Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925) Quaker businessman and social reformer.

Plaques in Pavement and at 49 Bootham, York

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954) Quaker and pioneering social scientist

Plaque at the junction of St Mary’s and Bootham

In the 18th century, the production of cocoa in England was dominated by a small number of Quaker families: Cadbury of Birmingham, Fry’s of Bristol, and Rowntree’s and Terry’s of York. Initially cocoa was used to make a drink which was thought to have medicinal properties. During the 19th century, the production of chocolate was refined to improve the taste and it was Fry’s who made the first bar of chocolate – a chocolate delicieux à manger – in 1847, using a mixture of cocoa powder and sugar with the addition of a small amount of cocoa butter extracted from the beans.

Joseph Rowntree senior (1801-1859) was born into the family grocery business in Scarborough. This business was to prosper and, by the early twentieth century, there was a large Rowntree’s department store and a stylish café in the seaside resort. However, Joseph was to seek his fortune elsewhere. On his 21st birthday, in 1822, he travelled to York to establish his own premises at No.28 Pavement. Bought at auction, the empty and dilapidated Georgian property was transformed into a high-class grocer’s, tea merchant and coffee-roasting emporium in the heart of the city.

Joseph’s birthplace in Pavement

Ten years after arriving in York, Joseph married Sarah Stevenson, also a Quaker, from Manchester, bringing her home to live over the shop in Pavement. In 1834, John Stephenson was born, followed by Joseph two years later, then Henry Isaac in 1838, Hannah Elizabeth in 1840 and, finally, Sarah Jane in 1843, who sadly died of whooping cough five years later. The family, including Joseph’s wife, Sarah, had a powerful work ethic in business, social and religious life and the shop prospered, fighting off competition from dozens of other grocery businesses in the city. Opening hours were long: from 7am until at least 8pm, 10pm on market days, six days a week. The shop only closed on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Early education and training

The Rowntrees’ life was dedicated to the Quaker ethos and the younger Joseph was expected to learn a verse from the Bible every day. Joseph senior was a keen educationalist and was honorary secretary of the Quaker boys’ and girls’ schools in York. He was instrumental in finding new premises for the boys’ school in Bootham, later renamed Bootham School, in 1846. In 1850, John senior took young John on a business trip to Ireland where they witnessed the full horror of the potato famine, starvation, desperation, squalor and death. What he saw influenced Joseph’s agenda for the rest of his life.

In the 1850s, the family moved to Top House, as the family called it, at the junction of St Mary’s and Bootham. At the age of 15, Joseph joined his father in the grocery store. A year later, his father became an alderman of York. For two years, Joseph worked alongside fellow apprentices and Quakers Lewis Fry and George Cadbury before the latter took control of the cocoa factory in Birmingham with his brother, Richard. Towards the end of his six-year apprenticeship, Joseph spent some time in London working for a large wholesale grocers in the City to gain more experience. Joseph senior died, aged 58, in 1859, many shops in York closing on the day of his funeral as a sign of respect.

Rowntree and Tuke alliance

In 1862, Joseph junior married Julia Seebohm, granddaughter of William Tuke of York. That same year Joseph’s younger brother, Henry Isaac Rowntree, bought the Tuke business, a specialised tea dealer, chocolate and cocoa manufacturer, formerly in Walmgate before moving to Castlegate. Henry Isaac relocated the business to Tanner’s Moat on the River Ouse. However, the business struggled until the later intervention of Joseph. In 1863, Joseph’s wife, Julia, weakened by childbirth, died. Four years later, the child born to her, Lilley, also died. Joseph rose above these family tragedies and married his wife’s cousin, Emma in 1867. They were to have six children. Their third child, Benjamin Seebohm (known as Seebohm), born 1871, was to become a noted sociological researcher and social reformer. The family later moved to Top House when Joseph’s mother died in 1888. They had previously lived at No.19 Bootham (now No.49).

Top House, at the junction of Bootham and St Mary’s

To support Henry Isaac’s struggling business, Joseph took money out of the Pavement shop to invest in the unprofitable cocoa works, H.I. Rowntree & Co at Tanner’s Moat. This was a small operation employing around 30 people, none with clearly defined roles. But the business continued to struggle during a difficult time for British trade in the 1870s. In 1873, there was the first major global economic crisis, something which we are all too familiar with today. It started with a crash in Vienna where the market had been fuelled by unsustainable investment, spreading to America where one of New York’s leading banks failed. This triggered a worldwide recession which, in some countries would last until the 1890s.

Product development

Rowntree & Co suffered a series of losses from 1873 onwards, particularly embarrassing for Quakers who set so much store on reliability and self-reliance. The firm’s products had also not kept up with those of their competitors. Although Rowntree’s Rock Cocoa had proved to be popular, Cadbury’s in Birmingham had invested in new technology from Holland. The Van Houten press was able to squeeze the fat from cocoa beans eliminating the fatty taste, enabling Cadbury’s to manufacture eating chocolate, resulting in a rapid rise in sales and profits.

In 1879, Joseph and Henry employed the Frenchman Claude Gaget, who had worked for the French sweet-makers Compagnie Française of Paris, to develop a new range of products. He introduced the brothers to pastilles and gums which were almost exclusively French and expensive. Rowntree’s Crystallised Gum Pastilles were an instant success and profits increased, the number of workers doubling between 1880 and 1883. Sadly, Henry Isaac only saw the beginning of the turnaround in fortunes, dying in 1883, aged just 45.

Company expansion

Belatedly, Joseph invested in the equipment required to create the modern, pure form of cocoa with Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa going on sale in 1887. He also sanctioned the company’s first advertisements. New popular products, an upturn in the economy and an expanding railway network – thanks to George Hudson in York – perfect for national distribution, fuelled the growth of the Rowntree business. In the early days, most of the employees at Tanner’s Moat were men but, as the factory grew, more women were employed, although men retained all positions of power. Many girls joined the factory at 13, leaving in their early 20s when they married. In a pioneering appointment, Joseph brought in a woman welfare worker experienced in the social activities of the Adult School movement. In 1890, he bought 29 acres of land on Haxby Road with the aim of creating a new modern industrial works. John Wilhelm and Seebohm joined the firm as partners when they turned 21, with Joseph’s nephews, Arnold and Frank, as fellow directors on the incorporation of Rowntree & Co Ltd in 1897 with Joseph as chairman.

Enlightened entrepreneurs

The Quakers were enlightened entrepreneurs and Joseph was involved in the development of employee welfare schemes such as savings banks and a staff pension fund. Better housing for industrial workers had become a major issue in the mid to late nineteenth century. In the same year that Seebohm revealed to the world the squalor of York’s slums in his ground-breaking report, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901), Joseph bought land at Earswick to build a model village. The first homes were built in 1902, to let at five to eight shillings per week, as the trust deed described “for the improvement of the condition of the working classes … by the provision of improved dwellings with open spaces and where possible gardens”. The community centre, known as the Folk Hall, was added in 1906 and a primary school in 1912. The modern factory at Haxby Road promoted the best possible working conditions with a concern for employees shown by out-of-hours activities such as sports and a choir. The Cocoa Works Magazine was started in 1902 and continued until 1969 as a communication between workforce and management, including articles, news reports on sports, activities, holidays, individual leavers, marriages and obituaries. Reports of workers killed and injured in action during the two world wars, with messages of support from the chairman during difficult times, showed the paternalism of the firm.

Temperance movement

As Quakers, the Rowntrees placed a premium on adult education and a lifelong commitment to the eradication of poverty. They espoused temperance and saw cocoa as a drink to be encouraged because the evils of alcohol were so prevalent amongst the poor with easy access to the many licensed premises in central York. No public house was allowed in the model village at New Earswick. Politics was also a way in which the Rowntrees felt able to influence public policy. Unlike later generations of the family, including nephews Arnold and Joshua Rowntree, Joseph was never a member of parliament, but he was active in Liberal politics in York. The Liberal Association, which he founded and chaired for many years, paid tribute to him in celebrations to mark his golden wedding anniversary in 1917.

Joseph was concerned about the decline in journalistic standards in the press so, when it was founded, the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust formed the North of England Newspaper Company to buy the Northern Echo. The group evolved into Westminster Press which owned 60 newspapers when it was sold in 1996. Joseph remained a political radical placing a priority on the welfare of his workers ahead of its time with a company doctor, works councils, paid holiday leave, and educational classes for workers including compulsory cookery classes for girls up to the age of 17. His Quaker faith underscored a lifelong pacifism and support for the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War.

The plaque facing Walmgate Stray on the wall of The Retreat.

In 1923, Joseph retired as company chairman from an international business with 7,000 employees and a turnover of £3 million. In 1911, he had been granted the honour of the Freedom of the City of York in recognition of his work as an industrialist, reformer and public servant. His final home was Clifton Lodge where he had moved in 1905, next to Rawcliffe Holt where his daughter, Winifred, lived and close to Homestead Park, the grounds of the Arts-and-Crafts home built for Seebohm which were regularly opened to the community. Joseph always took a Saturday walk in Scarborough in later years. He died on 24 February 1925 aged 88. He is buried in the Quaker Burial Ground in the grounds of The Retreat, Heslington Road, York.

Rowntree legacy

His legacy in York is everywhere from the Joseph Rowntree Theatre to Rowntree Park to Yearsley Baths, built in 1908 and given to the city by Joseph, to New Earswick.

The charitable trusts are an immense and influential legacy of the Rowntrees; the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust was founded in 1904 with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust. They continue to research rigorously a wide range of social issues and are world renowned. The Social Services Trust became the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and retains its original brief of “influencing public thought in the right channels”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, originally the Village Trust, is one of the largest social-policy research charities in the UK, many of its concerns remain those of its founder: poverty and poor housing. Following the ethos of the founder of the Rowntree business, this pioneering research is resulting in direct action to improve housing standards. The latest initiative of the Foundation and its offshoot the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust is Derwenthorpe, a housing development at Osbaldwick on the outskirts of York. Houses are being built to the highest standards of energy efficiency and offer a number of ownership options with the aim of creating a model of more sustainable living for the 21st century.

Rowntree & Co merged with rival Mackintosh in 1969 and, in 1988, Nestlé took over the Rowntree factory. Recently there has been a reduction in jobs at Nestlé in the UK, including York, as the company moves some of its production abroad.


Chris Titley, Joseph Rowntree (Oxford, 2013)

Robert Fitzgerald, “Joseph Rowntree 1836-1925”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, 2014-16)

Edward H. Milligan, Joseph Rowntree 1801-1859, ODNB, (OUP, 2014-2016).

Brian Harrison, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree 1871-1954, ODNB. (OUP, 2014-2016).



© Pat Hill