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Henry Isaac Rowntree was born in York on 11 February 1838, the third and youngest son of Quaker grocer Joseph Rowntree and his wife Sarah Stephenson. He was educated at Bootham School and Grove House in Tottenham, both Quaker establishments, but did not excel academically and in 1855 he left to serve his apprenticeship in his father’s business on Pavement, York.
Joseph Rowntree died in 1859 and in 1860 Henry went to work for the Tuke & Casson tea, chocolate and cocoa business on Castlegate, the firm established by another Quaker family, the Tukes, in 1825. There, Henry became manager of the cocoa, chocolate and chicory department, and in 1862 he was able to purchase the department using a legacy left to him by his father.
‘H. I. Rowntree’ opened on the corner of Coppergate and Castlegate in July of that year and moved to new premises at Tanners Moat, close to good road, rail and river transport links, in 1864. Initially, the firm’s main product was Rock Cocoa. However Henry had only primitive methods at his disposal, and little experience of running a business, and the firm did not prosper. By 1869 he was on the verge of insolvency, having overstretched his already difficult finances with the launch of a new radical weekly newspaper for York, the ‘Yorkshire Express,’ the previous year.
In July 1869 his elder brother Joseph joined the business as partner, taking charge of the firm’s finances whilst Henry continued to oversee manufacturing. Under Joseph’s guidance, the firm’s prospects began to improve but it was not until 1881 that ‘H. I. Rowntree & Co’ had its first major success with the launch of Crystallised Gum Pastilles. As a result, the firm expanded into new buildings on North Street the following year.
As a member of a prominent York family and a business owner, Henry was active in social and political circles throughout his adult life. He was politically Liberal, serving as Chairman and later Vice President of the Micklegate Liberal Association and Chairman of the North Riding Liberal Association. In 1867-1868 he was elected as a Liberal city councillor for Micklegate Ward and in 1868 he was also appointed chairman of the new Ebor Permanent Building Society for ‘Liberals and railwaymen.’ He also served on the Local Board of Health and was a strong supporter of the temperance movement, serving as secretary to York Temperance Society and running coffee carts in the city to provide working men and women with a cheap alternative to alcohol at the end of the working day.
Like most of his family, he attended the York Meeting of the Society of Friends where he caused a degree of controversy in February 1868 by his marriage to Harriet Selina Osborn, the daughter of William Osborn, headmaster of Hope Street School, at Scarborough Registry Office. Selina (as she was known) was not a Quaker, nor had Henry informed the York Meeting of his intentions as was customary. However Selina began attending Meetings after their marriage and later applied, and was admitted to the York Meeting in May 1870. The couple had three children together; Francis born in 1868, Alice Mary in 1870, and Ethel in 1873.
Henry also taught Sunday classes at the York Meeting and at the British School in Hope Street founded by his father, often enlivening classes with singing and scientific demonstrations and proving himself to be a popular and enthusiastic organiser of day trips and other events, including magic lantern shows.
Henry Isaac Rowntree died suddenly on 2 May 1883 of peritonitis and was buried at the Quaker Burial Ground at the Retreat in York. He left his share in the business to his brothers, Joseph and John, and in 1897 the company’s name was formally changed to ‘Rowntree & Co Ltd.’