Port Sunlight’s star: Sophie Somers

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Port Sunlight’s star: Sophie Somers

by Catherine Hindson, Professor of Theatre History, University of Bristol

Photograph from Sophie Somer’s retirement event. Port Sunlight News, volume 25, February – March 1947, p.20. Reproduced with kind permission of Unilever plc and group companies.

A twenty-five-year-old Sophie Somers (1890-1950) came to Port Sunlight for the first time in 1916, following up on an advert Lever Brothers had placed for someone to run their factory’s business and welfare committees.

Her career at Port Sunlight was to last for over three decades and saw her become a well-known leader at the firm, a long-standing village resident, and a popular local personality. As The Liverpool Echo headlined in 1965, in Sophie Somers we can find ‘one of the most outstanding figures in Port Sunlight history’.

Reports of Sophie Somers’s retirement and obituaries published on her death tell us that she represented Port Sunlight’s ideals. It was no coincidence that when the King and Queen of Afghanistan’s meticulously planned royal visit to the factory and village took place in 1928, the ‘model dwelling’ they toured was the home Sophie shared with her sister Ethel (longstanding Lever Brothers Senior Clerk and librarian). A model dwelling, with model inhabitants who embodied the Port Sunlight spirit.

Sophie on Stage

Being a model Port Sunlight citizen involved work and play. For Sophie, most of that play took place on- or back-stage. The village dramatic society had been based at the Gladstone Hall since 1894. In 1921, they renamed themselves The Port Sunlight Players. She became an important member of the group, writing, performing, and organising performances and serving as the society’s Chair. Reviews of her stage roles, including one in The Stage, record that she was a particularly strong comic performer. Stagings of the pantomimes she co-wrote with William Hulme Lever became a 1930s Port Sunlight tradition. She was also involved in theatre in Liverpool: her one-act comedy An Empress Intrudes – written under the pen name of George Hewitt – was produced at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1925.

The Gladstone Theatre today. Photograph by Paul Thompson.

This love for the stage should – perhaps – not be a surprise. Somers’s father was a variety theatre manager, her cousin the impresario Sir Walter de Frece, and she was related to the celebrity music-hall star Vesta Tilley. Her significance to village theatre was memorialised in the Sophie Somers trophy, awarded at Unilever’s drama festivals during the mid twentieth century.

By the time of her retirement in 1947, Sophie Somers was President of the Birkenhead Soroptimist Club (a professional women’s association), and a broadcaster on the BBC’s ‘Make do and Mend’ section of Women’s Hour. She had served as one of four women appointed to the Board of Trade’s ‘Make do and Mend’ panel and was the President of the 1929 Club – a group of senior women leaders at Lever Brothers that she had helped to establish to address a gap in support for high-level professional women. On her death in 1950, she was buried at Broadgreen Jewish Cemetery, some distance from the village.

Seventy-five years later, Sophie Somers’s life has faded from knowledge, yet her story is one that can tell us about the importance of women, and of theatre, to understanding Port Sunlight’s rich social and cultural histories.

You can discover more about Professor Catherine Hindson’s research into the history of creativity at another industrial model village Bournville in her book, Theatre in the Chocolate Factory: Performance at Cadbury’s Bournville, 1900–1935.