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Family at War The Rowntree Family Friends Ambulance Unit

An Introduction to the Rowntree Family 
 One Branch in the First World War Era

Contents - Index page

The War Years

The very nature of wartime means that there is a considerable amount of activity, movement and communication within families. Probably people wrote more letters than usual and maybe more people wrote diaries. This chapter hinges on the letters from Frederick Rowntree and his wife to Colin, with a few others from the Gray and Rowntree Family and of course letters between Colin and Mary. Colinís diaries are a useful source of reference to the activities of some members of the family as are the documents available from the Friendís Ambulance Unit.

To put this last comment in perspective we know that of the first corps of 35 men going over to Dunkirk on 30th Oct 1914, according to Ellen, the wife of Arthur Rowntree, the Head of Bootham, at the time, 14 were Bootham boys. Of those 35, at least 4 were family and more family members went over later.

Fred Rowntreeís abode at Hammersmith Terrace seemed to become a hub of activity and a stopping off point for many friends and family rather in the same way as the Guise household, in Streatham, became in WW2.

Colin at the age of 23 left for Dunkirk with the FAU on the 30th October 1914 with other members of the family. The first few days were very eventful his life, as explained in the Chapter - Colin Rowntree in WW1.

This horrendous introduction to Colinís War was soon known about by family at home and is referred to in a letter from Ellen Rowntree, the wife of Arthur, Head of Bootham and Fredís brother.

"What dramatic good fortune you had at the very start with the Hermes ! I understand there was fierce dispute between cousins as to whether Donald or Charlie or Harry went overboard."

Letter from Ella

Later other members of the Rowntree family were to go across.

Life settled down for Colin to an arduous routine working and driving around the French Belgium border just behind the lines at Ypres.

Colinís health and pains were obviously quite a worry to his mother and fathers and in one letter his mother quoted in lurid detail some advice from a "tabby" she met at Jordans, in which she puts the current medical practice in perspective. letter 12/29/1915 From Annie to Colin

These little insights into the view of medicine in the early 1900ís are fascinating to the sceptical mind.

One letter tells us that, in August 1915, Fred went to Holland for 10 days. It needs to be appreciated that although from our point of view Holland is just above Belgium with a common border, in fact Belgium did not exist as a Nation until the mid 1800ís. Despite this, unlike in the Second World War, Holland was able to stay neutral and so the German occupation of that part of Europe included most of Belgium up the line joining Ostend and Ypres but stopped at the northern border of the country.

His reason for being in Holland was probably associated with the Belgium Housing project that he was working on with others in which they were setting up the manufacture of prefabricated houses and furniture ready for the end of the war so that the damaged parts of Belgium could be rebuilt quickly. Fred must have been involved with this from the beginning of the war as in early letters there is reference to the furniture workshops being set up locally for the Belgian refugees. As early as November 1914 Fred refers to the refugees getting Scarlet Fever, a serious illness in 1914, and is asking Colin, who has just arrived on the French Belgian border, to send him sketches of classical Belgian Furniture for his refugees to make. Fred also hoped to obtain a house locally for them to live in.

In August 1915 Fred reports to Colin that he has spent 10 days in Holland. Cottages are progressing well and 5 sent to an exhibition - a Belgian Contractor is looking after them and can put one up in 3 hours.

As an aside it is interesting to note that a hundred years ago the concept of fast affordable housing was understood and that after the second world war the shortage of housing stock was tackled with cheap prefabs that have lasted right up to the present day. We now seem unable to cope with a serious housing shortage without generating tacky little neo georgian palaces, the cost of which is beyond the reach of those most in need.

As an aside the reader may notice Fredís Telegram Address listed amongst the letters: ARCHICRAFT Ö. An interesting amalgam of words, whether much can be read into this may never be known.

In a letter from Annie there is reference to the war effort help being organised by Fred and the Family, in York and in London. There is no doubt that the Quakers, at least within the Rowntree family, were helping all they could even to the extent of Joseph Rowntree supplying hot chocolate of a special nutritious quality for the wounded. See  letter from Ella Rowntree

During the early war period it is noticeable how many babies were born as a consequence of recent marriages. For the sake of completeness, these are listed below.




b. 1914



b. 1915










b. 1915



m. 1915


b. 1916


Friend of Mary Rowntree

W R Flint

m. 1905

Sibylle Sueter

b. 1915

Francis M R

Betsy Thorp was born to Molly, Fredís daughter, on 22nd June 1915. At this time Ralph Thorp was working in the FAU. It is not clear if by this time the family had taken over No.5 Hammersmith Terrace, but it is quite probable. A cursory analysis give the impression that the extended Rowntree family were taking over a number of houses in the Terrace ie. No. 3, 5, 10, 11 and filling them with many families as well as using them as offices for the Architectural work.

There is reference in a letter from Annie, 2 Feb 1916, regarding Douglas and family going off to see the Hickmans and from Colin to Mary in 6/12/1915 regarding Alan Hickman not having to have his leg off.

Two cousins Douglas Woodville Rowntree and Malcolm Rowntree both married sisters Winifred and Violet Hickman, the daughters of Walter Richard John Hickman, a solicitor in Putney, and Fanny Adamson

News of deaths and injury travelled fast through the family and affected many.

In June 1916, the girls brother, Terence Hickman, was killed in action and for reasons unknown, in August, his sister Violet, died.

The tragedy of so many people killed in war "by the Germans" moved more people, including Quakers to join up in active Service. It was felt, as mentioned below, that this may be why Douglas joined up. News travelled fast through the extended family and the story of the near miss of Laurence Rowntree was soon known just as, later on, his death in action 25 Nov 1917 - 2nd Lieutenant Royal Artillery. Up to January 1916, he had been working for FAU. There must have been a growing will to do anything to get the war over with.