Article continued here >>How Liverpool planned the world
Aug 5 2009
by Peter Elson, Liverpool Daily Post
An exhibition shows how the new art of civic design was invented in Liverpool a century ago. Peter Elson reports
IT ALL started with a notorious libel dispute about – of all things – a bar of soap. Certainly nobody could have predicted the bizarre outcome that an accusation over the diminishing size of soap bars would lead to the birth of town planning in Britain.
Yet this is precisely what happened when a popular national newspapers alleged that William Hesketh Lever’s Sunlight soap bars were deliberately reduced in size while being sold at their original price.
A man only to be crossed at your peril, the internationally famous Merseyside entrepreneur and founder of Lever Brothers, based at Port Sunlight, sued the newspapers in 1907 and won a year later.
The damages he was awarded were the highest of any court case at that time.
Instead of pocketing his libel winnings to buy another stately home or build a mock castle, he donated the windfall to the fledgling University of Liverpool.
As a result, a century ago in 1909, the world’s first Department of Civic Design, which later spawned the town planning movement, was set up.
Perhaps this is not so surprising in retrospect, as Lever created Port Sunlight, the much-lauded model village for his workers.
Although his scheme can be cynically labelled “enlightened self-interest” to improve worker productivity, this beautiful village remains much sought after today.
Also, given his vast art-buying interests, Lever clearly had an aesthetic eye and took the best expert advice in art and architecture.
The libel money also endowed the Lever Chair of Town Planning, occupied by several leading national names in planning and currently held by Prof Peter Batey. There was also enough cash to establish the Town Planning Review, the first international journal on the subject.
To celebrate this 100th anniversary of British town planning education and its birth in Liverpool, the university is staging a special exhibition at its Victoria Gallery & Museum.
Called Making Plans: 100 years of Civic Design, it charts the origins, history and impact of the Department of Civic Design.