THE building may still be there but it is four years since it stopped operating.

The production line at Unilever's Crosfields factory was halted for good in October 2020 after the company announced its closure earlier that year.

And with it, centuries of soap-making in Warrington came to an end.

Along with the wireworks and breweries, soap is one of the industries that shaped the town as we know it.

Until October 15 2020, its pleasant scent regularly gave a welcome sting to the nostrils of passers by.

While the manufacturing of goods such as soap, candles and dyes was developing on the shores of the Mersey as early as the 1750s, business really started booming in the early 1800s thanks to Joseph Crosfield.

In 1814, the former grocer set up his soap and chemical production plant at Bank Quay in a disused factory.

Raw materials could easily be imported via the Mersey, and by the 1860s Crosfields had become one of the top five soap producers in the country thanks to brands such as Perfection Soap.

An advert for Crosfields' Perfection Soap

This led to the firm expanding onto farmland south of the river, which gave a home to its storage tanks.

Crosfields also refined chemicals, which were both used in its own products and to turn a profit on by-products of the manufacturing process such as glycerine.

Eventually, these two arms virtually became separate operations sharing one site.

But, 70 years after Joseph Crosfield and Sons was first founded, there was a new show in town – signalling the beginning of Warrington’s soap wars.

In 1884, William Lever brazenly moved in next-door in order to begin production of his Sunlight soap.

Also formerly a greengrocer, he sought to exploit a gap in the market for soap targeted at the middle classes and the higher earners among the working class.

Lever rented works by the Mersey, and quickly established his product as the leader in its field in the UK – later expanding into northern Europe and as far afield as Canada, Australia and South Africa.

By 1887, soap production had grown more than 20 times over with the amount of glycerine being manufactured also proving lucrative.

But expansion plans were thwarted by difficulties with landlords and unsympathetic bankers, and Lever vowed to ‘get a large tract of freehold land and to be a free man’.

Over on the Wirral, he founded his utopian Port Sunlight community built around a new factory – which by the mid-1890s was producing 40,000 tons of soap for the British market along.

Until the early 20th century, Crosfields remained family-owned and the firm was regarded as a good employer.

A 1935 advert for Joseph Crosfield and Sons

In 1913, more than 500 of its 3,000-strong workforce were women and girls and school leavers were only taken on if they were aged 14 or over.

An extra shilling a week was paid to those with better qualifications, while attendance at night school three times a week was compulsory.

Management were proud of introducing a 48-hour working week without any dip in productivity, with sick pay and recreational facilities also provided to workers.

These good working conditions were implanted in order to keep employees out of the pubs and to deter the introduction of unions.

In the early 1920s, Lever’s old business rival Sir Arthur Crosfield had grown tired of soap and sold up to its upstart.

Lever Brothers went on to make brands like Persil, which was first developed in 1909 and revolutionised wash day.

A Persil van in the early 20th century

The days of rubbing and scrubbing were over, as the new product cleaned clothes ‘by virtue of liberating free oxygen’ during the boiling and rinsing process.

It continued to be a market leader as the dolly tub and posser gave way to the electric washing machine.

Other innovations introduced at the Warrington production line by the 1960s included Surf, which later moved over to Port Sunlight.

But the fall in sales of washing powder in recent years led to the plant’s closure.

Plans to demolish the factory have been approved but a date for work to begin has yet to be confirmed.