A NEW book details the extraordinary life of Bolton-born William Hesketh Lever - the entrepreneur with a social conscience who is arguably the town's most famous son.

The life and times of the soap baron who became Lord Leverhulme are told in The King of Sunlight - How William Lever Cleaned Up The World (Adam Macqueen, Bantam Press. £12.99). The author, a former Big Issue editor, currently works for Private Eye. ALAN CALVERT delves into a real "soap" story

BY 1905 Lever Brothers - the company which William founded with his younger brother James - was a worldwide concern with factories across Europe and North America producing more than 20 brands of soap. Port Sunlight - the revolutionary workers' village on Merseyside - was almost completed with 2,900 residents.

William was a generous supporter of the Liberal party, and his enlightened employment practices made him an attractive Parliamentary candidate.

But conscious that he could not neglect his business, he allowed himself to be nominated on a number of occasions when he knew there was little chance of his winning.

However, on January 26, 1906, he became the MP for the Wirral in a landslide victory for the Liberals - an election which also saw 29 members of the Labour party enter the Commons for the first time.

In February that year, he proposed in his maiden speech that the state should introduce pensions for people unable to do so for themselves.

His chance came in May, 1907. Through a Private Members' Bill he proposed that a graduated scheme, paid for out of income tax, should be introduced which would allow every man and woman over the age of 65 - except those in workhouses or prisons - to collect an allowance of five shillings a week from the Post Office. Lever's Bill was carried by 232 votes to 19.

During the remainder of his Parliamentary career, which he cut short because of pressure of business, he made a good case for MPs to be paid.

He believed the system in operation at the time discriminated against working-class candidates, and he thought payment would give every constituency an "equal, free and unhampered selection of parliamentary representatives."

The system was introduced after the next election, by which time Lever had left the house. But the lad from Bolton can justifiably be said to have influenced two major elements of life which endure to this day.

The author of this book describes Lever's decision to pull out of politics as one of the great missed opportunities of his life.

"His decision to put business before legislature probably deprived Lloyd George of one of the best cabinet ministers he could ever had had," Mr Macqueen writes.

Earlier in the book he details Lever's life after he was born on September, 19, 1851, at 16 Wood Street - now the headquarters of Bolton Socialist Club.

Studies at the Church Institute were not enough for a precocious child and he fitted lessons in French and shorthand into his spare time.

He was inspired when his grocer father presented him with a copy of Self Help by Samuel Smiles on his 16th birthday, and for the next 50 years he presented an inscribed copy to any adolescent who happened to cross his path.

William and his wife Elizabeth, who lived initially at 2 Park Street, Bolton, had a lifelong devotion to each other.

When work started on Port Sunlight in 1888, they moved into the manor house in the nearby village of Thornton Hough.

It was the first of their homes to have an open-air bedroom because William believed it was healthy to sleep exposed to wind, rain and snow.

This was a man who had total faith in his views and a favourite phrase was "Aye, nay, we won't argue: you're wrong."

Port Sunlight was an astonishing social experiment which provided soapworkers with comfortable semi-detached houses with gardens back and front, trees, parks and recreation grounds. Streets included Wood Street, Park Road and Bolton Road.

There were vast dining halls, a primary school, shops, a post office, tennis courts, bowling greens, football and cricket pitches, a brass band, a gymnasium, an open-air swimming pool, various sports and intellectual organisations and generous gifts at Christmas.

But Macqueen notes that there was a great deal of "control-freakery" about all this, and residents had to live by "the whims and rules of the fussiest landlord in the world."

In the soap works girls arrived 10 minutes before the male workers and left a full half-hour before them, lest they should be tempted into indecency while clocking on and off.

But on the whole the villagers were aware that life in Port Sunlight was better than that outside.

Lever was years ahead of his time with the introduction of working conditions such as an eight-hour day, a company doctor, health and safety measures, education for workers and a good relationship with trade unions.

His philosophy was: "You can overwork and kill any machine, and that is sound policy. But to be lacking in consideration in any way for the life, health and happiness of the employee is the most short-sighted policy a firm can adopt."

Adam Macqueen is taking part in a £3 reading, discussion and signing session at Waterstone's in Deansgate, Bolton (01204 522588) on Tuesday, May 11 at 7pm.