Business in Britain and Ireland
Most early Quakers were involved in small-scale business as farmers, craftsmen or artisans. They soon developed into a close-knit network of mutually supportive families - visiting each other, doing business together, and apprenticing their children to each other. Those in a position to do so helped finance new ventures, and provided advice and sometimes partnerships. Quakers quickly acquired a strong reputation for fair dealings and trustworthiness, and oversaw their local businesses in order to prevent over indebtedness and bankruptcy. As a group they were remarkably literate, which would have facilitated business transactions. These conditions proved to be fertile ground for innovation in business processes and products.
In the early days wool and cloth production were dominant, but this soon changed. In the early 18th century a group of Friends put together a number of small mining concerns, which became the Quaker Lead Company. The Champion family worked on copper, zinc and brass. Many Quakers were involved in the burgeoning iron industry, and the Darby family made major contributions to its development. They developed new techniques for smelting iron, new processes for manufacturing cast iron pots and pans, the first iron railroads and much else. Quakers worked on new forms of transport, notably railways and canals. The Industrial Revolution was under way, and Quakers were much involved.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a flowering of Quaker enterprises, focussing on innocent trades - useful businesses with no military connection. Gun makers and others who profited from war were disowned. William Cookworthy founded the china industry, based on Cornish clay. William Allen developed a pharmaceutical company out of a small druggists business. Frys, Rowntrees, and Cadburys made chocolate, Clarks made shoes, nurserymen collected and sold plants, and there were many other examples. In Ireland Jacobs made biscuits, Malcolmson’s built ships and Goodbody’s milled flour. People quickly realised they could trust Quakers with their money, which led to the rapid growth of Quaker banks such as Barclays and Lloyds. Friends Provident was set up in 1832 to provide insurance services.
They also brought the equality testimony to bear on employer-employee relationships. Apprentices were treated as family members, and Quaker communities regulated master -servant relations among their membership. As their enterprises grew, Quaker employers increasingly took care of the general living conditions of their employees and built houses, schools and infirmaries for their benefit.
Many Quaker businesses were increasingly prosperous, and some used their position to influence issues of the day. Five Quaker businessmen played a vital role in the 1787 Committee to abolish the Slave Trade. Elizabeth Fry was part of a wealthy business family, and used her position in society to campaign for prison reform.
Quaker philanthropy also grew. William Tuke founded the Retreat in York, revolutionising approaches to mental illness. There were relief programmes for victims of war and famine. In 1904 Joseph Rowntree set up three charitable trusts to administer his wealth, and there are several other Quaker trusts.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the peak of Quaker involvement in business enterprises, and it soon began to decline for two reasons. Some Quakers remained in business, but were drawn away into wider society. Resistance to local community oversight was a factor for some. The other reason was that fewer young Quakers went into business in the first place, due to the opening up of new opportunities. The combination of the repeal of the Corporation Act in 1828 (which opened public life to able Friends), the introduction of the Limited Liability Company between 1856 and 1862 (which changed ownership arrangements in companies) and access to university education created a totally new context. Many Quakers were drawn into new careers, and Quaker families gradually lost control of the businesses bearing their names.
Quaker influence within the businesses often persisted nevertheless. In 1921 Seebohm Rowntree pioneered innovative staff management and labour relations practices, including joint consultation and profit sharing, in the York factories. Adrian Cadbury, one of the last Quaker “captains of (British) industry”, authored the Cadbury report into financial aspects of Corporate Governance in 1992.
Quakers in business today are primarily small professional firms and sole traders. The Quaker-founded Scott Bader Commonwealth is however a substantial enterprise with several innovative features, notably a ‘common trusteeship’ model of capitalism, and an governing structure that includes an elected forum.
The Quakers and Business Group was founded in 2002 to develop thinking about business matters in the 21st century.