to extend the product range. Some brands were inherited through the acquisition of other companies, including some from overseas. In the same year the company was converted into a private limited company: Lever Brothers Ltd. The company was appointed soapmakers to the Queen in 1892. In 1894 Lever Brothers became a public company. Port Sunlight was the headquarters and Lever built offices there to cater for the company's international operations. The same year saw the launch of a new soap Lifebuoy, a household soap that contained carbolic acid to give it disinfectant properties.
Other Lever Brothers brands launched in this period included: Swan soap (1898), which was advertised with the phrase "It floats"; Monkey Brand (1899), an all purpose cleaner which was acquired after the take over of the Benjamin Brooke Company of Philadelphia (the catch phrase was "Won't Wash Clothes"); Lux Flakes (1900), which was originally called Sunlight Flakes; YZ (1900), which stood for 'wise head'; Velvet Skin (1902); Plantol soap (1903), which contained no animal fat; and Vim (1904), a scourer.
By the turn of the century Lever Brothers dominated the UK soap industry, and within a decade there were factories or offices in the US, Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, South Africa, Canada and Australia, with work also starting on sites in Japan, Norway, Sweden, the Pacific islands and West Africa.
By 1920 Lever Brothers had taken over more than 20 soapmaking businesses of various sizes in England, Ireland and Scotland (see Info Sheet no. 21). The company also moved into the foods market, especially margarine, and created a subsidiary, Planters Margarine Company Ltd, to market margarine. A margarine works was built at Bromborough, on the Wirral between 1914 and 1918 and this was later transferred to Van den Bergh & Jurgens after the formation of Unilever (see below). In 1921, to reflect the increasing internationalisation of the business, Lever Brothers administrative headquarters moved to the site of the former De Keyser's Hotel at Blackfriars in London. The London headquarters before this date was at Upper Thames Street, St Paul's Wharf (later Sunlight Wharf).
William Lever died at 'The Hill', his home at Hampstead in May 1925. He had been elected MP for Wirral between 1906 and 1910, and was made a Baronet in 1911. In 1917 he became Baron Leverhulme of Bolton-le Moors, and in 1922 was awarded the title of 1st Viscount Leverhulme of the Western Isles.
The London office later became the UK headquarters of a larger organisation when Lever Brothers merged with its Dutch rival the Margarine Union in 1929 to form Unilever. Lever House in London was renamed Unilever House. The Margarine Union had been created in 1927 and was originally made up of the Dutch companies Van den Berghs and Jurgens. It later included the Franco-Dutch company Calvé-Delft, the Dutch meat company Hartogs, and the Austro-Hungarian soap company Schichts.
As a result of the creation of Unilever, Lever Brothers was involved in administrative changes within the new group. It continued as Lever Brothers Ltd until 1937, when the manufacturing and selling operations at Port Sunlight became invested in a new subsidiary company called Lever Brothers, Port Sunlight, Ltd. The parent company Unilever was renamed Lever Brothers and Unilever Ltd and later became Unilever Ltd in 1952 and Unilever Plc (its current name) in 1981.
In April 1960 policy matters relating to Lever Brothers Ltd and other UK soap companies within Unilever were vested in Lever Brothers & Associates Ltd. The activities of the Unilever soap and detergent businesses in the UK were integrated into this company. At the same time the existing Lever Brothers & Associates Ltd was renamed Lever Brothers, Port Sunlight, Ltd. In July 1970 Lever Brothers & Associates Ltd reverted to the name Lever Brothers Ltd, its present name in the UK.
Lever Brothers continued to introduce or acquire new products after the creation of Unilever. Some examples include Lux soap (1928), Domestos bleach (1929), Stergene washing liquid (1948), Surf detergent (1952), Sqezy dish wash(1956), Shield soap (1976), Comfort (1969), Jif cream cleaner(1974), Frish toilet cleaner(1982), Sun dish wash powder (1960s), Radion (1989) detergent, and Dove soap (1992). Brands that were acquired by Lever Brothers in the 1910s and are still available include Persil and Knights Castile.
At the end of the 20th century Lever Brothers manufactured 12 brands in the UK covering all sectors of the detergents market, including market leaders such as Persil, Comfort and Domestos. Products are developed, manufactured and packaged at the Port Sunlight and Warrington sites, and the company headquarters is at Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, where the sales and marketing operation is based.
Lever Brothers became part of Unilever's Home & Personal Care Europe Business Group, which was formed in 1996. The marketing of Lever's toilet soaps was transferred to its sister company Elida Fabergé Ltd in 1998, whilst Lever Brothers concentrated on home care products.
In 2001 Lever Brothers merged with Elida Fabergé to create Lever Fabergé UK Limited. The creation of the new company gave brands such as Lynx, Dove, Persil and Domestos a dominant market lead. Products continue to be developed, manufactured and packaged at the Port Sunlight, Warrington and Seacroft sites. The company headquarters remained at the renamed Lever Fabergé House, Kingston-upon-Thames until 2008.