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Julia Seebohm Rowntree

Julia was born in 1841 to Benjamin Seebohm and Esther Seebohm (née Wheeler). Esther was from Hitchin, near Luton, and Bernard was from Germany. Julia was brought up as a Quaker, but whilst Esther was from an old Quaker family, Bernard was a more recent convert. Nonetheless he was an important figure in the Quaker community at the time, and travelled a lot doing religious work. He was frequently absent from the family home on these journeys, sometimes for months or even a whole year at a time. It is possible that his work in business may have suffered as a result. He worked exporting wool from Bradford, where the family lived, to his brothers in Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Friedensthal in Germany. However he was not a very successful businessman; his family were left upon one occasion without any income. He retired early and instead devoted his time to editing the Quaker Annual Monitor and the Lives written of prominent figures in the community, from which he made a modest living.

Julia was the youngest child of the family; she had two older brothers, Frederic and Henry. Frederic grew up to become a banker and much of his spare time was spent writing on economic history. Henry went into iron and steel, but he too had a side interest, in naturalism. When Julia was a girl the Rowntrees and the Seebohms were family friends. Julia’s brothers went to Bootham School in York at the same time as Joseph Rowntree. Julia herself, who was five years Joseph’s junior, went to the Castlegate School in York and was often invited to visit the Rowntrees’ home. She was always weak and prone to illness, and her mother asked Sarah Rowntree, Joseph’s mother, to keep an eye on her health. As well as knowing her brothers, Joseph saw her in the York Meeting. However, Julia and Joseph’s courtship did not begin until after she had left school and Joseph had left home in order to work as an apprentice at a grocer’s shop in London. In the spring of 1857, Joseph and Julia met in Hitchin at the home of Julia’s brother Frederic. During the weekend they spent there, away from parental supervision, Julia and Joseph first began to fall in love.

Theirs was a lengthy courtship, during which they did their best to keep their feelings hidden from their families, more out of a desire for privacy than from a fear of objection, since the Seebohms and the Rowntrees were friends. They did their best to meet as regularly as possible, although this involved quite a lot of travel on Joseph’s part as he had to go to Bradford from York. Julia did also come to the York Quarterly Meetings, but with both of their families there it was difficult for them to steal some time alone. Joseph’s father, Joseph Rowntree Senior, died in November of 1859, and thereafter Joseph was kept very busy helping to look after the family’s affairs. However, seeing Julia must have been a solace to him after the tragic loss he had suffered. In 1861 the Seebohms moved to Luton, where their younger son Henry was living, throwing another obstacle in the way of Julia and Joseph’s courtship. However, it was during the winter at the end of 1861 that Julia and Joseph finally became officially engaged and made their families aware of their feelings for one another.

They were married eight months later, on August 15th of 1862, in the Friends’ Meeting House in Hitchin. Esther Seebohm wrote in her memorandum book:

Julia left the parental home with her best-beloved J.R… Her little bark is not laden with silver or gold but richly freighted with the love and kindness of her friends. She goes out possessed of a husband worthy of her, and into the bosom of a dear Christian family.

After their wedding, Julia and Joseph came to live in Joseph’s family home Penn (Top) House on the corner of Bootham and St Mary’s with his mother Sarah. The house was divided in two and the young couple had a good part of it to themselves, although there were connecting doors between the two sections of the building. However, Joseph’s mother did her best to give the newlyweds some privacy; they usually ate a meal with her just once a week, on Sundays. Joseph worked in the grocery shop in Pavement, returning only in the evenings and leaving Julia with the house to herself during the day. Her health was still poor and so she had two maids to assist her with domestic chores. However, she found ways to occupy herself. Many of her old friends from school still lived in York and would come to visit her. She also spent a lot of time with Hannah Rowntree, Joseph’s sister; the two women would walk in the garden together, at the behest of Joseph, who hoped the fresh air would be good for his wife’s health.

Their daughter was born on May 30th 1863. They named her Julia Seebohm Rowntree after her mother, although she was better known as ‘Lilley’. Julia was very unwell after the birth and in August she went away on holiday to Scarborough. The break seemed to help her to recover her health, but it then took a sharp decline after her return to York at the end of the month. Her illness was so serious that Joseph sent for her mother, who arrived on September 4th. Esther wrote to her husband, who was in Germany visiting relations, telling him of the threat to Julia’s life, but he merely replied advising her to trust in her religious beliefs. After further urging he did eventually decide to return. However, he arrived in York just a few hours after his daughter’s death. Julia died on the 21st of September of a ‘congestion of the brain’, possibly what we would now call meningitis. She left behind her heartbroken husband and a daughter of only three months old.

Sadly, Julia and Joseph’s daughter Lilley did not survive to adulthood. She died of scarlet fever in the spring of 1869, barely six years old. By then Joseph had remarried, and he went on to have many more children with his second wife. However, with the loss of his daughter, whom he adored, the last trace of the happy little family he had been part of for just a few short months was gone. But he never forgot his beloved first wife and daughter. He remained closely connected to the Seebohms – in fact his second wife was Julia’s first cousin – and he wrote to his mother-in-law Esther of his conviction that he would meet Julia again in heaven.

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