In Look Up we like to encourage you rabble to briefly break from your daily scavenge for fag butts and lost change along the pathways of our durty oul town. Paul Reynolds says make like a culchie and have a mouth at the second storeys of some of these buildings you pass every day.
This issue’s site of interest is the Sunlight Chambers building on the corner of Parliament St and Merchant’s Quay. Built in 1902 the building features two mosaic friezes which wrap around the building like ribbon at each floor. They depict scenes from agriculture and industry cataloguing the history of hygiene. The renaissance windows on the upper floors and the protruding tiled roof wouldn’t look out of place on an Italian piazza.
The building was designed by Edward Ould of Liverpool who also designed the model village of Port Sunlight in Merseyside for the Lever workforce, in a similar fashion to the housing built by Guinness and Jameson here in Dublin
An Edwardian U2 Tower, it was scorned by Dublin’s twittering classes and regarded as the ugliest building in the city. Harsh. Many would class it amongst their favourite structures but even they may not know some of the darker history behind it.
It was built by Lord Lever, the British soap magnate whose company later became Lever Bros. Never were Chumbawamba’s lyrics more apt – “Unilever washes whiter! / Soap to clean those dirty hands / And a slap for the people who work the land.”
While Lord Lever (Viscount Leverhume) was housing and cleansing the great unwashed of Dublin, Liverpool and beyond he was also making waves in Parliament as a supporter of the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone. Promoting social conscience in industrialised society, bravo! Let’s say he was the Bono of his day. Rather like our own pint-sized messiah, Lord Lever had a fetish for America, dodgy religious outlooks and an obsession with the ‘Dark Continent’.
To be fair to the U2 windbag he never promoted a soap monopoly in the States, enforced Freemasonry membership on his employees or, in the pursuit of palm oil, enslaved an entire region of Africa. Described by Adam Hoschild in his book Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation In The Congo – ‘Lever set up a private kingdom reliant on the horrific Belgian system of forced labour, a program that reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi holocaust.’ What happened in the Congo is one of the great stains on human history, but one that has been all but erased from our popular history. Lever and others colluded with King Leopold of Belgium in the exploitation of the Congo’s people and resources. 50% of the population, an almost incredible ten million people, died during this hunt for cheap palm oil. The men were forced to work while the women were kidnapped and held captive. Children as young as five were enslaved. Kony1902 indeed.
So from a small soap headquarters in Dublin a policy of ethnic cleansing was launched on the unfortunates who were forced to work to death to produce affordable hygiene for our own great unwashed. The next time you pass that corner, look up, study the intricate mosaics and pause to think that Lever Brothers really does wash whiter.