The King of Sunlight

Adam Macqueen

Read December 2005

Every once in a while, you might see a press release or article that mentions the Leverhulme Trust. The person behind it, the maker of the ubiquitous Lever soaps, was an extraordinary character. He is the basis of this good, sometimes even gripping, history of William Lever, the first Lord Leverhulme and founder of that Trust.

Lever was a product of the Victorian spirit of self-improvement and enlightened self-interest. Yet Macqueen tries hard to convince us that beneath that steely exterior was a beneficient person who went well beyond the call of mere self-interest to care for his employees. Lever certainly was a progressive in many respects. The title is a reference to not only Lever's famous Sunlight soap, but also to the company town of Sunlight, created and for many years run by the Lever company. Sunlight was, befitting its name, a surprisingly enlightened town, even if it was run under ironclad rules by a man who was certain his well-intentioned but controlling diktats were in everyone's best interests.

The author's autobiographical sketch is designed to amuse more than inform; this makes the book's execution something of a pleasant surprise. His waywardness does show through in several places. The book is very weak on chronological details, on describing Lever's surrounding cast, on personality, and most importantly, on historical context: reading it, you would imagine Lever was alone in his utopian ambitions; there is, for instance, absolutely no mention of other planned towns such as Robert Owen's New Lanark. This would be excusable if the town of Sunlight were a footnote in the book, but it's not—it's one of the book's foci. The author talks about interesting and significant photographs that are, sadly, not included even in black-and-white. There are also places where the book feels remarkably indexed to a particular year (around 2002 is when I would put its writing, though the formal publication year is 2004).

The book is strong enough, however, to overcome these flaws. The subject is sufficiently curious to hold our attention. There are interesting lessons about the history and role of advertising (and how remarkably advanced it became early in its development). There are echoes of many contemporary issues, providing fodder for thought. We learn about curious British parliamentary procedures (such as the Private Members' Bills, p. 181) and curiosities (such as the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds, p. 185). Finally, the book is pleasantly equipped with several picture plates and a strong index.