There never was a public statue dedicated to the Soap King. But the plaque that marked his birthplace has been torn down and stolen. Two gaping holes in the 1790 brickwork of a Grade II listed terraced house are now all that marks his birth in 1851 at 16, Wood Street, Bolton.
When Black Lives Matter activists dumped the statue of the slave ship financier Edward Colston into a dock in Bristol someone posted the name of William Lever, the Soap King, on a crowd-activated online map of British ‘statues and monuments that celebrate slavery and racism’.
Topple the Racists, a website set up by an anti-Trump direct action group, called on activists to nominate statues for toppling, with a concession that in some cases “taking down a statue could also include moving it to a museum”. Without a statue anywhere of William Hesketh Lever, Topple the Racists targeted an 18-metre-high granite obelisk in Port Sunlight, the model village of 900 arts and crafts cottages that Lever built for the workers at the Merseyside soapworks he opened in 1890.
A tainted legacy
Some 20,000 workers paid for a memorial after the Bolton grocer’s son died as Lord Leverhulme in 1925. He is still remembered as the Soap King for the vertical integration of Lever Brothers, with 250,000 workers on fair wages and pensions, and for the advertising genius that washed skins and clothes on five continents with Sunlight Soap, Lux and Lifebuoy.
The obelisk at Port Sunlight is topped by the bronze figure of a woman raising her arms to the sky. She is known as Inspiration and was created by Sir William Reid Dick, a royal sculptor born into poverty in Gorbals and apprenticed to a Glasgow stonemason at the age of 12. Below the obelisk are figures of a workman, a woman cradling a child, a young man holding a book and a woman holding an artist’s palette.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery beyond the obelisk is named after Lever’s wife Elizabeth Hulme, who also once lived in Wood Street, Bolton, and died in 1913. Julie Beacall, whose house in Windy Bank faces the Leverhulme Memorial, has stuck the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ on one of the white-painted beams above the front window of her picturesque Lever Brothers house. On the Be Port Sunlight website she says:
“Around the time this house was built, Lever bought 750,000 hectares of natural palm groves in the Belgian Congo for palm oil. The use of forced labour in these plantations is now under scrutiny and his legacy re-evaluated”.
Beacall has called for the Port Sunlight Village Trust, the village museum and the Lady Lever Art Gallery, to “honour the truth in the village” and suggests that Unilever plc, the £52bn international combine formed four years after the death of William Lever, should “look at reparations for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo”.
The criteria we use to judge our past
The Leverhulme Trust, providing scholarships for scientific research and education since 1925, immediately commissioned an independent survey into Lever Brothers palm oil production in the Congo and the Solomon Islands, with reporting by Dr Josephine Tierney of University of Liverpool, supervised by Professor Charles Forsdick, a biographer of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, and experts from the Royal African Society.
Doubts about Lever, who called for votes for women and universal old age pensions as Liberal MP for Wirral, soon reached his hometown, where he gave the people of Bolton two schools, a museum, two parks and 400 acres of moorland. The headmaster of the boys division of Bolton School, prompted by questions from alumni, examined The Legacy of Lord Leverhulme on the school website. From the vast Tudor-style red sandstone Grade II listed building, that was two thirds funded by William Lever after a 1919 architectural competition, strictly on the assurance that girls and boys would be educated equally, headmaster Philip Britton wrote:
“We cannot judge the past in terms of the present. We can more successfully think how the character of someone from the past might have been shaped and act in the present. I firmly believe that in the present age Lever, in his time active for the rights of women in democracy, would have been at the forefront of ensuring better social conditions and would himself be appalled by a past age who found forced labour acceptable.”
A phone call from the Bolton News prompted Adam McQueen, author of The King of Sunlight: How William Lever Cleaned Up the World, to correct some central facts on the Topple the Racists website concerning the palm oil plantations acquired by Lever Brothers from the Belgian government in 1911. Lever Brothers was already the world’s biggest soap manufacturer when they were offered the Congo concession. Correcting Topple the Racists, McQueen says:
“The list of statues currently states that Lever ‘made his fortune in soap making through forced labour slavery on his palm oil plantations in the Belgian Congo which were leased to him from his close friend King Leopold II’.
“Lever’s business in the Belgian Congo, the Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB) wasn’t set up until February 1911 and the earliest contact between Lever Brothers and the Belgian Colonial Ministry about the possibility of running plantations in the country I’ve been able to find any record of was at the end of 1909.
“Leopold handed the territory over to the Belgian government in March 1908 – he’d been running it as a personal fiefdom he called the Congo Free State up until then – and he was dead by December 1909.
“I don’t know of any evidence that Lever and he ever even met. That’s important, because the treatment of the inhabitants of the so-called Congo Free State by Leopold and his lieutenants was unforgivably abhorrent, and having his own statues ripped down across Belgium last week is not even the beginning of what he deserves.”
Adam McQueen quoted Lever’s own words to show how the Soap King, “displayed what struck me as an unusually empathetic attitude for the Edwardian era”:
“The Congo natives, although regarded as savages, nevertheless possessed the fundamental attributes of humanity – love of home, children and so forth – and the methods that brought out the best in ourselves were equally applicable to the dark-skinned people.”
Lever described negotiating with the Congolese after visiting the Belgian Congo in 1912:
“The Commissaire told the Chief that I was a great Chief from the White Man’s country, that I wanted his village clean and sanitary, and that I was willing to help him build a village on the new site… The Chief asked for time for himself and his headmen to talk it over which was, of course, accorded. I watched closely the faces of both men and women, and they were set in a critical, non-committal, intelligent way, which showed they knew well all that was said and had no intention of giving themselves away by too hasty grunts or nods of approval.”
Deeply racist by today’s standards
The international socialist Emil Vandervelde, Belgian government delegate at the 1919 Versailles peace conference, said he would have opposed the granting of the Congo concession to any other firm but Lever Brothers. Vandervelde said he was “aware of the conditions which existed at Port Sunlight” and whole-heartedly supported Lever Brothers running the palm oil plantations.
“I am making no attempt to rehabilitate colonialism: the system that existed in the Congo was exploitative and Lever, like all his staff, was, by today’s standards, deeply racist. But by the standards of the day he was exemplary. He made good on all his promises: ten hospitals, two schools (with teaching in the native languages) and a generous wage for every one of his 17,000 employees. Best of all, just six years after New York’s Bronx Zoo had exhibited a member of an Ituri tribe of pygmies from the Congo in the same cage in their monkey house as an orang-utan from Sumatra, Lever was doing his best to understand his employees as human beings capable of making perfectly valid lifestyle choices.”McQueen
Selective PR obscures colonial exploitation
“But I now think I got some of those important details wrong. In 2008, four years after my book came out, Verso published Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo by Jules Marchal (I think there might have been a French version at the point I was writing my book, but I never knew about it and wouldn’t have been able to understand most of it even if I did).“I became vaguely aware of its existence at some point between then and now… but it was only yesterday that I bought the Kindle version and sat down to read it. And it makes clear that I fell for the PR version of how the HCB operated in the Belgian Congo, and gave the ‘official’ version from the boss too much credence: the company, which was co-run by Lever and the Belgian colonial authorities, used forced labour, in a system which worked like this:
“The enforcement mechanism of taking women or chiefs as hostages was gradually replaced by that of taxes – and the threat of severe punishment for Congolese who did not pay them. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, European colonists and settlers used head taxes or hut taxes to force people away from subsistence agriculture and into mines, factories and other parts of the colonial economy that required labour.
“Tax collection was undertaken by armed soldiers on behalf of the colonial government, but the purpose of it was made very clear in a letter from an HCB managing director to the local military commander in June 1915: ‘promoting labour recruitment by making tax-collecting trips.’
“The company also employed child labour… and contrary to what I wrote, the wages they paid were far from generous. Here’s a quote from a letter from district commissioner Emmanuel Schmitz in October 1924, seven months before Lever’s death:
‘The HCB offers its workers a wage that in no way compensates them for their sacrifices – I refer here as much to the monetary question as to the changes in the way of life of the person hired – which they are ‘persuaded’ to accept. The workers’ principal grievance against the firm is the fact that they do not receive a ration in kind.’”
The way we discuss the past – and the present – determines our future
Adam McQueen’s carefully balanced facts and Philip Britton’s warning about judging the men of the past by the ideas of the present went unheeded in Wood Street, Bolton.
Number 16 is owned by the Bolton Socialist Club, ‘the oldest remaining independent socialist club in the country’. Actors Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh are listed as honorary life members.
The bad news for those who think ‘we cannot judge the past in terms of the present’ is that replacing the Lever plaque in its old place above a memento of the Spanish Civil War, is only ‘up for discussion’ amongst the 583 members of the club.
Chris Chilton, the club’s membership secretary, told me, “The plaque did not belong to us. It was stolen when the club was closed during the lockdown. Whether it gets replaced is up for discussion”.
- The King of Sunlight: How William Lever Cleaned Up the World by Adam McQueen, Bantam Press, 2004.
- Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo by Jules Marchal, Verso Books, 2008, translated by Martin Thom, introduction by Adam Hochschild
- “Nothing is more unfair than to judge the men of the past by the ideas of the present” is a phrase from Denys Arthur Winstanley’s 1912 Lord Chatham and the Whig Opposition and was quoted in 1984 by Barbara W. Tuchman in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.
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