History and heritage

History and heritage

In 1904, aged 68, Joseph Rowntree endowed the the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and our sister Trusts, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, giving “about one-half of my property to [their] establishment.” He believed the way to remedy the injustices of the world was not to relieve their ill-effects, but to strike at their roots. As a Trust we continue to support people who address the root causes of conflict and injustice.  

Rowntree was born in 1836 into a Quaker family in York. A grocer’s son, he left the family business to run a cocoa factory with his brother, Henry Isaac Rowntree. When Henry Isaac Rowntree died, Rowntree carried on as sole proprietor, until he was later joined by his sons and nephews.

From its early days with twelve workers, the factory rapidly expanded and by 1906 it employed over 4,000 workers. As a Quaker, Rowntree’s religious beliefs were known to inform his commitment to social reform and aspects of his business practice. He had a reputation for ensuring that his factory workers were paid fair wages. Their welfare was always a priority. Rowntree was particularly known for his work to improve the quality of life for people living in York through the provision of affordable, decent housing and recreational facilities.

While much of the attention given to the Rowntree legacy has been on these contributions to progressive business practices in the UK, the story of how the Rowntree Company benefitted from colonial era trade has until recently been largely overlooked. Preliminary research from the Rowntree Society has identified evidence which suggests that the Rowntree Company bought cocoa and goods produced by enslaved people, as well as benefitting from the system of colonial indenture, and other forms of racial exploitation We will be supporting more detailed research about these aspects of the Rowntree legacy to develop a full and accurate understanding of our history. We will continue to share this work and our understanding of the Rowntree legacy as it develops.