William Hesketh Lever was a philanthropist, with a passion for art and architecture, and Port Sunlight is an enduring testament to the achievements of this remarkable man. The sheer scale of his altruism was unprecedented, and the whole of Port Sunlight Village became a conservation area in 1977 and is now one of the major tourist attractions on the Wirral. The name is derived from Lever Brothers' most popular brand of cleaning agent at the time, Sunlight.
Lever's aims were "to socialise and Christianise business relations and get back to that close family brotherhood that existed in the good old days of hand labour." He claimed that Port Sunlight was an exercise in profit sharing but, rather than share profits directly, he invested them in the village. He said, "it would not do you much good if you send it down your throats in the form of bottles of whisky, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant - nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation."
Managing the Village
In 1995, Unilever started to consider ways and means of handing the management of the village over to a suitable body, so that the company could concentrate on its core business activities. After examining various models, including the possible establishment of a housing association, it was eventually decided to create a registered charity and, hence, The Port Sunlight Village Trust was established in April 1999. The whole of the village that remained unsold was transferred to the Trust.
The Trust has also been financially supported by Unilever, and this will continue until 2017, when it will cease altogether. The long term aim for the Trust is to achieve a sufficiently high level of financial independence, so that the future of the village is assured without reliance upon significant charitable donations.
The Trust is managed by a Board of Trustees, employing a number of professional staff and a team of gardeners to carry out various functions. Services for repairs and maintenance work, architecture, building surveying and legal matters are procured from external firms and consultants as and when required.
The Trust's charitable objectives are firstly to preserve and maintain the character, the landscape and buildings and, secondly, to promote understanding of the ideas underlying the foundation and development of the village. The Trust works with a number of village societies and resident groups.
The Trust also runs Port Sunlight Museum which, whilst only two years old, forms the central platform to its mission of promoting the ideas surrounding the foundation of the village and its development. The museum is operated by a staff team supported by a group of volunteers. This was a £1million project funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. Visitors are able to book walks with village guides.
All the visible green space in the village is in the ownership of the Trust. No owner occupier owns a front garden. The management of the landscape, and its maintenance to a uniform standard, is one of the remarkable features of this village that distinguish it from almost all others. This invariably adds to the 'theatre' of Port Sunlight and establishes a somewhat opulent presentation for the village.
It does more than this, however, as it also unifies all of the buildings together into a setting quite unique and delightful to the eye. Residents are actively encouraged to maintain their rear gardens and house frontages with complementary planting to a high standard, and an annual garden competition is held to promote this.
The village is set in 130 acres of what can only be described as beautifully maintained parkland with a mature treescape. Approximately 900 houses have been built, along with some larger principal buildings. Nearly every building in the village is Grade II listed, and two sections of the landscape are included in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.
Lever employed over thirty different architects in the building of the village, and the result is an intoxicating mix of architectural styles enhanced by the parkland setting, giving tranquil scenes of great beauty.
I discovered Port Sunlight on a recent trip to Liverpool. The village was very tranquil, and it was like stepping back in time; everything was so peaceful.
There was no clutter of road signs, street lighting, litter or cars; quite an eerie experience. As a former parks manager, it was fantastic to see traditional horticulture practices still being carried out.
The village is very well laid out, with large communal areas providing some excellent landscape features that encompass formal and informal bedding schemes, rose gardens and amenity facilities, such as a paddling pool and three bowling greens.
The quality of the maintenance impressed me; it was very well maintained, no weeds in the lawns, carefully designed colourful bedding schemes, no weed killers used on path edges, with rose and shrubs beds kept very neat and tidy. It reminded me of how council parks and gardens used to be maintained many years ago.
I was so impressed with the village that I decided it would make an interesting article for the magazine, especially as there were also three bowling greens within the village complex.
Looking after these exceptional facilities is Head Gardener, Andy Church. He was taken on six years ago, when the Trust decided they wanted to return to having an in-house gardening team. Previously, the grounds were maintained by contractors, Continental Landscapes, who had successfully run the contract for the previous thirteen years, with Andy being one of their contracts managers.
So, in essence, Andy was no stranger to the site and was familiar with the maintenance regimes being carried out. For him it was an opportunity not to be missed, and he could see the potential and the merits of the Trust going back to having an in-house team.
With over thirty years experience working in the industry for contractors and local authorities, he was able to review, plan, resource and put together a programme of work to ensure the gardens remained the focus of the estate, with special emphasis on the horticultural history that needed to be retained to preserve and present this unique site.
Andy manages a team of ten gardeners who maintain the 130 acres of land. As well as 900 front gardens, there are numerous open spaces and formal gardens along with the three bowling greens and a churchyard.
The front lawns are cut on a weekly basis, using a combination of pedestrian rotary mowers and cylinder mowers. Communal areas are cut on a ten to fourteen day cycle using ride on triple rotary mowers, whilst the rest of the informal grass areas are generally cut every three weeks.
The bowling greens are cut three times a week, fed and watered when required. There are three bowls clubs who are allowed access to these greens, along with any members of the public.
All the gardening staff are given the opportunities to gain appropriate horticulture qualifications, with many holding NVQ level 2/3 in amenity horticulture, PA1 and PA6 and relevant equipment certificates. Any specialist areas of work gets put out for tender, for example, there are well over 1,800 mature trees on site, so there are ongoing programmes of crown thinning, crown reduction and lifting undertaken by appointed local contractors.
All the trees on site come under Tree Preservation Orders, and permission has to be sought before any major works are undertaken.
Andy's team plant over 40,000 spring and summer bedding plants in the main garden areas, along with providing many hanging baskets, tubs and troughs that feature around the museum, shop and memorial gardens. Andy designs all the planting schemes and buys the plants from local nurseries.
There is a central main garden running through the whole estate, with the impressive war memorial at one end and the museum at the other. This area is formally planted with a large selection of David Austin roses, summer annuals and perennial bedding schemes that provide all year round colour.
There are over five kilometres of ornamental hedging that are cut by hand three times a year. Andy is considering purchasing the Pellenc battery powered hedgetrimmers to reduce noise issues and, potentially, save money on the cost of fuel.
The Trust buy their equipment outright and make it last several years before buying being replaced. The mowers are sent away to a local dealer for servicing.
The Trust is currently investing in a brand new mess room and garage facilities which they are hoping will be ready for the start of next year.
Port Sunlight gets over 350,000 visitors a year, so Andy is keen to ensure the village looks its best at all times. All of the shrubs are pruned by hand, with mechanical pruning kept to a minimum. Andy likes to promote the skill and art of pruning out dead and diseased material to enhance shape, form and colour.
The site is a bit like the Forth Road Bridge; once you have completed one task you have to start it all over again. It's easy to see why the village is such a popular tourist destination, it has so much to offer, both in terms of national heritage and the quality of horticultural excellence. It is a great example of what can be achieved, and long may it retain its uniqueness. Hats off to Andy and his staff; they are the curators of a wonderful oasis in an urban landscape.