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Leverburgh - Birth of Commerce

Leverburgh - Birth of commerce

`Give me always a goal to try for: Let me fight till my breath be spent;

Give me a dream to live and die for, And I shall be content....`

William Hesketh Lever ( 1851 - 1925 ), born in Bolton,was one of the Lever brothers founders of the giant conglomerate `Unilever`.

In 1919 William Leverhulme purchased the South Harris estate, which took in the Obbe, from the Earl of Dunmore for the sum of £36,000. He planned to turn Obbe into a major fishing centre and with this in mind he purchased his what was to be his first shop in a chain of fish shops throughout the UK. A total purchase of 400 shops were made and they were given the corporate identity`Mac Fisheries`. His plan was to have fish landed at Obbe and then distributed to his shops.

In December 1920, with the backing of the local people the village of Obbe was officially renamed `Leverburgh`. Within weeks of this work began on the pier and surrounding area , over 300 men, local, from Lewis and Uist were involved in preparing the site. A stone pier, with two wooden piers which would provide enough room for fifty herring drifters to berth, was constructed, an accommodation block, curing sheds, smoke houses and a refrigeration building were all erected. Work huts ,store sheds and a twenty car garage added to this development and houses were built for his team of mangers. He had planned a second phase of development that would have seen the inner sea loch converted into a harbour that would take up to two hundred boats, a channel was to be blasted between the inner loch and the open sea and fitted with lock-gates to maintain a constant depth of twenty-five feet of water in the inner sea loch.

He offered the local crofters free help and advice to improve their homes and the roads were upgraded to withstand the volume of increased traffic. With the economic decline of 1920 -21 Lord Leverhulmes project suffered with some of the work having to cease and men were laid off. But by my 1924 Leverburgh was ready to receive its first landing of herring. Twelve Great Yarmouth registered drifters landed a quantity of herring that was so great that extra girls were taken in from the mainland to handle the catch, this brought great excitement to the village.

Lord Leverhulme, unknown to himself made his final visit to the Western Isles in September 1924. After returning from a trip through Africa, Lord Leverhulme developed pneumonia. At 4.30a.m. On Thursday 7th May 1925, William Hesketh, the Right Honourable Lord, Viscount Leverhulme of the Western Isles died in Hampstead. When the news reached Harris the sirens were sounded on Leverburgh pier and the workforce stop work immediately, this was to be a very sad day in the history of Leverburgh.

Since his executors and the Board of Lever brothers had no interest in the Leverburgh project they ordered the work to cease and the work force were laid off. They put the South Harris Estate up for sale and in October 1925 the pier site at Leverburgh was sold for £5,000 and the 33,000 acres of land in South Harris sold for a mere £900.

Apart from some of the houses that were built for his managers very little remains to suggest that such a great development ever existed.

No pensioner on theses shores will ever forget the great man for he has benefited them all. In 1907 a private members bill was put before the Commons by Liberal MP for Wirral, Mr. William Hesketh Lever wanting to increase income tax so as to provide a state pension for the elderly which would be paid through the Post Office. In 1908 the Old Age Pension Act was passed.

His entire venture in Leverburgh cost an estimated £500,000, maybe if Lord Leverhulme had survived a few more years things may have been very different in Leverburgh today.

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