Utopia – Port Sunlight

Port Sunlight, a small ‘village’ on the Wirral side of the Mersey, was built to house workers from the Sunlight Soap factory, which was owned by the industrialist and philanthropist William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Leverhulme was an enthusiastic supporter of the nascent town planning movement, so much so that he endowed a Chair of Planning at Liverpool University and paid for a new department of Civic Design, which, when it opened in 1909, was the world’s first planning school, and he also sponsored a new journal devoted to the subject, the ‘Town Planning Review’. Port Sunlight embodied many of Leverhulme’s conceptions for ideal living conditions, hygiene and beautiful garden-city style surroundings.

Unlike Titus Salt, the industrial benefactor of Saltaire, an earlier utopian experiment, Leverhulme allowed his workers to have a public house on site. Aside from the often bizarre collection of houses the village included a church (which was originally non-denominational reflecting Leverhulme’s non-conformist religious leanings), a community centre named ‘Gladstone Hall’ (reflecting Leverhulme’s Liberal Party politics) and the Lady Lever art gallery, there was also a clubhouse, a technical school, a library, shops and at least one post office, all served by good transport connections from the railway to roads and seaborne via the Mersey itself. In 1910 a competition was held to redesign the village, won by a student from Liverpool University, Ernest Prestwich.

Amongst the many architects and planners who worked with Lord Leverhulme was the noted landscape architect Thomas Mawson. His influence on the Ernest Prestwich town plan of a remodelled village is detectable in the use of segmented forms and axial vistas such as that leading towards the Diamond, where the War Memorial would eventual find a home. ‘The Diamond’ itself bears a close resemblance to several of Mawson’s plans that were never built. Essentially it is a cross shape with marked similarities to the landscaping of the Trianon (the avenue between the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trainon) in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, and the juxtaposition of formal arrangements and rustic features at Port Sunlight also recalls Marie Antionette’s ‘cottage ornee’ placed alongside the neoclassical magnificence of Versailles itself. The difference being, of course, that Port Sunlight housed soap factory workers, not a French queen.