Monday 13 November 2017

The Rowntree Archives: Poverty, Philanthropy and the Birth of Social Science

In August 2017 the Borthwick Institute launched a new 27 month project ‘The Rowntree Archives: Poverty, Philanthropy and the Birth of Social Science.’  The project, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, will arrange, describe, publicise and make publicly available the archives of the four Rowntree Trusts, the Rowntree family, the research papers of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and the follow up research into Seebohm’s groundbreaking study of poverty undertaken by Professor Sir Tony Atkinson in the 1970s.  

For many the name of Rowntree is synonymous with chocolate and confectionery.  The Rowntree Cocoa Works, founded by the family in York in the nineteenth century, produced internationally famous brands such as Kit Kat, Aero and Smarties and continues today as part of Nestle.  But equally central to the Rowntree name was the family’s commitment to philanthropy, social welfare and social action and it is this crucial aspect that underpins this new and ambitious archive project.  As members of the Society of Friends, (otherwise known as  Quakers) the Rowntrees believed that ‘wealth and property beyond the needs of the individual should be used for the common good.’  These principles were put into action in their family business.  The Rowntree Cocoa Works employed welfare officers and a works’ doctor, dentist and optician and introduced profit sharing and pensions schemes, social clubs, a library, and paid holidays for their workers.  

Henry Isaac Rowntree (rear left) and Joseph Rowntree (front centre)
with other apprentices at the Rowntree shop in York in 1858 [ARCH 02/5/8c]

The Rowntrees recognised however that broader social, economic and political efforts were needed to effect real change on a national, and even international, level. ‘I feel that much of the current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of evil or weakness,’ wrote Joseph Rowntree in 1904, ‘while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes.’  It was to these ‘underlying causes’ that the Rowntrees turned their attention, and their wealth, with far reaching consequences.

As early as the 1860s Joseph Rowntree had undertaken a detailed analysis of poverty in England, carefully gathering evidence from the development of the poor laws, public spending, and crime and literacy statistics to inform his essay ‘British Civilisation: In what it consists. And in what it does not consist.’  He followed it in 1865 with another essay ‘Pauperism in England and Wales’ which laid the blame for such stark inequality at the feet of church and state, calling it a ‘monstrous thing’ that so many should endure a daily struggle for existence in a land ‘rich beyond all precedent.’  His essays were so strongly worded that he was asked to tone them down before they could be read even to his Quaker brethren.

Joseph’s careful analysis of statistical evidence to inform his social and political arguments was adopted with great effect by his son Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree who is widely regarded today as one of the founders of empirical sociology.  Like his father, Seebohm was concerned with the underlying causes of poverty.  He had read the empirical research of Charles Booth into conditions in London and sought to apply similarly rigorous methods to the smaller urban population of York to examine the prevalence of poverty outside the capital and to assess to what extent poverty was due to the inherent vice and weaknesses of the poor (an enduring belief) or an inevitable result of insufficient income.  His 1901 book ‘Poverty: A Study of Town Life’ utilised evidence gathered from house to house inquiries in 388 streets, speaking to 11,560 York families. Their experiences were measured against Seebohm’s parameters for basic subsistence (based on evidence gathered from multiple nutritionists and physiologists and costs of rent, food and clothing in York) which was termed the ‘poverty line’ as well as statistics on public health and mortality.  

An illustration of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree's 'poverty line'  - as used in his lecture tours [Rowntree Archive].

His work concluded that 27.84% of the city’s population lived beneath the poverty line, which equated to 43.4% of the working population, a higher figure than commonly believed at the time.  Moreover his analysis of the causes of this poverty, dividing families into primary or secondary poverty, showed that 9.91% of the total population of York had insufficient income to reach even the most basic level of subsistence, no matter how prudently they spent their wages.  As Seebohm freely acknowledged in his book, an existence on or even just above the poverty line was a cheerless and austere one, with few, if any, opportunities for education, affordable socialising, or participation in civic life.  York’s many public houses were understandably attractive in the absence of any alternative means of leisure or recreation and it was alcohol that too often contributed to pushing families into secondary poverty.

Seebohm’s York study was the first of many analyses of the conditions of the poor in the British Isles, all utilising the same mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence to reach conclusions based on sound scientific methods.  His work continued to challenge to prevailing notion that the poor were to blame for their own predicament and to suggest political and social measures to improve their health, education and living conditions.  He turned his attention to the unemployed in 1911, the condition of agricultural labourers in 1913-1914, and the way employers could better address the needs of their workers in 1918 and 1921.  In 1935 he followed up his first survey of York with ‘Poverty and Progress’, visiting every working class household in the city to assess what progress had been made since 1901.  He also produced influential studies of the needs of the elderly in 1946 and of ‘English Life and Leisure’ in 1947.  

David Lloyd George (left) and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree
His work was enormously influential.  The 1901 book went through several editions and was followed by investigations of poverty in other regional towns and cities, for example by C. F. G. Masterman in 1909 and Arthur Lyon Bowley in the 1920s and 1930s, and much later by ‘follow ups’ to his work by Professor Tony Atkinson in the 1970s and Meg Huby, Jonathan Bradshaw and Anne Corden in the 1990s.  Crucially his work came to influence national policy.  Seebohm became a friend of Liberal politician David Lloyd George and advised him on aspects of public policy, including the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911.  His 1918 work ‘Human Needs of Labour’, which was revised in 1937, advocated for a national minimum wage, the introduction of a family allowance and regulation of working hours and conditions, and was lauded by the British Medical Journal as an invaluable aid for doctors and policy makers.  He worked for the Ministry of Reconstruction after the First World War, advising ministers on post war housing requirements and was part of Lloyd George’s Liberal Industrial Inquiry of 1926-1928.  During the second world war he corresponded with William Beveridge and contributed to the Beveridge Report which led to the founding of the post-war Welfare State.  

Seebohm’s work, and indeed the ideals of his family more generally, were bolstered financially after 1904 by the foundation of the Joseph Rowntree Trusts.  Believing that ‘money is generally best spent by persons during their lifetime’, Joseph invested half of his wealth into three Trusts: the Charitable Trust, the Social Service Trust and the Village Trust.  In keeping with his own work on poverty, it was his wish that their funds not be put to ‘remedying the more superficial manifestations’ of weakness or evil in society, but in seeking out their causes.  

Draft of Joseph Rowntree's 1904 memorandum setting out vision for the Rowntree Trusts [JRVT/MT93/1/2/a]

Initially overseen by Joseph’s sons and nephews, many of the Charitable Trust’s early grants went to Quaker run schemes; Seebohm’s research into poverty and the adult schools to improve literacy with which numerous members of the Rowntree family were involved.  The Village Trust in turn set out to make the case for decent affordable housing by overseeing the creation of New Earswick, a clean and sanitary model village outside of York with adequate living space, amenities and leisure facilities at a rent the average worker could afford.  

In contrast the Social Service Trust was designed to have a more overtly political role, as evidenced by its foundation as a limited company, not hampered by the rules that governed charities.  From the beginning it sought to challenge the ‘power of selfish and unscrupulous wealth which influences public opinion largely through the press’ by actively acquiring failing national and regional Liberal newspapers and launching new periodicals such as The Nation and the Contemporary Review.

In the 113 years since their foundation, the Trusts have gone through several name changes, with the Village Trust now the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, and the Social Service Trust now the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.  However the Trusts have continued to support social, economic and political research, to maintain the village of New Earswick, and to fund educational and political causes at home and abroad, most notably in Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.  They have played important roles in the establishment of the University of York in 1963 and given key early support to Amnesty International, the Electoral Reform Society, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Centre for Policy Studies, amongst many others.  

The archives of these groups and individuals therefore offer a unique opportunity to trace hugely influential ideas about poverty, public health, working conditions, political reform and pioneering scientific methodology from their genesis in private notes, minutes and correspondence to their investigation, analysis, publication and impact on public attitudes and political policy.  Parts of the archives have been at the Borthwick for some years but have yet to be fully sorted, arranged and described according to modern archival standards.  Further deposits of Trust and family material in recent years mean that there is now a substantial and internationally important body of material in one place, with enormous research potential that can only be fully unlocked once it has been properly processed and made available through our online catalogue Borthcat.

This, then, is the scope of the project.  In addition to new and augmented catalogues, the archives will be further contextualised by the creation of authority records, giving the histories of the people, families and organisations mentioned in the records, and by the creation of detailed subject and place access terms, under the guidance of an expert Project Board.  Once completed users will have access to eight complete catalogues, cross referenced with each other and with other archives in the Borthwick and elsewhere, and complemented by their accompanying historical information.  Some of its content is known already, but much is not and it is to be hoped that this project will improve our knowledge and understanding of the Rowntrees and their work as much as it will improve accessibility to the records they left behind.


Anne Vernon, ‘A Quaker Business Man: The Life of Joseph Rowntree, 1836-1925’ (York, 1982).

Paul Chrystal, ‘The Rowntree Family of York’ (Pickering, 2013).

Howard Glennerster, John Hills, David Piachaud and Jo Webb, ‘One Hundred Years of Poverty and Policy’ (York, 2004).

Brian Harrison, ‘Rowntree, (Benjamin) Seebohm (1871–1954)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 7 Aug 2017]

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, ‘Trusting in Change: A Story of Reform’ (2004).

The Joseph Rowntree Trusts, ‘The Joseph Rowntree Inheritance, 1904-2004’ (2004).

Chris Titley, ‘Joseph Rowntree’ (London, 2013).

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