Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, Life and Writings
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), normally referred to as Seebohm Rowntree, was born in 1871, second of the four sons of Joseph Rowntree and Emma Antoinette Rowntree. He was educated by governesses at home, at Bootham School, and at Owen’s College, Manchester (where he studied chemistry). At the age of 18 he entered the family cocoa and chocolate business, with which he was associated until retirement in 1941. He immediately put his Manchester experience to good use when, in 1889, he established a research and testing laboratory. When, in 1897, the firm became a limited liability company, Seebohm became a director, taking responsibility that year for the labour department.
By 1941, when Seebohm Rowntree retired from the chairmanship he had held since 1923, the firm ‘had established itself as the second largest chocolate and confectionery firm in the United Kingdom … and the third largest business of its kind in the world’.(1) As chairman he had steered a sometimes reluctant board to accept the harsh implications of stark facts. While, for example, sales between 1918 and 1920 had risen by an encouraging 70 per cent, manufacturing wages had risen by 292 per cent.
The problems of management and marketing
Two perennial problems were management and marketing. The first of these was particularly congenial to Seebohm, for he found the question of personal relationships in industry an absorbing one, as demonstrated in his The human needs of labour (1919; revised and enlarged 1937), The human factor in business (1921, 3rd ed. revised, 1938) and Industrial unrest (1922). On marketing, the board inherited a Quaker belief that if the quality of a product was good this should be sufficient to persuade people to buy it. Joseph Rowntree had opposed advertising because he saw so many false claims made by so many advertisers. Slowly, the board came to terms with the fact that (for example) packaging and easily-remembered brand names were essential as marketing techniques. Seebohm was never a hands-on chairman in the way that his father had been; the steering of the firm through the 1931 national crisis and into a prosperous 1930s may have owed much to the perspective he brought as well as to his analytical mind.
The use of statistics
He inherited from his father and grandfather a statistical acumen which he put to good effect in Poverty: a study in town life (1900); the later volumes, Poverty and progress (1941) and Poverty and the welfare state (1951), were inevitably less personally experiential and, while of considerable interest, lack the pioneering (and devastating) significance of the initial survey. By his firm, statistically well-supported, demonstration of the causal link between poverty and the low wages paid to working men, and the insecurity of their employment, he was able to challenge the general assumption that poverty was merely the result of drink and fecklessness. His contention that a cooperative work-force could be achieved only if each worker had ‘a reasonable share with the employer in determining the conditions of work, and an interest in the prosperity of the industry in which he is engaged’ (Industrial Unrest, p. 12) made him a suspect figure in the eyes of many industrialists; recognition of this, combined with a distaste for being in the limelight, made him prefer to work through others rather than adopt the role of a campaigner.
He had married in 1897 Lydia Potter (1869-1944), daughter of Edwin Potter, engineer. There were four sons and one daughter. They lived in York until 1936, when he moved to Hughenden, near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, living first at ‘North Dean’ and then, after Lydia’s death, at Hughenden Manor (formerly the home of Benjamin Disraeli). Though he remained largely aloof from local Quaker concerns, his Quaker convictions remained as a strong influence on his work. Following a heart attack, he died at his home in 1954.
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: a study of town life (Macmillan, 1901); Betting and gambling: a national evil (Macmillan, 1905); Land and labour: lessons from Belgium (Macmillan, 1910); with Bruno Lasker, Unemployment: a social study (Macmillan, 1911); with May Kendall, How the labourer lives: a study of the rural labour problem (Thomas Nelson, 1913); The human needs of labour (Thomas Nelson, 1919); The human factor in business (Longmans, 1921); Society and human relations (Olaf Hodgkin, 1924); Poverty and progress: a second social survey of York (Longmans, 1941); Portrait of a city’s housing: being the results of a detailed survey in the city of York 1935-9 (Faber & Faber, 1945); with GR Lavers, Poverty and the welfare state: a third social survey of York (Longmans, 1951); with GR Lavers, English life and leisure: a social study (Longmans, 1951)
For a annotated bibliographical description of many of the above works, and more, see Seebohm Rowntree books – catalogue. This catalogue was acquired by the Rowntree Society in 2015 as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund Sharing Heritage grant to acquire a significant collection of Rowntree’s writings, many of them signed or annotated by the author himself.
(1) Asa Briggs, Social Thought and Social Action: a Study of the Work of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (Longmans, 1961), p. 9.
The above biography is a slightly edited version of a biography drawn from The Biographical Dictionary of British Quakers in Commerce and Industry 1775-1920, by Edward H Milligan, published by the Sessions Book Trust, York, England in 2007 (ISBN 978-1-85072-367-7). It is included here by kind permission of Edward Milligan, and the Sessions Book Trust.
Dictionary of National Biography
Dictionary of Business Biography, 1985, vol.4, pp.961-964