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George Rowntree

The Reminiscences of George Rowntree
1855 -1940

written during the winter of 1935-36



From the time of our marriage, we spent the first 14 years at Valley Bridge Parade. My wife watched the alterations and painting of 14 Valley Bridge Parade with care, better than any clerk of the works. the painters were surprised to find one Monday morning that a panel of a door had been re-painted since they left on Saturday.

When Malcolm was three years old he began to attend a Kindergarten school kept by his aunt, Annie Wallis. On one occasion a small boy held up his hand and asked Annie Wallis if "we need heat any more what Malcolm's father thinks." He continued attending this Kindergarten until he was old enough 'to go to Oliver's Mount School. It is interesting to note that I was the youngest boy when Thomas Walton opened his school, Malcolm was the youngest when the school closed. He went forward to Mr. Radley's school at Bedales and then to Bootham.

Our house, 14 Valley Bridge Parade, was a type that should never have been built, two rooms above two rooms, until, as one of our maids remarked when going to bed, "Now, 74 steps, good night!" , There was no hot water laid on above the kitchen in the basement; I therefore put a bath in one of the rooms upstairs, heated by a geyser. One day Granny went upstairs to see our Scotch maid doing the week's washing. The garments were in the bath, with ample hot water from the geyser the girl herself, with one garment on only, dancing on the clothes, effectually doing the part of the dolly. On one occasion, the gas did not light until the third match had been struck, with the result that the gas collected in the cylinder exploded and blew my neighbour's firegrate into the middle of the room. The ventilation from the stove was by a pipe which went into the neighbour's chimney. In 1898 we moved into a house that we built on the side of Oliver's Mount (Fred Rowntree, architect). When the roof of the house was finished, a small flag was flown, an intimation by the workmen that the owner should acknowledge the work done. This resulted in a supper, to which everyone who had done anything for the building was invited. Some seventy sat down, and a hearty meal was enjoyed. I understand that this custom has been given up at any rate in this part of the country. I christened the house Riseborough, after the old home to which we, as a family, look back, and from which various branches sprang. I am only interested in the senior branch, which came to Scarborough. Anyone wanting a more complete genealogy can find it in the homes of several Rowntrees to-day, as well as at Charles John Taylor's, Avenue Road, Scarborough.

John Rowntree senior came direct from Riseborough, in the parish of Norman by, to Scarborough in 1767 .He married Elizabeth Lotherington, and his children included John, who remained the Grocer at Scarborough (he married Jane Priestman) ; Joseph, who went to York, from which branch the Rowntree's Cocoa and Chocolate business grew; the second son, William, who established a business of Miller and Maltster on Windmill Hill,. Gateshead; he was married in the Friends' Meeting House, Newcastle-on-Tyne, to Rachel Watson. Their family included John junior, who was apprenticed to his uncle john at Scarborough, and, in due course to take over the business of Grocer. The drapery department had been given up.

In the year 1916 we moved to No.55 Esplanade Road. The house deserved the name, Headland, that was given to it by the first owner . A month ago an errand boy from Whitfield's shop opposite, with the address for Headland House, took 35 minutes finding my house, for the simple reason that the name does not now apply. When the house was built, there was no Wesleyan Church or row of houses on the north side; there were no houses in Esplanade Road, and the Esplanade did not extend beyond the Prince of Wales Hotel; on the west side Queen Margaret's School, formerly a hotel named Princess Royal Hotel, was the only house; and on the south side not a house to obstruct the view of Flamborough Cliffs, some 20 miles away.

The house is a typical Victorian House, large square rooms, strong handrails, good for sliding down, as I proved when between 60 and 70 years old; a bath and bathroom the size for Goliath, the bath itself provided with a strong mahogany lid (for what purpose ? ask the bather) , also a large copper cylinder which was broken.

The dining room, large enough to dine 20 persons, had one of the ugliest firegrates and heavy marble mantelpieces I have ever seen. What was to be done with it all ? A committee, consisting of an ironfounder, a builder, a joiner , my wife and myself, met, with the result that the lid of the bath went to the joiner's workshop and came back a mantelpiece, the copper cylinder to the ironfounders to be beaten out and came back a copper fireplace, and the builder brought some 3-inch brown sanitary bricks, altogether making a useful and handsome addition to the room. The fire irons were made of polished steel and hung on a steel rod that previously had been the axle for the Coffee Roaster that the various John Rowntrees had used for the past century for roasting their coffee. I might enlarge more on the size of the buttery, the wine cellar, capable of holding I will not say how many dozens of port. But I must not stop longer on the accommodation provided by the John Rhodes who built the house and who lived in it for many years, together with his wife and sister. As far as they were concerned, the end was sudden; the bombardment came on 16th December 1914, a shell struck the top storey on the east side and out on the north, whilst John Rhodes slept peaceably in the storey below the wife and sister had, I think, been taken away previously, and John Rhodes himself was moved very shortly. They were a happy family; each had passed their three score and ten.

For four years this house stood waiting for me. It was when Granny took charge of you two grandchildren that she could no longer give time to the garden and when the war made it necessary to reduce expenses.

The pictures hanging on the dining room walls are amongst my best reminiscences, for what can be better than memories of the good ? There is first an engraving of Millais' portrait of W. E. Gladstone, the most outstanding figure of the last century, as far as my memory is worth anything; I saw him three times and heard him speak twice. The first time I saw him I was:


entering Westminster Palace yard in the dusk ; I saw a man touching his hat with deference to someone; I looked and there was no mistaking that it was W.E.G. responding to a constable. The first time I heard him was in Bingley Hall , Birmingham, where I was one amongst 10,000 standing to hear the greatest statesman of his time defending the action of the Irish in an unpopular cause. An Irishman had been shot and Gladstone held up two photographs, one taken from where the shot was fired, the other taken from where the man fell. The defence of the police was that there was a wall between, and therefore the Shot was impossible. W.E.G. held up the two photographs and, then dramatically throwing them on to the table, said, "Photographs never lie." The effect on the 10,000 people was intense; the cheering lasting again and again .

The third time was in the House, when W.E.G. was Prime Minister. He sat looking down, possibly reading some Greek verse, whilst an Orange Man, Sanderson, I think, was denouncing the Home Rulers. Suddenly there was a shout, "That's a loy!" Sanderson stopped, then asked the Speaker if he had heard the expression. The Speaker, turning to Tim Healy asked him if he had used such an expression. Tim raised his hat in acknowledgment; then the Speaker asked him to withdraw. Tim sat still. To a second appeal, Tim got up and said, with a good Irish brogue, "Mr. Speaker, sir, if you can supply me with the parliamentary word that will convey to the house that the speaker whom I interrupted had given expression to a statement contrary to the truth, in fact a falsehood, then I will withdraw the word lie, and substitute another word, if you will supply it."

Whilst the house was thus taking up its time, I saw Mr. Gladstone's soft collar rising and his neck burying itself in his collar. The Speaker called on Tim Healy to retire; Tim sat still. Then Gladstone rose, neck at full stretch, and in very few words moved that Tim Healy be suspended. The resolution, of course, was carried, but again Tim was obstinate, until a Sergeant-at-Arms touched him on the shoulder. Tim then withdrew and the incident was closed.

The Portrait of John Wilhelm Rowntree brings back memories of one of the most gifted men that I ever knew. As a child he came not infrequently to Scarborough ; he had a German nurse; when he came back from a walk on the sands, he would tell us stories of the adventures he had had. His more prosy cousins heard the stories first. hand and were astonished beyond belief: no such things were possible on the sands, where no such things existed; and we used to wonder where they originated. Did his nurse tell him such impossible things ? Was it the boy's deliberate lying ? It was many years after that I realised what the make believe could evolve out of an imaginative brain like John's. He was a destructive boy, deliberately breaking or burning some valuable toy for the fun of seeing it burn. One day his mother called him to her, asked him which of his toys he liked the best; "Very well, then, John, bring that boat here; now then, throw it on the fire." As he watched the beautiful toy boat burn, he learnt his lesson. As a schoolboy I knew nothing of him, but I believe he did not distinguish himself in exams. as a scholar.

I next remember him as a young director of the Cocoa Works, full of ideas, determined that the designs of the boxes of chocolates should be the best, as well as the quality of the chocolates. With everything before him to make business life prosperous, he had to face life with the limitations such as his doctor prepared him for ; his sight was seriously affected ; it was only the depth of thc love that his wife, Constance, had for him that made life possible for him.

He threw his energies into the life of the Society of Friends. His sympathies and earnestness were such that he was felt by many to be the strongest and most helpful member since the days of George Fox.

Let me give one illustration. An accident occurred on a small yacht on Lough Neagh, when two Bootham boys, and other occupants of the boat, were drowned. It appealed to the deepest in Johnís nature, and shook the faith of many.

His address in the York Meeting House is printed in full in his memoir; let me give one extract:

"Death cannot conquer, nay, he teaches ever that love is supreme. Good men do not die. Their lives are as the tearing of the veil, they show us something of that which is eternal, for if here love is greatest in the heart of man, must it not be greatest in Himself, then let the mystery of His will be never so dark, we may gird ourselves each to his life's work with something more than courage. Love bridges death. We are comrades of those who are gone; though death separate us, their work, their fortitude, their love, shall be ours, and we will adventure with hope, and in the spirit and strength of our great Comrade of Galilee, who was acquainted with grief, and knew the shadows of Gethsemane, to fight the good fight of faith,".

As a fellow traveller, on holiday, in a party, John was the leader. Where there was any exhibition of Albert Durer's paintings and etchings, it was John who pointed out the likeness of Albert Durer, as shewn in his own sketches, to the usual head of Christ as copied up to the present time. At his own home, the collection of Durer's works shews how much he valued them. The world was the poorer when John passed over .

The Raphael's Madonna seated is the next picture in the room. It is a photograph of the same size as the original in the Pitti Gallery . We saw it in Florence in 1911. Granny and I went to Florence when Malcolm was 21 years old. He was our guide to the Galleries. You know the story of the origin of the picture. Raphael was out early one morning and saw a night watchman by the cask which had been his shelter during the night. His wife and children had brought up the man's breakfast. Raphael drew a circle as he stood - the mother with two small boys, one child John with a halo, the other Jesus with the light coming from Him.

Another Portrait on the wall revives memories of Joshua Rowntree's visits to Ireland, where he showed his sympathy in a remarkable way. In 1888 he was present at the trial of John Dillon, M.P., at Dundalk, and afterwards he helped to obtain 150 signatures of Mr. Dillon's colleagues in the House of Commons for an illuminated address expressing their "pain and resentment at your unmerited imprisonment." It bore at the head a sketch, designed by Joshua Rowntree, of a Kerry Hovel, and amongst the signatures were the names of Mr. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey, as they were then, and Lord Haldane.

Writing to Mrs. Rowntree after her husband's death, John Dillon said: "Joshua Rowntree was one of the sweetest and most sympathetic natures I have ever come into contact with. It is quite impossible for anyone who has not realised in his own experience the terrible intensity of the Irish bitterness against the English nation, to appreciate the blessedness and infinite value of the influence exercised by Joshua Rowntree and men like him in laying the foundation for peace and goodwill between two peoples who had misunderstood and hated each other for 700 years.

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