Writing to Persuade

Joseph Rowntree’s 1911 speech to York City Council:


Why should I be Interested?

•  Are you a teacher of English looking for resources to teach writing for persuasion?
•  Are you a student looking to practise working with persuasive writing?
•  Are you interested in studying the impact of speeches?
•  Are you curious about the influence of the Quaker, Joseph Rowntree, on York
•  Are you interested in the long-view of social policy in Britain today?

(words in bold are explained in the glossary)

  1. In the Guildhall on 17 May 1911, Joseph Rowntree was officially made a Freeman of the City of York. An abbreviated version of his acceptance speech is the subject of this writing to persuade exercise.
  2. He was a man of great influence in York; very well-respected for who he was, as well as what he did.
  3. Joseph Rowntree established the world famous Rowntrees & Co Ltd, which produced cocoa, fruit pastilles and chocolate (including famous brands such as Kit Kat, Aero and Smarties). By 1923 it employed over 7000 people in York.
  4. Rowntree’s Quaker faith inspired him to become a model employer. That means that while setting up a very successful business, he also cared for his workforce well, giving them support and help when they needed it.
  5. Rowntree also championed social reform. He believed that working people had a right to good housing, welfare and education.
  6. He served on the boards which helped to run schools, hospitals and the library in York.
  7. Rowntree was a keen supporter of the Liberal Reforms of the early 20th century, the reform of the House of Lords to improve
  8. British democracy and of the League of Nations, set up after World War One.
  9. He supported the temperance movement which campaigned to remove the problems caused by excess alcohol consumption from society.
  10. He was so loved that over 2000 people gathered to remember him at the Cocoa Works factory when he died.
  11. The trusts he set up are still known nationally and still influence social policy in Britain.

Reading the Speech

As you read the speech for the first time…

This speech was meant to be read aloud, so why not try it! You could divide up the speech among yourselves and take turns to read the separate sections.

As you read the speech, point the mouse at any areas you are unsure about. You may find you get some help! Don’t forget to use a dictionary for difficult words. The speech was written over 100 years ago and so some of the words may not be so familiar now. That’s the challenge of reading historical texts! There is a glossary attached to this activity too.

As you are reading the speech for the first time, think to yourself:

•  What are Rowntree’s main points?
•  How does he want his audience to feel?
•  How effectively does he persuade his audience?

Read the Speech

I am deeply sensible of the honour you have conferred upon me in adding my name to the roll of those to whom the honorary freedom of York has been given by the Corporation of the city. This deed of gift in its beautiful setting is one which I shall value highly during the remainder of life. You will well understand that when after years of severe struggle the [Rowntree & Co] business with which I am connected felt it was our duty to see that those who spent the working hours of the day in our factories at the most formative period of life should, so far as it was in our power, be surrounded with helpful influences.

With the boys we have sought to encourage manliness of character and self–control among other agencies by promoting outdoor games in leisure time and gymnastic exercise during the hours of work; the girls also receive gymnastic lessons, and we seek to give them some preparation for married life by lessons, under skilled teachers, on hygiene, cookery, and dressmaking.

York, in my childhood, was a very different place from what it is to–day. The population is three times what it was in 1841 (28,842). At that time fields or orchards were to be seen in the Groves. The streets to the north of Lawrence Street had not been built, neither had those between Holgate Lane and the railway. The city was then content with one bridge over the Ouse instead of the four with which the river is now spanned.

A striking fact is the diminution in the death rate. As late as the period 1861–1870 it was 24 per 1,000. Last year it was slightly less than half that, namely 11.9. This reduction in the death rate means the saving of over 1,000 lives a year in a city of 86,000 population.

The diminution in the death–rate has been brought about partly by the better understanding of the laws of health. But this knowledge would have availed little had it not led to definite action on the part of the City Councils.

We shall put first the improved drainage in 1866 , when the Act was obtained for purchasing the Foss Navigation and draining part of the city. Before 1866 the Foss was little better than an open drain. I distinctly remember how, as a child, I used to run quickly over the Foss Bridge to escape the stench from the water.

Another powerful agency was the adoption of bye–laws so that all new streets should be so wide that sunlight and fresh air should have free course in them, and that all plans for new buildings should come under the supervision of a committee of the Town Council. The city owes much to the steady and laborious work of those who have thus guarded and improved the health of the citizens.

We are told that about one death out of every ten in York, as in England and Wales generally, is due to tuberculosis, and that consumption is a preventable disease. A resolute campaign against this scourge, carried on for a few years, would probably be attended with great results.

The progress in popular education during my life time has been almost as remarkable as the improvement in public health. Along with an improvement in the buildings and equipment of the newer schools has gone a general advancement in the number and attainments of the teaching staff in all our elementary schools.

In England and Wales in the five years 1841–1846, approximately one in three of the men and one in two of the women who married signed the marriage register with marks instead of writing their names.

At the present time these illiterate marriages are almost unknown. Here again we may note how much the city owes to those who have served on the School Boards and upon the Education Committees of the Town Council, as well as to those who, in the days when the value of education was so little understood, labored in the establishment and maintenance of voluntary schools.

The Free Library, opened in 1893, takes its place among the powerful educational agencies of the city, with its more than 20,000 volumes in addition to its lending and reference library, magazines and news–rooms liberally supplied.

There is another improvement in the city, upon which we may look with unalloyed satisfaction. I refer to the vastly increased purity of our municipal and parliamentary elections.

As a young man, I saw shortly after a municipal election, a tradesman sitting at his shop door with a bowl of half–crowns at his side, with no sense of shame, paying out the coin to those who had voted for him.

Another incident I recall is that of a man who, in the Exhibition square, asked me for alms, urging, as his principal plea that the £3 which he had received for his Parliamentary vote had been stolen from him.

I am tempted to add one other, and can assure you that I am not drawing upon my imagination. One evening a working man called to see me. I knew his character well, and that I could safely have trusted large sums of money in his hands.

He wanted to consult me upon a question of conscience about which he felt difficulty. He had been visited by the agent of one of the parliamentary candidates, to whom he had promised his vote, having either received or been promised a certain sum for it. Afterwards the agents of the other candidate visited him and offered him so much for his vote.

The question upon which he wanted my opinion was whether I thought it would be right to take money from both. The thought that he ought not to take money from either had apparently never entered his mind.

Not alone in the prevention of disease are great possibilities within our reach Elementary education has done much, but it needs to be followed up. The waste of mind and character that goes on through the insufficient provision of the mental and physical development of children after they leave school is an evil that needs to be grappled with.

So far then I have dwelt upon the remarkable improvements in the conditions of life in which the City Council has played so great a part. But if we make a true survey of the life of our city we know there is another side to it. Which of us has not known cases such as this, bewildering in their difficulty and in the impossibility of offering any satisfactory solution?

The bread winner in the family breaks down in health; his wages cease; with illness the expenses in the family are more likely to increase than to diminish. For a time thepayments for the sick club are available, but at last come to an end. The rent begins to fall behindhand; the neighbouring shop, which has given some credit, refuses to increase it.

The children, too young to earn wage, are insufficiently led; the overtaxed and ill–fed mother is in danger of breaking down; the landlord, who has given some reasonable credit, says that he cannot extend it, and that the family must leave at an early date. The only asset to fall back upon is the furniture purchased by the savings before marriage, or in the early period of married life.

If brought to the hammer it will realise much less than had been given for it, and the family will be left destitute.

In despair, the mother appeals to one with the question” “What shall I do?” Perhaps by a gift we relive the momentary distress, but in doing so we feel the inadequacy, almost the heartlessness, of any counsel we can offer.

Sometimes, of course, the bread–winner dies before the children are able to bring any wage; or the man himself is less bright than his fellows, and in times of full trade is the first to be discharged. Or if the man is skilful, failure of eyesight may destroy the market value of his skill. Or, again, changes in the process of manufacture may render valueless skill laboriously acquired. Or a change of fashion, or a general dullness of trade swell the ranks of the unemployed.

What street in the working–class districts of the city is there without homes in which tragedies of one or another of these types are to be known? We are apt to comfort ourselves with the thought that the sterner virtues are developed in association with poverty, and this is often true. But poverty is one thing, and destitution is another.

The hopelessness, the heart–breaking misery of those who are eager to work but cannot find it, whose homes are broken up, who are unable to give to their children the shelter and the care they need, who feel that whatever effort is put forth is likely to end in failure, this condition saps the strength and is altogether evil.

The day is past when men were able to believe that it is any part of the Divine planthat men and women should live maimed or stunted lives. We now hold to the belief that these problems will yield to thoughtful, sympathetic and patient effort.

My last thought is this: Whatever the remedial agencies may be, the governing bodies of our cities and rural districts will play a large part in them.

If the City is wise enough to continue to send to its Council Chamber able and unselfish men prepared to give much time to its duties, it will I believe, in the next half– century achieve work equally beneficent with that which has been accomplished in the past. Once again I thank you for the honour which you have conferred upon me.

Notes for Teachers

This speech should be appropriate for many Key Stage 4/5 students and can of course be adapted and reduced further for use with younger or less able students.

The speech was meant to be read aloud and heard. Why not encourage students to read it in various ways?

Why not encourage your students to post messages when they find parts of the text which are examples of effective persuasion? They could say why they think the parts of the text are effective and ask other students to find other examples.

Ideas for Classroom Activities

Task 1: Rhetorical

Task 2: Statistics and other facts in part of Rowntree’s speech

Task 3: Emotive language and opinion in part of Rowntree’s speech