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Joseph Watson, 1st Baron Manton

Advertisement illustrated by Howard Davie, August 1898

Joseph Watson, 1st Baron Manton (10 February 1873–13 March 1922) was a prominent English industrialist and philanthropist.

Watson was the only son of George Watson, soap manufacturer, of Donisthorpe House near Moor Allerton, Leeds, Yorkshire. He was chairman of Joseph Watson & Sons Ltd, soap manufacturers, of Leeds, a director of the London and North-Western Railway, a pioneer of Industrialised Agriculture in England and successful racehorse owner. Educated at Repton School and Clare College, Cambridge, he was recalled to the family firm before completing his degree, becoming chairman at a young age.


Founding of the Soap Business

The limited company Joseph Watson & Sons had been founded by Joseph his grandfather and had grown out of a hide tanning business established in about 1820 at Woodside, Horsforth, 5 miles NW of central Leeds. The business was an ajacent diversification [1] from the small family farm, which covered the area between today's Outwood Lane and Broadway, with further rented ground to the SE.[2] The former existence of the original business is today memorialized by the name of Tanhouse Hill Lane, to the east of which it stood, within a triangular site.

Career of Joseph Watson

It was however Joseph the grandson who turned the company from the medium sized concern built up by his father and uncle Charles into one which ruled the soap market of North-East England, with national and international markets, becoming William Lever's biggest rival[3] Lever started as a grocer who bought in soap from several suppliers, including Watson's, and branded them "Sunlight". Lever soon set up his own manufacturing plants, but by then Watson's had founded its own brands and independent marketing abilities. Watson was amongst the first of the established manufacturers to follow Lever's heavy advertising and revolutionary marketing techniques, offering prizes such as day trips to Brighton and visits to Paris to view the Grecian sculpture Venus de Milo, in exchange for soap wrapper returns. In 1885 production had been 100 tons per week, which rose fivefold by 1906. One of the by-products was glycerine, sold for the manufacture of explosives. The company, known locally as "Soapy Joe's" was based after 1861 at the Whitehall Road Soapworks, Leeds, strategically placed between the River Aire, from which palm oil shipped in from around the world was unloaded, and the former railway terminal, from which the finished product was dispatched. It became one of the largest employers in the city, producing brands such as "Matchless Cleanser", "Venus" and "Nubolic".

Establishment of Soap Trust Monopoly

Cartoon from The Daily Mirror, 22nd. October, 1906. A parody of William Lever, whose factory was named "Port Sunlight".

On 4th. August 1906 Watson and William Lever, by then the largest manufacturer, met in the Grand Hotel in London to finalise a plan to set up a "Soap Trust" which would merge the major soap manufacturers into a monopoly, thereby gaining economies of scale in advertising and production costs. Watson favoured the use of a parent company whilst Lever preferred a scheme of exchange of shares between participating companies to bind them together. The timing however was poor. The scheme was in imitation of hundreds of similar trusts which had been established in the USA following John D. Rockefeller's pioneering organisation of the Standard Oil Co. in 1882 as a virtual monopoly combination of many small independent oil companies. The manufacturers in their idealism foresaw benefits from trusts to both consumer and producer from economies of scale, yet abuses occurred. A sugar trust evaded $4M of customs duty, and the creation of a beef trust seemed a threat to cheap food supplies. The dangers to the consumer were soon understood by the politicians and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the response. The Act was not totally successful and Theodore Roosevelt in his 2nd. Presidency launched a new ""trust-busting" policy at about the same time the British soap trust was being established. Trusts and their activities made good copy in 1906, and the scheme was strongly opposed by the Daily Mail newspaper which campaigned for a boycott by its readers of the trust brands. Profits at participating firms were thereby severely reduced. The Northcliffe Press in its expanding and highly popular campaign over-stepped the mark by falsely asserting trust soaps to be made from scented fish oil. Although Watson and Lever won substantial libel damages from the press, losses in reputation and profits had been suffered all round. On the proposal of Watson and Crosfield, another large manufacturer, the scheme was abandoned in November 1906. By then Watson had already disposed of much of his shareholding, previously all held by himself and his uncle Charles, to William Lever, in exchange for Lever Brothers shares in order to set up the trust.[4]

Disposal to Lever Brothers and Jurgens

In 1912/13 Watson sold much of his remaining shareholding to Lever (Lever Brothers Ltd.), selling him the remainder in July 1917, but remaining as Chairman. He had sold his half share in the Planter's Margarine Co Ltd. to Lever in July 1915, a joint venture established in November 1914 at Godley in Cheshire with Levers, in response to Government anxiety at the wartime loss of Dutch supplies. He had supplied it from his Olympia Oil & Cake Co. Ltd. at Selby, Yorks which operated the largest linseed oil crushing and refining plant in Europe also hardening whale oil, which he later sold to the Dutch firm Jurgens, which had outbid Levers. Watson had recently suffered substantial losses in an unsuccessful speculation in linseed oil, for use in his crushing plant, and it seemed to him the time to leave the industry and seek new projects.

Pioneer of Industrialised Agriculture

On retirement from the soap industry, Watson turned his focus to the pioneering of industrialised agriculture, spurred on by wartime food shortages, and funded the Agricultural Research Department at Leamington Spa. He founded the Olympia Agricultural Co Ltd., through which he invested much of his proceeds into agricultural estates totalling some 30,000 acres at Selby (Yorks), Kennett (Wilts), Sudbourne(Suffolk) and at Offchurch (Warks.)[5]. His Olympia Oil & Cake Co. had produced a cake by-product used to fatten livestock.

Wartime Munitions Work

At the start of the First World War Watson's industrial and organisational expertise was called on by the government, and he assisted in the establishment and operation of national munitions factories, most notably at the First National Shell Filling Factory at Barnbow, Leeds. [1] [2] Following the heavy consumption of munitions in the opening battles of WWI at the Somme, the Northcliffe Press (Daily Mail) brought to the public's attention what became known as "The Shell Crisis", signifying that the nation had given little thought to securing long-term munitions supplies needed to successfully wage an unprecedented protracted war. The Asquith government fell, to be replaced by that of Lloyd George, recently appointed Minister of Munitions to resolve the crisis. Watson as one of a six-man "Leeds Munitions Committee" made up from local industrialists, formed in August 1915, was charged by the government to establish immediately the first of 12 National Shell Filling Factories. A factory was promptly established on a 400 acre greenfield site at Barnbow, close to Leeds, resembling more a small town of detached houses and huts than a traditional factory, in order to contain and localise any accidental explosions. It remained the largest such operation in the country, having despatched overseas by the Armistice 566,000 tons of finished ammunition. At its height it employed 16,000 workers, 93% of whom were women and girls. Two members of the directing board were on duty at Barnbow every day, and the board met at least once a month to receive reports. The factory was largely self-contained for reasons of national security, operating under great secrecy. It operated its own farm including dairy and slaughterhouse. Kitchens and accounting department were equipped with the latest electric macinery. Nursing facilities and dentists were provided. Naturally it established its own fire brigade, which tragically had to deal with three accidental explosions, the most serious of which occurred in 1916, killing 35 women and injuring many more. Due to wartime censorship, no public account of the accidents was made. The memorials to these unfortunate victims are almost the only trace which remains of the operation on the site today.[6]

Career on the Turf

Apart from his business career, Watson was a keen rider to hounds, hunting with the Bramham Moor Foxhounds in Yorkshire, near his home at Linton Spring, Wetherby. He was a prominent racehorse owner and in 1918 acquired the Manton training establishment [3] near Marlborough, Wilts. from Alec Taylor, Jr.. In 1921 he won the Epsom Oaks with Love-in-Idleness, the Grand Prix de Paris with Lemonora which also had gained third place in the Derby that year. Lemonora - somewhat incongruously for a stallion - named after an apricot coloured azalea, was immortalised for the latter placement in the 1935 film The 39 Steps in which "Mr Memory" was challenged to recite the names of the first 3 horses in the 1921 Derby.


In 1921 Watson donated £50,000 to the Leeds General Infirmary, of which he was a board member, to replace some of its investment losses during WWI[7]. His bust is displayed there on a wall and a department was named in his honour.

Purchase of Compton Verney & Elevation to the Peerage

Compton Verney, Warwickshire.

In January 1922 he was raised to the peerage for his war services [8] as Baron Manton of Compton Verney in the County of Warwick. He had purchased the Robert Adam neo-classical mansion Compton Verney and its 5,079 acre estate in 1921 from Lord Willoughby de Broke, intending to make his seat there, which intention was not realised due to his sudden death in March 1922, before having taken up residence.[9] Whether his elevation, at the behest of Lloyd-George, was the result of a political donation, has not been proved but the title is not amongst those generally quoted by commentators as falling into this category[10]. Certainly family papers in existence do evidence the Prime Minister's gratitude to Watson for his work in munitions supply.


Watson married (Frances) Claire, daughter of Harold Nickols, of Leeds, in 1898. He died in March 1922, aged only 49, from a heart-attack, whilst out hunting beside his sons with the Warwickshire Foxhounds, at Upper Quinton, close to his new mansion, having held his title for less than two months. He was buried at nearby Offchurch, in his hunting apparel. His estate was sworn for probate at exactly one million pounds. He left four sons, being succeeded in the barony by the eldest, (George) Miles Watson, 2nd Baron Manton. A portrait of Joseph Watson mounted on a hunter was painted by Lynwood Palmer.


  1. Charles Wilson. History of Unilever. London, 1954. vol 1,p.13
  2. tithemaps.leeds.gov.uk (Tithe Map 1838). Additional land to the SE, comprising a handful of pastures, was on the Headingley estate of the Earl of Cardigan and was sold by the Earl, then in financial difficulties, following his return from the Crimea where he had ordered the Charge of the Light Brigade.
  3. Charles Wilson. The History of Unilever. London 1954. vol.1,pp.13,123.
  4. Article based on & quoted in passages from Wilson, Charles. The Hisory of Unilever. London, 1954. Vol.1, Chapter 6, The Crisis of 1906,pp.72-88.
  5. W G Rimmer. Men Who Made Leeds. Leeds Journal no.32 (1961) pp.143-6
  6. Cox, Tony. Barnbow Munitions Factory 1915-18, in: The Barwicker No.47. (Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society); Jackson, Eric. The Barnbow Lasses, www.pontefractus.co.uk, 2007.
  7. British Medical Journal 2/7/1921 p.24
  8. London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32563, p. 10709, 30 December 1921.
  9. Conveyance 30/11/1921 DR 951/6/1 Warks. Archives.
  10. Michael De-la-Noy. The Honours System. London 1985. pp 100-118. The title was created in the New Year's Honours List, not the "notorious" Birthday Honours List of June.


  • Obituary, The Times, 14 March 1922
  • Kidd, Charles, Williamson, David (editors). Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage (1990 edition). New York: St Martin's Press, 1990.

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