Penn (Top) House

This historic building was in Rowntree hands for nearly 70 years, and referred to in Rowntree correspondence as ’38 St Mary’s’. Colloquially it was known as ‘Top House’ (to indicate its situation at the top of St Mary’s and on the corner of Bootham). Joseph Rowntree (Senior) bought the land from the London and Liverpool Railway, and had the house built in the early 1850s. The architect is unknown. He moved there with his wife Sarah and three teenage sons, John Stephenson, Joseph, and Henry Isaac, and their younger sister Hannah.

Dividing the house

When Joseph died in 1859, Sarah had the building altered so that her son Joseph with his new wife, Julia Seebohm, could set up their own home. The entrance on Bootham was probably added at this time, with an infill of the narrow space between it and the house next door, and a staircase was added. This alteration accounts for the deep rectangular shape and enormous size of the present day building. When Julia died in 1863, Joseph’s sister Hannah moved from the front to the back part of the house to look after the newborn baby Julia (who later died death of scarlet fever in May 1869 at the age of 6). In the same year Hannah married George Gillett and moved to London in the same year that Joseph remarried.

Home to many households

Upon his mother’s death in 1888 Joseph took up the option in his mother’s will of buying the entire house for £2,600. He lived there with 7 servants until his move to Clifton Lodge in 1905. While it was in Rowntree ownership this vast house became the home of many ‘households’ of the Rowntree family, often temporarily, until their families grew and they moved into separate homes, many of them down nearby St Mary’s. When he retired from the governing committee of Bootham School, Joseph stated his wish to give the property to the school. During the 20th century the school was home to perhaps 2000 boy boarders, among them the historian AJP Taylor.

A historic building in York

Even if it is not an architectural landmark in York, this is nonetheless a historic building. From this address, Joseph Rowntree signed his famous Memorandum in 1904, in which he assigned his personal wealth to the three Trusts he founded in his name. Between 1905 and 1920, Joseph’s son, Seebohm, used the top floor of the house as his private office, and it was here that he conducted his research on Poverty and Unemployment in York.

He had teams of researchers at his disposal and may have used the house as a point of co-ordination. Correspondence addressed to ‘St Mary’s’, for example, came from one of his researchers (a man named Trebitsch-Lincoln, of great research skills but of dubious reputation in other respects) in a diplomatic bag from Paris in 1909. Rowntree & Co sold Top House to Bootham School for £2,000 for use as accommodation or other suitable purpose as the school saw fit. It afterwards became known as ‘Penn House’, after the Quaker founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn. It is now in private hands.