Quick Fact Rowntree A-Z

Sarah (née Stephenson) Rowntree

Sarah Rowntree, née Stephenson, was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1807, the youngest child of Quaker parents, Isaac and Hannah Stephenson.  Her father, a Quaker minister, moved to Manchester but died unexpectedly in 1828. Three years later she met Joseph Rowntree, and in April 1831 he wrote to declare his feelings for her. The marriage took place in 1832 at the newly built Meeting House in Manchester.  They spent just over a week in the Lake District before travelling to York, where Sarah took up residence in her new home on Pavement. Whilst her husband worked in the grocer’s shop during the day, she was no less busy organising the preparation of the complicated staggered meals provided throughout the day to both the family and the shop assistants. She became involved in the affairs of the shop, helping with the accounts and advising her husband. Besides this, she also found time for religious worship, visiting the poor, serving on the managing committees of both schools and the York Penitentiary.

Children

The eldest child, John Stephenson, was born in 1834, followed in 1836 by Joseph, and Henry Isaac in 1838, Hannah Elizabeth in 1840, and finally Sarah Jane (Sally), in 1843. She died of whooping cough, aged five years. The children were educated at home by a governess until 1845, when, following the family’s move from Pavement to a more spacious house on Blossom Street, John, then aged eleven, started to attend the Friends’ School in Lawrence Street as a day-boarder.

According to a contemporary account the children were give a free reign at home, and there are accounts of them swinging on banisters, and conducting chemical experiments. Their parents encouraged this interest in natural history, although Sarah was once forced to dispose of the corpse of a lark which her sons had hung in the roof as part of an anatomy experiment. They had hoped that time would reduce the body to a skeleton, but in fact it only served to produce an unpleasant smell. Later in life the younger Joseph would recall the happiness of his childhood and his excellent relationship with his parents.

Sarah and Joseph’s first child, John Stephenson Rowntree, was born in 1834. He was followed in 1836 by Joseph Rowntree, who would later found the Rowntree factory in York, then Henry Isaac in 1838, Hannah Elizabeth in 1840, and finally Sarah Jane, better known as Sally, in 1843. The children were all educated at home by a governess until 1845, when, following the family’s move from Pavement to a more spacious house on Blossom Street, John, then aged eleven, started to attend the Friends’ School in Lawrence Street as a day-boarder. Before they started school, the Rowntrees were reputed to be very wild children; their parents allowed them free rein to climb trees, swing on banisters, and conduct chemical experiments. They also engaged in more sedate activities such as collecting shells and butterflies. Their parents encouraged this interest in natural history, although Sarah may have had cause to regret this when she was forced to dispose of the corpse of a lark which her sons had hung in the roof as part of an anatomy experiment. They had hoped that time would reduce the body to a skeleton, but in fact it only served to produce a very unpleasant smell. However, most of the time the Rowntrees encouraged their children’s boisterous activities. Sarah Rowntree was a calm woman who rarely raised her voice in anger and was eager that her children should enjoy themselves; she even took drawing lessons as a young mother so that she might be able to amuse them better. Later in life the younger Joseph would recall the happiness of his childhood and his excellent relationship with his parents.

In 1847, however, the Rowntrees’ happy home was visited by tragedy. Their youngest child, Sally died of whooping cough on the 19th of December. She was only five and a half years old, a sweet, intelligent and affectionate child whom her parents loved dearly. Sarah and Joseph were stricken by her death, but they took comfort in their belief that they would be reunited with their daughter in heaven. Sarah’s faith was to be a great source of solace to her during the bereavements she suffered during her life. Her mother, Hannah Stephenson, passed away in 1852. Sarah went to Manchester and nursed her mother for what turned out to be the last week of her life; afterwards, she herself fell ill, almost certainly a result of the distress she had endured. Her brother, Isaac Stephenson, also died during the winter of that same year. Illness was much more common then than it is today, and unexpected death more frequent; but this did not make it any less upsetting. Sarah herself was too ill to attend the marriage of her oldest son, John Stephenson Rowntree, in August 1858, although she recovered subsequently.

Despite these bereavements Sarah did enjoy many happy moments during this time in her life. In the summer of 1856 she and her husband, along with two of their children, went on holiday to Bangor for several weeks, visiting many other parts of Wales from there. Her letters also record family holidays to the seaside at Scarborough and Filey, and trips to London on Quaker business where they made time for sightseeing. During her middle years she also became very active within the Society of Friends. She was sanctioned to speak as a minister in 1856, and her speeches were said to be short but full of feeling. She would always pray before speaking that her words would not be found dull and uninteresting. She also began to hold Bible classes for young women at the York Meeting in the hope that they might further their understanding of religion.

Middle Years

During her middle years she also became very active within the Society of Friends. She was sanctioned to speak as a minister in 1856, and her speeches were said to be short but full of feeling. She also began to hold Bible classes for young women at the York Meeting. In 1859, her husband Joseph fell ill and died.

Sarah’s memorandum book reveals a profound sorrow and a deep love for her husband, but also records Joseph’s acceptance of death and the comfort they both took from reading the Bible together. Though she outlived Joseph by nearly thirty years, she never remarried. On the twenty-seventh anniversary of their marriage, just six months before Joseph’s death, Sarah wrote of her gratitude for the blessing of having ‘such a partner, through so large a portion of my life, strengthening me in all that is good, and contributing to my happiness in every way’. Towards the end of her life she grew physically very ill, but remained mentally as bright as she had ever been, and maintained her faith to the last. She died on New Year’s Day of 1888.

In 1859, she was to rely on her faith as a source of strength more than ever before, when her husband Joseph fell seriously ill. He went through a steady decline in health from August of that year until November 4th, when he finally passed away in the early hours of the morning. Sarah, their daughter Hannah, and his cousin Rachel, who had all helped to nurse him through his illness, were by his bedside for his last moments. Sarah’s memorandum book reveals a profound sorrow and a deep love for her husband, but also records Joseph’s acceptance of death and the comfort they both took from reading the Bible together. Although outwardly Sarah seemed a calm and collected woman, her husband’s death precipitated a great decrease in health from the shock. She was so distressed that for a time she feared she might lose her reason. Though she outlived Joseph by nearly thirty years, she never remarried. Their letters to one another during their marriage reveal the couple’s conviction that they were perfect for one another, sharing the same beliefs and values on all matters. On the twenty-seventh anniversary of their marriage, just six months before Joseph’s death, Sarah wrote of her gratitude for the blessing of having ‘such a partner, through so large a portion of my life, strengthening me in all that is good, and contributing to my happiness in every way’.

Sarah’s second son, Joseph Rowntree the younger, married in 1862, and he and his wife Julia moved in to the Rowntree family home. By then they had moved to a house on the corner of Bootham and St Mary’s, which was divided in two but with connecting doors. The young couple lived in one part of the house, and Sarah lived in the other with her two younger children, Hannah and Henry Isaac. The arrangement worked very well, partly since Sarah had the discretion not to intrude upon the newlyweds; they ate one meal all together on Sundays but otherwise she let them have their own space. Following Julia’s death and Joseph’s subsequent remarriage, he and his second wife Antoinette also lived in the house with Sarah and Henry, though Hannah, by this point, was married and had left the family home. When her grandchildren were born Sarah took great pleasure in their company, finding their presence refreshing. However, during her later years of life when all her children had moved away, she did not wish to have a companion living with her until she grew too ill to manage on her own; she did not wish to be a burden. She wrote that in youth she had always feared being lonely in old age, but that she now realised she could never feel lonely when she had her faith and the sense that her Saviour was always with her. In any case, though she lived alone she was not lacking in visitors. She was an extraordinarily sympathetic woman who gave excellent advice, and so friends did not hesitate to seek her out. Sometimes she was made so many offers of visits that she did not have time to receive them all.

 

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