A Quick Fact A-Z

Top (Penn) House

This building was in Rowntree hands for nearly 70 years. It was known as 38 St Mary’s and 68 Bootham, also as ‘Top House’ by the Rowntree family, because of its position at the junction of both roads.

Joseph Rowntree (Senior) bought land from the London and Liverpool Railway, and had the house built in the early 1850s for himself and Sarah Rowntree in 1852.  The architect is unknown. He moved there with his wife Sarah and three teenage sons, John StephensonJoseph, and Henry Isaac, and their younger sister Hannah.  JR Senior died in 1859; Sarah remained there but the house was divided to enable other family members to live there with separate quarters. Sarah died in 1888 and Joseph Junior bought it; he allowed other family members to live there at various points. He moved to Clifton Lodge in 1905; but it appears that Seebohm R used the house as an office. (In Seebohm’s dubious relations with the rogue researcher Trebbitsch-Lincoln, book materials were sent controversially to this address in the diplomatic bag from Paris c. 1909.) In 1920, JR donated it to Bootham School (see minutes):

At this first meeting of the committee since Joseph Rowntree’s retirement after so many years of valuable service it is reported that he desires to place the house 38 St Marys at the disposal of the school in order that it may be used as a master’s house or for such other purposes connected with the school as the committee may think desirable. The committee wish to express to Joseph Rowntree their cordial thanks for this generous expression of his continued interest in the school.

It is reported that this house was formally vested in Rowntree & Co. Ltd. And that for technical reasons it is necessary for that company to receive a consideration for the conveyance of the house but the company does not wish to make any profit on the transaction and it has therefore voted a subscription of ₤2000 to the school with a view to such amount being paid as the consideration for the conveyance of the house. Resolved that such subscription be accepted and that the sum of ₤2000 be paid to the company as the consideration for the conveyance to the school of the house 38 St Marys and of all rights of the company against the military in respect of dilapidations.

Dividing the house

When Joseph died in 1859, Sarah had the building altered so that her son Joseph with his new wife, Julia Seebohm, could set up their own home. The entrance on Bootham was probably added at this time, with an infill of the narrow space between it and the house next door, and a staircase was added. This alteration accounts for the deep rectangular shape and enormous size of the present day building. When Julia died in 1863, Joseph’s sister Hannah moved from the front to the back part of the house to look after the newborn baby Julia (who later died death of scarlet fever in May 1869 at the age of 6). In the same year Hannah married George Gillett and moved to London in the same year that Joseph remarried.

Home to many households

Upon his mother’s death in 1888 Joseph took up the option in his mother’s will of buying the entire house for £2,600. He lived there with 7 servants until his move to Clifton Lodge in 1905. While it was in Rowntree ownership this vast house became the home of many ‘households’ of the Rowntree family, often temporarily, until their families grew and they moved into separate homes, many of them down nearby St Mary’s. When he retired from the governing committee of Bootham School, Joseph stated his wish to give the property to the school. During the 20th century the school was home to perhaps 2000 boy boarders, among them the historian AJP Taylor.

A historic building in York

Even if it is not an architectural landmark in York, this is nonetheless a historic building. From this address, Joseph Rowntree signed his famous Memorandum in 1904, in which he assigned his personal wealth to the three Trusts he founded in his name. Between 1905 and 1920, Joseph’s son, Seebohm, used the top floor of the house as his private office, and it was here that he conducted his research on Poverty and Unemployment in York.

He had teams of researchers at his disposal and may have used the house as a point of co-ordination. Correspondence addressed to ‘St Mary’s’, for example, came from one of his researchers (a man named Trebitsch-Lincoln, of great research skills but of dubious reputation in other respects) in a diplomatic bag from Paris in 1909. Rowntree & Co sold Top House to Bootham School for £2,000 for use as accommodation or other suitable purpose as the school saw fit. It afterwards became known as ‘Penn House’, after the Quaker founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn. It is now in private hands.

Penn House, part of Bootham School

Since 1920, the building has had varied use (apart from involuntary military use!!), as a sanitorium and staff lodgings, and as a boys’ boarding house. It is still two houses with through corridors, and with cellars, a garden, and very large reception and bedrooms. It is in need of enormous upgrading, in accordance with modern requirements, and mainly because of the expenditure required, it has been deemed to be surplus to requirements for the school today.

Penn was the first Quaker name applied to a building in Bootham School. In the 1970s the other boarding houses were prosaically “Junior House”, for the first two years, “Penn House” (for Upper Schoolroom); “Landings” (top and bottom) in 51; “53/59”; and over the road “54”. 38 St.Mary’s” was probably a bit of a mouthful to pronounce, and “Rowntree”, which would have been most suitable, was precluded because it was already the name of one of the social houses in School. [With thanks to David Robinson]

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