Can I Find Human Agency in this “Healthy” Port Sunlight?

– By Sam Clevenger

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In doing historical research, it’s hard enough trying to decipher the significance of a document staring you in the face as it lies comfortably on a weird large pillow archives use to protect primary sources.  It’s a whole other Costco-size can of worms figuring out whether, within that document, there is evidence of the existence of forms of human agency, of how ordinary people, not just those near the controls of power, were actually experiencing and making history.  As I am discovering on my current sojourn of extended historical research on the (now independent) island of the Great Britain, this is a loaded question involving a multitude of consequences for researchers like myself.

For the moment, let’s not dive into the murky, ongoing theoretical debate of what constitutes, or rather should constitute, the categories of agency and experience in historical research.  Let’s just consider one question, if only for own purposes of reflection and mental processing: how might a researcher (i.e., myself) uncover possible historical evidence of humans [re]acting in various ways to the ideas being imposed by those in positions of power?

Take, as an example, the history of the creation of Port Sunlight village in turn-of-the-twentieth-century England, a historical context still freshly percolating in my Magners-riddled mind.  In my ongoing research on the international garden city movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Port Sunlight was one of the early communities which seemed to prominently influence Sir Ebenezer Howard and the subsequent garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn, the two most distinctive English garden city communities of the movement.  Port Sunlight, however, was not a garden city but an industrial model village, a community built by an adjacent industrial firm for the purposes of housing its employees.  The brainchild of William Hasketh Lever, founder of soap making firm Lever Brothers (later to become what we now know as Unilever), Port Sunlight (named after his firm’s flagship soap) was to be Lever’s form of what he called “prosperity sharing,” where in exchange for a fraction of their wages he would provide employees an adjacent healthy, comfortable community of homes for them to live in.  Each house would have luxuries like a bathroom and a front and back garden; the village would serve as a place, according to Lever himself, “where workers could live and know something more of life than going to and from a factory and drawing wages on a Saturday night.”  There’s so much more necessary detail to this story, but what I’ve written is the basic gist.

There are an assortment historical dilemmas which emerge upon studying documents from the historical context of Port Sunlight’s creation, but one particular problem is that Lever was heavily paternalist as landlord of the community.  As author Roger Hutchinson puts it, “The price demanded of his workforce for such domestic luxury was their acceptance of benevolent dictatorship.”  The community life of Port Sunlight was to be dictated by the wishes of Lever, with the workers sacrificing the majority of their self-determination in exchange for the security Port Sunlight could provide.  This kind of overt paternalism by Lever took many forms within the community, each exhibiting important relations to contextual issues of class, gender, and race.  Port Sunlight was to be a teetotal community, no free houses or consumption of alcohol was to be allowed.  Tenant’s gardens were to be controlled by management (i.e., the company), with Lever Brothers making the excuse that too many individual tenants had allowed their gardens to be fouled or used as “refuse heaps”, complete with washed clothing garments exposed on outside railings.  As one of the organized social activities of the community, Port Sunlight hosted weekly winter dances for the younger folk, particularly girls (as they occupied a significant percentage of the factory workforce).  If any girls over 18, however, wished to invite a gentleman to the dance, she would need to submit their name (and it could only be one name) to the Port Sunlight social department, so they could approve and issue the invitation.  These and other instances made it clear Lever had a specific kind of community in mind with Port Sunlight, and it would not ultimately be up to its inhabitants.

This paternalism by Lever and his company can be clearly seen in publications connected with Port Sunlight’s early years.  The company published a monthly journal for Port Sunlighters, subsequently named Progress, with the stated intention of fostering closer connections between employer and employee (a key ideological plank in Lever’s prosperity sharing scheme).  The pages of Progress issues, when not sprinkled with descriptions of the importance of soap and cleanliness and Lever Brothers advertisements disguised as personal stories, burst with accounts from workers, agents, and significant visitors of the beauty and enjoyment of Port Sunlight.  In English writer W.L. George’s 1909 book on labour and housing in Port Sunlight, he takes little precaution in restricting his personal bias: “…Port Sunlight has done more than house its inhabitants well; the good conditions of labour and the contact between the different grades have gone far towards combating prejudice and class antagonism.”  It became clear early in my research on the village that with many of these documents I would have difficulty uncovering evidence of working class agency, outside the confines of Lever Brothers’ powerful gaze, to which I could then unpack and analyze historically.  How might I be able to find evidence of historical agency within these documents, outside that of Lever and the company itself?  Is it even possible?

In my comprehensive exams defense, one of my committee members, an wonderful professor of history, suggested to me that, as one possibility, historical experience can be gleaned when the researcher discovers evidence of historical actors behaving or making decisions that are outside the prescriptive measures of those in positions of power within the historical context.  Surely, if agency or experience are any kind of categories of note, that is somehow involved.

In the early history of Port Sunlight, once I looked a bit closer at the available sources, I began to find bits of evidence of how early Sunlighters made decisions that went against Lever’s prescriptive measures for the village.  One fascinating example had to do with resident desires for a free house.  In George’s book, he briefly mentioned how residents overwhelmingly voted for the village Bridge Inn, initially set up as a temperance house, to become licensed to sell alcohol.  After establishing his contention that Port Sunlighters in general have little interest in alcohol (Writing on page 115, “…a visit to Bridge Inn is convincing proof that the people of the Village do not frequent it.”), George offers a quick story of how in July, 1902, the residents organized a meeting to discuss making the Bridge Inn a licensed free house.  With 300 villagers present, and after some considerable debate, 207 voted in favor of the license.

Upon receiving the news, Lever stipulated to the residents that, due to his serious misgivings about having alcohol available in Port Sunlight, they would need a three-fourths majority vote in order for the Bridge Inn to become licensed to sell booze.  So a community vote on the issue of alcohol was held two days later, with each adult male and female Port Sunlighter allowed to cast a vote.   472 adults voted in favor of the license, 120 against it.  After recounting the story, George quickly returns to celebrating the overwhelming sobriety of the community: “The sobriety of the people is remarkable; I passed several ‘Saturday nights’ in the Village without seeing a single drunken man: in how many industrial communities could one do the same?”

It may seem, at first thought, quite rudimentary to speak of this as “evidence” of people making decisions, for obviously they were people just like us, people who made decisions as they confronted the various social, political, economic forces of everyday life.  But in the realm of historical research, in which the material at your disposal concern contexts that, with each passing day, become more difficult, if not impossible to reconstruct, and even then primarily through the obscuring linguistic medium of narrative form.  The conducting of historical research, in this sense, is a political act.  As I continue with my historical research in the U.K., I realize that becoming increasingly cognizant of all of this, of the need to constantly reflect on my own intentions, methodologies, and underlying framework of perspective, not only helps to keep the researcher honest, but to calibrate the lens through which one views their historical material.

I’m viewing my materials with the intention of uncovering evidence of the historical agency of ordinary people.  I think, perhaps, I’m starting to find some.

Source List:

George W.L. Labor and Housing at Port Sunlight. London: Alston Rivers, Limited, 1909.

Hutchinson, Roger. The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2003.

The wonderful archive at the Port Sunlight, UK Museum Collections Study Centre

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