Ancestry UK

Joseph Rowntree of Leeds — Workhouse Improvement Campaigner

The name Joseph Rowntree will be familiar to many people as the York-based Quaker, philanthropist, social reformer and chocolate-maker. However, this page concerns a different Joseph Rowntree, though also a Yorkshire Quaker, and also involved in social improvement. This Joseph Rowntree was born in Pickering in 1808, died in Durham in 1880, then was interred in the burial ground of the Friends' Meeting House at Pickering. In his later life, he lived in Leeds in a succession of lodging houses . He never married and variously gave his occupation as an agent for fire bricks and a corn miller/dealer.

In the late 1840s, during the Irish famine, Rowntree spent four months in Ireland and visited many workhouse, making reports on them to the Irish Poor Law Board. In the 1850s and 1860s, he served for some years on the Board of Directors of the The Retreat, a Quaker institution at York for “persons afflicted with disorders of the mind.”

Between about 1859 and 1868, Joseph Rowntree of Leeds (as he then often identified himself) conducted a one-man crusade to improve the running of workhouses and the conditions provided for their inmates. At the same period, he was petitioning for similar enhancements to be made in the nation's prisons and reformatories, and also became a supporter of the Shoeblacks movement.

Rowntree's campaigns included made considerable use of the letters columns of local newspapers, to which he submitted a great number of contributions, with perhaps as many as 200 eventually being published. His missives described, often at considerable length, not only the general principles he espoused but also, in many cases, linked these to the operation of particular institutions in each area. As a self-appointed 'inspector' of workhouses (though never making any pretence of being an official), Rowntree managed to gain entrance to establishments all across the country. His no-holds-barred accounts of these visits, together with his views on how each workhouse might be better run, were then included in his subsequent epistles to the local press. His stated aim was “to bring before the Guardians and rate-payers the real state of their own establishments” in the wider context of “aiding the cause of humanity and religion.”

Rowntree's site reports typically focused on matters such as each workhouse's food, its provision of bathing facilities, its ventilation and heating (especially in winter) and the adequacy of the inmates' bedding. He was particularly concerned with the educational and spiritual provision for the inmates, such as the access given to ministers (especially Dissenters) or lay visitors to preach or carry out bible readings, and the availability of large-print bibles and spectacles for the elderly. He urged that the children be given industrial training, and the adults productive work such as mat making, that would give them employable skills, as well as being financially remunerative for the institution.

Rowntree's forthright opinions and often critical reports increasingly led to boards of guardians considering him persona non grata and refusing him access to their premises. His letters, as at Haltwhistle, for example, were often followed by vigorous refutations of his findings by officials from unions who felt slighted by his criticisms. Criticism of Rowntree's activities could even come from the newspaper that was publishing his letter, as happened with his report of the Bedwellty workhouse.

Rowntree's missives to newspapers appear to have ceased in 1868, after a particularly bruising encounter with the York board of guardians, at one of whose meetings he had been allowed to attend and voice his complaints in person.

As well as the press, Rowntree corresponded directly with the Poor Law Board, drawing their attention to what he viewed as the shortcomings of various boards of guardians, and also championing the cases of individuals whom he felt had been badly dealt with.

A selection of Rowntree's workhouse reports, or extracts from them, can be viewed from the list below, arranged in order of the name of the union concerned. The first in the list, however, is a typical, generic article, outlining Rowntree's views without detailed reference to a particular workhouse.


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