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Seebohm Rowntree

Seebohm Rowntree
Born (1871-07-07)7 July 1871
York, England
Died 7 October 1954(1954-10-07) (aged 83)
Occupation Industrialist, sociological researcher and writer
Nationality English
Period 1901–1954

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, CH (7 July 1871 – 7 October 1954) was an English sociological researcher, social reformer and industrialist.


  • Life 1
  • Works 2
    • First York study (1899) 2.1
    • Second York study (1935) 2.2
    • Third York study (1951) 2.3
    • Further writings 2.4
  • Influence 3
    • Liberal reforms 3.1
    • Labour Party 3.2
  • Industrialist and philanthropist 4
  • See also 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Seebohm Rowntree was born in York, the second son of the Quaker Joseph Rowntree, who had been a master grocer but was becoming a successful cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, and Emma Antoinette Rowntree. He was educated first privately and then from the age of 10 at Bootham School.[1][2] Rowntree studied chemistry at Owen's College, Manchester for five terms before joining the family firm in 1889, where he laid the foundations of the firm's first chemistry department.[3] He became a director in 1897 when the firm became a limited liability company and was the chairman from 1923 to 1941.

In 1897 he married Lydia Potter (1868/9–1944), daughter of Edwin Potter, an engineer; they had four sons and one daughter. After his wife died, he lived in a wing of Disraeli's old house, Hughenden Manor, where he died after a heart attack.[4]


First York study (1899)

Poverty in towns, slum dwellers in Dublin, Ireland circa 1901.

Rowntree investigated poverty in York, inspired by the work of his father Joseph Rowntree and the work of Charles Booth in London. He carried out a comprehensive survey into the living conditions of the poor in York during which investigators visited every working class home. This amounted to the detailed study of 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals.[5] The results of this study were published in 1901 in his book Poverty, A Study of Town Life.

In Rowntree's work, he surveyed rich families in York and drew a poverty line in terms of a minimum weekly sum of money "necessary to enable families... to secure the necessaries of a healthy life" (quoted in Coates and Silburn, 1970). The money needed for this subsistence level of existence covered fuel and light, rent, food, clothing, and household and personal items, adjusted according to family size. He determined this level using scientific methods which hadn't been applied to the study of poverty before. For example he consulted leading nutritionists of the period to discover the minimum calorific intake and nutritional balance necessary before people got ill or lost weight. He then surveyed the prices of food in York to discover what the cheapest prices in the area for the food needed for this minimum diet were and used this information to set his poverty line.

According to this measure, 27.84 percent of the total population of York lived below the poverty line.[6] This result corresponded with that from Charles Booth's study of poverty in London and so challenged the view, commonly held at the time, that abject poverty was a problem particular to London and was not widespread in the rest of Britain.

He placed those below his poverty line into two groups depending on the reason for their poverty. Those in primary poverty did not have enough income to meet the expenditure necessary for their basic needs. Those classed as in secondary poverty had high enough income to meet basic needs but this money was being spent elsewhere so they were unable to then afford the necessities of life.[7]

In analysing the results of the investigation he found that people at certain stages of life, for example in old age and early childhood, were more likely to be in abject poverty, living below the poverty line, than at other stages of life. From this he formulated the idea of the poverty cycle[8] in which some people moved in and out of absolute poverty during their lives.

Rowntree's argument that poverty was the result of low wages went against the traditionally held view that the poor were responsible for their own plight.[9]

Second York study (1935)

Rowntree conducted a further study of poverty in York in 1936 under the title Poverty and Progress. This was based largely on a similar research method as his earlier study and found absolute poverty among the working class in York had decreased by 50% since his first study.[10] However as he changed his definition of the poverty line, and so the measure of absolute poverty, from his earlier study this is not a direct comparison. In this study he included allowances for some items which were not strictly necessary for survival, these included newspapers, books, radios, beer, tobacco, holidays, and presents. His results showed that the causes of poverty had changed considerably in a few decades. In the 1890s, the major reason for primary poverty was low wages, 52%, whereas in the 1930s unemployment accounted for 44.53% and low wages only 10%.[11]

Despite the inclusion of the extra items, he found that the percentage of his sample population in poverty had dropped to 18 per cent in 1936 and 1.5 per cent in 1950. Rowntree helped many, as the poverty became lower, and more people became wealthy, due to jobs.

Third York study (1951)

Rowntree published a third study of York's poverty in 1951 under the title Poverty and the Welfare State which was produced in collaboration with his research assistant Commander G. R. Lavers. Unlike his other studies of York a sampling technique was used rather than a comprehensive survey.[12]

By the 1950s, it appeared that absolute poverty was a minor problem although pockets did remain, for example among the elderly, but it was believed that increased welfare benefits would soon eradicate this lingering poverty. The conquest of poverty was put down to an expanding economy as the 1950s were the years of the 'affluent society', to government policies of full employment, and to the success of the welfare state. It was widely believed that the operation of the welfare state had redistributed wealth from rich to poor and significantly raised working class living standards.

Further writings

David Lloyd George urged Rowntree to write on rural living conditions in Britain: The Land (1913) and How the Labourer Lives (1913) looked at the living conditions of farming families. Rowntree argued that an increase in landholdings would make agriculture more productive.

His work The Human Needs of Labour argued for family allowances and a national minimum wage, and in The Human Factor in Business, Rowntree argued that business owners should adopt more democratic practices like those at his own factory rather than more autocratic leadership styles.


Liberal reforms

Rowntree was a supporter of the Liberal reforms passed by the Liberals when in power. In June 1936 he was elected to serve on the Liberal Party Council.[13]

Labour Party

Poverty and Progress impacted on the policies of the post-war Labour Government and Poverty and the Welfare State was used in a 1951 Labour party election manifesto headed Ending Poverty although this was without his knowledge.[14]

Industrialist and philanthropist

Seebohm and the Rowntree's firm broke new ground in terms of industrial relations, welfare and management. Lyndall Urwick describes him as "the British management movement's greatest pioneer" in his book Golden Book of Management.[15] His religion impacted on his business practices and he believed that the existence of companies which paid low wages was bad for the "nation's economy and humanity". With his father, Joseph Rowntree, a number of employee benefits were implemented including wage increases, an eight-hour day and a pension scheme. In 1904 a doctor was employed to offer free advice to all employees and this was followed a short time later by the creation of a dental department with a resident dentist.

Seebohm oversaw the formation of an industrial psychology department in 1922 which pioneered the use of psychological recruitment tests in British industry. Employing psychologist Victor Moorrees[16] who developed a new test, the form board selection test, to ascertain how well prospective employees would be able to fit chocolates into their box.[17] He was also heavily involved in the National Institute of Industrial Psychology serving on its executive committee from its foundation in 1921, as chairman from 1940–47, until his resignation in 1949.[18]

In 1947 when the British Institute of Management was created he became an Honorary Founder Member and in 1952 the first English person to become an Honorary Fellow of the Institute.[19]

See also


  • Poverty, A Study of Town Life (1901)
  • Land and Labour, Lessons from Belgium (1910)
  • Unemployment, A Social Study by Rowntree and Bruno Lasker (1911)
  • The Land (1913)
  • How the Labourer Lives, A Study of the Rural Labour Problem by Rowntree and May Kendall (1913)
  • How far it is possible to provide Satisfactory Houses for the Working Classes at rents which they can afford to pay, Warburton lecture, 1914
  • The Human Needs of Labou] (1918)
  • The Human Factor in Business (1921)
  • The responsibility of Women Workers for Dependents by Rowntree and Frank Stuart (1921)
  • Industrial Unrest, A way Out (1922)
  • Poverty and Progress (1941)
  • Poverty and the Welfare State by Rowntree and G. R. Lavers (1951)
  • English Life and Leisure: A Social Study by Rowntree and G. R. Lavers (1951)


  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  2. ^ Bootham School Register. York, England: BOSA. 2011. 
  3. ^ Burg, Judith. A Guide to the Rowntree and Mackintosh Company Archives, 1862-1969. p. 81. 
  4. ^ "Rowntree, (Benjamin) Seebohm". Dictionary of National Biography. (subscription required (help)). 
  5. ^ Briggs, Asa, Social Thought and Social Action, page 25.
  6. ^ Rowntree, B S: "Poverty: A Study in Town Life", page 298. Macmillian and CO., 1901
  7. ^ Rowntree, B S: "Poverty: A Study in Town Life", pages 295–296. Macmillian and CO., 1901
  8. ^ Searle, G R: "A New England?", page 196. Oxford University Press, 2004
  9. ^ Joseph Rowntree Foundation Centenary: Poverty
  10. ^ Briggs, Asa: Social Thought and Social Action, page 284.
  11. ^ Briggs, Asa: "A Study of the Work of Seebohm Rowntree: 1871–1954", page 284. Longmans, 1961
  12. ^ Briggs, Asa: Social Thought and Social Action, pages 294 and 322.
  13. ^ The Liberal Magazine, 1936
  14. ^ Briggs, Asa: Social Thought and Social Action, page 322.
  15. ^ cited in Briggs, Asa: Social Thought and Social Action, page 86.
  16. ^ Making the Modern World – Studying work
  17. ^ Bunn G: "New Scientist", 174 (2345) 1 June 2002, p.50-1
  18. ^ cited in Briggs, Asa: Social Thought and Social Action, page 231.
  19. ^ Briggs, Asa: Social Thought and Social Action, page 231.

External links

  • Spartacus page on Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree
  • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • University of Glasgow, Extracts from B. Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life
  • The Rowntree Society
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