Joseph Watson, 1st Lord Manton (1873-1922)
‘Soapy Joe’

Joseph Watson, 1st Lord Manton (1873-1922)Joseph Watson’s huge soap works next to the river in Whitehall Road, always known as Soapy Joe’s, was a famous Leeds landmark. He built his family business into a great empire, backed by an intensive advertising campaign, rivalling his giant competitor William Lever. In WW1 he took on a secret role that brought him acclaim but later left a dark shadow on his reputation. He used his great wealth to support large scale agriculture and to indulge his passion for the turf. Rewarded with a baronetcy, he acquired a suitably magnificent stately home, then died before he could enjoy it. A real life soap opera?

The business had been founded in Horsforth by his grandfather, the first Joseph Watson, dealing in animal skins and hides – the evil-smelling fats went into tallow candles and soap. The business prospered, carried on by his sons George and Charles in Woodhouse Lane. Around 1870 they moved to a new site in Whitehall Road, close to the river where supplies could come in by boat. Although still dealing in hides, they focussed increasingly on producing soap. The days when the mass of working people could be sneered at as ‘the great unwashed’ were ending: education, health and hygiene, clean water, cheap washable clothing, meant booming demand. Their major product was the all-purpose ‘Matchless Cleanser’, marketed across the country as the housewife’s friend. They expanded, pioneering scientific and technological advances, not least in the lucrative by-product glycerine, sold on for dynamite.

Joseph Watson Junior, George Watson’s only son, was born in 1873 at Far Headingley, and educated expensively at Repton and Cambridge. He left without taking his degree, summoned to join the business around 1892 when it suffered disastrous losses in a fire in the Dark Arches. In 1897 the firm was made a public company with Joseph Watson as chairman. Under his dynamic leadership production soared. He pioneered a massive advertising campaign featuring prize competitions – you sent in your soap wrappers hoping to win one of an enormous list of prizes: umbrellas, clocks, handbags, cash, later even a car or a house! New products were introduced: Nubolic, Sparkla, Venus, though the Matchless Cleanser remained the brand leader, promoted for snow-white laundry, a spotless house, even curing children’s heads of ringworms.

In 1906 there was a proposed merger with Lever which failed after a vigorous anti-monopoly newspaper campaign, although Watson had already sold some of his shares to Lever. By this time he had married - Frances Nickols, daughter of the owner of the Joppa Tannery at Kirkstall – and had moved to Linton near Wetherby, with their four young sons and a substantial household of six servants. He had other interests in an oil and animal feed plant in Selby, but remained the force behind the continuing profitability and success of the soap works.

When war broke out in 1914 and Britain was in desperate need of munitions, he was approached to head a local committee secretly charged with establishing a shell-filling factory in Leeds – his organisational skills and links with the armaments trade made him the ideal candidate. Speed was vital. A huge 400 acre site was found at Manston and a complex infrastructure put in place to create the Barnbow Filling Factory no.1, the largest in the country. Sixteen thousand people, almost all women, worked there; millions of shells were filled and cartridges charged, a vital contribution to the war effort: as Lloyd George wrote ‘saving the lives of the brave men at the front’. But the women worked in terrible, dangerous conditions and there were serious accidents, with no compensation for the bereaved families, raising questions over Joseph Watson’s role as the ‘inspiring genius’ – it was said he was there almost every day, so he could not claim ignorance.

In 1917 he sold the rest of his shares in the soap-works to Lever though he stayed on for a time as chairman. Conscious of wartime food shortages, he bought thousands of acres of farmland and supported ongoing research into industrial farming methods. He acquired the famous Manton stud and spent thousands on racehorses, winning several important races. Leeds was not forgotten: he donated £50,000 to the Infirmary, with other gifts.

In the 1922 New Year’s Honours he was created a baron for his services in wartime and to agriculture and took the title Lord Manton of Compton Verney, a neo-classical mansion in Warwickshire which he had just acquired as his new home. Only three months later he was thrown from his horse out hunting and died, aged 49. He was buried at nearby Offchurch, dressed in his hunting scarlet.

The firm continued as part of the Unilever empire, under various names (Elida Gibbs etc), and is now based in Seacroft. Soapy Joe’s became a riverside wasteland – just a Leeds legend now.


Eveleigh Bradford
December 2016