Thursday 15 August 2019

When Joseph met Julia: A Rowntree Love Story

Written by Sarah Moses, Archives Trainee

In the Rowntree Victorian Correspondence, there are a number of letters revealing details about the relationship between Joseph Rowntree and Julia Seebohm from meeting in York as school pupils (although they had probably known each other since early childhood) to Julia’s untimely death at the age of 22.

Julia Elizabeth Seebohm was born in Bradford on 6 March 1841, the daughter of Benjamin Seebohm and his wife Esther (née Wheeler). Benjamin, a Quaker, had moved from Germany to Bradford in 1814 at the request of English Quakers, who had valued his role as an interpreter for them while they visited his local area and other parts of Europe. Esther was the granddaughter of William Tuke of York.

The young Julia Seebohm (JRF Rowntree Photographs)

Julia was educated at the York Quarterly Meeting Girls’ School in Castlegate (later The Mount School) between 1854 and 1856, where she was a close friend of Hannah Rowntree. Julia often visited the Rowntree family during this time, as is reflected in her letters. This letter to her mother in May 1854 is just one example:

‘My dearest mother,
I must now begin to write to thee as I have a small portion of time to spare & I shall not have much time tomorrow for I am going to Joseph Rowntree’s to dinner & tea with Hannah and Libby [...]’ (RFAM/JS/VC/2/20)

In the spring of 1857, Julia became reacquainted with Joseph Rowntree at her brother Frederic’s home in Hitchin. Few of Joseph and Julia’s letters from this period survive but, using letters from their friends, we can piece together something of their relationship. In April 1858, Julia’s school friend Sarah Hannah Grimshaw wrote:

‘[...] I suppose thou wilt have heard that M. A. Ashby is going to be married to one of the Richardsons. Does it not seem queer that one of my schoolfellows should be married; but does thou know I have heard of another? A more intimate friend of mine whom thou art very well acquainted with intending to do the same. If there is any truth in it of course thou will know of it better than any one. Joseph Rowntree Jun[ior] being her intended. I am a little impertinent puss to tease poor mousey so am I not? If I did not think thee very merciful perhaps I should not dare to do it. [...]’ (RFAM/JS/VC/17/19)

Nearly four years later after this letter was written, Joseph and Julia became engaged. Joseph’s draft letter (with corrections) to his future parents-in-law requesting their daughter’s hand in marriage is found in our Rowntree Family Letters Archive:

‘My dear Friends, Benjamin & Esther Seebohm

I am about to ask your kind attention to a subject of great importance and one that has for a long time engaged my warmest interest. 

From an early period of my acquaintance with ^your dear^ Julia, indeed whilst she was at York School, I formed a warm attachment for her, & have cherished the hope that she might be the right partner for me in life. I have deeply felt the importance of the subject, & it has often engaged my earnest prayerful consideration with the desire for the Lord’s guidance in it.

For some years past Julia has never been long absent from my thoughts; increased acquaintance has heightened my estimate of her character, my affections are deeply engaged and I now ask your permission to address her on the subject.

I trust you will allow me to express my feelings to Julia in writing & I indulge the hope that an early visit to London, which I have in prospect, may afford the opportunity of our meeting.
The subject of this letter has the warm approval of my dear Mother who wishes to write in dear love to you. [...] Jos R’ (Rowntree Family Letters, Bundle 4d)

The proposal letter from Joseph Rowntree 

During their engagement, Joseph and Julia appear to have written to each other almost daily and, as their wedding day approached, their thoughts turned towards arrangements for their big day. In this letter from June 1862, Joseph writes to his fiancée about her wedding attire:

‘[...] As to thy wedding dress, darling, thou will look so well in anything that it does not make much matter what thou has (within certain limits). I have no obligation to a white silk & it seems as though this might save a good deal of trouble. [...]’ (RFAM/JR/VC/6/5)

Joseph and Julia married on 15 August 1862 in the Friends’ Meeting House in Hitchin. They then moved into ‘Top House’ at Bootham, York, the home of Joseph’s mother Sarah (although the house had been divided into two sections, giving the young couple some privacy). 

Joseph and Julia Rowntree (JRF Rowntree Photographs)

Nine months later, their daughter Julia Seebohm (known as ‘Lillie’) was born. Julia’s health, never particularly strong, rapidly deteriorated after Lillie’s birth and Joseph sent them both to Scarborough, hoping for some improvement. At the end of August 1863, Julia returned to York and fell desperately ill. She died on 19 September 1863, most likely of meningitis. 

Joseph’s grief is illustrated in some of his letters, including this one to his mother-in-law less than a fortnight after Julia’s death:

‘[...] It is only 4 weeks today since our darling came home from Scarb[o]ro[ugh] looking then indeed very ill, but able to enter with intense feeling into the enjoyments of her home. Sometimes when alone the past comes before me so vividly that I hardly know how to bear the train of recollections that pour in & I have to bury myself in a book, or take refuge in dear Mother’s dining room. 

I feel that there is a left hand & a right hand temptation to struggle against - on the one hand not to allow myself to become swallowed up in the common round of daily occupations & on the other not to become selfish or morbid by too much cherishing my sorrow […] by allowing the spring of action to be weakened by the constant sense of very heavy bereavement.

But this is an egotistical letter. I felt for you going back to your home which can never more be brightened by your daughter being present & thy kind letter of this morning, for which Mother wished me to thank thee, brought your loneliness again before me. [...]’ (RFAM/JR/VC/8/2)

Joseph's mother Sarah Rowntree with baby Lillie
(JRF Rowntree Photographs)

But life continued. Joseph’s sister Hannah came to live with him and help to care for his young daughter Lillie. When Lillie was almost 11 months old, Joseph wrote to his mother-in-law:

‘[...] If my little pet looks as well when thou sees her as she looks this morning after breakfast thou will think her a noble little grandchild. Hannah professes to be anxious ab[ou]t her getting so plump. H thinks the chicken does not mean to learn to crawl but will walk without passing through this stage. [...]’

A few years later, Joseph met Julia’s cousin Emma Antoinette Seebohm (known as ‘Tonie’) in Hitchin, where she was learning English. They married on 14 November 1867 and Tonie moved into ‘Top House’. Lillie was now 5 years old and she wrote the following letter to her father and stepmother while they were on their honeymoon:

‘Dashwood Road, 

Nov 24. 1867

My dear Papa & Mama,

I have seen some peacocks in the gardens of Roxton Abbey. I send some feathers & one is a brown one & one is a blue & brown. They both are very soft. And I got a great many chestnuts & Suzanna is very well but Effie is ’nt. Effie has got a cold, and one is a brown feather & the other is brown & white on the top. I am very happy here & I hope you will come in the morning when I am chalking & Suzanna laid by me.

We have such a funny game & one ball has to be on the top in such a funny heap & we have to try to knock it  (& it is called Chinese Bagalille) & I am sure I like to be at Banbury. We went such a very beauty ride yesterday & we saw some cows & two such queer ducks & a man fed the ducks & we saw more than two ducks. The cows were in a field & we went over such a queer little bridge, two bridges.

Tantie has just had a letter from Grandmamma & she says John & Mable fighted together so that Cousin Pollie had to open the door, because they were so naughty & one came out, & sat a very long time out of the cage, & I am sure Topsy is very silly & I am sure Charlie sings very much. And we went to see a house yesterday & it had some ivy on & Tantie went to see the lady. I send as many loves & kisses as you like.

Your loving little daughter


Lillie Rowntree (JRF Rowntree Photographs)

Sadly, Lillie died of scarlet fever on 16 May 1869, bringing the last living memory of Joseph and Julia’s relationship to an end. After this decade full of both happiness and sadness, however, Joseph and Tonie (and their own children) lived happily for many years. But that story is told elsewhere.

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