1899 Joseph Rowntree
A dynasty of philanthropy and research on social problems
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The name of Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925) and his family might have been associated in our culture primarily with a range of chocolate products such as Smarties or Kit Kat. But their family business was taken over by Nestle, a move in which the Rowntree name disappeared. As it is, we currently associate Joseph Rowntree with the foundation and trusts that bear his name. Those are much closer to the heart of social work than is chocolate.
Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925) was born in Yorkshire as the second of three sons of Joseph Rowntree and Sarah Stephenson. Just like Elizabeth Fry, they were Quakers. The father ran a successful grocery shop in York. Upon the death of his father, the younger Joseph took over the business and later joined forces with one of his brothers to expand his small chocolate business into a successful industry. Joseph focused on the financial management, while Henry Isaac took care of the logistics and machinery. When Joseph joined in 1869, they had about 30 employees. Thirty years later, that number was well over 2000!

Joseph Rowntree however wasn’t a coldblooded capitalist with skills limited to running and expanding his business. He was also deeply concerned about the social problems of his time. At a meeting in 1899 he contradicted others who claimed that poverty was solely the result of alcoholism and set out to investigate the matter. The same year, he wrote and published (together with Arthur Sherwell) The temperance problem and social reform. He became an active philanthropist committed to social reform. Other historical examples of philanthropists include Charles Booth (UK) and Benjamin Franklin (USA). These days, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are iconic examples of philanthropy. Some see this use of private wealth to advance public goods as a good complement to, or even substitute for, the welfare state.

Rowntree’s main goal for his philanthropic actions was to eradicate poverty and the other social evils of his time. He believed social evils could be tackled by systematic research. In 1904, he transferred his wealth in three trusts that each independently still work towards reaching his goals. One of them transformed into the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1990. Through its many research projects, it inspires social work in the UK and elsewhere. One example is their Contemporary social evils programme examining the current social challenges.
Through its activities, the foundation not only follows the legacy of its founding father, but also of his son Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871—1954). Following his father’s work and inspired by Charles Booth`s research on poverty in London, Seebohm Rowntree initiated a house to house survey of York which he published in 1901 as Poverty, a study of town life. The results indicated that 6.8 % of the working class population of York did not have the minimum income needed to survive. Another 18% of the population lived in what he called secondary poverty. Seebohm Rowntree published the results of a second survey in 1941 and a third survey in 1952. Many followed in the footsteps of Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, resulting in a rich tradition of researching poverty and refining the methodology to do so. The latest challenging and intriguing addition to this tradition is Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett`s The spirit level.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 03-2011
Date of latest revision: 04-2013

Read more
  • PDF document Barker, P. (Ed.) (1984), The founders of the welfare state. London: Heinemann, p. 75 onwards
  • Briggs, A. (2000), Seebohm Rowntree`s Poverty: a study of town life in historical perspective. in J. Bradshaw & R. Sainsbury (Eds.), Gettin the measure of poverty, the early legacy of Seebohm Rowntree (pp. 5-22). Aldershot: Ashgate.
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