B. Seebohm Rowntree   C.H., LL.D., D.H.L., R.St.O.O. 
1871 -1954

In Memoriam

B.Seebohm Rowntree Homepage

Rowntree Homepage

Founder and first Director of the Industrial Welfare Society


REGARD as a very great privilege this opportunity of being allowed to pay tribute to the memory of one who, during a period

of very nearly forty years, 1 had learned to love and respect; but both by reason of incompetence and inclination, I am afraid I cannot offer you anything like a formal eulogy-1 can but offer you, in all simplicity, just a few incidents, words, and deeds, because through these things I came to know Seebohm Rowntree.

In the early days of this century, I was working in the slums of East London, and one evening a young man (later to become Secretary of the Board of Education) who was living with me at the time, came home and said: " A fellow named Rowntree wants to see you about some stunt of Lloyd George's". On 16th March, 1916, that "fellow named Rowntree" came down to Hoxton to see me and told me how Mr. Lloyd George, who had just formed the Ministry of Munitions, had been disturbed about conditions and relationships in industry, and he wanted him to form a welfare department to try to improve these things. He said: "1 am fully occupied with all the claims of girls and women: Will you come and help me to deal with boys and men ?" I accepted that invitation, and a fortnight later I came up here. It was my first introduction to the internal structure of industry. I met Mr. Joseph Rowntree, Mr. Crichton and Mr. Horner, names familiar to some of those present at this moment; but in spite of my lack of knowledge, his trust was such that all he said was: "Let us meet each week and just discuss what is happening".

So for two happy years we were in full agreement and worked together in complete amity. We were agreed on this point - that if any effort were to be made to improve conditions, we must persuade people that the thing was right. He used simple words that meant a great deal to him. He said: "Hyde, we must bring about a change of heart". And in all its simplicity, that was what we set out to do. It brought us into conflict with some of the permanent civil servants who said life was too short for persuasion; compulsion, control, legislation were the methods they favoured. That conflict (which was a serious one) led in the end to Seebohm's resignation. I remember urging him to fight, but fighting was not in his nature. Within a year or so the man who was more responsible than anyone else for our severance from the Ministry said on a public platform: "You were right and I was wrong". Of that work, Mr. Lloyd George wrote in his Memoirs :

"Mr. Rowntree is well known, not only as a great employer of labour, but as one of the foremost and most successful pioneers in the development of improved conditions in his works. I should like to pay tribute here to the skill, energy and sympathy and address with which he organised this new department."

And, he went on :

"It may well be that, when the tumult of war is a distant echo, and the making of munitions a nightmare of the past, the effort now being made to soften asperities, to secure the welfare of the

workers, and to build a bridge of sympathy and understanding between employer and employed, will have left behind results of permanent and enduring value to the workers, to the nation and to mankind at large."

Those words, written after the war, give no indication at all of some of the hostility and suspicion that had been aroused. I kept particularly careful diaries of those days, and occasionally I refer to them (as I did before I came up here). I find it hard to believe now that those bitter personal attacks made by some of the employers met, were directed against him; but looking back to those days, still vivid in my memory, and comparing conditions now and conditions then, we are living in a totally different world - a better world - and in its shaping Seebohm Rowntree took a very prominent part. A great deal of his strength lay in this. In those days at the Ministry an unwilling employer would accept an invitation to come up to Whitehall to discuss some aspect of conditions in his works, and he would come expecting to find a civil servant with no more than a theoretical knowledge of industry; instead he would find himself facing someone who was familiar with his problems and who had practised what he preached; and the employer could not help being impressed with Seebohm Rowntree's sincerity, knowledge and capacity for seeing another man's point of view. At the same time, B.S.R. was very conscious that in some quarters he was regarded as a rebel, as a crank, as an innovator and as a menace to certain vested interests - and I must give you just one illustration of that. It was our custom in those days to meet sometimes at dinner the leaders of the Trade Union movement. We wanted to get their point of view and to secure their support. One night we were meeting John Hodge and Arthur Henderson, and they said: "If you want to test your welfare schemes, try them on the Clydeside employers". Seebohm said: "We must meet that challenge". Before I went to Glasgow I said to him: "Do you mind if I don't mention your name up there ?" and he said, "If you do, they will say 'Rowntree ?-that's that awful cocoa man !' " There was no resentment in that at all : it was just part of his knowledge and part of his life, and I think he would be in agreement with one of his warm Quaker friends who said: "The faster you travel, the more the dust" ; and there is no doubt he stirred up a great deal of dust.

On later occasions, he had opportunities of meeting some of these employers on the Council of the I.W.S. when old misunderstandings and misconceptions were removed, and he did build up with them very warm and deep friendships. It was through the I.W.S. that he met for the first time our late King, George VI (Patron of the Society), for whom he had a very, very deep regard; and I think that feeling was mutual. And here may I add that when Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (who had learned with regret of the death of Mr. Rowntree) heard that this meeting was to be held here today, she sent me a telephone message late on Saturday afternoon. She said she remembered so well the link between the late King and Mr. Rowntree; and she asked that an expression of her sympathy with his family and all those who had worked with him so happily and for so long might be given at this meeting. So I pass to you Her Majesty's gracious message.

In later years, I used to meet B.S.R. sometimes at Hughenden, when we would chat over those old associations and friendships. He liked people; he had a rich, compelling sense of humour and a very deep understanding and sympathy; but in spite of all his great achievements, he also possessed a very deep and refreshing humility. I have a copy of the third edition of The Human Factor in Business which he inscribed to me. In the preface to that third edition, he wrote: "1 have found it necessary almost entirely to re-write the book-for two reasons, first, because in the last thirteen years many of the practices fully described in my previous book are now so commonly employed that it seemed unnecessary to dwell on them in detail" ; but there is no mention at all - and this is very significant -that the adoption of the practices that he mentions was due very largely to his own personal example and precept. So conscious am I of that humility of his that I can almost imagine him sitting on this platform at this moment and as I utter these words prodding me in the back and saying: "Sit down, Hyde; you are talking rot". Yet whilst he shunned the publicity sought by so many men, I am certain he was always pleased and proud to learn that what he had set out to do had met with response; he was far too human to deny himself that very simple happiness and satisfaction.

One evening about a year ago, I went to see him at Hughenden. His physical powers were waning and the peace of God seemed to be about him. He was weeding a little rockery .He said: "There are a lot of good things in this rockery, but I must get rid of the weeds". It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that that was symbolic of his whole attitude towards this industrial world. But the value of the work he did and the extent of his influence in bringing about a more enlightened outlook has not yet, and cannot yet, be , judged. We are far too near his endeavours to place them in a right perspective. But when the history of this eventful, transitional if period in which we are living comes to be written and the vital I changes in conditions and relationships recorded, his contribution , in promoting a happier state will be given due credit, and it will be proved to have been a very wonderful contribution. One can but say now that the younger people of this generation can have little notion of the richer heritage they have entered and now enjoy as compared with what it might have been but for the life and work of Seebohm Rowntree; and it is for them to regard and give heed to the words: "Other men laboured, and ye have entered into their labours". That is very true of Seebohm Rowntree's contribution to the common good in industry and in many other spheres of national and international life.

Of his work here in these Works and this ancient city, others have written and spoken. I have tried to speak simply and directly of his effect on men in every class, creed and occupation, in leading them to a better understanding of what another writer has described as "The human problems of an industrial civilisation". In this, he was aware that there rested upon him (as your Chairman has said), as upon every employer, a duty to the community and a duty to those who were employed by him, and that by his example rather than by precept he could make or mar their happiness. This sense of service, which he inherited from his father, became part of his life's pattern and the very basis of his belief; and he, in turn, has handed it on.

And now he passes into history after a life lived in fullest measure, and as we record his many qualities and great achievements, our sorrow must surely be assuaged; and as we think of that great company of all those who have gone before us into their rest - all, in all vocations, who, in their time, have served their God and their fellow men - I feel that we may well pray that we too may have grace to walk as they walked, and to labour as they laboured, in righteousness, high endeavour and self denial; and that having laboured as they laboured, we may afterward rest as they rest. And having tried to pay this very simple tribute to him who has gone from us, let us leave him safe in God's keeping and in that goodly company.