Tessa Rowntree, 1909-1999: Caring Humanitarian and ‘Tough Girl’

The Rowntree Society works to build and share knowledge about the Rowntree family, company and Trusts. We are always excited to discover more about family members and are indebted to Richard Essberger, author of the recently published novel ‘All Shall be Well’ for this blog post about Tessa Rowntree – a compelling character who appears briefly in his book – and particularly her work with refugees just prior to the Second World War. The images in this blog post are reproduced with the kind permission of their owners. We also gratefully acknowledge contributions from Tessa’s family to this piece.

Elisabeth Harvey Rowntree – Alison, her daughter, noted: “She was always and only known as Tessa by everyone inside and outside the family. The only time she was ever addressed as Elisabeth that I am aware of was by a doctor in a hospital who read it off her chart, and she didn’t immediately recognize that he was addressing her!” – was born in York. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Arnold Stephenson Rowntree, from Thornton-le-Dale and York, Yorkshire (1872-1951), and Mary Katharine Harvey, (1876-1962). Arnold was a great grandson of the John Rowntree who had founded John Rowntree and Sons, tea and coffee merchants, which later became the confectionery business Rowntree and Co., of which Arnold was a director. He was also Chairman of the North of England Newspaper Co, a director of Westminster Press Provincial Newspapers and, for 10 years, Liberal MP for York.

Tessa attended The Mount School, York, a Quaker school, and later graduated from the London School of Economics, (LSE).

In February 1938 she, with her friend Bridget, was in Germany on a canoeing holiday down the Danube. This was soon transformed into working in Vienna with refugees fleeing from Hitler. They were caught up in the Anschluß – the German invasion of Austria. On one occasion she saw Hitler, finding herself at the far end of a square in which he was speaking. She felt his personal magnetism and, despite ‘his horrid little voice’, she could understand why a lot of people would be swayed by him.

The Friends’ Centre in Vienna was swamped with would-be refugees, many worried about people whom they had not heard from. Tessa and Bridget were asked to see if they could find them and check if they were all right.

Later, when Tessa and Bridget were walking along a street, Goebbels appeared in a car, with people calling “Vielen dank Doktor, Vielen dank…” They thought he was really gruesome.

After a month or so in Vienna she was asked by Emma Cadbury, aunt of her future husband, to go to Prague, where there was no Quaker centre. She went for a fortnight and then wrote a report, noting how the complete calm and confidence in Prague contrasted with the strained atmosphere and mutual distrust in Vienna.

She also toured German parts of Czechoslovakia, making her aware of some anti-Czech feeling. The bridges she went over were all undermined and ready to be blown up at any moment, and she saw plentiful signs of field guns and the Czech army, but her guides seemed to regard it as the army of an occupying power.

In Prague she invited her cousin Jean Rowntree to join her. They worked with Doreen Warriner, Beatrice Wellington – a Canadian – and several other girls in their late 20’s, including Mary Penman, Jean Hoare and Jean Bannister.

When Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland the German-speaking supporters of the Social Democratic Party fled in their thousands to Prague, creating an urgent need for food, warm clothes and medical assistance. Tessa visited stranded groups of refugees across the country and local Quakers and international helpers came to their aid.

Whether this story was about Tessa or Jean is unclear, but they were in several respects very much alike, and it demonstrates how they retained their sense of humour under very trying circumstances. One of them said, “I’ve just purchased a thousand men’s undergarments. Now, not many girls can say that, can they!”.

Trains were being organised by Czech military intelligence, Quakers and others to spirit away those Sudetenlanders and anti-Nazi refugees, Czechs, Austrians and Germans, whose lives were threatened by the Gestapo. David Grenfell, a Labour MP representing the party in Prague, suggested that Tessa Rowntree should take one train, saying “she looks a tough girl” (she was also one of the few who held a British passport). The trains had to travel across partially German-occupied Czechoslovakia – which was just waiting to be swallowed up – then across Poland, through the German-occupied city of Danzig, and on to the Polish port of Gdynia, on the Baltic.

From the left: Tessa, Mary Penman and Jean Rowntree, in an apartment rented by Mary for the use of Friends’ workers in 1938 to March 1939. The photo’s exact date is unknown.

Tessa accompanied at least two of these trains and, on one night train, the Polish guard locked her in the guard’s van on her own for her own safety, while the already frightened refugees were crowded into other carriages. The journeys were fraught with difficulties, Tessa and Jean learning how to bribe Polish officials with old stamps to let them go through. With one train running very late, near-panic set in among the refugees. Tessa was so thankful when, in the harbour at Gdynia, the last refugee set foot on board. She herself, as she put it in a letter, “returned to the 4,298 still trapped in Prague”.

In the last months, as war drew near to those in Prague, refugees and their helpers seemed to lead double lives, with tension and panic amongst those trapped by the Nazi invaders and the helpers feeling frustrated by their own inability to find solutions. On the very day in March 1939 that the German troops marched into Prague, Tessa finally returned to England, escorting a party of 66 children on the last Kindertransport train. They all had permission to pass through Germany to England, but some had no travel papers.

Back in England Tessa worked for the British Friends’ relief effort, co-founded the women’s section of the Friends Ambulance Unit and was involved in resettlement issues, including helping evacuate women from London’s East End to Cambridgeshire.

 Christmas greetings, 1938

She soon met John Warder Cadbury, a Quaker of Moorestown, New Jersey, who was working at the American Friends Service Committee in 37 Gordon Square, doing similar relief work among the homeless from bombings, evacuated city children and refugees. In August 1942 they married, ‘very quietly’, at the Friends Meeting House, Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire.

They continued to work for Quaker causes until, in January 1946, they secured passage on a Liberty ship across the North Atlantic to start their new life in America, briefly living with his parents in Moorestown, then at Spung Hollow, near New Lisbon, New Jersey for over 40 years. Their daughter, Alison Harvey Cadbury, was born there on 9 February 1949. For the next 20 years Tessa had a job as a librarian at the Moorestown Free Library. Her love of books and learning lasted into retirement, and in her 70’s she was a straight ‘A’ student at Burlington County College, taking whatever course interested her. She continued to do independent research in areas of interest until her death.

Tessa, with her husband Jack, were dedicated, highly knowledgeable and widely-travelled bird watchers.

Jack passed away on 13 February 1989. Ten years later, on 30 September 1999, Tessa died peacefully at home, aged 90.

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