Seebohm Rowntree and Poverty

Seebohm Rowntree is most famous for making a study of poverty in York.  He published his findings in 1901.  They influenced many people to change their ideas about why people were poor and what should be done to help them, including the Liberal government of 1905-1915.  He was the first to coin the term ‘the poverty line’ and some people think that without Seebohm Rowntree we would not have the NHS today.

Seebohm Rowntree lived in York and was the son of Joseph Rowntree who owned a large chocolate factory in the city.  The Rowntree family had a big impact on York.  Seebohm worked for the family firm all his life and was chairman of the company from1923 until 1941.  He wrote books on business management, including ‘The Human Factor in Business’ in 1921.  It was his initiative that led to Rowntree’s being the first British company to employ a full-time industrial psychologist, who worked to improve efficiency among workers, but also to improve marketing.

Seebohm Rowntree was a Quaker.  The Quakers (known also as The Society of Friends) are from the Christian tradition, worship in silence and try to work in the world in a way which reflects their experience of God.  The Rowntree family was Quaker and Seebohm went to a Quaker School.  His Quaker beliefs influenced his life and work.  For example, he wanted to help the poor and, like many Quakers, he was opposed to Britain fighting in World War One.  He was also very concerned about the problems which alcohol caused for individuals, families and society.


Evidence from his school work shows that Seebohm Rowntree had keen observational skills and was interested in practical research.  By 1895 he had also developed a keen interest in statistics and he resolved to discover if the poorer citizens of York were in a situation comparable to those in London.

During the years 1897 and 1898 he led a team of researchers in a lengthy survey of the poorer districts of the city and in 1901 the results, with commentary, were collated and published as  Poverty: a Study of Town Life.  This was the work that has made him most famous and regarded as one of the founders of empirical sociology.

In the early years of the 20th century, the rising Liberal Party and concern over National Efficiency, meant that these detailed surveys commanded much attention.  Poverty was now seen by more people of influence to be an issue demanding nationwide attention to alleviate it and not something which was mainly due to the weaker morals of the working classes.   Seebohm Rowntree became a friend and adviser to Lloyd George from 1907 on a variety of areas of public policy, including the Old Age Pensions Act (1908) and the National Insurance Act (1911).

He wrote his ideas down in The Human Needs of Labour (1918, revised 1937) and The Human Factor in Business (1921).  They address the relationship between the needs of the employer and the employee and were still required reading for new graduate managers joining the company in the 1960s.  The former focused upon good practice in the areas of wages, working hours, working conditions, and employees’ welfare and status.  Both of the books added to his influence over national level policy.  A natural supporter of mediation, he acted to try to bring opposite sides together in major industrial disputes, for example, the railway strike of 1919.

In 1936, Seebohm Rowntree undertook another survey of York and in 1941 he published Poverty and Progress.  He recognised that while progress had been made, the combating of poverty still required legislation, but was optimistic that this could be achieved.  He worked with Beveridge and helped to pioneer family allowances through a voluntary scheme at Rowntree’s from 1940.  Beveridge was very interested in the new survey and Seebohm Rowntree’s ideas shaped Beveridge’s social policy thinking at this time.

He and his assistants studied in detail the lives of over 46 000 York people, over two-thirds of the population.  Anyone who could afford to employ a domestic servant was not included in the survey.  In 1899 the results of the survey were published in ‘Poverty; a Study in Town Life.’  The results shocked the nation.

 Rowntree found that over 20 000 people in York were living in a state of poverty.  That is, almost 28% did not have enough food, fuel and clothing to keep them in good health.  Since this was almost half of York’s entire working-class population, there could be no question that London was an exceptional case, or that there was not still a huge problem of poverty in Britain.

Of those in poverty in York, about a third did not have enough money coming in each week to live a normal, healthy life even if they spent every penny wisely (Rowntree called this ‘primary poverty’).  Traditional Victorian ‘remedies’ like thrift were of no use to these people.  You could not be expected to save money when you did not have enough for basic essentials.

Rowntree’s reports helped to bring about the Liberal reforms of 1906-1912.  These included the provision of free school meals, sickness and unemployment insurance for working men and the first state pensions.

In the UK today we measure relative, rather than, absolute poverty.  This defines people as poor if they lack the resources to afford what is generally considered to be an acceptable standard of living and a reasonable style of life.

Summary of key points

•   Rowntree’s survey shocked the nation by showing that even in a small city like York, 28% of people lived in poverty.

  No one could claim that it was poor people’s fault that they were poor.

  Rowntree’s survey persuaded governments to help the poor at the start of the 20th century, and changed attitudes to poverty forever.