William Hesketh Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, undoubtedly controlled one of the biggest industrial empires in the late 19th century, with his Sunlight soap brand having a strong thread within the lives of many in that time period, but why did he live in Wigan for 7 years, between 1877 and 1884, more specifically 21, Upper Dicconson Street.

William’s father, the founder of the Bolton based Lever Wholesale Grocery business, was very strict with William showing no nepotism in regards to business, holding him to very strict ideals when it came to William’s strive to progress within the family business, specifically as a salesman.

Eventually he persuaded his father to appoint him as a salesman covering the Westhoughton area. One afternoon William had completed his round early and being ambitious he set his pony and trap towards Hindley. Small orders were placed by several shopkeepers and provided the impetus to extend his travels to Ince and eventually Wigan. Business in Wigan continued to grow and became a business enterprise of its own, controlled by William.

William clearly had a distinct eye for business however, with him proposing a plan to his father about how he transported his good around the Wigan neighbourhood, with them “paying railway carriage from Liverpool to Bolton, then having to pay extra costs carting it back again to Wigan. We had better have a place in Wigan”. Even William’s cautious father could see the sense in this, which caused the acquisition of Ormerod and Company by the Lever family, this was also partially due to the Lever’s taking most of their trade from them.

Whilst developing the Wigan branch, the idea of spending several hours commuting back and forth to Bolton did not appeal to William encouraging him to rent a house in Wigan, specifically 21, Upper Dicconson Street where he spent Monday to Friday, returning to his wife, Elizabeth, on the weekend. He was to spend 7 years at Upper Dicconson Street from 1877 and 1884.

Upper Dicconson Street was developed in 1860’s and I870’s, primarily for the business and professional classes so William would be a welcome neighbour. The house was ideally situated for William to travel to his business premises initially at Church Gates, 28 Wallgate and then his future imposing building at 42, Market Street. On his walk to work he must have been impressed by the developments in the town, the new Market Hall, Mesnes Park, and other buildings springing up in this part of the borough.

Whilst the wholesale grocery business continued to grow and William, ever the entrepreneur, started to experiment into the making and manufacturing of soap at the Wallgate premises. The use of ingredients, such as glycerin and vegetable oils, palm oil, rather than tallow, to manufacture soap, he produced a good, free-lathering soap, called Sunlight Soap. The final ingredients were a mixture of coconut or palm kernel oil, cotton-seed oil, resin and tallow. William had now produced a quality commercial and saleable soap product.

It would be around this time that William left Upper Dicconson Street, having acquired premises in Warrington capable of producing his soap on an industrial and commercial scale.

During this period William, along with his brother James, continued to own the Lever Grocery business from its prestigious building in Market Street, adjacent to the Queens Hall. This business was managed by W.H.S Taylor on behalf of the brothers.

In 1887 William and family decided to convert the business into a Limited Company, 6,000 shares were offered at £5 each. The business in the Prospectus was described as the largest wholesale grocery company in Lancashire. The family still retained some of the shareholding.

To celebrate the conversion of the company into a limited establishment the workers were entertained to Tea at the Market Hotel. William displaying his philanthropic nature announced that one month’s salary would be given to all those who had been with the company for more than 12 months, and a week’s salary to those who had been with them for a less period. The Lever family still retained a substantial amount of shareholding and a few months later, the new company acquired the Bolton business that Williams father had founded.

W.H.S Taylor became the Managing Director and would subsequently take the majority shareholding and rename the company in his name in 1898. Thereby ending the momentous relationship between William Hesketh Lever and the town of Wigan.


William’s evidence in a libel case against Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail in 1901.

“In 1877 I started a branch grocery business in Wigan. In 1884 I began at Wigan to develop soap products, with production at a small works in Warrington, removing in 1889 to Port Sunlight” …… 

and as they say, the rest is history!

Source: Wigan Archives & Wigan ObserverBook - The King of Sunlight

Life after Wigan

1885 The company was founded by William Hesketh Lever and James Darcy Lever. They bought a small soap works in Warrington. William Henry Watson developed a new formula for soap using vegetable oil in place of tallow. The resultant soap was superior in every respect to all other soaps then on the market. It was named Sunlight and the formula was patented. Using glycerin and vegetable oils such as palm oil, rather than tallow, to manufacture soap, they produced a good, free-lathering soap, called Sunlight Soap. The soaps were made from a mixture of coconut or palm kernel oil, cotton-seed oil, resin and tallow.
1886 Levers were the first to sell soap in cartons [1].
1887 By the end of this year, Lever and Co was making 450 tons of Sunlight soap a week. William Lever bought a site for a large factory on the banks of the Mersey opposite Liverpool. This was on marshes at Bromborough Pool on the Wirral Peninsula adjacent to Price's soap and candle factory which had opened in 1855. The new development was called Port Sunlight and included a village for its workers.
Lever Brothers was one of several British companies that took a caring, paternalistic interest in the welfare of its employees. This was a major feature of the company's operations right from the start; the model village of Port Sunlight was developed between 1888 and 1914 adjoining the soap factory to accommodate the company's staff in good quality housing, with high architectural standards and many community facilities, amenities and leisure facilities, in the same way that Price's had built a model village for its workers.
1890 Lever and Co became a limited company – Lever Brothers Ltd.
1891 For description of works see 1891 The Practical Engineer.
1894 Lever created an affordable new product – Lifebuoy Soap.
1894 The company was registered on 21 June, to take over the business of soap manufacturers of a private limited company of the same name. [2]1899 The business of Benjamin Brooke and Co was acquired, and subsequently the company took over Hodgson and Simpson.
1899 Lever Brothers introduced a new type of product, Sunlight Flakes, which made housework easier than the traditional hard soap bars. In 1900 Sunlight Flakes became Lux Flakes.
By 1900, subsidiaries had been set up in the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Germany and elsewhere.
1904 Launch Vim, one of the first scouring powers.
1906 Shortage of raw materials. Lever Brothers agreed with three other manufacturers to limit competition for raw materials but was attacked by the press which called them "The Soap Trust", and accused them of driving up prices. Lever Brothers subsequently sued The Daily Mail and in 1907 won £50,000 damages.
1907 As a result of the "soap trust" of 1906, an exchange of shares with Joseph Watson and Co was agreed and 2 outside business were bought - the shares in Vinolia Co were still held by Levers.
1909 Acquired R. S. Hudson of Liverpool, manufacturers of Hudson's dry soap[5].
1911 Agreement between Lever Brothers and Ogston and Tennant that the 2 would work "in association" [6].
By 1911 the company had its own oil palm plantations in the Congo and the Solomon Islands. Lever Brothers also acquired other soap companies including Hazlehurst and Sons of Runcorn. Opened its first purpose-built research laboratory at Port Sunlight.
1912 Christopher Thomas and Brothers was taken over by Lever Brothers.1917 Lever Brothers acquired Pears Soap
c.1917 Dispute with Brunner, Mond and Co, who had an agreement with Lever Brothers as sole supplier of alkali, as a result of Brunners acquiring certain soap manufacturers. As result of legal case, the 2 parties agreed on a course of action that was mutually acceptable.
1917 Lever Brothers expanded into the margarine market with the launch of Planters and increased operations in South Africa.
1917-22 William Lever (Baron Leverhulme) built up a private portfolio of companies that included some dealing with produce from his newly acquired estate in Scotland's Western Isles. Many of these, including MacFisheries, were eventually bought by Lever Brothers
1919 Brunner, Mond and Co sold its shares in soap manufacturers Joseph Crosfield and Sons of Warrington and William Gossage and Sons of Widnes to Lever Brothers .
1919 Prices Patent Candle Co was bought by Lever Brothers
1922 Lever Brothers had 158 associated companies[9]1922 Lever Brothers entered into an agreement with what are now Shell, BP and Burmah Oil Co to create a new jointly-owned company, Candles Ltd, to take over Prices Patent Candle Co and all its subsidiary companies.
1922 Lever Brothers bought (from MacFisheries) Wall's, a popular sausage company which was beginning to produce ice cream to sell in the summer when demand for sausages declined.
1925 Lever Brothers bought British Oil and Cake Mills, one of its major competitors and the manufacturer of New Pin Soap.
1925 Lord Leverhulme, as William Lever had become, died.
1929 Lever Brothers continued to grow and then merged with the Dutch company, Margarine Unie, to form Unilever, the first modern multinational company. The Lever Brothers name was kept for a time as an imprint, as well as the name of the US subsidiary, Lever Brothers Company, and a Canadian subsidiary, Lever Brothers Ltd.
1947 Listed Exhibitor - British Industries Fair - for Lever Sales. Selling Agents for "Lux" Washability Bureau Service to the Textile Trade. Wash-testing and certifying of exhibitor's Fabrics Demonstrated. Full and Expert Advice may be obtained on all aspects of washability and serviceability. (Earls Court, Ground Floor, Stand No. 111) 2005 Unilever as the business is now known has an annual turnover of £26 billion.
Source:-Graces Guide

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