Arthur Rowntree is one of the ‘Scarborough’ Rowntrees, the son of Joseph’s cousin John Rowntree (1821-1894) and his wife, Ann Webster (1828 – 1864). He was the younger brother of the architect, Fred Rowntree.
He was associated with Bootham School for much of his life, starting as a pupil there in 1872. As a schoolboy, he was most remembered for his excellence as a cricket player.
After further education in a number of institutions, in 1884, he achieved a BA from the University of London. He undertook traineeships in other Friends’ Schools, and in 1892 he became an Assistant Master at Bootham, later to become one of its most distinguished Headmasters, serving there from 1899 to 1927.
The great test for Arthur Rowntree and his generation –the First World War– brought soul-searching and stark divisions in the Society of Friends.
Before 1914, Arthur Rowntree had made public his opposition to military training in schools. Once the war began, however, he remained publicly silent on most war-related questions. He was aware that the senior boys at the school would face difficult decisions. Some would refuse to be involved in any activity that supported Allied troops, risking imprisonment and worse; others would join the Friends Ambulance Unit, endangering themselves to save injured servicemen. Just as frequently, many would decide to serve as soldiers. (The choices made by Lawrence Rowntree illumine the challenges these young men faced.)
A.J.P. Taylor – the distinguished historian and a pupil at Bootham from 1919 – said in his 1983 autobiography, A Personal History, that ‘No one ever discovered which line of action [Arthur Rowntree] approved of, or which he would have taken himself. One Sunday evening a Conscientious Objector addressed us, and the next a returned warrior. It was a remarkable exercise in Quaker flexibility.
Arthur Rowntree believed that Bootham’s pupils needed the freedom to pursue their own interests. He said, ‘It is in leisure alone that the real spontaneous self is set free; and the boy is training his attention … because he wants it … on the work he has in hand … physical activity is generally needed with these occupations…We have often found that these leisure hours involved the beginning of a boy’s habit of doing his best at something and the beginning of his experience that it is only through … labour that valuable things are produced.’
Although Arthur Rowntree’s own education had been largely based in the humanities, he realised the importance of scientific study and, after the catastrophic fire of 1899, supported the installation of generous facilities in the rebuilt school for the study of scientific subjects. His love of sport continued throughout his life, playing football for the school until he was 40 and cricket for even longer.
Arthur Rowntree married Ellen Hurndall in 1891. As a member of the Church or England, she brought a new sensibility to the life of Bootham, supporting him throughout his career. His sister wrote ‘his marriage was a happy thing for Bootham, for I have always felt that his wife’s sparkling personality … and her contact with others outside the Society of Friends … was an important contribution to the enlarging and widening interests of Bootham.’
They had two daughters, one of whom worked for Field Marshall Smuts (the Prime Minister of South Africa) and the other qualified as a doctor and practised in London.