- 1890-1973 (Creation)
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1.06 cubic metres
Name of creator
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, known as Seebohm, was born in York on 7 July 1871, the son of Quaker chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree and his wife Emma Antoinette Seebohm. Educated at Bootham School, York, and Owen’s College, Manchester (now the University of Manchester), he joined his father’s Cocoa Works at 18 and became a company director in 1897 when the firm was incorporated as Rowntree & Co. In the same year he married Lydia Potter, the daughter of engineer Edwin Potter and his wife Ann. The couple had five children together.
Seebohm shared his father’s view of business as a God given trust and his employees as ‘fellow workers in a great industry.’ As Labour Director from 1897, and later as Chairman of the company between 1923 and 1941, he oversaw the introduction of a number of innovative schemes aimed at improving the welfare and productivity of the workforce. Such innovations included an eight hour day, a profit sharing scheme, staff pensions, a works doctor, a supplementary unemployment benefit scheme, and a Central Works Council on which both management and workforce were fully represented.
His preoccupation with welfare at work led him to found the Industrial Welfare Society in 1918 and the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1921. He used his experience at Rowntree & Co, as well as his study of management practices in the United States, to write ‘The Human Needs of Labour’ in 1919, a practical guide to good management which argued for the introduction of a national minimum wage. In 1921 he followed this with ‘The Human Factor in Business,’ in which he advocated for the adoption of more democratic business practices. In 1922 he created a psychological department at Rowntree which brought a new scientific approach to issues like recruitment, worker engagement, and marketing. In 1947 Seebohm was made an honorary founder member of the new British Institute of Management.
His interest in industrial welfare was part of a broader interest in social reform which saw him carry out pioneering research into poverty in York. Influenced by Charles Booth’s ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ which combined statistical evidence with qualitative research to analyse the extent and causes of poverty in the city, Seebohm set out to investigate if Booth’s results were comparable to an English provincial centre like York. His research and conclusions were published in his 1901 book, ‘Poverty: a Study of Town Life,’ and showed that nearly a third of York’s population lived below the poverty line, and that all of the labouring class were subject to what he identified as the ‘life cycle of poverty.’
His study was enormously influential, challenging as it did long held assumptions about the moral causes of poverty. Seebohm conducted a second and third study of York in 1935 and 1951, tracking improvements and highlighting areas still in need of reform. In 1911 he published ‘Unemployment, a Social Study’ in collaboration with Bruno Lasker and later went on to advise Liberal Member of Parliament and later Prime Minister David Lloyd George on areas of public policy related to unemployment, pensions and national insurance, as well as rural living conditions and land reform. In this latter cause, Seebohm published ‘Land and Labour: Lessons from Belgium’ in 1910 and served on the land inquiry committee of 1912-1914. In 1928 he participated in the Liberal inquiry that produced the publication, ‘Britain’s Industrial Future’, and in 1941-1942 he was one of a number of advisors to William Beveridge whose 1942 report laid the foundations for the creation of the Welfare State.
Seebohm Rowntree retired as Chairman in 1941 and moved with his wife, Lydia, to High Wycombe where he died on 7 October 1954.
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- Rowntree family of York (Subject)