New life for house full of history

Bridget Morris of the Rowntree Society at the main entrance to Penn House
Bridget Morris of the Rowntree Society at the main entrance to Penn House
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A house in York which helped in the making of modern Britain is seeking a new owner. John Woodcock reports.

The other weekend there was a scene which in normal circumstances would gladden an estate agent’s heart. An austere town house with a For Sale sign in its scrap of a front garden attracted more than 2,000 callers.

The selling spiel describes a unique opportunity for the redevelopment of an important Grade 2 listed property with a long walled garden, plus an adjoining building plot with outline planning consent for two houses.

Few, if any, of the visitors were attracted by any of that, especially when the asking price is in excess of £1.5m.

What drew most of them to neo-classical Penn House was not its blackened storeys of dark grey brick, but the human story within.

It was probably their only chance to glimpse an era of York history whose consequences have been hugely significant for how this country looks today. Even in a city with a 2,000 year history this house stands out as important and worthy opf attention .

What happened here deeply changed our society and is still doing so.

This was the first purpose-built home of the Rowntrees, the Quaker dynasty famous for cocoa, chocolate, philanthropy, social reform, and a horror of celebrity status.

They would surely have shuddered at the idea that in 2011 their personal lives would be so easily accessed by the public. But Bridget Morris had devised this open event for the greater good – something which is in keeping with the Rowntree ethos.

The turn-out exceeded even her expectations. “I thought we’d get a few hundred, maybe a thousand popping-in for a look round, and everyone told me I was being over-optimistic. To get twice that number was remarkable.”

They were greeted at the porticoed doorway by her husband, who had as many questions for the visitors as they had about the house – their old boss’s house for many of those who came.

The open weekend had an obvious attraction for historians and students of architecture. But Morris also saw it as an opportunity for the Rowntree Society to broaden its knowledge of what the name has meant for successive generations. At one time the manufacture of KitKat, Smarties, Black Magic, Polos and After Eight mints, touched almost every household in York in some way.

To tap into that vast pool of work experience, “memory cards” were handed out to former employees, relatives, and anyone else with a recollection or comment, “good or bad”. The Society’s plan is to record the fullest account of the Rowntree era. It’s much more than a local tale of an enlightened employer (or overbearing paternalism as some see it).

When the Rowntrees lived here, events in Penn House helped transform individual and national life to an extraordinary and enduring degree, interspersed with personal tragedy. For all their wealth and wholesome ways, the family was not immune from disease and premature death.

In 1852, Joseph Rowntree, senior, a grocer and tea and coffee merchant, had the house built for his retirement at the corner of Bootham and St Mary’s. The west front of York Minster is a five-minute walk away and not far from that was his city centre shop, now a Pizza Hut.

In a gazebo in the house’s back garden Joseph wrote tracts on temperance, in line with his Quaker beliefs. Following his death his widow shared the property with their son Joseph, junior, whose confectionery-making empire and personal fortune created the Rowntree Trusts which to this day are synonymous with supporting progressive ideas, policies and social research.

His son Seebohm put ideas into practice At the factory he brought in enlightened methods on the shopfloor and said employers who refused to pay decent wages should be put out of business because they were bad for the national economy and humanity.

He understood men and methods and wealth creation and it was from this bedrock of experience that he launched himself as a social scientist, half a century before the term had even been invented.

Instinctively he understood that the social scientist’s greatest requirement is for data on how people live.

His standing in York opened doors for him. Other city bosses were prepared to let him see documents about what their employees were earning.

For those who were not earning, or who were on the fringes of society, he came up with another practical plan. He employed a man to make a systematic progress along huddled verminous streets down which no respectable person would want to tread.

He was asked to knock on ramshackcle doors which opened on frowsy interiors to inquire how those within lived their lives. It often revealed a desperate picture where some had not even a bed to sleep in, merely a rope to lean on.

Families which did have a breadwinner had nothing to fall back on if disaster overtook their sole earner, which it often did.

It was at the turn of the 20th century that Seebohm used Penn House as the hub for this survey into living conditions among York’s poor. It produced a unique picture of 11,560 families, or 46,754 individuals. Its conclusion, based on incontrovertible fact, was that more than 25 per cent of the city’s population did not have an income to lead a basic healthy life.

Seebohm’s book Poverty, A Study of Town Life – the first of three such studies over 50 years – inspired politicians and laid the groundwork for the welfare state.

Lloyd George, the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer and a key figure in social reform, was among those who visited him in York. They would spend time together walking round the beautiful gardens of the Homestead near the river, now a public park provided by the Rowntrees.

Lloyd George sought Seebohm’s advice on the Old Age Pensions Act and the introduction of National Insurance. The biggest scheme of all, for radical land reform, was due to have been introduced in 1916. But the country had other things to deal with and the opportunity was missed.

Socialist intellectuals also called at Penn House, and Churchill acknowledged that Seebohm’s ideas had a profound effect on his thinking.

Penn House was wired for electricity in 1901 and a telephone was installed the following year. Its relative grandeur went hand in hand with radical domestic arrangements. In this household it was the reverse of upstairs, downstairs. Their servants occupied the upper floor.

The house was gifted to the Rowntree company and in 1920 sold, for £2,000, to the Quaker-run Bootham School across the road, where 45 members of the family were educated.

During almost 90 years it accommodated hundreds of boarders in the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, and the atmosphere there now is of spartan dorms echoing to the escapades of inky-fingered schoolboys.

Under the floorboards they discovered The Chronicles of Bedroom 24, some of them in the handwriting of Alan Taylor. AJP Taylor became one of the most eminent historians of his century.

The school house was named after the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania. It may now become an hotel, or apartments. At least one inquiry has expressed interest in turning it back to a family home.

A museum has also been suggested and that would draw wider attention to a family who shunned the limelight in death as they did in life. Their simple graves are in a little-known plot. There are no statues of the Rowntrees in their city, and Joseph Rowntree declined an invitation to become Lord Mayor.

It’s not all self-denial. The Rowntree name lives on in practical ways that include another public park, a theatre, a comprehensive school, and the model village at New Earswick built for some of their thousands of workers (still without a pub). “The family wanted a product that was a substitute for alcohol. They came up with drinking chocolate, and everything followed from that,” explained Bridget Morris.

She’s executive secretary of the Rowntree Society, a relatively new charity established to explore the Rowntree lives and ensure their work and ideas aren’t forgotten now that their company has long been absorbed into Nestlé’s global empire.

As Quakers they were, like the Jews, outsiders in many respects. Business was an obvious route for them rather than the professions, their pacificism ruled out military careers, and they were largely barred from an academic life because universities like Oxford would not accept religious dissenters until the late 19th century.

“What the Rowntrees went on to achieve and do for others, through their faith, principles and far-sightedness, is an astonishing story, and Penn House was central to everything for nearly 70 years,” says Morris.

The irony is that the family didn’t make it easy for those telling the story. They were the antithesis of self-promoters. Joseph, the great chocolate manufacturer, was even reluctant to advertise his products, believing that they should speak for themselves.

Seebohm, his visionary son, recognised that, just as it was essential to promote the idea of a more caring society, you had to market a box of chocolate assortments too.

Rowntree Society Visit www.rowntreesociety.org.uk