1836 – 1925
Joseph Rowntree was the son of Sarah and Joseph Rowntree, a Quaker who ran a grocery business in the centre of York. He was educated at Bootham Friends School. At the age of fourteen he accompanied his father on a visit to Ireland where he witnessed the potato famine. This had a profound effect on him, and as a young adult he made an extensive study of poverty, published as ‘Pauperism in England and Wales’ in 1865.
After his father died in 1859 he took over the business and was joined by his brother John Stephenson Rowntree. Another of his brothers, Henry Isaac Rowntree, owned a chocolate factory in York and Joseph went to work with him in 1869. The factory was struggling and it was Joseph’s business flair that helped to turn it round.
Joseph was determined to produce high quality products and was also committed to the welfare of his workforce. He was responsible for many progressive ideas at the factory and designed a new one with much improved working conditions that opened in 1883. He was responsible for introducing one of the first occupational pension schemes. He also provided his employees with a library, free education, a social welfare officer, a doctor and a dentist.
When Henry died in 1883 Joseph took over the factory. His two sons, John Wilhelm and Benjamin Seebohm, joined him, and began to introduce new ideas into the business, spurred perhaps by the great success of the Cadburys in Bournville. Rowntrees began to advertise, and developed new and popular products, notably fruit pastilles. The business thrived, and in 1902 this enabled him to purchase 150 acres of land at New Earswick, outside York, where he built homes for low-income families. He believed the way to remedy the injustices of the world was not to relieve their ill effects, but to strike at their roots. In 1904 he gave half of his wealth to the charitable trusts he created.
Today the four Rowntree Trusts that bear Joseph Rowntree's name and continue his philanthropic work are:
- The Joseph Rowntree Foundation: it funds research that seeks to understand the causes of social problems, such as poverty, poor housing, and other forms of social exclusion.
- The Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust: it manages a stock of affordable housing as well as care homes for the elderly and disabled.
- The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust: it works for Quaker ideals, including international peace and justice.
- The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd: it is active in UK progressive politics.
In 1897 Rowntrees & Co became Rowntrees Limited with Joseph Rowntree as chairman. The company merged with John Mackintosh & Sons in 1969 and became known as Rowntree Mackintosh. It was taken over by Nestle in 1988.
Joseph Rowntree took a great interest in the development of facilities for the people of York. He played a major part in the establishment of York Public Library. He also taught in the Sunday Adult School in York. He served on the committees of two Quaker schools in York, and he purchased the land for the Mount school. In 1921 he opened Rowntree Park as a memorial to those who had died in the First World War.
He married twice. His son Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree made a study of poverty, publishing the findings in a book entitled “Poverty, a study of town life” in 1901. Joseph Rowntree was greatly influenced by his son’s work. He took Quaker beliefs into his everyday life. Although he attended York Meeting regularly he is recalled to have ministered at meeting on one occasion only.
Joseph Rowntree is buried in at The Retreat psychiatric hospital in York. He was a governor of this hospital for over 40 years.