Rowntree A-Z

Alcohol, Rowntree and

The Quaker Rowntree family (principally Joseph Rowntree and his son Seebohm) were actively engaged in the Temperance question, mainly through their writings but also through the measures they took in their famous confectionery factory. Many of their ideas fed into the national debate and led indirectly to the major Liberal social reforms of the early 20th century.

It’s often assumed that as Quakers, the Rowntrees were abstainers, and in the main they probably were. Still in New Earswick, the garden village they created on the outskirts of York, there is no pub today. But as in most things, the Rowntrees, when you scratch beneath the surface, weren’t idealists or absolutists, but pragmatists, who looked for realistic solutions. The manufacture of the chocolate drink (which was the precurser to the solid block of chocolate, before the technology was found to develop the solid bar) was a favourite occupation among the Quakers (think also of Cadbury’s of Birmingham and Frys of Bristol). The chocolate drink was intended as an alternative to alcohol.

Mobile coffee carts pulled by donkeys were one the practical schemes by Joseph Rowntree’s brother Henry Isaac in York to cut down alcohol consumption among working people.  These carts were positioned where people passed by in large numbers on their way to and from work (e.g. railway workshops and Saturday market) and could get a hot drink and a bun for a halfpenny each. By 1873 five self-supporting coffee carts had started – and the idea spread to several other towns and York’s carpenters manufactured and supplied the carts.

Even if Joseph Rowntree may not have been a teetotaller himself, he encouraged his children not to drink and it is possible that he changed his attitude to drink in the course of his life. His distrust of alcohol had been instilled early on; he remembered that his father had given beer twice a day to the apprentices at his grocery shop but he soon realised it was likely that the band of young men might fall into bad habits thereby – so he banned it, and ceased drinking beer himself. This was before the pledge of abstinence was adopted by the Quakers in the 1830s (who nonetheless made a distinction between beer and wine/spirits).

The Rowntrees delved deep in their reactions to what they called the ‘drink misery’, and were authors of extensive writings, comparative data and empirical research based on statistics. Although they acknowledged the reasons why people drank alcohol (or for that matter, gambled) their response was a compassionate one and they called for workable solutions.

Their compassion may arise from the active interest they took in the daily lives of ordinary people, through the adult schools movement where they were pioneers. These so-called ‘First Day Schools’ (Sunday schools) sought to encourage the rounded development of the whole person – so each individual could be encouraged to seek out their ‘inner light within’, to put this in Quaker language.

Teachers in the Adult Schools regularly encountered pupils who were either demoralised by hard drinking or struggling against the constant temptation of easily obtainable cheap alcohol. Joseph Rowntree’s father, who subscribed to the York Temperance Society, regularly pronounced in the local press on York’s drink problem with compelling statistical evidence. In 1851 he had counted 302 premises selling drink, which amounted to 1 place for every 26 families. This was against the wider background (reported in the Yorkshire Express 1869) that £30 million was spent per year in the U.K. on ‘ardent spirits’ and nearly £44 million on beer alone. To help strengthen their pupils’ resolve to resist temptation and encourage them to mutual support for their fellows, a Temperance Group became part of the typical Adult School regime in York. Henry Isaac Rowntree held regular Saturday evening meetings in large schoolrooms where they listened to temperance addresses, using a skeleton as a visual aid, a harmonium for recitations and songs, and showing lantern slides; one man saying that Rowntree’s ‘realistic slides of the human stomach with and without alcohol are remembered to this day’.

Joseph Rowntree, co-wrote a book called The Temperance Problem and Social Reform in 1899 which became a best-seller, with 90,000 total copies sold in 10 editions. It starts with an analysis of wages, rents and the costs of food, and suggests that the average man was spending a sixth of his income on beer and spirits. This study bears all the typical Rowntree hall-marks: it exhibits a considerable amount of original social survey research and statistical evidence undertaken to promote the social welfare and ultimate happiness of the poor – data driven fact finding without pious do-gooding statements by way of conclusion. (In fact the Rowntree’s rarely proposed solutions: they merely offered evidence for policy-shapers and politicians to act upon.) They also looked for comparison at the dry states in America, at Russia, Sweden and France. Joseph concluded it would be useless to attempt any form of prohibition (as Maine County had done, followed by other US states).

However he was drawn to the ‘company system’ that had been created in Gothenburg. (Indeed, the state monopoly of the liquor trade in Sweden was started in the 1800s and is still in existence today.) Rowntree liked the idea in which pub managers were paid a fixed salary, and turned over their profits to the local town treasury, because it meant the removal of the profit principle from licensed houses. But he saw that one of the drawbacks of this practice was an increase in beer consumption, which lay outside the regulation. He saw too that drinking was a social activity, an escape from the factory, and was closely linked to problems of housing and overcrowding. Another solution he suggested was the idea of a company-system-run People’s Palace, to be trialled in the slums of London and Glasgow, where people could have music and leisure activities and temperance cafes. But this idea came to nothing as the government could not afford to buy out and compensate the pub-keepers and brewers.

The equivalent experiment in England to the Gothenburg experiment was the Carlisle experiment. In 1916 the government acquired five breweries and 363 pubs over 300 square miles either side of the English-Scots border around the Solway Firth, where a huge munitions factory was being built. The war-time measures remained in force in the region well after the war – again, it was regarded by a Royal Commission in 1932 as too expensive to roll out further – and the Carlisle system continued right up until the 1970s, when the pubs were re-privatised by Edward Heath.

Joseph went on to write further studies on the subject of temperance; but his findings didn’t always all go down well with others in the Temperance movement (e.g. there were those who put the blame at the feet of the buyer, not the seller of the alcohol) – so the responsibility falls to the individual consumer.

Famously when JR’s eldest son John Wilhelm was asked which Rowntree he was, he said ‘the brother of poverty and son of drink.’ (= John Wilhem was a Quaker theologian of note, poverty was Seebohm and their father was Joseph.) In the same year as Joseph’s best-selling book on alcohol as published, his son Seebohm was undertaking research on all the households in York. He showed that 28% of the people in York were living below the poverty line in 1900. Of these 9.% lived in primary poverty (with insufficient income to afford their basic needs), and 18% in secondary poverty (their income was sufficient but was spent on other items other than the necessities of life). He showed further that poverty was a cycle, and that the poor were not necessarily to blame for their conditions of poverty. His book came to shock and influence both Churchill and Lloyd George and it indirectly led to the raft of social reforms that were introduced in the early 19th century – NI act, pensions, etc. Its uniqueness is that it laid down the basis of empirial sociological research and has been described as the first social science writing ever.

Seebohm’s map of the licensed houses in York shows the different types of premises, and different income levels of residents: full license, off licence, on beer licence, wines and spirits off licences. In his discussion he identified the pubs that were used for social purposes, football clubs, trade unions, friendly societies etc, and those that had music licenses, with singing rooms attached, and he discusses the Christmas or ‘Goose’ clubs and raffles held by them, by his time suppressed; he mentions the numbers of girls drinking in the pubs, and the numbers allegedly working in prostitution; all in all he notes that York is a beer-drinking town – 80% of drunkenness due to beer. His researchers then ‘watch’ a number of public houses and their findings about the comings and goings are closely reported on.)

Seebohm Rowntree in this book defines ‘primary poverty’, or what he called ‘merely physical efficiency’, in this description:

‘A family living upon the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go to the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save, nor can they join sick club of Trade Union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have not pocket money for dolls, marbles, or sweets. The fathers must smoke no tobacco, and must drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or for her children, the character of the family wardrobe as for the family diet governed by regulation, ‘nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health, and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description.’ Should a child fall ill, it must be attended by the parish doctor; should it die it must be buried by the parish. Finally the wage earner must never be absent from his work for a single day. If any of these conditions are broken, the extra expenditure involved is met, and can only be met, by limiting the diet; or, in other words, by sacrificing physical efficiency.’

In a sense, this description echoes work being done today in the footsteps of Joseph and Seebohm by JRF. MIS Minimum Income Standard (for acceptable standard of living) was developed in 2008, and in 2016 they launched a nation-wide report called ‘We Can Solve UK Poverty’, calling for governments, businesses, employers and communities to work together to bring about an end to poverty in the UK. This poverty strategy includes alcohol misuse tangentially as part of the evidence base, as a consequence of and contributor to poverty; and so in a wider context of relevance to our conversation today in terms of levels of consumption.

The York’s University Archives are keepers (besides the major Rowntree collections) of the complete Alcoholics Anonymous archive since its foundation 1946.



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