The artisan producer restoring Portsmouth's soap making tradition
PUBLISHED: 09:59 22 March 2016 | UPDATED: 09:59 22 March 2016
Portsmouth has a famous naval heritage but did you know that it once had a thriving soap making industry too? Viv Micklefield scrubs-up to meet the local woman who’s bringing back a touch of nostalgia to these shores
You could say it’s been a bit of a soap story. No, not of the Eastenders variety but just like the ever-changing tide, Portsmouth has seen its production of the humble cleaning bar, ebb and flow. And although the last time mass manufactured packets rolled off the production line was back in the 1930s, today there’s a new breed of artisan producer restoring this tradition.
“Most people have no idea that there was once this huge soap making industry in Portsmouth,” says Samantha Worsey, who started up the Southsea Bathing Hut in April 2014.
“It’s a very interesting part of the city’s history and despite having lived here for most of my life, I only stumbled upon it quite by chance after coming across an old photo of a soap wagon going past the Guildhall.”
In fact, records held at the Portsmouth History Centre suggest that its origins lay in the tallow chandlery industry, which made candles, and the vision of local businessmen eager to fan the flames of their success.
One of these was William Tilly and Son based in an area better known today as Gunwharf Gate. Despite the original partnership being dissolved in 1863, an archive copy of the deeds confirms that a soap works existed here between 1799 and 1879 - the outbreak of a fire at the Alhambra Music Hall reputedly attributed to Mr Tilly’s factory next door. Better known however was Doudney and Company, makers of Dolphin Soap who from small beginnings in 1776 achieved international fame after John Doudney’s sons George Ebenezer and Edward Phillip installed steam powered machinery into the Commercial Road premises - a Kelly’s Business Directory of 1901 listing them as both candle and soap manufacturers.
The demand to keep naval uniforms in pristine conditions undoubtedly played a role in Doudney’s expansion. Interestingly though, an example of a bill of sale for goods purchased from Hayles and Sons, overseers of the poor, suggests that other city dwellers might also have benefited from a cleaner lifestyle thanks to the local soap production.
“I’ve always loved making things to give to people,” admits Samantha, who carved-out a successful career in the arts industry, which included three years as general manager of Portsmouth Festivities. She continues: “I started making soap the easy way, which is called ‘melt and pour’ – you get a big block, melt it down and add different fragrances and colouring.”
However, encouraged by family and friends to turn her hobby into a business, she took a different approach.
“I decided to look into it, did some research, and taught myself how to make soap ‘properly’ from scratch using the traditional cold process method,” the 35 year-old entrepreneur explains.
“This also involved spending time experimenting with different recipes and developing my own balance of oils.
“Love Southsea Market was our first market and it took a lot of work to get to that point. It was pretty nerve wracking, wondering what everyone would think of the product and if they would buy into the revival idea. But they did, and by last July the business had grown to the stage where I could go full-time.”
With Samantha at the helm, just like the traditional Pompey soap makers this is very much a family affair. Able assistance is provided by husband John, who’s responsible for branding and marketing, and by Samantha’s mum Patricia who came out of retirement to take charge of purchasing.
In another nod to her predecessors, production takes place right in the heart of the city, albeit on the couple’s kitchen table. However, as she points out, this is a much smaller scale operation with the emphasis on hand crafted quality and skin loving ingredients (no chemical nasties or fillers in this 21st century soap) that are also vegan friendly and never tested on animals.
“We make everything in small batches of 60 soaps at a time using a high grade coconut oil, which creates a harder bar so our soaps last for ages, 41 per cent olive oil, which is rich in proteins, anti-oxidants and vitamins so it moisturises and nourishes, as well as pure oils such as avocado, apricot kernel, and castor oil.
“From start to finish the soap takes eight weeks before it is ready, because once made and cut it has to be cured. Although a lot of soap makers only cure theirs for four weeks, it’s like a good cheese as during the extra weeks the water content reduces further and it gets purer and purer. Only then does the soap get wrapped so it’s quite a lengthy process - a lot of love goes into each one.”
Most appropriately, as a Portsmouth girl through and through, she taps into the local vibe by giving her soaps cheeky seaside names such as Ooh-La- Lavender, Mint Overboard and Aloe Sailor. “This city is one of ‘light and shade’. I wanted to capture something of our brilliant sense of humour,” Samantha laughs, adding: “By using our products we want people to get the same benefits that a restorative visit to the seaside brings, just as the Victorians would have experienced, coming down to Southsea in their masses.”
Having taken the plunge to become her own boss, underlying the passion is a steely determination to make sure her business stays afloat. The opportunity to tap into the free advice offered by Portsmouth City Council, Shaping the Future of Portsmouth, the Solent Growth Hub, as well as Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, has proved invaluable. And with talk of both a professional spa collection and a male grooming line being added to the current range of soaps, balms and body oils, www.southseabathinghut.co.uk is filling bathroom cabinets across the county. It has, says Samantha, been a thoroughly invigorating experience.
“As cheesy as it might sound, I think I’ve learnt that anything is possible and that if you apply yourself and stay motivated, focused and positive you can do it. Being a young married couple we don’t have a huge amount of savings and yet we’ve managed to build a business in a sustainable way on a shoe-string by taking small steps at a time.”
The forecast certainly looks bright and Portsmouth’s soap making heritage is in safe hands.
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