Rowntree A-Z

Joseph Rowntree (Senior) (1801-1859)

Youth in Scarborough

Grocer and tea dealer, was born in Scarborough the youngest of three sons of John Rowntree and Elizabeth (née Lotherington). He was educated at two day schools in Scarborough, his parents not being in a position to send him to the Quaker Ackworth School. By the age of 13 he was assisting his father and his brother John in the grocery business on Bland’s Cliff, which his father had established.

Move to York

He moved to York on his twenty-first birthday and set up as a grocer at 28 Pavement. He married Sarah Stephenson of Manchester. There were five children, three sons and two daughters (one of whom died in infancy). The business prospered and in 1845 the family moved to Blossom St (the right side of the house no. 26), and in 1848 to 39 Bootham. During the 1850s his two elder sons became partners in the business, while a man named Chistopher Robinson had joined it as a manager and William Hughes was in charge of the apprentices. This gave Joseph the time to channel his energies into a wide ranger of social and educational issues, which he discussed almost daily with Samuel Tuke (1784-1857).

Educational interests and social concerns

He was, from 1830 until his death, honorary secretary of the Quaker boys and girls schools in York, and he was largely responsible for their respective moves to Bootham in 1846 and The Mount in 1857. With Tuke, he was a member of the Ackworth School Committee. The death of a young master in the fever epidemic of 1828 (leaving dependents) led him not merely to ensure that the immediate need was met, but to work methodically for the establishment of a financially sound insurance scheme; this resulted in the Friends Provident Institution (1832), the introduction of whose Rules and Regulations needed to make clear to Quakers that life insurance neither implied a distrust of Providence nor was in the nature of a lottery.

His service to York was significant. Between 1821 and 1861 York’s population had grown from 21,711 to 40,433, the most substantial growth having been in the 1840s. There were problems of insanitary housing, sewage disposal, and dominating all, the River Foss was effectively a sewer draining into the Ouse, and Foss islands was a swamp.

Housing and the poor

During these years Joseph made contributions to problems of insanitary housing in York, sewage disposal, and the condition of the River Foss. In 1831 he became a member of the Improvement Commissioners and joined the City Council (alderman 1853), but he declined the mayoralty in 1858 on conscientious grounds, since as chief magistrate it could involve the administration of oaths.

In 1852 the newly created Board of Health on which he served purchased the Foss Navigation Company. His concern was to take measures to counteract repeated epidemics and poor health. He was also concerned with adequate provision for the poor. A house-to-house survey of the labouring poor, taken in 1826, had shown that a quarter of the 6-10 year olds died not go to any school, and that one-ninth of the 12-14 year olds could not read.

In 1828 Rowntree was one of those involved in the setting up of the Hope Street British School. It was this same concern for education that led him in 1848 to pioneer a First-Day school for boys of 8-16, and a further class for adults, a step which led to a considerable development of adult school work in the city.

Soup kitchen

He took the lead in establishing a soup kitchen in 1846, opened each winter. He was a great collector of hard facts and might have been a statistician of some standing. His passion for first-hand experience led him to make an extended visit to Ireland in 1850, still in the wake of the famine. He took his two teenage sons with him.

Quaker interests

Quaker concerns filled the last period of his life. Statue law provided that marriages according to Quaker usage were valid only if both parties were Quaker members. In 1856 he persuaded the Yorkshire Meeting to ask the national meeting in London to take steps to end this limitation (a proposal that was not popular in more conservative quarters). It was not until 1859 that the Yearly Meeting was prepared to ask parliament to broaden the provision and the Marriage (Society of Friends) Act 1860 provided for this change. By this date Joseph Rowntree had died, in 1859.


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.

See also Elizabeth Jackson, ‘Joseph Rowntree (1801-1859), citizen of York’ in York Historian 23, 2006, pp. 40-63.

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