Sarah (née Stephenson) Rowntree

Sarah Rowntree, née Stephenson, was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1807, the youngest child of Quaker parents, Isaac and Hannah Stephenson. Her parents moved from Stockton-upon-Tees to Manchester; and her father died unexpectedly in 1828. Three years later she met Joseph Rowntree, and in April 1831 he wrote to declare his feelings for her, yet had been reluctant to reveal during the period of her bereavement. The marriage took place in 1832 at the newly built Meeting House in Manchester.

A Quaker wife

Whilst her husband worked in the grocer’s shop in Pavement during the day, she was busy organising staggered meals provided throughout the day to both the Rowntree family and the apprentices. She also became involved with the accounts. Besides this, she found time for religious worship, visiting the poor, serving on the managing committees of the York Penitentiary, pursuing her own interests such as reading, and travelling both on religious business and to see friends and family.

Quaker women had more freedom to travel than most other women at the time, as well as the freedom to take a more active role within the church itself. Sarah continued to travel after her children were born, and was happy to leave them in the care of their father and a nursemaid.


The eldest child, John Stephenson, was born in 1834, followed in 1836 by Joseph, and Henry Isaac in 1838, Hannah Elizabeth in 1840, and finally Sarah Jane (Sally), in 1843. She died of whooping cough, aged five years. The children were educated at home by a governess until 1845, when, following the family’s move from Pavement to a more spacious house on Blossom Street, John, then aged eleven, started to attend the Friends’ School in Lawrence Street as a day-boarder.

According to a contemporary account the children were give a free reign at home, and there are accounts of them swinging on banisters, and conducting chemical experiments. Their parents encouraged this interest in natural history, although Sarah was once forced to dispose of the corpse of a lark which her sons had hung in the roof as part of an anatomy experiment. They had hoped that time would reduce the body to a skeleton, but in fact it only served to produce an unpleasant smell. Later in life the younger Joseph would recall the happiness of his childhood and his excellent relationship with his parents.

Middle Years

During her middle years she also became very active within the Society of Friends. She was sanctioned to speak as a minister in 1856, and her speeches were said to be short but full of feeling. She also began to hold Bible classes for young women at the York Meeting. In 1859, her husband Joseph fell ill and died.

Sarah’s memorandum book reveals a profound sorrow and a deep love for her husband, but also records Joseph’s acceptance of death and the comfort they both took from reading the Bible together. Though she outlived Joseph by nearly thirty years, she never remarried. On the twenty-seventh anniversary of their marriage, just six months before Joseph’s death, Sarah wrote of her gratitude for the blessing of having ‘such a partner, through so large a portion of my life, strengthening me in all that is good, and contributing to my happiness in every way’. She died in 1888.