Tessa Rowntree, 1909-1999: Caring Humanitarian and ‘Tough Girl’

The Rowntree Society works to build and share knowledge about the Rowntree family, company and Trusts. We are always excited to discover more about family members and are indebted to Richard Essberger, author of the recently published novel ‘All Shall be Well’ for this blog post about Tessa Rowntree – a compelling character who appears briefly in his book – and particularly her work with refugees just prior to the Second World War. The images in this blog post are reproduced with the kind permission of their owners. We also gratefully acknowledge contributions from Tessa’s family to this piece.

Elisabeth Harvey Rowntree – Alison, her daughter, noted: “She was always and only known as Tessa by everyone inside and outside the family. The only time she was ever addressed as Elisabeth that I am aware of was by a doctor in a hospital who read it off her chart, and she didn’t immediately recognize that he was addressing her!” – was born in York. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Arnold Stephenson Rowntree, from Thornton-le-Dale and York, Yorkshire (1872-1951), and Mary Katharine Harvey, (1876-1962). Arnold was a great grandson of the John Rowntree who had founded John Rowntree and Sons, tea and coffee merchants, which later became the confectionery business Rowntree and Co., of which Arnold was a director. He was also Chairman of the North of England Newspaper Co, a director of Westminster Press Provincial Newspapers and, for 10 years, Liberal MP for York.

Tessa attended The Mount School, York, a Quaker school, and later graduated from the London School of Economics, (LSE).

In February 1938 she, with her friend Bridget, was in Germany on a canoeing holiday down the Danube. This was soon transformed into working in Vienna with refugees fleeing from Hitler. They were caught up in the Anschluß – the German invasion of Austria. On one occasion she saw Hitler, finding herself at the far end of a square in which he was speaking. She felt his personal magnetism and, despite ‘his horrid little voice’, she could understand why a lot of people would be swayed by him.

The Friends’ Centre in Vienna was swamped with would-be refugees, many worried about people whom they had not heard from. Tessa and Bridget were asked to see if they could find them and check if they were all right.

Later, when Tessa and Bridget were walking along a street, Goebbels appeared in a car, with people calling “Vielen dank Doktor, Vielen dank…” They thought he was really gruesome.

After a month or so in Vienna she was asked by Emma Cadbury, aunt of her future husband, to go to Prague, where there was no Quaker centre. She went for a fortnight and then wrote a report, noting how the complete calm and confidence in Prague contrasted with the strained atmosphere and mutual distrust in Vienna.

She also toured German parts of Czechoslovakia, making her aware of some anti-Czech feeling. The bridges she went over were all undermined and ready to be blown up at any moment, and she saw plentiful signs of field guns and the Czech army, but her guides seemed to regard it as the army of an occupying power.

In Prague she invited her cousin Jean Rowntree to join her. They worked with Doreen Warriner, Beatrice Wellington – a Canadian – and several other girls in their late 20’s, including Mary Penman, Jean Hoare and Jean Bannister.

When Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland the German-speaking supporters of the Social Democratic Party fled in their thousands to Prague, creating an urgent need for food, warm clothes and medical assistance. Tessa visited stranded groups of refugees across the country and local Quakers and international helpers came to their aid.

Whether this story was about Tessa or Jean is unclear, but they were in several respects very much alike, and it demonstrates how they retained their sense of humour under very trying circumstances. One of them said, “I’ve just purchased a thousand men’s undergarments. Now, not many girls can say that, can they!”.

Trains were being organised by Czech military intelligence, Quakers and others to spirit away those Sudetenlanders and anti-Nazi refugees, Czechs, Austrians and Germans, whose lives were threatened by the Gestapo. David Grenfell, a Labour MP representing the party in Prague, suggested that Tessa Rowntree should take one train, saying “she looks a tough girl” (she was also one of the few who held a British passport). The trains had to travel across partially German-occupied Czechoslovakia – which was just waiting to be swallowed up – then across Poland, through the German-occupied city of Danzig, and on to the Polish port of Gdynia, on the Baltic.

From the left: Tessa, Mary Penman and Jean Rowntree, in an apartment rented by Mary for the use of Friends’ workers in 1938 to March 1939. The photo’s exact date is unknown.

Tessa accompanied at least two of these trains and, on one night train, the Polish guard locked her in the guard’s van on her own for her own safety, while the already frightened refugees were crowded into other carriages. The journeys were fraught with difficulties, Tessa and Jean learning how to bribe Polish officials with old stamps to let them go through. With one train running very late, near-panic set in among the refugees. Tessa was so thankful when, in the harbour at Gdynia, the last refugee set foot on board. She herself, as she put it in a letter, “returned to the 4,298 still trapped in Prague”.

In the last months, as war drew near to those in Prague, refugees and their helpers seemed to lead double lives, with tension and panic amongst those trapped by the Nazi invaders and the helpers feeling frustrated by their own inability to find solutions. On the very day in March 1939 that the German troops marched into Prague, Tessa finally returned to England, escorting a party of 66 children on the last Kindertransport train. They all had permission to pass through Germany to England, but some had no travel papers.

Back in England Tessa worked for the British Friends’ relief effort, co-founded the women’s section of the Friends Ambulance Unit and was involved in resettlement issues, including helping evacuate women from London’s East End to Cambridgeshire.

 Christmas greetings, 1938

She soon met John Warder Cadbury, a Quaker of Moorestown, New Jersey, who was working at the American Friends Service Committee in 37 Gordon Square, doing similar relief work among the homeless from bombings, evacuated city children and refugees. In August 1942 they married, ‘very quietly’, at the Friends Meeting House, Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire.

They continued to work for Quaker causes until, in January 1946, they secured passage on a Liberty ship across the North Atlantic to start their new life in America, briefly living with his parents in Moorestown, then at Spung Hollow, near New Lisbon, New Jersey for over 40 years. Their daughter, Alison Harvey Cadbury, was born there on 9 February 1949. For the next 20 years Tessa had a job as a librarian at the Moorestown Free Library. Her love of books and learning lasted into retirement, and in her 70’s she was a straight ‘A’ student at Burlington County College, taking whatever course interested her. She continued to do independent research in areas of interest until her death.

Tessa, with her husband Jack, were dedicated, highly knowledgeable and widely-travelled bird watchers.

Jack passed away on 13 February 1989. Ten years later, on 30 September 1999, Tessa died peacefully at home, aged 90.

Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via info@rowntreesociety.org.uk


Michael Rowntree: Birdwatching from Pembrokeshire to Palestine

The Rowntree Society is committed to offering opportunities for education and skills development, and we recently welcomed two passionate and talented interns to our team. Suzannah explored aspects of Jean Rowntree’s life, and Sacha investigated areas of Michael Rowntree’s life. Check out our Instagram and Twitter to see the campaigns. Below you can read Sacha’s blog post to see what he found.

Over the past four weeks, I have been researching the life of Michael Rowntree (1919-2007). One of Arnold and May Rowntree’s six children, Michael (pictured as a young man) was born into a Quaker family. The importance of public service, social justice and peace were therefore instilled into him from an early age. During World War Two, he was a conscientious objector, and served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) in Finland, the Middle East and Germany. Michael is most well-known for his work for Oxfam, where he served on the Executive Committee from 1952 right until the end of his life. 

However, my research focused not on Michael’s professional life but rather his lifelong personal passion: birdwatching. I relied predominantly on the Rowntree Archives in the Borthwick Institute for Archives in York; there I found two whole cardboard boxes filled with birdwatching records which Michael kept throughout his life. These records provide a glimpse into Michael’s deep appreciation of the beauty of the world around him.

At first, I was surprised by the fact that the vast majority of records that Michael Rowntree left behind were to do with birdwatching. These stretch from 1929 up until the last years of Michael’s life. Indeed, in the Borthwick, apart from several school letters, Michael’s careful birdwatching descriptions, tables and accounts remain the only records of his life written by Michael himself. I was curious to understand more, and why birdwatching clearly meant so much to him.

The first hint of Michael’s fascination with birds are five double-sided, A5 pieces of paper, dating from the Spring of 1929. These are detailed bird watching records, which Michael wrote on holiday with his family in Palestine when he was just 10 years old. The care with which they were written is immediately evident: for instance, take the key Michael uses to note down where he spotted each species of bird, or the way he divides species into categories of ‘residents’; ‘common residents not seen’; ‘winter visitors’; ‘common winter visitors not seen’; ‘migrants’ and ‘common migrants not seen’. In total, he lists 104 birds in this way. Whilst these papers only feature tables and lists, a sense of the person behind them really shines through: a bright, conscientious, observant child taking pleasure in the beauty of the world around him.

Michael’s birdwatching records in Palestine page 1

Without a doubt, the most impressive and alluring of Michael’s birdwatching records is also the next chronologically: the diary he kept of his trips to the Farne Islands (off the coast of Northumberland) in 1934 and Skokholm (an island of the coast of Pembrokeshire) in 1935 when he was 15 and 16 respectively. The journal is the only record which is not a table or list but instead a story in which Michael’s voice can be heard. Also of interest are the photos of birds and landscapes which Michael glued into the journal. These demonstrate the rigour with which Michael recorded his trips. (The one below shows Michael ringing a puffin with his father in the Farne Islands)


The journal is split into two halves for his two different trips and what is immediately striking is the extremely informative descriptions of the two places Michael visited:

 “The Farne Islands are a cluster of some fifteen small, rocky islets, mostly of basalt, lying off the coast of Northumberland, the nearest of which is about two miles from the shore + the farthest about five. In this limited area we observed seventeen different species of bird” (p.3)

“Skokholm is an island of about 250 acres situated about 2 miles from the Pembrokeshire coast Between St Brides Bay and the entrance to Milford Haven. With its neighbouring islands of Skamer, Ramsey + Grassholm, it has acted as a remarkably fine bird island as besides its resident population of sea birds, it lies right in the track of autumn + spring migrants” (p.73)

It is characteristic of his writing that Michael narrates the natural history before describing the nature of his visit. Careful reading is required to discern that, while his trip to the Farne Islands was something of a family holiday, Skokholm was a school trip with some friends from the ornithological society, where they set out to build a trap to study birds. This impersonal tone, whilst it provides insight into Michael’s character as a clearly very mature teenager, serves as a frustrating barrier between the journal and his thoughts at the time. There are several moments where Michael allows us such a glimpse, however. For instance, the description of the rock formations in the Farne Islands known as the pinnacles demonstrates his awe:

“Further on we caught our first glimpse of the pinnacles – a marvellous sight. The pinnacles are a group of sheer basalt rocks as seen in the photo. The rocks are crowded with guillemots in great profusion […] Every moment birds dropped down to the sea to pick up a fish + fly back again.” (p.25)


On Skokholm, Michael’s main task was the construction of a heligoland trap. This large, building-sized, funnel-shaped, structure of netting is used to trap and study birds. It took a week for Michael and his friends to build. Having spent eleven pages detailing the stages of the trap’s construction, including a helpful diagram (pictured), the pride with which Michael describes its completion is evident:

“When the trap was finished we had a grand ceremonial opening since Bootham School had the honour of declaring open the largest Bird Ringing Heligoland Trap in the British Isles” (p.105)


The trap then caught 60 birds over 3 days (two are pictured below). Michael’s pictures of the birds he caught give more of a sense of pride in his work and appreciation of beauty. Overall, the photos in this journal provide an excellent reminder that this was a journal that Michael consciously and carefully crafted. Indeed, the journal would later win him his school’s natural history prize.

Unfortunately, after these two trips, Michael’s birdwatching records are never again as detailed. Michael kept various lists and tables up until his death. These include birds he saw around York in the 1930s, birds he saw whilst working for the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War Two, various records he kept whilst working for Oxfam, and records of birds seen in his Yorkshire garden from the 1990s. One document that Michael evidently wrote in the last few years of his life lists the 1500+ different species of birds which he saw in his lifetime. 

This astonishing document (page 1 of 40 is pictured below) would have been one soaked in nostalgia and memory for Michael. Indeed, all these records must have had sentimental value to Michael, as he kept some of them for over 80 years.



After delving into the birdwatching records above, I wanted to get more of a sense of Michael Rowntree as a person. My research led me down 2 different paths: an exploration of his childhood, and a deep dive into his experiences in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the World War Two.

Firstly, at the Borthwick were a collection of letters from 1930-32 written by Michael and his younger brother Richard during their time at Earnseat School at Arnside, in the North of Cumbria. They reveal Michael to be a dutiful son who wrote frequently to his parents, describing grades, interesting outings and football matches. Secondly, York Explore Archives holds records of the magazine of Bootham School in York, which Michael attended afterwards from 1932-6. The school’s natural history prizes, recorded in the magazine each year, provided another perspective. Michael and his friends Geoffrey Appleyard and Archie Willis began a bird-ringing operation at the school’s Ornithological Society, which, in Michael’s final two years of school netted 2000 birds per year and earned them a special commendation from the judges. Michael writes a report on it in 1936 with obvious pride:


“We are now one of the leading trapping stations in the country, and have had birds recovered in Britain at places from Fife to Penzance, and several places abroad”


Michael’s time in the FAU left little archival record in the Borthwick. Three short letters focusing on Michael’s time in North Africa in 1942-3, where he commanded a unit attached to Hadfield Spear’s hospital, were the only physical traces of Michael’s wartime experience. These letters paint a uniform picture of Michael’s character: he was above all a skilled leader, who naturally garnered support and affection from those he commanded. One of the documents references a book written by the head of Hadfield Spear’s hospital. Also of note is the oral history given by Michael, held at the Imperial War Museum. These sources piqued my interest but were unfortunately beyond the scope of the project. Overall, it seems that much of Michael’s time in the FAU will remain a mystery for now, but further research into this topic would certainly be illuminating.

The only other reference to Michael’s time in the FAU are the dozens of letters written to him by his mother Mary from 1940 to 1942. Whilst they unfortunately provide almost no information as to Michael’s experience of the war, they paint a fascinating picture of World War Two, the horrors of the blitz, and the continued importance of the Rowntree family to city life in York during this period. This was not the focus of my project, but again, the opportunity to do more research would be most welcome. 

Nonetheless, the letters from Mary do provide a small insight into the nature of Michael’s upbringing. I found this quote, describing a countryside hike, written by Mary on the 25th June 1941, extremely powerful:


This certainly is the most beautiful district to live in and it was so peaceful up there on the hill side; it seemed as though the horror in the world must be a bad dream and that we should soon wake up and be able once more to rejoice in God’s lovely world and in his overwhelming generosity in his gifts of nature.”


Clearly, Michael was taught to appreciate the natural beauty of the world around him, even (and perhaps especially) in the darkest of times. Indeed, after World War Two, he maintained that it was keeping up bird watching that kept the horrors of war at bay. Michael’s birdwatching records in the Borthwick do indeed confirm he kept up his hobby during the war in North Africa. In fact, during the war, Michael’s birdwatching played a more immediate role in his well-being. For, whilst driving to a trench in Libya, he stopped to observe a mourning wheatear. When he arrived he found the slit-trench had been destroyed by shellfire.

It was this last foray into Michael’s time at the FAU that helped me draw meaning from Michael’s lifelong passion for birdwatching. There are two main themes I wish to highlight, so as to relate Michael’s passion to issues we face today. The first is the danger that humans pose to the natural environment, and the second is the importance of nature to our mental wellbeing.

To start with the most obvious: it is unlikely future generations will be able to enjoy the variety and number of birds that Michael did. A combination of climate change and habitat loss mean that half of the world’s bird population is in decline, according to the ‘State of the World’s Birds’ Report from last year. Sadly, Britain is little different. Of the 628 different species of British birds, over 70 are now on the RSPB’s red list, the highest level of concern, and 103 are on the amber list, a moderate level of concern. And both lists are increasing. This is not a new problem; indeed Michael’s diary from the Farne Islands bears witness to how human activity can harm local wildlife. He recounts:


“Unfortunately, there had been, the day before, a representative of the ministry of agriculture and fisheries who had gone round systematically throwing nests + young (cormorants) into the sea.” 


There is no doubt that we will have to work hard to protect our wildlife. But it will be worth it. For, quite simply, nature makes us feel good. During the pandemic, two-thirds of British people surveyed reported that they found solace in the sight or song of a bird. This is unsurprising, for there is every piece of evidence to suggest that the more often we interact with nature, the happier we become. Indeed, a study published in the academic journal Ecological Economics in 2012 managed to put a price on this happiness. Using data on the satisfaction of 26,000 European adults, they found that being near fourteen additional bird species provided happiness equivalent to an additional income of $150 per month. The “gifts of nature” which Mary Rowntree described are certainly invaluable. Let’s conserve and treasure them.

For those interested in birdwatching, this is a great place to start.

Or for those who want to help birds, visit the RSPB’s page here


    1. Unknown source. Please contact us if this image is yours.
    2. Reproduced with Permission from the Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/14 p.1
    3. Reproduced with Permission from the Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.47
    4. Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.25
    5. Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.89
    6. Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.113
    7. Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/3 p.117
    8. Reproduced with Permission of Borthwick Institute for Archives RFAM/MR/PD/1/1 p.1


Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via info@rowntreesociety.org.uk


Jean Rowntree’s Travel Diaries

The Rowntree Society is committed to providing opportunities for education and skills development, and we recently welcomed two passionate and talented interns to our team. Suzannah explored aspects of Jean Rowntree’s life, and Sacha investigated areas of Michael Rowntree’s life. Check out our Instagram and Twitter to see the campaigns. Below you can read Suzannah’s blog post to see what she found.

“My brief for the internship was to create an Instagram campaign by researching the extensive travels from Jamaica to America that Jean Rowntree took in 1920. Jean Rowntree was a fascinating woman: she helped Czech refugees escape the Sudetenland during the Second World War. In later life, she was also instrumental at the BBC and helped to develop broadcasting to assist adult education. I have enjoyed discovering more about her travels and the experiences she had at a key point in history. For example, Jean’s experience of being on set in a Hollywood film studio captures the beginning of the mainstream film industry in California that we know today.  

One of the most exciting parts of the internship was being able to go into the Borthwick Institute for Archives to read Jean Rowntree’s travel journals. I found interacting with the physical journals completely engrossing, as the descriptions of Jamaica and America were vivid and gave me further insight into Jean’s personality. Before researching the social and historical context of the time, I read through the journals and took pictures as I went along. This process worked well before planning the posts because I could go back to parts that I could research further. Once I had read the journals, I decided to centre the campaign around the Rowntree family’s love of travel, as their Quaker heritage and position in society enabled travel to be a large part of their lives.

This is a photograph of a drawing Jean did of flowers in Jamaica. I included this in the Jamaica post because of its eye-catching colours. 

Alongside reading the journals, my research consisted of using Google’s ‘My Maps’ to plot the journey Jean took. This helped to visualise the large distances covered by boat and train. Jean’s experience of travelling by boat and the large amount of time it took was a key difference to travelling today, as the modes of transport were not as quick as modern methods. For the Instagram posts, I decided to include sections of the map so viewers can see exactly where they went for each leg of their journey. Creating the map was useful when I researched The Sunset Route, a railroad that goes from New Orleans to Los Angeles, because I could make sure the map was correct by referring to old railroad maps. I particularly enjoyed researching if locations that were mentioned in the journals still existed, such as the Hotel Green (now the Castle Green) in California; it meant that I could compare any changes over time.

This is part of the Introductory post: the Google Map contains many locations mentioned in the journals. It starts from Scarborough, includes Jamaica and America, and ends in The Isle of Wight. 

One challenge I faced was selecting the content for the posts because all the entries contained unique insights into travel in the 1920s. To help me select the entries I wanted to post, I narrowed them down by location and how much of the individual entry Jean designated to a place. For example, New Orleans has a post because Jean recounted an unusual St Louis cemetery trip and included what a sexton said to them. I thought that the verbatim inclusion of what the sexton said would make the post more absorbing, and that part of history tangible. Well-explained details such as these helped me to gain a sense of Jean’s personality and opinions of the places and people she interacted with. The journal entries about America were fascinating as Jean visited it when it was becoming an established superpower and at a time of technological change. While in America, Jean visited many beautiful places, such as the Grand Canyon. I found her description to be timeless, as I visited it myself and had a very similar experience. 

After spending time on the research process, I began drafting the posts on Canva, an image and video editing programme. It was a useful software to learn how to use because it had an Instagram post template to which I uploaded the journal photos. Due to my research being guided by how many journal pages Jean allocated the locations, it enabled me to already have an idea of what to draft. I enjoyed this process very much because it gave me the opportunity to learn how to use an editing programme to design the posts. At first this was a challenge, but I feel that using this has been the best way to present Jean’s journey in an accessible way. For example, I planned to do a post on the growth of the American automobile industry compared to England in 1920. I decided against this and included it in the post about New York, where traffic continues to be a major problem.  

In my free time, I enjoy using Instagram and find that having a mixed post format is an effective method to engage people. For the campaign I created two reels, which are short videos with captions and effects. Using this format means that it is possible to have more information in one place. A particular highlight when drafting the campaign was being able to demonstrate the postcards that Jean collected alongside the relevant journal entry because the art style brought the locations to life. As a result of my research, I created ten posts that encompass the journey Jean made that use the location as the focal point to explore the historical and social context of the time. 

The opportunity to learn about Jean Rowntree and the 1920s through the journals has been a fantastic experience. The excellent guidance and assistance available to me has helped to further develop my research and teamwork skills to a point that I feel more confident in my abilities to work to a brief. Interaction with the journals makes it clear that the desire to travel is timeless. Jean travelled to Jamaica and America after the devastating Influenza pandemic following the First World War. Her desire to see a different continent that did not have the physical and mental reminders of war, perhaps is similar to our post-Covid world and the current travel boom. Innovation, whilst respecting tradition, is a key part of The Rowntree Society, and the journals’ self-reflective nature demonstrates this.


LROW/15/7- Picture of flowers in Jamaica

LROW/15/7- Picture of the Google ‘My Map’ of Jean’s journey

Photos reproduced with permission from The Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via info@rowntreesociety.org.uk


Get Involved

Explore our current projects, find out more about how you can research Rowntree history in the archives, and discover opportunities to volunteer with us.

Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via info@rowntreesociety.org.uk


Rowntree’s, York, and the 1918 Flu Pandemic: A New Blog Series

Cat Oakley

The First Peak

In mid-June 1918, people across the UK began to fall sick. An article in the Yorkshire Evening Post described the signs of their illness for readers fortunate enough to have escaped infection so far:

“Those people who have not yet been affected will be interested to learn that the first symptoms…are an attack of aches and pains all over the body, along with dizziness. Then follow headache, pains in the back, and occasionally sickness, with a feeling of absolute helplessness.”[1]

The disease caused acute suffering. In the most severe cases, the infection led to an immune system response known as heliotrope cyanosis, in which the body turned black or blue as fluid leaked into the lungs and drowned the sufferer. There were also multiple incidences of delirium and psychological disturbances, leading to violence and self-harm.[2]

As the illness spread throughout the population, it disrupted patterns of everyday life which had already been transformed by the turmoil of the First World War. Northern England, with its industrial base and high urban population, was badly stricken. In some streets in Sunderland, every household was affected, and entire families laid up. In Newcastle, police, fire brigade and hospital staff were absent in significant numbers, and in Manchester, more than 200 tramway car drivers and guards went off sick.[3]

In York, all elementary schools were closed in the first week of July and remained closed throughout the whole summer.[4] Independence Day celebrations planned for American troops stationed in the city – including a baseball match, tea at the Assembly Rooms, and a parade – were all cancelled. Cinemas and other places of entertainment were designated as off-limits for soldiers, though they remained open for civilians.[5] Across the city, trained medical staff struggled to meet increased demand for their skills as they contended with an existing national shortage of doctors and nurses. In January 1918, over half of the country’s doctors were on military duty, and of those remaining, nine in York reported at one point that they had visited 6000 cases between them in response to the outbreak. Edmund Smith, the city’s Minister of Health, reported that “the professional nursing staffs of the city and district were absolutely overwhelmed.[6]

This was the ‘Spanish flu’, so-called because Spain, which remained neutral during the First World War, did not censor news of the epidemic whereas participating nations did. From its origins at a farm in Kansas, USA, the virus spread across the globe, beginning its journey in early March 1918 and ending with the last recorded infection around May 1920. Throughout this period, one in three people on the planet – 500 million – were infected, and one fifth them died.[7] In the UK, a quarter of the British population contracted the virus and one estimate places the national death toll at 228,000.[8] Mortality figures are, however, likely to be underestimates: many deaths will not have been recorded as influenza-related but as pneumonia, tuberculosis, bronchitis or even suicide, all of which were documented secondary complications.[9] The arrival of the virus in England and Wales can be dated around mid-June 1918 and by the end of July, it had diminished. In mid-October, it returned, and this “second peak”, far more deadly than the first, lasted until the end of the year, only to be followed by a third wave between February and May 1919.[10]



US woman sick with influenza in her home in 1918 with young child crying nearby

Image from the American National Red Cross photograph collection of a woman in the US suffering from influenza during the second wave of the 1918 pandemic. An accompanying note to the photograph says that the Red Cross Home Service was called to the house by the woman’s sister, who had not seen her for a week. The sick woman’s husband was away fighting in France. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.

A Forgotten History

“Don’t talk about influenza. It is already wearing itself out and will go all the sooner if you don’t talk about it. Influenza is a disease that likes to be noticed.”

– From a public information leaflet circulated by a senior London hospital official in 1918[11]

This advice from one senior medical official, circulated in a public information leaflet in 1918, captures one contemporary attitude to the flu. The government was centrally concerned with the war effort, and wartime censorship may played a part in suppressing information about the scale and spread of the epidemic at the time. But the pandemic has also gone relatively unnoticed in the years since. Despite the scale of disruption to everyday life and the massive death toll, it has been largely overlooked by historians and epidemiologists over the last 100 years. As we experience the extraordinary transformations wrought by COVID-19, it’s difficult to imagine that the 1918 pandemic was an unremarkable event for those who experienced it, even amidst the scale of horror and suffering brought about by the First World War. The two events are a century apart, so any comparisons must take into account the many differences between them, but there are also many remarkable parallels.

Why do we know so little about the Spanish flu? A growing number of historians have been exploring the answers to this question in recent decades.[12]

Those of us with an interest in social history might some highlight key factors at play which sound familiar in the context of today’s crisis. People of all social backgrounds were susceptible to the 1918 virus. Yet, there is evidence to suggest that working class communities and those living in poverty were hit particularly hard and their experiences under-documented. In addition, the history of the pandemic is, at least in part, a history of care work, and the history of care work is predominantly the history of another marginalised group: women. “Women were the ones who registered the sights and sounds of the sickroom, who laid out the dead and took in the orphans”, notes historian Laura Spinney.

Spinney also points to the dominance of Western historiography, noting that deaths in Europe and North America were lower than in other areas of the world which were more severely affected.[13] One very early report published by a medical officer of the British Empire in 1920 examined the effects of the virus in the Punjab province of India, and the historian David Killingray has done important research on the effects of the pandemic in Africa and the Caribbean, but there is still much more to explore in this area.[14] We might therefore ask ourselves what social history research with an intersectional approach could reveal about the experiences of the working classes, women, and people of colour in former British colonies during the 1918 pandemic.

The Rowntree Lens

I took up the post of Director of The Rowntree Society in early February this year and over the last few weeks, have began the work of immersing myself in the rich histories and legacies of the Rowntree family, company and charities. The Society exists to facilitate and support activities that engage critically and creatively with these histories through collaborative work with partners in the public sector, education, the voluntary sector and the cultural industries. Our work is driven by our belief in the continuing importance of the Rowntree legacies to the local, national and global challenges facing our contemporary world. As the world entered lockdown, it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is not just one of the most pressing of these challenges, but that it has profound implications for the others.

Members of the Rowntree family undertook pioneering work driven by their Quaker values, advocating for equality, democracy and social justice; work which is continued today by the three charitable trusts Joseph Rowntree established in his name in 1904. At The Rowntree Society, we believe that historical perspectives have a distinctive role to play in helping to navigate the current crisis and uncertain future. We share the perspectives of the Social History Society on the distinctive contributions historians can make in navigating the complexities of our situation:

This is a time of illness, grief, and profound economic and social change.

As historians, we know context is everything. We know that we must analyse the short term in relation to longer term trends.

Much cultural and social history is qualitative in nature, describing and explaining changes and continuities in earlier societies. It complicates our understanding of the past and warns against simplistic comparisons with the future.[15]

Mindful of historical precedent and the resonance of Rowntree heritage, we have found ourselves wondering: How did the 1918 flu pandemic affect the Rowntree family and Rowntree workers? How was the outbreak experienced among vulnerable communities in early 20th century York – those living in the slums Seebohm Rowntree wrote about in his pioneering survey of poverty published in 1901, and those working on the Rowntree & Co. cocoa estates in the British West Indies? What were the responses of Rowntree family members to the crisis as individuals, as employers, and in their roles in civic and public life? And what might the answers to these questions tell us about life with COVID-19, and the world that lies beyond it?

The fullest answers to these questions lie in the archives. The Borthwick Institute at the University of York is now home to the Rowntree Archives, and an important collection of materials relating to medicine and health in the city. Other relevant records are kept by York Libraries and Archives. Both are currently closed due to the lockdown (though doing some fantastic work around the continuation of their services online). It’s tantalising to have these documents so near and yet so far, and I’ve developed a renewed appreciation for our libraries and archives now that they are temporarily inaccessible.

In the face of these closures, I reached out to the archivists there, together with our volunteers, trustees and local history groups, for help in finding some provisional answers. My original plan was for a single blog post, but the search turned up more information than initially expected. I’ll therefore be sharing thoughts and information on the 1918 pandemic, York, Rowntree’s and COVID-19 in a new blog post series here on our website.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think. You can get in touch with us via email at info@rowntreesoc.org.uk, on Twitter @rowntreesoc, or through our Facebook page.


Collating sources for the blog series while libraries and archives are closed has been a collaborative project, with help from the following people:

Anne Grant and Stan Young, The Rowntree Society

Margaret Atherden, PLACE York

Janet Jawando and Dennis Shaw, York Cemetery Genealogy

Dick Hunter, Clements Hall Local History Group

Gary Brannan, Borthwick Institute for Archives

Hannah Mawdsley (@HannahMawdsley)

Julie-Ann Vickers, York Explore

Joseph Oakley


[1] “Influenza Plague Still Active”, Yorkshire Evening Post, Wed 3 July, 1918, p.3.

[2] Hannah Mawdsley, “‘Infectious’ Humour in the Face of History’s Deadliest Pandemic”, Viewpoint, pp.4-6 (p.4) https://www.bshs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Viewpoint_118_Web.pdf

[3] Influenza Ravages, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Wed 3 July 1918; “Influenza Plague Still Active”.

[4] Martin Knight, The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 in the towns of the West Riding and York, Place: 2016, p.p. 22-23

[5] “Influenza Ravages”, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Wed 3 July 1918

[6] Fred R. van Hartesveldt, “The Doctors and the ‘Flu’: The British Medical Profession’s Response to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919”, International Social Science Review 85.1-2, 2010, p. 32; “Medical Officer of Health report for York, 1919, Borthwick Archives, MOH/Y/10, cited by Gary Brannan, “When the Guns Fell Silent: York and the 1918 Flu”, http://borthwickinstitute.blogspot.com/2018/11/when-guns-fell-silent-york-and-1918-flu.html

[7] Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, Jonathan Cape, 2017, ebook, n.p.

[8] Jennifer Meierhans & Daniel Wainwright, “Spanish flu: ‘We didn’t know who we’d lose next’”, BBC News, 20 September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-45097068

[9] Knight notes that “In 1918 there were about 2,700 pneumonia deaths compared with an average of about 1700 in 1916, 1917, and 1919.” (p.10) Several inquests reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post in Spring 1919 delivered verdicts of suicide in which influenza was cited as a factor (see also Knight, p. 43).

[10] Knight, p.8

[11] “Hints to the Public”, Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Thurs 31 Oct 1918, p.6

[12] See Laura Spinney, Pale Rider; Mark Honigsbaum, Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, Macmillan, 2009; Hannah Mawdsley, https://ahrc.ukri.org/research/readwatchlisten/features/remembering-the-spanish-flu/; David Killingray and Howard Philips (eds.) The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919: new perspectives, Routledge, 2011; Niall Johnson, Britain and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: a dark epilogue, Routledge, 2006.

[13] Laura Spinney, Pale Rider, ebook, n.p.

[14] Thomas Herriot, “The Influenza Pandemic 1918, as observed in the Punjab, India”, PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1920, https://era.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/22305; David Killingray, “A new ‘Imperial Disease’: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and its impact on the British Empire”, Caribbean Quarterly 49.4, December 2003

[15] “COVID-19 and the future of our discipline”, Social History Society, May 7, 2020 https://socialhistory.org.uk/2020/05/07/covid-19-and-the-future/

Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via info@rowntreesociety.org.uk