William Lever

Founder of Lever Brothers and Port Sunlight

Billie the Bulb Billie the Bulb
William Lever gave us nice smelling soap Before he made Sunlight Soap, soap was made with smelly animal or fish fats!
William Lever

William Lever went from a teenager selling soap in his father’s grocery business, to creating the world’s first multi-national company. Port Sunlight, the village he built for his workforce, is named after his first famous soap brand.

The people who lived in Port Sunlight and worked in William Lever’s soap factory, and the workers in Unilever’s factory there today, have changed how we wash our bodies and clean our homes.

William believed that a well-run business could transform life for its workers and customers. As well as good intentions though, William was also a smart businessman. He could see that soap was an important product with a bright future.

He introduced new ideas like advertising and packaging design to Britain. His innovations helped him create the biggest soap business first in Britain, then internationally.

He and his team travelled the world looking for new soapy ingredients, like vegetable oils. However, workers were treated differently in other countries than in England. Not all William Lever’s history making was good for everyone involved.

At the same time, he campaigned for health and safety at work and for workers’ rights. He was also worried about living conditions for many working people in Britain in the 1800s. Housing was cramped and dirty and dangerous diseases were common. In Port Sunlight he built workers’ housing that was not only clean and healthy but also beautiful, inspired by the best in art and design at that time.

SoapWorks is an interactive family experience, connecting William Lever’s historic innovations with Unilever’s research and development today. Soapworks highlights the STEM, business and innovation skills required to create everyday products. Products like the humble bar of soap, it saves lives and we use it all the time but we rarely think about its history.

Click here to find out more about Port Sunlight and Soap Works>>

You can find out more about the exhibition in this video>>

Image of William Lever by kind permission from Unilever Plc.


Important dates

William Lever is born in Bolton, Lancashire
William transforms the production of soap
Lever Brothers is founded by William and his brother
Port Sunlight Village opens
William founds Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight

Did you know?

  • Making history is a team effort. In the mid 1880s William Lever worked with his brother James and recruited expert scientists and soap-makers to start their company Lever Brothers.
  • William’s first big brand and big innovation was Sunlight Soap. They used vegetable oils in their soap, instead of smelly fish or animal fats. Imagine washing yourself or your clothes with soap that smelled bad. It’s not surprising their soap was extremely popular!
  • Before Sunlight Soap launched, soap came in big long bars and you had to grate it like cheese! William’s company sold individually wrapped bars of soap. This was convenient for customers and meant the company could use the packaging design to help sell the soap.
  • In 1888 the factory and village in Port Sunlight opened. It was the first workers’ housing designed to be a beautiful, healthy place to live. Before leaving school to join his father’s business, William wanted to be an architect. So he employed the best architects for his project.

In the 1890s William Lever introduced new ideas about advertising to Britain. Advertising was then a new idea, mainly being used in the USA. William went there to learn about it, then used it to corner the market for soap in Britain, then across Europe and around the world.