Jean Rowntree’s Travel Diaries

The Rowntree Society is committed to providing opportunities for education and skills development, and we recently welcomed two passionate and talented interns to our team. Suzannah explored aspects of Jean Rowntree’s life, and Sacha investigated areas of Michael Rowntree’s life. Check out our Instagram and Twitter to see the campaigns. Below you can read Suzannah’s blog post to see what she found.

“My brief for the internship was to create an Instagram campaign by researching the extensive travels from Jamaica to America that Jean Rowntree took in 1920. Jean Rowntree was a fascinating woman: she helped Czech refugees escape the Sudetenland during the Second World War. In later life, she was also instrumental at the BBC and helped to develop broadcasting to assist adult education. I have enjoyed discovering more about her travels and the experiences she had at a key point in history. For example, Jean’s experience of being on set in a Hollywood film studio captures the beginning of the mainstream film industry in California that we know today.  

One of the most exciting parts of the internship was being able to go into the Borthwick Institute for Archives to read Jean Rowntree’s travel journals. I found interacting with the physical journals completely engrossing, as the descriptions of Jamaica and America were vivid and gave me further insight into Jean’s personality. Before researching the social and historical context of the time, I read through the journals and took pictures as I went along. This process worked well before planning the posts because I could go back to parts that I could research further. Once I had read the journals, I decided to centre the campaign around the Rowntree family’s love of travel, as their Quaker heritage and position in society enabled travel to be a large part of their lives.

This is a photograph of a drawing Jean did of flowers in Jamaica. I included this in the Jamaica post because of its eye-catching colours. 

Alongside reading the journals, my research consisted of using Google’s ‘My Maps’ to plot the journey Jean took. This helped to visualise the large distances covered by boat and train. Jean’s experience of travelling by boat and the large amount of time it took was a key difference to travelling today, as the modes of transport were not as quick as modern methods. For the Instagram posts, I decided to include sections of the map so viewers can see exactly where they went for each leg of their journey. Creating the map was useful when I researched The Sunset Route, a railroad that goes from New Orleans to Los Angeles, because I could make sure the map was correct by referring to old railroad maps. I particularly enjoyed researching if locations that were mentioned in the journals still existed, such as the Hotel Green (now the Castle Green) in California; it meant that I could compare any changes over time.

This is part of the Introductory post: the Google Map contains many locations mentioned in the journals. It starts from Scarborough, includes Jamaica and America, and ends in The Isle of Wight. 

One challenge I faced was selecting the content for the posts because all the entries contained unique insights into travel in the 1920s. To help me select the entries I wanted to post, I narrowed them down by location and how much of the individual entry Jean designated to a place. For example, New Orleans has a post because Jean recounted an unusual St Louis cemetery trip and included what a sexton said to them. I thought that the verbatim inclusion of what the sexton said would make the post more absorbing, and that part of history tangible. Well-explained details such as these helped me to gain a sense of Jean’s personality and opinions of the places and people she interacted with. The journal entries about America were fascinating as Jean visited it when it was becoming an established superpower and at a time of technological change. While in America, Jean visited many beautiful places, such as the Grand Canyon. I found her description to be timeless, as I visited it myself and had a very similar experience. 

After spending time on the research process, I began drafting the posts on Canva, an image and video editing programme. It was a useful software to learn how to use because it had an Instagram post template to which I uploaded the journal photos. Due to my research being guided by how many journal pages Jean allocated the locations, it enabled me to already have an idea of what to draft. I enjoyed this process very much because it gave me the opportunity to learn how to use an editing programme to design the posts. At first this was a challenge, but I feel that using this has been the best way to present Jean’s journey in an accessible way. For example, I planned to do a post on the growth of the American automobile industry compared to England in 1920. I decided against this and included it in the post about New York, where traffic continues to be a major problem.  

In my free time, I enjoy using Instagram and find that having a mixed post format is an effective method to engage people. For the campaign I created two reels, which are short videos with captions and effects. Using this format means that it is possible to have more information in one place. A particular highlight when drafting the campaign was being able to demonstrate the postcards that Jean collected alongside the relevant journal entry because the art style brought the locations to life. As a result of my research, I created ten posts that encompass the journey Jean made that use the location as the focal point to explore the historical and social context of the time. 

The opportunity to learn about Jean Rowntree and the 1920s through the journals has been a fantastic experience. The excellent guidance and assistance available to me has helped to further develop my research and teamwork skills to a point that I feel more confident in my abilities to work to a brief. Interaction with the journals makes it clear that the desire to travel is timeless. Jean travelled to Jamaica and America after the devastating Influenza pandemic following the First World War. Her desire to see a different continent that did not have the physical and mental reminders of war, perhaps is similar to our post-Covid world and the current travel boom. Innovation, whilst respecting tradition, is a key part of The Rowntree Society, and the journals’ self-reflective nature demonstrates this.


LROW/15/7- Picture of flowers in Jamaica

LROW/15/7- Picture of the Google ‘My Map’ of Jean’s journey

Photos reproduced with permission from The Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Support Us

Our work is enabled by grant funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. If you would like to make a financial donation to further support our work, it is easy to pay online (with or without Gift Aid) by clicking the link below. You can get in touch with us about other ways of giving via