The Quakers who shook up the idea of housing for the workers

THE new Fairtrade Kit Kat would have had hearty approval from Joseph Rowntree, whose company launched the much-loved snack in 1935.

It echoes the kind of values that the Quaker philanthropist held dear.

Yet the red and white wrapper no longer bears his name after Rowntrees of York was bought by Nestl in 1988, and with Cadbury now controlled by Kraft, the Quaker connection with chocolate companies is all but consigned to the past.

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But here in Yorkshire, Joseph Rowntree's legacy is far more than Kit Kats and fruit pastilles.

It lives on in bricks and mortar and the thoughtfully designed homes he built are still very much appreciated by their 21st century owners and tenants.

A Rowntree property on Rawcliffe Grove in York on sale at 425,000 has just been snapped up immediately by a cash buyer leaving another 15 would-be owners disappointed.

The enduring appeal of the house built in the 1920s is down to its clever positioning and design.

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Original plans for these properties on the Clifton estate reveal high aspirations and state that the houses should be created: "With the object of securing an unusual amount of sunnyness, cheerfulness, brightness and openness" and with "gardened expanses commanded from all the principal windows", which explains the faceless front elevation of 2 Rawcliffe Grove.

The trust also understood that the value of roadside houses was in terminal decline and the original document reveals: "The rush, dust and noise of motors means everyone wants to live away from the road".

"This property was always going to be popular. It's beautifully built with a lovely garden and the layout has been carefully thought out," says Tim Blenkin, who has just sold it and is now marketing a grander Rowntree house in Strensall.

Similar design ideas were applied on a bigger scale at Windrush, on sale at 1.1m and built in the early 1930s for a Rowntree director.

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It is full of light, with an unusually generous number of big windows to the main reception rooms and bedrooms, all overlooking the grounds.

"This more aspirational design reflects and builds upon the thinking behind the more modest social housing,"

says Tim.

There are hundreds of Rowntree homes in York. The majority are social housing and rented and most are at New Earswick – the garden village two miles from the city centre.

This was Rowntree's first venture into large-scale property development. Joseph was spurred on by his friend George Cadbury, who created Bournville and by his own son, Seebohm, who in 1901 published a study on the living conditions of the working classes in York. Entitled Poverty: a study of town life it revealed grim, dark, overcrowded and unsanitary housing.

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So using his personal fortune, he set out to provide better homes for people on low incomes and bought 150 acres of rural land.

New Earswick was designed by the planner Raymond Unwin and architect Barry Parker, proponents of the garden village movement and was for the "working people" of York, not just the chocolate factory employees.

Construction started in 1902 and the plan was to create a community with low rent homes, which would still represent a modest commercial return. This profit would be re-invested into the village.

Brian Jardine, development services manager of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust and a co-founder of the recently formed Rowntree Society, says: "His idea was that others would follow his example if he could show that good housing design was financially viable.

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"He set out to get a four and a half to five per cent return on the capital he invested, but he only got three and a half to four per cent. It wasn't as financially successful as he hoped but in terms of benefit to the community it certainly was successful and it still is."

By 1909, 110 houses were built plus four shops and four flats with plans for a village hall and a school. Every home had a living room that faced south or west, with reasonably well-proportioned rooms and gardens where occupants could grow their own vegetables.

At Joseph Rowntree's insistence each garden was planted with an apple tree and a pear tree, so tenants could enjoy fresh fruit.

"When the village celebrated its 50th anniversary, some of the properties were deemed unfit because they didn't have bathrooms and there was a choice to refurbish or replace.

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"Tenants were canvassed and wanted the existing houses retained. We do our best to keep them up to a good standard," says Mr Jardine.

"Now I'd say the only thing now lacking in those original houses is storage because when they were built people didn't have as many material possessions."

The trust carried on building and there are now 700 New Earswick houses, 180 flats and 170 bungalows with 20 per cent sold or part sold.

It has also created others in York and as far away as Scarborough.

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Innovations include the country's first continuous care community for the elderly at Hartrigg Oaks and it has grand plans to build Derwenthorpe, a 540-home development on the eastern edge of York.

The latter has attracted local opposition, but Brian Jardine says: "I think Joseph Rowntree would be pleased with the work we have done. He didn't just want to build houses. He wanted to create communities."

Like other housing associations, the trust is now hampered by financial limitations, smaller plots, and planning constraints and so it is unlikely we will ever see another visionary village like New Earswick or Bournville.

"That's not a bad thing in one way because those developments came about because of need, because the housing conditions for the working classes were so poor," says Mr Jardine. "I can't see it ever happening again now unless maybe Bill Gates decided to build something."

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For more information on the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust visit

The Rowntree Society has been set up to explore and document the life, times and history of the Rowntree family.

Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925)

Joseph Rowntree was born in 1836 into a Quaker family in York.

A grocer's son, he left the family business to run a small and struggling cocoa factory with his brother, Henry Isaac. Just as they had begun to turn the business round, Henry Isaac died. So Joseph carried on as sole proprietor.

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The factory grew fast and by 1906 it employed over 4,000 workers.

Joseph was always determined to produce top quality cocoa, chocolate and confectionery. But he was equally determined to ensure that fair wages were paid and a high level of welfare achieved for the workforce.

A lifelong Quaker, Joseph seldom spoke about his religious beliefs, but they informed his life at all levels, from his home life to his commitment to social reform to his business practice.

He was an active philanthropist, who worked to improve adult literacy and safeguard democracy and political

fair play.

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To alleviate the plight of workers living in appalling conditions, he created the New Earswick village, which has since grown along with the housing trust that bears his name.

In 1904, the 68-year-old Joseph Rowntree endowed the three Joseph Rowntree Trusts, 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.

Joseph died in 1925, aged 89, and the City of York turned out to mourn one of their great citizens.

He was buried in the Quaker graveyard beneath a simple Quaker gravestone on which you can read just his name and his date.

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