Rowntree A-Z

International connections, of the Rowntree company and family

Many of the achievements of the Rowntree family members that affected the city of York or British society in general have been acknowledged, to a certain degree. What hasn’t been highlighted so far is the fact that many members of this family of Quaker businessmen demonstrated a worldview that went beyond regional and national borders. They took notice of events and developments in other countries and often held contact with people from around the world. Even though it may be too much to speak of a truly cosmopolitan outlook common for the family it is still worth noticing that many Rowntrees showed an open mind for people of different nationalities and were, at least to some degree, individually committed to a transnational attitude.

Rowntree & Co and international business

This international outlook can be traced back in the development of the family business, considering that the Rowntree confectionery company developed from a local manufacturer of cocoa products into an internationally operating enterprise until its takeover by the Swiss food company Nestlé in 1988. Thus it was actively engaged in the South African, Canadian, Irish, Australian and New Zealand market since the 1920s and around the same time was starting business in the European continent and in the United States.

After Henry Isaac Rowntree had started the business in 1862 with not more than a dozen employees his brother Joseph joined him in 1869. Both proved their keenness to engage in new manufacturing techniques by cooperation with foreign partners. In 1879 they hired the Frenchman Claude Gaget who provided the Rowntree brothers with the technique to produce ‘Crystallised Gum Pastilles’, the first major success an breakthrough for the Rowntree confectionery enterprise. In 1885, Joseph, who was by then the single head of the company due to the early death of his brother Henry in 1883, engaged a Dutchman called Cornelius Hollander, who claimed knowledge of the process for the extraction of cocoa butter from the roasted nib. Hollander worked in seclusion and never divulged his information to the company. As Joseph suspected that Hollander was profiting by fraudulent expenses claims, he dismissed him and broke into his workroom to discover the details of the process. Joseph will have known about the new chocolate-making techniques since he went to Birmingham in 1875, where the Cadbury brothers had installed a Dutch machine using hydraulic pressure. Also in 1877 he went to the Netherlands twice and, as his biographer, Anne Vernon, assumes, these journeys might be connected with the attempt to explore new methods to produce cocoa. But at that point in time the financial circumstances of the company didn’t allow for such an investment. In 1887, however, they did and ‘Elect’ cocoa was put on the market for the first time. However, even though Joseph showed a certain willingness to look beyond national borders for new methods of production and manufacture he stayed sceptical about overseas exports and ideas to start new and, to him, risky projects abroad.

It was John Wilhelm Rowntree, Joseph’s eldest son, who during his short adult life inside the company turned out to be one of the leading brains behind new ideas concerning the exploitation of new markets and international business strategies. He became a member of the board of directors in 1897, which consisted of several family members. It was the year of the founding of the Rowntree business as a limited company and shortly afterwards an export department was established. John Wilhelm was one of the closest advisors of his father, however, he also promoted business plans that Joseph Rowntree didn’t approve of. This included his idea about the establishment of a Rowntree cocoa plantation abroad. John Wilhelm feared that rivals like Cadbury and other companies from America or Germany would gain too much control over supplies and envisioned Rowntree & Co. to become a multinational enterprise with its own plantations and branches in the United States, Canada and Australia. In 1898 he sailed to the West Indies in order to find a proper place for his plantation project and in 1899 he was able to convince the company to buy estates in Jamaica and Trinidad, even though his father still had doubts about the project and the resources it required. Nevertheless, by 1900 Rowntree & Co. was selling its products in Australia and New Zealand and during the 1900s the company established contacts in Canada and the United States.

In the 1910s, five years after the early death of John Wilhelm, a salesman was sent to South Africa who established contacts with local manufacturers during the First World War and in 1924 Seebohm Rowntree, after he had taken his father’s place as chairman of the company in 1923, was willing to buy into the Japanese confectionery firm ‘Morinaga’ in order to exploit the Japanese market. Under his lead by 1930 the company established a network of agents in India, the Far East and parts of Latin America. However, until his retirement in 1941 Seebohm was generally more interested in the improvement of working conditions at the firm than in the exploitation of new markets. Among these three men, who had great influence on the development of the family business, John Wilhelm was probably the first to envision the company as becoming a multinational operating enterprise. However, all of them, father and sons, took notice of developments in other countries and were willing to introduce new techniques of production and to explore new foreign markets as chairman, or director. International contacts and transnational perspectives

Travelling was another common feature of the family. Many of the Rowntrees visited Europe frequently and went to other parts of the world at some point at their life. Especially the generation of John Wilhelm and Seebohm held direct contact with people from different countries, especially from the United States. Joseph himself developed a great interest in travelling in his later life and regularly went to Switzerland during the summer after he had spent some time there after the death of his first wife Julia (1841-1863) and later on with his second wife and children. He believed that ‘money spent on travel is never wasted’. In 1895 John Wilhelm, who played a major part in the ‘Quaker Renaissance’ at the end of the nineteenth century, travelled to Jerusalem, on his way there passing Italy. In 1897 he met Rufus M. Jones (1863-1948) in Switzerland, an American Quaker minister, professor of philosophy and editor of the American Friend, with whom he established a deep and long lasting friendship . Seebohm Rowntree was surely the member of the family who came to travel the world most. After his first trip to America in 1921, during which he successfully presented his findings on improvement of welfare conditions in the family company to American scientists and businessmen, he developed a special relationship to the United States. While giving lectures across the country he met with many American industrialists and made many friends. Among them was Henry S. Dennison (1877-1952) with whom he shared the concern for the welfare of employees. When Dennison died in 1952 Seebohm wrote to his widow, ‘Henry was my oldest and dearest friend’ . He always kept a strong interest for the United States and between 1921 and 1937 he crossed the Atlantic sixteen times to visit the country he almost came to see as a second homeland. After the Second World War he returned there for a last trip and was still welcomed with great joy . He also travelled to other countries to give lectures on labour relations, among them Japan in 1924, India and Australia in 1926 and 1927 and Africa in 1932. Also he undertook several trips to South America .

The considerable attention for foreign developments demonstrated by family members of the Rowntree clan becomes even clearer if one looks at the social studies conducted by Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree. For his study The Temperance Problem and Social Reform, conducted together with Arthur Shewell and first published in 1899, Joseph surveyed the alcohol policies in different countries, including the ‘dry states’ in America, Russia, Sweden, Norway and France. While Shewell travelled to America Joseph went to Scandinavia for his own investigations . In order to study the different types of Quakerism in America John Wilhelm also travelled across the Atlantic. He published his results in 1902 in his essay, ‘A study in Ecclesiastical Policy’. Also after John Wilhelm’s early death in 1905 Rufus Jones fulfilled the idea of a new history of Quakerism John and he himself had often talked about. Over the following decades he published a series ‘of the complete history of the Quaker movement from its birth to the year 1900’. And Joseph Rowntree, John’s father made a ‘generous financial provision’ to ensure that the project would be finished and become a ‘standard work broadly based upon full knowledge’ . Joseph’s second son, Seebohm, showed a comparative concern in his sociological studies that was similar to that of his father. His second work, following his famous study on poverty in York, was titled Land & Labour. Lessons from Belgium, which was published in 1910. Originally he had intended to make a survey on France, Switzerland and Belgium in order to analyse land and labour policies in Europe but then he decided to limit the scope of his study because ‘it would carry me far beyond the limits of the single volume I contemplated’ . Furthermore, forty years later at the end of his life in 1951 he published the study English Life and Leisure for which he went on a research trip to Denmark Norway, Sweden and Finland in order to acquire the research materials for a comparative chapter on life and leisure in the Scandinavian countries . Thus, both father and sons demonstrated their concern for a transnational and comparative outlook and an understanding of the world that went beyond national borders.

German roots

The Seebohm family and the Quaker colony Friedensthal in Germany Finally attention will be drawn to the foreign branch of the Rowntree family that was established through the marriage of Joseph the younger and Julia Seebohm in 1862. Julia’s father, Benjamin Seebohm (1798-1871) of Hitchin, was a Quaker of German origin who came to England at the age of seventeen and got married to Esther Wheeler (1798-1864) in 1831. The connection between the two families had existed before Joseph and Julia’s marriage and the young bridal couple had known each other since they were children. After Julia’s early death in 1863 the connection between Joseph and the Seebohm family was kept alive and in 1867 he married Antoinette Seebohm (1846-1924) who was the daughter of Benjamin’s brother, Wilhelm Seebohm (1807-1876), a wool trader from Hamburg. Joseph had met Antoinette (Tony as she was called by the family) in the house of Benjamin’s son, Friedrich Seebohm, were she stayed to improve her English. Eventually Joseph and Tony had six children, four sons and two daughters, who grew up to learn German at home. The international composition of the next generation of family members, among them John Wilhelm and Seebohm, might just be another explanation for the active interest in foreign events demonstrated by the members of the family.

On the origins of the Seebohm family

Benjamin and Wilhelm Seebohm both were born in the German Quaker colony Friedensthal (‘peace dale’) near the city of Bad Pyrmont in Westphalia, a famous spa town during the 18th and 19th centuries. Friedensthal was founded in 1792 by Johann Georg Ludwig Seebohm (1757-1835) , Benjamin and Wilhelm’s father, together with two of his brothers and a handful of pietistic brothers in mind. They had split from the Lutheran church in the late 1780s and were influenced by a group of British Quakers who came to Pyrmont in 1790 during a missionary voyage around France, Switzerland and the German states, carrying the intention to spread the word of their faith on the continent and give assistance and encouragement to those who had already heard of it. Among them was Sarah Grubb (1757-1790), the daughter of William Tuke (1732-1822) of York. In 1862 Henry Isaac Rowntree bought the chocolate-making department of Tuke & Co. from William’s grandson out of which the Rowntree chocolate business was established . One year after they had been officially tolerated by the sovereign of Pyrmont, in 1792 Ludwig Seebohm and his peers received a piece of land from Friedrich of Waldeck (1743-1812), the sovereign of Pyrmont. There, in a forest far away from any large town, they started to build a settlement in order to live out their faith freely without any disturbances.

The contract with the prince included Ludwig Seebohm’s promise to enhance manufacturing and trade in the area . The Duke of Pyrmont supported Friedensthal with land and building material. But financially the colony depended strongly on the support of foreign Friends. Seebohm, who was the only one in Friedensthal speaking English and French fluently, kept a wide range of correspondence with foreign Quakers and by 1795 the Monthly Meeting of the Friends in Friedensthal was assigned to the London Yearly Meeting, the English national Quaker meeting . Funded mainly by American and English Quakers as well the settlement developed quickly in the following decade. At the beginning there were just about a dozen settlers. But until 1798 the population of Friedensthal increased up to approximately eighty inhabitants, including farm labourers and maidservants. During the Napoleonic Wars many labourers left the settlement because of economic difficulties but there were also a few new families coming to Friedensthal and several children were born, among them Benjamin and Wilhelm Seebohm, thus keeping the population until 1814 at a consistent level of eighty people. In 1798 there were six residential buildings and five more tenements were built by 1825, all of which had several floors. All buildings in the colony were held in a plain style contrasting the late baroque architecture of the area. The streets were also paved, thus leaving the impression of an almost urban settlement. While a knife manufacturer became the economic cornerstone of Friedensthal other businesses were established, including a weaving and a spinning mill as well as a printing office and a paper mill.

The Napoleonic Wars put an end to this blooming era and the bankruptcy of the knife factory in 1817, after other manufactures had already been shut down, marked the beginning of the economic downfall of Friedensthal that should occur until the end of the 19th century. In the long run, the business projects inside the colony turned out not to play an important role in the upcoming industrial revolution in Germany. Life inside the Quaker colony was characterised by the idea of an isolated holy community that should be kept safe from the ‘outside world’ through the establishment of a ‘hedge’. In order to keep up this idea of an isolated righteous community daily life was organised according to strict moral, social and economic guidelines that were monitored by overseers for the whole community and for each family. Dissenting members of the community were supervised by special committees. One example for these regulations that stood in the tradition of radical pietism was the wearing of uniform clothing in the style of American Quaker costumes. Marriage outside of the Quaker community was strictly forbidden as were music, literature and alcohol. Furthermore Quakers were not allowed to pursue certain professions and in Friedensthal children were educated inside the community by Quaker teachers, thus leaving them with no possibility to aim for an academic career. Furthermore, most of the inhabitants didn’t see the outside world very often. At the same time there was a high level of participation inside the community. Disputes between inhabitants of the colony were generally settled by the Monthly Meeting. The ‘meeting for business’ represented the highest local authority concerning religious and financial aspects or other matters and was open to all male and female members of the community. To reach a decision during these meetings the Friends in Friedensthal relied on a procedure of consensus, not on voting.

Although the settlement was an isolated community, foreign visitors were frequent. Especially during the first few years several Friends from England and especially from America came to Friedensthal, some of them staying there for several months. These visits declined during the Napoleonic Wars, and from 1799 until 1813 there were no foreign Quakers coming to visit the colony. Thus, when in 1814 the American Quaker and missionary Stephen Grellet (1733-1855) came to Friedensthal, young Benjamin Seebohm, as he remembered in his memoirs, became highly excited about it  There were also non-Quaker visitors coming to see the Quaker colony. Generally, the Quaker colony attracted many visitors and people visiting the famous spa in Bad Pyrmont often made daily trips to Friedensthal. Ludwig Seebohm had wide spread contacts due to his wife’s aristocratic origin and welcomed important guests such as Catherine Pavlovna (1788-1819), sister of czar Alexander I. (1777-1825), and Queen Louise of Prussia (1776-1810). Around 1800 the ‘Quaker tourism’ boomed and among the ‘tourists’, coming to see the settlement, there were some illustrious individuals among them Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832).

In 1801, the new Meeting House of the community was officially opened up and a thousand guests were said to come to the devotional. The London Yearly Meeting can be held responsible for the suggestion to build a Meeting House outside the settlement and near the city of Pyrmont in order to gain more attention for their faith. The Yearly Meeting also covered the expenses for its construction. Eventually, however, the new meeting house turned out to be too successful since especially during spa seasons there were hundreds of people visiting the prayers, often interfering in the peace of the devotionals . Generally speaking Friedensthal represented the attempt to erect a Quaker colony that was to make true the idea of a holy community or a ‘city upon a hill’ on the European continent. Originally the foreign Quakers had the intention that this experiment should be followed by similar settlements all around Europe. There had been earlier Quaker communities in Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries but they had ceased to exist until the mid of the 18th century.

Ludwig Seebohm and family left the settlement for a few years and turned away from Quakerism, after internal quarrels concerning financial issues and Ludwig’s employment as the overseer of the spa of Pyrmont. Later on he returned to Friedensthal and was reintegrated into the community . Such internal quarrels among the members of the settlement, a competing Quaker settlement in the nearby city of Minden as well as the economic misfortune of the established enterprises eventually led to the downfall of Friedensthal during the 19th century. Thus, while no new members could be found to join the community, mostly because of the strict regulations inside the community, the majority of the Quakers from Friedensthal left the colony and went to America where they were integrated into the network of American Quakers. When in 1873 Benjamin Seebohm travelled to Friedensthal the last Quaker meeting in the settlement had already been held two years before. In 1893 the Meeting House was finally sold . The name ‘Friedensthal’ was later taken up by John Wilhelm Rowntree. When he established a new adult school in Scalby near York in 1904 he named the property after the birthplace of his grandfather.


One of our correspondents in Bad Pyrmont who is related to the Seebohm family wrote in June 2014:

And “yes” the early Seebohms were Quakers originating from Friedensthal (Bad Pyrmont). The branches of the family Seebohm stem from 3 brothers whose houses still can be seen in Friedensthal. They were millers and merchants and Ludwig S. was a very active Quaker and a very active businessman. We still own his bible and some books that deal with him or were written by him. I mentioned your question and letter to my sister in law in Hannover and I hope she will respond to your topic. Thomas and I were rather involved with another interesting forefather, i.e. Thomas William Mulvany, an Irishman after whom Thomas was named and it was he rather than Ludwig who kept Th. busy last year. And I was confronted with people from the Museum König here who were digging for anything I might have or know of my great grandfather who was very close to Darwin. And not too close to the church in his days.  

As you probably know Joseph Seebohm Rowntree married twice, first the daughter of Benjamin Seebohm (born 20.2.1798 at Friedensthal near Bad Pyrmont, emigrated to England perhaps because of his Quakerism and died 2.6.1871 at Hitchin) and Esther Wheeler (born 25.3.1798 at Hitchin)- Julia Elizabeth, born 6..3.1841 in Bradford, who died very young in York 18.9.1863. Four years later, the 19th Nov. 1867, J.S.R. married Emma Antoinette Seebohm, a cousin, born19.4.18 in Hamburg, died 19.11.1924 in London, daughter of Wilhelm Seebohm, a brother of Benjamin. I don´t know, if he was Quaker ,too, as two of the other two brothers Johann Carl and Samuel Georg were. Those two were the ancestors of Thomas and me. Therefore perhaps I visited in 1960/61 the last couple Seebohm Rowntree in Hitchin. They had no children as far as I remembered or they didn´t own their factory any more. I was sorry because of the chocolate then. I always wondered, why the Rowntrees took the name Seebohm with them all the time, perhaps you may find it out. Perhaps it is still of interest, that the father of these four brothers was Johann George Ludwig, born 7.6.1757 at Bad Pyrmont and died 22.3.1835 at Friedensthal nearby in one of the three houses Christel already mentioned to you.

Herzliche Grüße


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(Based on an essay was written by Christian Gütgemann, from Konstanz, Germany, during a year spent as a post-graduate student at the University of York in 2009, and while on a placement at the Rowntree Society.)

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