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Joseph Rowntree was born in York on 24 May 1836, the son of Quaker grocer, Joseph Rowntree, and his wife Sarah Stephenson. He was educated at Bootham School, a Quaker school which his father Joseph had helped to establish in collaboration with Samuel Tuke.
In 1852, at the age of sixteen, Joseph was apprenticed to his father, taking over the family grocery business at his father’s death in 1859. In 1862 he married Julia Eliza Seebohm, the daughter of Quaker wool merchant Benjamin Seebohm. They had one daughter together before her death the following year. In 1867 Rowntree married Emma Antoinette Seebohm, a cousin of his first wife, and they went on to have six children, including social reformer and manufacturer Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.
In 1862 Joseph’s brother, Henry Isaac Rowntree, had acquired the cocoa, chocolate and chicory business of the Tukes, another prominent Quaker family in York, and in 1869 Joseph left his successful grocery business to join his brother as partner. The business struggled initially, but in 1881 the brothers launched their own pastilles and the success of this venture allowed them to expand into adjoining premises in North Street.
Henry Isaac died in 1883, leaving Joseph the sole partner in their business. In 1887 he introduced ‘Elect’, a pure cocoa essence to rival Cadbury’s own cocoa powder which had been launched to enormous success in 1866. Cocoa Elect soon became a bestseller and in 1893 the firm also began manufacturing fruit gums. In 1897 the firm was incorporated as Rowntree & Co. Ltd.
The growth of the business allowed Rowntree to build a new factory, the Cocoa Works, on a 33 acre site on Haxby Road in York in the 1890s. He viewed his business as a God given trust and introduced a number of industrial, medical, social and educational schemes for the benefit of his employees. These included a female welfare officer, a sick benefit fund, an onsite doctor and dentist, a savings and pension scheme, paid annual leave, and access to further education.
In 1904 Rowntree used around half of his wealth to create three trusts to continue his social and charitable works; the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to support social research and adult education, the Joseph Rowntree Social Trust to support social and political activities, and the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust to build affordable working class housing. The latter went on to create the model village of New Earswick.
He was, throughout his life, a prominent campaigner for social, educational and political reform. In York he helped found the city library and was active in support of Bootham and Mount Schools, as well as The Retreat, a Quaker asylum founded by the Tukes. He was an advocate of the temperance movement and researched the link between poverty and alcohol, the results of which informed ‘The Temperance Problem and Social Reform’, co-authored with Arthur Sherwell in 1899. In 1903 and 1910 he joined forced with George Cadbury to buy and preserve several provincial Liberal newspapers.
Joseph Rowntree died at his home in Clifton, York, on 24 February 1925. The Joseph Rowntree Village Trust later founded the Joseph Rowntree Hall, later Theatre, and the Joseph Rowntree School in his memory.