William Hesketh Lever, the founder of the village, had ambitions to be an architect but his father insisted that he become involved in the family grocery business. Lever undeniably indulged his passion for art and architecture in the construction of Port Sunlight but he also employed 29 architects in the construction. The result is an intoxicating mixture of styles and design approaches.
The village is often considered to be a part of The Garden City Movement and to be representative of the influence of Ebenezer Howard but despite Lever’s commitment to the Garden City Movement, the origins of Port Sunlight clearly lie in the tradition of the industrial ‘model village’. Most of the houses were constructed for factory workers although there were some larger and even a few detached houses built for managers. The density of development was very low at about 9 per acre but this was probably as much due to the
ground conditions as it was to Lever’s passion for the welfare of his employees. The central part of the village comprised a massive tidal inlet covering over 25 acres and had fingers extending quite far into the village. These originally were a significant part of the landscape. The only reality, the school was constructed with the inlet to the rear and the land has simply not been fully filled in.
The early developments in the Village occurred at the Southern end of Bolton Road with Greendale Road and the end of Wood Street close to the factory along with the area surrounding the Dell. Then the perimeter blocks along New Chester Road, Bebington Road and the main frontage of Greendale Road west of Bolton Road were formed.
The classical formality of The Diamond has all but obliterated the earlier irregularity of the Village around the free-flowing forms of the tidal Inlet. The formal axial design known as ‘The Diamond’ was the result of an open architectural competition in 1910, which was won by Ernest Prestwich, a third year architectural student at Liverpool University. Outwardly the buildings at Port Sunlight show great decoration and ornamentation while the internal elevations to the courtyards can be strikingly stark and utilitarian. This is an important architectural feature of the development at Port Sunlight, where Lever concentrated the quality of construction and detailing to the front ‘main’ elevations while the rear courtyard elevations, which were not on public view, were treated in a more utilitarian fashion. At times this duality of appearance can appear almost ‘theatrical’.
The outward appearance was achieved by creating a perimeter of blocks of houses all facing outward with an internal area behind. These were called “superblocks”. The village is a collection of superblocks with only a few unfinished. None of these are the same with different designers being involved in different areas considerable variety has been introduced. The construction of corner blocks of houses with connecting walls has assisted in maintaining the privacy of the internal areas and presenting the outward appearance to a highly successful degree.
The landscape is also an important feature of the village. Whether by accident or design, the tidal inlet must have influenced the layout of the village and this in particular shows the influence of the Garden City idea. There are some variations in style and notably some ‘classical’ elements introduced to some blocks, particularly those to the corner of Bolton Road with Corniche Road, but overall the effective style is an “English cottage vernacular” using traditional materials of Cheshire red brick with combinations of stucco, harling render, stone dressings and “black and white” half timber frame. Tudor spiral chimneys combined with ‘four-centred’ perpendicular arches in various areas give a “mock Tudor” effect. This was to become much copied by builder-developers in the expanding suburbs of the inter-war years. As a result some of the originality of these buildings has been diluted by modern repetition.
There can be no doubt that the combination of largely two-storey buildings with pitched roofs and a variety of styles and finishes creates a comfortable and agreeable environment which some observers have loosely termed “Olde English” but which, in reality, never existed. Clearly Lever was instrumental in the creation of this largely artificial environment that reflected his own desires and aspirations for his workers and society as a whole. Lever proved to be a most unusual client for his architects where collaboration formed an essential feature of the relationship. Each of the principal buildings in the village has been approached on an individual basis and thus each enjoys its own architectural style quite different from any other principal building. Again, the landscape plays an important role in unifying these buildings with the village houses.