Originally published in 2004, when it was chosen by The Economist as one of their books of the year, this is the “sort-of-biography” of one of Britain’s most eccentric businessmen.
William Hesketh Lever – soap-boiler, social reformer, MP, tribal chieftain, multi millionaire and Lord of the Western Isles – was one of the most extraordinary men ever to leave his mark on Britain. Beliefs far ahead of their times – the welfare state, votes for women, workers’ rights – jostled in his mind with ideas that were fantastically bonkers – the world’s problems could be solved by moving populations from country to country, ballroom dancing could save the soul and the only healthy way to sleep was outdoors in the wind and the rain.
Adam Macqueen traces Lever’s footsteps from his humble Bolton boyhood to a business empire that straddled the world, visiting the homes and model towns from the Mersey to the Congo that still bear the mark – and often the name – of William Lever.
It is a hilarious and touching journey that shines a spotlight on a world and a set of beliefs long gone, and asks several vital questions. Where does philanthropy stop and social engineering begin? Is it right for an employer to dictate how his workers spend their weekends and hire private detectives to make sure they are doing it properly? Are the length of a lawn and the curve of a banister of vital importance in the great scheme of things? And why would a multimillionaire with half a dozen homes and property on four continents choose to sleep on the roof?
“I was completely hooked from the first page. Adam Macqueen has a very engaging style… He’s got a way of whizzing you through this extraordinarily eventful life and making every page fascinating.”
Sue MacGregor, A Good Read, Radio 4, October 2008
“I enjoyed it enormously… It’s written in a very jocular, witty style. Very bold, the way he writes it, you have to have pluck to write in that way… a good read is exactly what it is.”
Alexander Waugh, A Good Read, Radio 4
“It’s a biography of big business, which I never thought I’d be interested in, but it’s wonderfully written, and amusingly written as well.”
Patricia Routledge, who nominated it for A Good Read, Radio 4
“Like Longitude or The Surgeon of Crowthorne, it’s always entertaining… great popular history.”
Simon Mayo Show, BBC Five Live
“No other biography in recent years has left me so desperately wanting to meet its subject… Macqueen comes to William Lever from a background of Private Eye and the Big Issue, and as a result his biography is wonderfully entertaining, constantly re-animating the period and the places with wit and cunning.”
Jonathan Myerson, Mail on Sunday
“The nucleus of this story is not detergent but Lever himself, whose career as a businessman and in-house despot financed a variety of parallel destinies, as architect, collector, benefactor, social engineer, ballroom dancer and reluctant politician, in most of which activities he displayed an impressive degree of eccentricity… a crazy story, crazily told.”
Russell Davies, Sunday Telegraph
“Its real value is as an entertaining portrait of a progressive thinker, ballroom dancer, art-collector, philanthropist, MP and genuine English eccentric. As an example, on his 45-acre estate, with its full-scale replica of Liverpool Castle and free-roaming zebras and lions, Lever preferred to sleep in an entirely exposed wing of his mansion, frequently under a blanket made of snow. Macqueen’s brisk and jocular telling of his life is fast-moving, and full of exactly the kind of trivial but colourful detail that’s needed to give the measure of such a singular man as Lever.”
Lawrence Phelan, Independent on Sunday
“Lever was brilliant, dotty and impatient, a small, contrary juggernaut of a man. Adam Macqueen has accomplished an affectionate portrait that brings this extraordinary character fully to life in joyously funny detail.”
“Adam Macqueen’s two chapters on the building of Port Sunlight offer a good illustration of his evenhandedness as Lever’s biographer. He is justly admiring of the village’s spacious layout, with its 12-foot pavements, its manicured lawns, communal allotments and sedulously observed architectural variety … Yet the whole achievement is also seen as symbolic of Lever’s dictatorial, incurably meddlesome approach to his workforce from management to shopfloor. The Sunlighters, in return for tennis courts, a ping-pong team, something called ‘the Old English Choir’, the Bridge Inn (firmly shut on Sundays) and free lectures at the Mutual Improvement Society, were expected to abide by an obsessively detailed set of rules. Tenants of the ideal villas could find themselves evicted for slothfulness, gambling, reluctance to participate in community activities or even failing to grow the species of flowers approved by the boss.”
Jonathan Keates, The Spectator
“Macqueen stuffs the book with amusing detail, humorously told.”
Kate Colquhoun, Daily Telegraph
“There are some exquisite images in Adam Macqueen’s biography, such as the upright Victorian on his fact-finding world tour trying to surf with the Hawaiian natives… Written with wit and verve, managing to be both inspirational and a cautionary tale.”
Helen Rumbelow, The Times
“Adam Macqueen is fond of his subject, and not just because Lever was a colourful, eccentric (he slept in a roofless bedroom), larger-than-life personality. Lever was also a decent man, a good employer, a thoughtful politician and a genuine philanthropist, although he’d have hated that title. Any man who created a huge global company (Unilever) and a charitable foundation (the Leverhulme Trust), which between them dispense around a hundred million a year to deserving projects, is worth a decent modern biography… an interesting, well-researched and well-written tale.”
“A 21st-century biography of Britain’s greatest 19th-century brandmaker.
Lever is an absorbing subject… Mr Macqueen manages to get behind the man’sgruff exterior, suggesting that what kept him so busy and so disciplined was the fear of what might flood in should he leave his mind momentarily empty. Particularly moving are the descriptions of William’s only brother James, closeted away for years for something that may have been no more sinister than (then rare) diabetes; and of his unsuccessful efforts, late in life when already profoundly deaf, to transform the Outer Hebrides into another experiment in welfare capitalism… There’s no harm in a little corporate nostalgia, especially when it is delivered in Mr Macqueen’s refreshingly vivacious prose.”
Boyd Hilton, Heat
“Adam Macqueen’s biography of the son of a grocer who became one of the world’s greatest creator of brands in the 19th century and, quite possibly, the earliest creator of a true multinational corporation, a good read – a page-turner even. Not very many corporate biographies (a good number of them are officially sponsored, in any case) are engrossing. And too many of them-even the ones written by journalists-are hagiographical in their tone. Macqueen’s is a refreshing exception.”
Sanjoy Narayan, Business Today