1871 – 1954
(Benjamin) Seebohm Rowntree was the second son of Joseph Rowntree and his second wife (Emma) Antoinette née Seebohm. Following tutoring at home he went to Bootham School in York. Later he studied at the University of Manchester, concentrating on chemistry, but did not take a degree. He joined the Rowntree family business in 1889. On Sundays he taught at the York Adult School, work that he continued to do for over twenty years. This helped to make him aware of the deprivation of the poor.
In February 1895 he visited the slums of Newcastle upon Tyne in the company of a well informed local man. There he witnessed severe poverty, despite the accumulating national wealth, and decided that as a Quaker it was his responsibility to try to do something about it. He had an aptitude for systematic research and statistics and was influenced by Charles Booth’s social survey of the East End of London. Consequently he spent two years from 1897 studying the poor in York. He was assisted by a small team of researchers, some of whom were paid. The results were published in 1901 as ‘Poverty: a Study of Town Life’ which soon became a classic sociological text that influenced research methods in the social sciences. In it he defined the concept of the ‘poverty line’ (a minimum standard based on basic food intake) and the ‘poverty cycle’ (showing how poverty affects individuals over their lifetime). He also introduced the concept of ‘primary poverty’, where income is insufficient to avoid desperate poverty, and ‘secondary poverty’, where the choices made with expenditure result in desperate poverty. He did not blame poverty on imprudent expenditure but emphasized its structural rather than moral causes. His interest in the plight of the poor remained with him throughout his life. In 1936 Seebohm undertook another survey of the poor of York and in 1941 he published ‘Poverty and Progress’. In this work he recognised that although some progress had been made legislation would be required and was hopeful that this would be forthcoming.
He was a friend of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George. They were very different people but together they fuelled Liberal Party policy until long after the party had lost its governmental role. Lloyd George appointed him to the land inquiry committee of 1912-1914.
His father Joseph Rowntree wanted to develop the business as a trust and his schemes for promoting employees’ wellbeing were developed in collaboration with Seebohm. When the family firm converted into a limited company in 1897 he was made a director and was chairman from 1923 to 1941. He was the first labour director, and made many improvements. He introduced an eight-hour day in 1896, hired a works doctor in 1904, followed by a dentist, and implemented a pension scheme in 1906. A works council was established in 1919 and there were other initiatives such as a staff canteen, a library and a swimming pool and theatre. He wrote extensively about labour and working conditions.
Seebohm believed in a high wage economy and was a passionate believer in the importance of fully realising each person’s potential. He considered that the relationship between the needs of the employer and the employee were vital in business and he described his ideas in ‘The Human Needs of Labour’ published in 1918 and ‘The Human Factor in Business’ published in 1921. In disputes he advocated mediation and he attempted to bring opposite factions together in major industrial disputes such as the railway strike of 1919.
Although a pacifist he directed the welfare department of the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War. During this time he developed his interest in industrial psychology and employed the first full-time industrial psychologist in a British business. Rowntrees pioneered the use of psychological tests to predict the aptitude of employees. Seebohm remained convinced that welfare and industrial efficiency were equally important. He worked with William Beveridge, the economist and social reformer, and influenced his thinking. This helped to pave the way for family allowances and the British Welfare State, after the Second World War.
He died at High Wycombe in 1954.