Thursday 29 June 2023

The History of soap - from Mesopotamia to Port Sunlight by Susan Brownrigg

Who discovered soap and when isn’t known, but 3,000 years ago the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) were using a soap solution made up of ashes and water to remove grease from wool and cloth ready for the dying process. Because of the grease on the material this created a soap which cleaned the fabric.

Ancient Roman legend tells us that the word soap came from Mount Sapo. The story says that animal fats from sacrificed beasts mixed with wood ash would be washed by rain into the Tiber River. Washer woman using the river to clean their clothes found that the sudsy river produced much cleaner clothes.

Romans would rub olive oil into their bodies to get clean, then scrape off the dirt, sweat and oil off with a special tool called a strigil.

Athletes would use strigils to remove dirt,
 dust and oil from their skin after exercise.
Strigil from Science Museum Collection.

According to Pliny the Elder in his chronicle, soap was invented by the Gauls. They used a mixture of ash and tallow (animal fat) to make hair shiny. Pliny also mentioned that Germans used a hard soap and a soft soap.

In the Middle Ages, soap was being made in Britain by craftsmen who passed their skills from father to son and master to apprentice. This soap was not for personal hygiene, but to prepare wool for dying. Bristol, Coventry and London each produced their own variety.

While, Castile, in Spain and Marseille in France, added olive oil to their soap recipes meaning their soap was of a much better quality, but expensive. Castile soap was recommended for wealthy Tudor ladies.

In one household manual adding ‘sage, marjoram, camomile, rosemary and orange peel to washing water was suggested.

Queen Elizabeth I was said to have a bath every four weeks, ‘whether it was necessary or not’!

A 15th century illustration of bathing

Soap works by lifting germs from the skin, then the water washes the germs away.

The Industrial Revolution improved the standard of living for ordinary people, they could now afford to buy decent soap and running water was common in houses.

The government wanted people to understand the importance of health and hygiene.

The Prime Minister removed the tax on soap manufacture and on paper which was wrapped around it, making it cheaper for soap companies to make very large quantities.


William Lever

One of the soap makers to take advantage of this, was William Lever. He was born in Bolton in 1851, the seventh of ten children. His father was a grocer. 

William joined the business as an apprentice, aged 16. One of his first jobs was cutting soap. At this time, soap was sold to grocers in long bars and the grocer would cut it into crude blocks, sold by weight, and wrapped in newspaper.

Cutting soap (Unilever Archives)

William became partner in the renamed Lever & Co when he was just 21. By 33 he was wealthy, but bored and he decided to focus on marketing soap.

Following an American idea, he decided to sell quality soap, cut into standard ‘tablets’ in individual packages sold under a recognisable brand name.

He leased an existing soap works in Warrington and called his new soap - Sunlight.

Sunlight soap (Author's photograph)

Sunlight soap used glycerine and vegetable fats instead of tallow which could smell bad.

The soap was very successful and soon a new, bigger soap works was needed. William Lever wanted to build a factory from scratch - and he decided on an area of marshy land criss-crossed with creeks near Birkenhead, Wirral. His plans included a purpose-built village for the workers – he named it Port Sunlight.

The village included housing, a village hall, shops, a school, a church and a girl’s hostel for the female employees who travelled from Liverpool at 5.30 am.

Today the girl's club is Port Sunlight Museum, which I visited to learn more about the history of the village.

Port Sunlight Museum (Author's photograph)

There are lots of interesting displays, including this wonderful display of soap products aimed at children. William Lever wanted brand loyalty from a young age! He gave away novelties with products and tokens you could save towards larger toys. He also liked to include images of children in his advertisements as they represented innocence and honesty. 

Soap products and novelties on display at
 Port Sunlight Museum (Author's photograph)

Port Sunlight villagers were said to have worked hard and played hard. By 1909, there were 28 clubs and societies in the village.

William Lever also created two holiday camps for his workers to visit at Thurstaston, Wirral and Rivington Pike, near Bolton.

He also built a gymnasium, and an outdoor swimming pool which used warm water from the glycerine works at Port Sunlight.

School at Port Sunlight

The first school opened in 1896 and boys and girls were taught together, with up to 50 in a class. William Lever said: "A child without education is like a worker without tools."

The factory included Number 1 soapery, a wharf and various buildings for storage and printing of packaging and advertising materials.

William Lever believed in the power of advertising - and used newspapers and railway stations to promote his products. He used catchy slogans and bright artworks and to reassure customers of the product's superiority he offered a £1000 purity guarantee!

Sunlight soap advertisement

Lever went to art exhibitions in London and bought pictures which he had copied, adding the Sunlight brand name and slogan. Art was a passion of William Lever's - and he built the Lady Lever Art Gallery, in Port Sunlight, which you can visit.

A bath tub and soap was added to this painting
to become an advertisement for Sunlight soap

To compare original paintings with the advertisements you can read this article by Liverpool Museums.

The packing of soap was done by women in the factory, they worked for 8 hours a day, standing, with only one break – an hour for lunch.

At Port Sunlight men and women had separate entrances and started their shifts at different times. They also ate in separate dining halls.

Women were paid less than men and they had to leave their job when they got married (widows could work). A married woman was expected to look after her family and keep a clean home. Company officials would check regularly to make sure their house was clean and tidy!

Only married couples could rent a cottage in the village. Each had a front garden and back yard, and they could also have use of an allotment. Any vegetables and flowers they grew could be taken home.

Today as well as enjoying a guided tour around the village, with its many different house styles you can also buy a ticket to see inside one of the worker's cottages.

William Lever was one of the first employees to bring in health and safety rules for employees and Lever Brothers had an excellent safety record. Conditions were better than at most factories, and workers got long service awards and a pension when they retired. William Lever also had a cottage hospital built in the village in 1907 and introduced a fire brigade!

You can also visit Soap Works, an interactive exhibition that looks at the science of soap.

Soap Works (Author's photograph)

The Soap Works attraction and also includes a display which explores the business operations of William Lever in the Congo, where Lever Brothers sourced palm oil for their soap. 

Display at Soap Works

William Lever planned to build an African version of Port Sunlight in Lusanga, which he renamed Leverville. He wrongly thought the British way of doing things was better for the people of Lusanga.

And while William Lever had a good reputation for looking after workers in England, the practices of the company he set up - Les Huileries du Congo Belge (HCB) did not match this. Indeed HCB forced labourers to work against their will and for very little pay. 

Port Sunlight Village Trust continues to explore this troubling area of William Lever's life.

In 1906 William Lever became an MP, in his maiden speech he urged the government to copy the old age pension plans he had created for his workers.

William Lever was made a Baronet in 1911, becoming Sir William, and Elizabeth became Lady Lever. She died suddenly in 1913, so when he was made a Baron in 1917 and then a Viscount in 1922, he combined his own name with his late wife’s maiden name to create the title ‘Leverhulme’.

He died in 1925 and his tomb can be seen at Christ Church, Port Sunlight.

Lord Leverhulme's tomb in Port Sunlight (Author's photograph)


Taking inspiration from William Lever, who was a big believer in the power of advertising I would like you to write your own advertisement!

It can be for soap - even Sunlight soap - or for any household object, perhaps a favourite toy! You might like to make up some outlandish claims for what wonderful things your product will do for customers - will it make them super popular, send them into space or something else! You can be as outrageous as you like!

Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass and the author of three historical children's books for ages 8+ - Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest & Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower are seaside mysteries set in Blackpool. Kintana and the Captain's Curse is a pirate adventure set in Madagascar.

Susan's books are published by Uclan Publishing. 


Wednesday 21 June 2023

Operation Banana by Tony Bradman: a very personal view of the Second World War

The story of how a book comes into existence is often deeply rooted in its author’s life. For me that is particularly true of my book Operation Banana, published by Barrington Stoke. I’ve written a lot of books for them, including several titles set in either the First (Anzac Boys) or Second World War (Bruno and Frida). But with Operation Banana I really did go right back to the sources of my own career.

As the blurb for Operation Banana says, the story is set in the dark days of the Second World War. Its central character Susan is worried about her mum, who is struggling with long hours at a munitions factory and upset because they haven’t heard from Susan’s soldier dad for months. So Susan decides she’s going to cheer up her mum by getting her a treat - a sweet, delicious banana. But everything is in short supply in wartime London, so how on earth is Susan going to find one?

Illustration from Operation Banana by Tania Rex

In many ways, Susan’s world was one I felt very familiar with, although I was born nine years after the war, in 1954. Like many people born in those early postwar years, history cast a long shadow over my childhood. My parents were born in the 1920s, and they often talked about living through the most difficult times of the 20th century - the Depression, the rise of Fascism and Communism, the Second World War. 

This is my Dad, in Ceylon as it was known then, now Sri Lanka. He was 20 years old, an ordinary rating in the Royal Navy and on his way to the Pacific.

They were in their early teens when the war started, and when it ended they were young adults, both in the Royal Navy. They were Londoners, so they lived through the Blitz and its terrors, and had plenty of stories to tell about those dark days. My Dad was on HMS Belfast and saw action in the North Atlantic and the Far East, and my Mum served in the naval base at Portsmouth during the D-Day landings.

This is my Mum, standing outside a well known royal residence some time in 1944 or 1945. She was 20 years old and in the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Navy.

Hearing their stories from an early age played a large part in getting me interested in history. By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a dedicated reader of historical fiction, but also of historical fact. Yet even though I came to know a great deal about the titanic events of the biggest, most destructive war in the history of the human race, because of my parents I always tended to see it from a personal angle.

Adolf Hitler might have wanted to conquer the world, but for my Mum and Dad that simply meant lots of day-to-day misery. If you read the memoirs of people who were children in the war, they remember the big events, but they often talk about basic things too, particularly all the rationing and constantly being hungry. Food is important to children, and in the war most children just didn’t get enough.

Illustration by Tania Rex

Mind you, some did, though. Both my parents talked about another aspect of the war that’s usually overlooked, especially by those who idealise the conflict in Churchillian terms as ‘Our Finest Hour’. For many people it was, but the crime figures soared too. The ‘Black Market’ did a roaring trade, and you could get pretty much anything if you knew the right dodgy geezers and had enough money.

Illustration by Tania Rex

It was also a long war. The story is set at the end of 1942, the mid-point, but as Susan says, at the time nobody knew how much longer it would last. Everyone was exhausted and fed up. Of course it was tough on the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were fighting. But it was hard on the people at home, especially mums with young families. They often had to work hard and take care of their children as well.

All of these things came together when I started writing. I’d realised there had been millions of people like my Mum and Dad, and like Susan and her mum. Ordinary people whose lives were turned upside down by the war, and who struggled to survive, to stay cheerful and help each other get by. They were just as important in winning the war, and that’s why I wanted to tell today’s children their story.

Illustration by Tania Rex

Barrington Stoke have done a great job in designing and producing the book, and it’s been wonderful to work with the illustrator Tania Rex again. Her illustrations have added an extra layer of warmth to the story, and it’s a delight to see how well she has brought Susan and the other characters of wartime London to life.

Operation Banana is dedicated to ‘my Mum and Dad, children of the war’. Sadly they’re long gone, but I like to think they’d be pleased to be remembered. I have a feeling they would both enjoy reading Susan’s tale, and I hope you will too.

And this is where they both live now - on a shelf in my study!


Imagine you are a child living in war-torn Britain, and you’re worried about your mum’s state of mind. How would you go about cheering her up? What kinds of obstacles would you face? And just how far would you go to overcome them?

Watch Tony's YouTube video about Operation Banana by clicking here.

Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books since the Jurassic Age (according to his grandchildren), although he maintains it’s ‘only’ since the 1980s. He has written for all ages, and is best known currently for historical fiction - books such as Viking Boy and Anglo-Saxon Boy (both Walker Books) and Queen of Darkness (Bloomsbury Educational) are very popular in schools. His books have been shortlisted for prizes many times, and he has won the Historical Association Young Quills Award twice, for Anglo-Saxon Boy, and also for Titanic: Death in the Water (Bloomsbury Educational), which he co-wrote with his son Tom.

Tony is also the consultant editor on the highly successful 'Voices' series of diverse middle-grade historical novels published by Scholastic, featuring books by writers such as Bali Rai, Patrice Lawrence, Kereen Getten and Benjamin Zephaniah.

Twitter: @tbradman.

Instagram - tony.bradman

Tuesday 13 June 2023

The History of Holidays by Catherine Randall

The first holidays were religious festivals or holy days, which is of course where the word ‘holiday’ comes from.  In Britain, these were traditionally based around Christian festivals such as Christmas, Easter and saints’ days and they were an opportunity for people to take time away from their work to gather together and celebrate.  The festival would normally begin with a service in the local church and decorating the church with fresh greenery and flowers would be part of the fun. The rest of the day would be given up to feasting, music, parades, dancing and drinking. They were days out of the ordinary, days to look forward to, days to remember, which is how we still think of holidays.

Church flower festivals are an echo of the very first holidays

Until the Victorian age, only the very wealthiest people travelled away for a holiday! Most people couldn’t take more than a day or so away from their work on the land, travelling was slow, and anyway – where would they go?

Then two things happened which changed British summer holidays for ever – the new idea that seawater was actually good for you and, secondly, the arrival of the railways.

From the early 1700s onwards, sea bathing became a recommended cure for all kinds of illnesses, and gradually coastal towns such as Scarborough, Whitby, Margate and Brighton grew into seaside resorts where you could go for a health-giving dip in the sea and enjoy the bracing sea air. But there was no splashing around in your bathing costume with your rubber ring  - the bather entered the sea from a bathing machine, a sort of mobile changing room wheeled into the water. Women bathed fully dressed although, rather surprisingly, until the 1860s men could bathe in the nude! A canvas modesty hood attached to the end of the machine concealed the bather from spectators on the beach.

William Powell Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside, Ramsgate Sands is a fascinating Victorian seaside scene. Note the bathing machines in the background on the right (Royal Collection Trust)

Seaside towns soon sprouted assembly halls, theatres and libraries to entertain their visitors when they weren’t sea bathing. But these coastal resorts were the preserve of the wealthy classes who had the time and the means to make the long coach journeys from their fashionable homes in London or Bath.   

All this changed with the coming of the railways. From the 1840s, it was possible for the first time for large numbers of people to travel from inland towns and cities to the coast. Genteel resorts like Weymouth, Scarborough and Brighton now saw an influx of new visitors while resorts such as Blackpool and Llandudno, Cromer and Minehead all grew up in response to the growing demand from the middle classes for a jolly day out at the seaside.

Loughborough Central Station (photo: David Middleton)

It wasn’t long before the working classes too were jumping on trains and joining their more affluent neighbours at the beach. The increasing popularity of the seaside among all social classes can be seen in the building of the piers in Blackpool. Blackpool began as a middle-class resort. It opened its first pier – North Pier - in May 1863 as an attraction for middle-class Victorians to stroll along while taking the health-giving sea air. By 1868, a new influx of working people led to the construction of Central Pier (originally called South Pier), which boasted opportunities for dancing, music and drinking.

Blackpool's North Pier (photo: Susan Brownrigg)

Blackpool was at the very forefront of seaside entertainment for the working classes. After Blackpool station opened in 1846, its easy accessibility from the Lancashire mill towns, coupled with the northern tradition of the ‘wakes week’ (a week when all the factories in a particular town closed down for maintenance), led to thousands of holidaymakers taking the train to Blackpool each year. They went to enjoy the wide beaches, the fresh air and the increasing number of entertainments that the enterprising town businesses provided for their amusement.

Blackpool Tower was opened in 1894 (photo: Susan Brownrigg)

While the workers of the Lancashire mill towns were jumping on trains and speeding off to the nearest seaside, a Leicestershire temperance campaigner called Thomas Cook was busy pioneering another type of holiday which stills flourishes today: the package holiday.

Statue of Thomas Cook outside Leicester Railway Station

Thomas Cook was a strict Baptist who at the age of 25 took the temperance pledge to abstain from alcohol, and soon began campaigning for others to do the same. Unlikely as it sounds, the first ‘package holiday’ organised by Thomas Cook was a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough (a distance of 11 miles) for a temperance meeting on 5 July 1841. The one shilling ticket price included rail travel, a ham sandwich and a cup of tea!  Around 485 people paid the shilling to travel on a train hired from the Midland Counties’ Railway for a day of marches, speeches, games and tea. 

The original 1840 Loughborough station used by Thomas Cook no longer exists, but Loughborough Central Station shown here, opened in 1899, is now the headquarters of the Great Central Railway heritage line, where visitors can ride on full-size steam trains. At one stage in the nineteenth century, Loughborough had three railway stations! (photo: David Middleton)

Thomas Cook had realised the potential of arranging trips for others. Just as the railways made seaside holidays accessible to the masses, railways also made possible day excursions to other places of interest. Thomas Cook’s business really took off in 1851 when he organised trips to the Great Exhibition in London for workers from the Midlands and Yorkshire. By the end of the Exhibition, 150,000 people had travelled with Thomas Cook. Only four years later Thomas Cook was leading his first continental tour to Belgium, Germany and on to Paris. 

Early postcard from Blackpool (photo: Susan Brownrigg)


Imagine you are a Victorian child, travelling by steam train to go to the seaside for the day. Can you write a postcard to someone at home telling them about your amazing experience? What was the most exciting thing – travelling on the train, with the steam billowing around you, or maybe it was paddling in the sea for the first time. Did you walk along the pier and listen to the band? Or maybe you did some fishing from the end of the pier? Was it sunny, or did you have to huddle under an umbrella? What did you have to eat? 

Write a postcard, or even a letter, about your day trip.

Watch Catherine's YouTube video about Victorian holidays by clicking here

Catherine Randall is the author of The White Phoenix , an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London, 1666. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021. Catherine is currently working on a children's novel set in Victorian London.

The White Phoenix is published by the Book Guild and available from bookshops and online retailers.

For more information, go to Catherine’s website:

Twitter: @Crr1Randall.

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