Lever grew up in a typical lower middle-class family mid-Victorian family environment, with the associated ideals of respectability, hard work and non-conformist religious practices.The family disapproved of alcohol although cards, theatre and dancing were tolerated. His father James Lever had been apprenticed in the wholesale grocery trade but later ran his own retail grocery business until 1864 when he gave up the retail business and went into the wholesale trade again. It was this successful business that William Hesketh Lever entered as an apprentice in 1867, to receive 'a strict and disciplined grounding in every business operation.' (note 1).

Given the family's belief in the benefits of hard work, the young Lever was not spared working from 7 a.m. until late in the evening. One of his first jobs was cutting and wrapping soap. He later became a traveller for his father's firm and in 1872 became a partner in the business on a salary of 800 per annum.

Lever had not been a spectacular scholar but he had a wide range of interests which he continued to develop after leaving school. He was a fluent and compelling speaker and a voracious reader ; he formed a group of friends, reading for self-improvement, literary works, plays, philosophy and sciences giving him better educational experiences than many a university could provide. Among his interests, as well as theatre visits, visits to the gymnasium and swimming baths, he enjoyed learning French, carpentry and country rambles.