Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

George Cadbury

1839 – 1922

George, the third son of John and Candia Cadbury, was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham.  He was an ambitious, hardworking and serious person.  At sixteen he was apprenticed to Joseph Rowntree, in York, to learn the grocery trade.  However he returned to Birmingham without completing his apprenticeship as the family firm was in trouble, due to their father’s depression and declining health after his wife’s death. His older brother Richard was already working in the business, and Richard and George finally took over the family firm in 1861.

John Cadbury had been working on a blend of cocoa and lichen that he hoped would have medicinal properties.  George and Richard continued the work and launched the product as “Icelandic Moss”.  It was not the success that they had hoped for.   They worked long hours and lived a very frugal lifestyle to keep the firm from insolvency.  George, like Richard, used part of the £4000 that had been left to him by his mother, to keep the business going.   Then he heard about a Dutch chocolatier, Coenraad van Houten, who had devised a method of extracting most of the unpalatable fat from cocoa, which made it a much more appealing drink.   Although he did not speak Dutch George went to Holland to see van Houten.  He returned triumphant with a defatting machine.  It is thought that he spent most of his remaining inheritance on it.  The machine proved to be a success and Cadbury’s launched their “Absolutely Pure Therefore Best” cocoa essence.  It saved the company and enabled it to grow into a large and successful enterprise with a reputation for quality products and for treating its employees well.

George met Mary Tyler and decided that as he was now financially secure, he could contemplate marriage.  He sent her a formal letter containing a business like proposal of marriage which caused her confusion.  The years of austerity had taken their toll.  Fortunately he was able to salvage the situation and the couple married in 1872.

George’s Quaker values permeated his life. A particular commitment was to the adult school movement.  As a young man he had taught in an adult school in Birmingham and he continued to do so up to the age of seventy two.  He liked to cycle to the school on a Sunday morning at about 6.00 am for a Bible class.  He taught hundreds of people to read and write, which gave him great insight into the conditions of the working classes.  

He had a dream of a factory in a garden that would be a healthy and pleasant place to work. So once it was feasible, he and Richard decided to relocate Cadburys away from the city centre. They purchased a site four miles from Birmingham, naming it Bournville, after a stream (bourn) that ran through it and ville, the French word for town. In 1879 they reopened the factory there, and began to create a model village, providing their employees and others with good housing, schools and leisure facilities.  

In 1887 soon after the birth of her sixth child, who died, Mary also died, leaving George with a young family to look after.  Richard’s daughter Jesse moved in with her uncle to help him with the children.  In 1888 George went to London and met an old friend, Elizabeth Mary Taylor, who had helped him some years before with his temperance work and was equally committed to adult education.  They were soon married.  He and Elizabeth then had five children, and worked together on developing Bournville as well as engaging in philanthropic activities.

George continued to purchase land and set up the independent Bournville Village Trust in 1900, gifting nearly 400 houses to it.  During this time he continued to work to improve the employment conditions for his employees and sick pay and pensions were introduced. The Trust continues its work today, managing a mix of affordable rented and privately owned properties and community facilities.

After George and Elizabeth moved to a larger home to accommodate their growing family, they donated their home in Bournville to The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), in 1903.  It became Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and continues to this day.

In 1901 he obtained a controlling interest in the Daily News and was thus able to give a voice to the Liberal Party.  He was vehemently opposed to the Anglo-Boer war in South Africa.  He was a strong campaigner against sweated labour.

He died in 1922.



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Further Reading and Credits

Bournville Village Trust

Photograph of George Cadbury is in the public domain