Thursday, May 26, 2011

Soapy legends

(Updated 14 March 2015)

I've been meaning for ages to take a photo of this restored Sunlight Soap ad on the side of the Corner Store, Mt Eden and Nikau Streets, Grafton/Eden Terrace. A couple of days ago, I made my way down Mt Eden Road from the Upper Symonds Street shops, and finally ticked this off my inner "to-do" list.

The shop's been around for ages, probably turn of the twentieth century, perhaps before. This part of Mt Eden Road was, until they opened up the rest of the Western railway line to link with Newmarket in the early 20th century, the route travellers would trek up from Mt Eden Station towards Symonds Street and the waiting trams and horse buses to take them further into the city. Haven't seen a contemporary photo yet showing the original ad on the side of the shop yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was, indeed, that same Sunlight soap one, with its "£1000 Guarantee of Purity" plug.

Evening Post, 18 September 1909

My mother's mother's family came from Leeds in Yorkshire, the Killerby family of William son of Charles, himself descended from tailors, cloth drawers, weavers, and others associated with the Leeds wool industry going back to at least the 1650s. William married Martha Watson 23 December 1854 -- and that sparked off a family legend, involving Sunlight Soap, which lasted clear through to the early 1980s. There may still be relatives of mine, out there in the world, who still believe it, because it had been told to my grandmother Elinor, and she told all her four children.

Grey River Argus, 13 August 1912

The legend was that Martha's father invented Sunlight Soap.

Poverty Bay Herald, 31 December 1920

A lot of families have legends like this. You get little kiddies sitting around the knees of grandparents, this sort of thing takes root and becomes an oral history hand-down through the generations. In my family's case, I think it happened when Grandma Elinor was a kiddy herself (born 1892), and although living in London with her father and his second wife (Grandma's mum died when she was three), she was sent to north to stay for a while with Great-great grandma Martha. Who told her something about the family on Martha's side ...

Evening Post 29 August 1922

Well, come the early 1980s, and my mother and I decided to go looking into the family background. Whatever Martha Watson had told the young Elinor, it had been so convincing to Elinor that the family name Killerby had been wiped out in her memory; Elinor thought that Watson was her mother Emilie's maiden name. Mum and I did some checking, hired researchers in England, and found out the truth.

William Killerby, born around 1829 and a cloth-drawer by occupation, married Martha Watson in 1854. She was the daughter of John Watson, a chemical manufacturer in Leeds. William eventually rose to become a wool merchant, perhaps with help from money from Martha's side, but most likely I now find thanks to his close associations with his brother Frederick, who in turn worked his way up from being a warehouseman to a director of a woolen clothing company -- but Martha, it seems, was vastly more proud of her own side of the family than that of her late husband.

Then, Mum and I contacted the makers of Sunlight Soap, who very kindly sent us a pamphlet explaining the history of the product, first marketed in England in 1884. Sunlight Soap, back then, was an amalgam of a number of soaps and chemical processes from all over England. Firms like Knights Castile, for example, contributed to the manufacture. Another to contribute toward the making of Sunlight -- was a firm of Yorkshire soap manufacturers and tanners named Joseph Watson & Sons in Leeds, dating from around 1820. Lever Brothers, Sunlight's makers, bought out the Leeds soap factory around 1912.

Evening Post 28 March 1925

That line of Watsons went on to be Barons from the 1920s, but there's no indication so far that Martha's father was a member of that family.

Meanwhile, what is now known about John Watson (1808-1854) is that he started out as a stone mason in Woodhouse, Leeds, married Mary Spenceley in May 1827 (daughter of a prominent cow-keeper, later church warden, named Simeon Spenceley), and was in a partnership with a Joseph Watson as "manufacturing chemists" around 1851. The partnership was dissolved then, but it began sometime between 1844 and 1851. Then my ancestor was in partnership with a William Watson, "prussiate of potash manufacturers". This partnership dissolved as well, in 1854. He died in October that year, after a long illness. His daughter Martha married William Killerby two months after that.

Evening Post 22 August 1940

So -- t'was merely family legend about the Sunlight Soap. I have no idea at the moment if the Joseph Watson John had his first partnership with was the same "Soapy Joe" who is said to have developed his soap as a by-product of his tannery business. But, the brand, above all others, does still mean a lot to me. Mum would swear by its wonderful ability to get at tough stains in the hand-wash, and I still use the bars today (even though, for a while, it looked like they'd go off the market, here).

Oh, and if anyone reading this finds a John Watson, chemical manufacturer in Leeds, in amongst the genealogy or the story for the Barons Manton, do let me know ...


  1. Lovely family story and subsequent research :) ... my myth debunking in our family was that Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener was in our family tree ... turned out only the name was LOL. My GGG grandmas maiden name - but oddly enough she looked a lot like Frances Chevallier... Kitchener's mother. Was a bit spooky that.


  2. There are some other odd familial connection legends in my family tree, most of the rest on mt father's side. If I ever decide to stick strictly just to family history -- I'll have a ball working it all out! :-)

    Maybe somewhere way back a Kitchener ancestor got into your gene pool, Sandy, for a bit of a swim, or at least a paddle?

  3. William Hough Watson

    The Lever brothers W.H Lever and James Darcy Lever who founded the firm had invested in an invention by a local Bolton Chemist, the firm is no longer so close to its roots, I live in Bolton where the chemist came from, his name was Watson. W.H Lever, (Viscount Leverhulme) worked in his father's business until the year 1884, when he founded a business of his own in Warrington. He manufactured soap, based on a formula generally used in the trade at that time, and made it as good as it was possible; but this did not satisfy him. He wanted to make it better, a lot better. The brains behind the new soap was William Hough Watson, a Bolton chemist, the money came from Levers family, the new partnership led to the creation of Lever Brothers.

  4. So there were two Watson families involved in the soapy business leading into Sunlight. Interesting! Many thanks for that. When I find it again, I'll include information from the Levers own history here that Mum and I received.

  5. I find this very interesting as I am also descended from John Watson b. 1808 Leeds, Yorkshire. His son William was also a Chemist and I am descended from him. He is
    a brother to your Martha Watson - daughter Emilie Killerby. I am only just delving deeper into this side of my family. Funnily enough I had not heard about this connected by only that a further generation down one of the daughters (Late 1800's) had connections with/married into the Peel family. (Founders of the original police in the UK) This is also something I want to explore. Brenda.

  6. Wow! Hi there, distant cousin! Wonderful to hear from you! You have connections with the fellow who kicked off the Peelers, eh? That's interesting. All the best for your research and hunt.


  7. i have recently discovered a photo album of the lever bros i have photos of a J.H.watson and many more people

  8. The only thing missing from the story is where William Hough learned to make soap using alternative oils rather than the tallow used all over Europe at that time. He learned by observing how Africans used palm oil, came back to England and claimed to have invented a new method instead of giving credit to whom it is due. The Lever brothers knew this too but didn’t have the decency to correct it. Sad! The story also didn’t tell the horrible things done to people in the Congo just to get palm oil to Sunlight Village! This correct version was all over the internet a few years ago. Now it’s all being scrubbed. Africans need to do a better job of telling their own story!