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

In Memoriam

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IT is manifestly impossible in the time available to give any kind of comprehensive picture of the life and work of Seebohm Rowntree. It calls for a book, and probably for more than one book. The range of his interests was wide indeed; and it is almost true to say that his parish was the world. Certainly, he was widely known not only nationally but internationally. In his eighties, people in the United States flocked to hear him; as they did in Japan more than a quarter of a century before.

Perhaps his most enduring single work will be his first book, published in 1901, Poverty: A Study of Town Life. This was a detailed examination of the incomes and living conditions of the working people of York. Taken in conjunction with Charles Booth's Life and Labour in London, it can be said with truth to have laid the first foundation of Britain's modern Welfare State. It brought to the light of day the true nature and extent of poverty. But like all B.S.R.'s work, the discovery of the facts was simply the first step to a wide range of remedial action. He followed it through various Liberal Party investigations which resulted in old-age pensions, and the first sickness and unemployment insurance. He played a considerable part in securing acceptance of children's allowances. In his retirement, as one of the Nuffield Trustees, he concentrated a great deal of thought into the particular problems of old age. Between the two Wars he gave much of his time. to the study of the problem of unemployment, one result of this being his share in the proposals set out in 1929 in We Can Conquer Unemployment .

His later books Poverty and Progress, published in 1941, and Poverty and the Welfare State, in 1951, showed how greatly poverty had been reduced by the action taken under these different heads. In referring to him, the News Chronicle says, in a happy phrase, he will always be remembered as "the good companion of the poor".

Simultaneously, over the same fifty years, B.S.R. was engaged in the same able objective approach to the problems of housing. This year we celebrate the Jubilee of the formation of the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust. It was Joseph Rowntree's vision which established this Trust, but there is no doubt B.S.R. shared in that vision; and certainly his was the greatest single contribution in bringing it to its present day fruition. The Jubilee Meeting at New Earswick to celebrate this was held only three days ago. All were looking forward to paying tribute to B.S.R. in person for the part he had played in replacing the "brick boxes with slate lids" of the 19th century, by the village beautiful. It was sad that he passed away just one day before the Jubilee which would have given him such pleasure.

Poverty and Housing: this is B.S.R., the sociologist. But he had so many other aspects. He was the able industrial executive concerned to improve the whole working conditions of industry, but recognising clearly that the better conditions he sought could only be realised in practice on a basis of efficiency. He was, therefore, at one and the same time, interested in industrial welfare, and in all the best developments of scientific-management. During the first World War he was Director of Welfare at the Ministry of Munitions; and his work there has left an enduring mark on welfare conditions ever since. At the end of that War, he was associated with the formation of the Industrial Welfare Society, of which, incidentally, our late King George VI was President; indeed, I knew from B.S.R. how lively a personal interest His Majesty took in this work, both as Duke of York and later as King. We are grateful to have with us today Sir Robert Hyde, who was, I believe, one of B.S.R.'s colleagues at the Ministry of Munitions, and the founder and first Director of the Industrial Welfare Society. I hope that when he speaks he will tell us something of this side of B.S.R.'s life, and of his contribution to industry as seen by the outside world.

With this in mind I will only briefly refer to some of these other activities. He began here, in 1918, those weekend conferences which ultimately found their home at Balliol, and became widely known and have played an important part in providing a common ground for friendly exchange of views on common management problems. In a different form they still continue. B.S.R. formed, in 1927, the first Industrial Management Research Association in this country, an organisation for the exchange of views on higher management between non-competing firms. Again, this valuable movement continues. B.S.R. played an important part, too, in the National Institute of Industrial Psychology.

If I had the time I could go on adding to the list of our friend's interests; for instance, in his fight against what he believed to be the grave evils of gambling and intemperance. To show the catholicity of his interests, and that he was no narrow spoil-sport, we remember how he saved the old "Theatre Royal" in York, by establishing a Citizens' Theatre and himself carrying the burden of Chairmanship until within the last few weeks.

But what I really wish to do in this meeting is to speak of B.S.R. in a more intimate sense as our friend here, and about his work in this business. I believe, indeed, that of all his activities this was definitely nearest to his heart.

To understand fully a man's work, One should first understand the man himself. I believe that we can rightly assess him as a great man. But in what did this greatness consist? Certainly not as one ever seeking a place at the High Table of Life. He could have had many honours, but the only ones he ever accepted were the Companionship of Honour, and an honorary degree from Manchester University. The C.H., ranking in esteem only after the Garter and the Order of Merit, and carrying, I believe, the personal approval of the Monarch, was one he felt he could not refuse; and never was there a more appropriate recipient. For the rest he avoided all reward and all the limelight. I know personally of two national strikes where he was the trusted intermediary of both sides in the settlement, but where his name never appeared.

He was not great simply in ability. He was an able man, with a lucid analytical mind and a shrewd grasp of affairs, and he was an able administrator. He ranked high in clarity of thought and constructive statesmanship; and this helped him to achieve all that he did; but it was not simply as a thinker that he was great. He wasn't perfect; a creature too great and good for human nature's dairy food. One can just hear his indignant snort at any such suggestion! He had his little foibles and his little weaknesses like the rest of us. Without them, he would have lacked the common touch which was so outstandingly his.

In what, then, did his greatness lie? He was great in the constant unswerving sense of service to his fellows; not only in vision, but in the steady application of that vision to everyday life. He had a strong and persistent sense of social purpose and social obligation. He loved his fellow men; not in any generalised, warm and woolly way, like so many of us; but in dedication to their service as individual fellow creatures. Like the old Greeks, he sought truth, beauty and goodness. It was his steady pursuit of truth which guided all his sociological investigations. It was his love of beauty which gave us the village beautiful at New Earswick; the hanging plants in these Works which so caught my eye when I first came thirty-five years ago; his own garden at the Homestead, which he threw open to all his neighbours, and to their children. His goodness is more difficult to define. It was saved from all hint of sanctimoniousness, by his sincerity, his simplicity, his modesty, and perhaps, above all, by his twinkling humour.

He had a faith; and he believed that this faith should show itself in works. He had high ideals; but he seemed almost a little afraid (if you will forgive the phrase) that idealism might run to seed, unless linked with practical social purpose. He refused to advocate any views which he was not prepared to put into practice in his own business and life. He was kindly, but he disliked mere philanthropy. He wanted to help his fellow workers, but he hated paternalism. In all my long association with him in business, and in the work of the social trusts, I found he always sought to remove the causes of evil, rather than find palliatives to soften their effects.

But it is not sufficient just to stop there; and in spite of any personal sense of embarrassment to myself or to you I must go further. It is impossible to deal with a man's life if one leaves out the very springs of his personality. I believe that the key to the man was to be found in his religion. He was a very human man; he could fail to achieve the standards he set himself. But he took all his problems, and his decisions, into the silent worship of the Quaker meeting; or to the silent prayer of his own home. If there were errors, or unfairness, or lack of faith, it was there they became apparent: and he came back, in that case, and freely confessed his error or his weakness; and found strength to renew the struggle for the causes which he believed were those of his Master. There lay the source of his hidden strength.

We don't easily speak of these things, but one cannot rightly assess B.S.R. without them. This is a scientific age; it would be unscientific to leave them out, because they were real and objective, and could be tested in terms of results. This is a cynical age ; but may that not be, at any rate in some measure; simply a protective coating? Is it not just possible that this belief that B.S.R. had, that "there is that of God in every man", is not only no mere Victorian survival, but the very heart of things; and the only thing which saves us from the vision of Mankind as an ever better organised ant heap ? I freely confess I do not find it easier to say these things than some of you do to listen. I will, however, say this, in all sincerity, that I would rather be wrong in that with B.S.R., than right with any other view.


If this, then, is anything like a correct assessment of B.S.R. as a man, what was the reflection of this at the Works here ?

I must be brief, and many of you know the details. He felt it his duty to relieve poverty amongst his employees. He knew this should not (and, indeed, to any great extent could not) be done by philanthropy. He set himself, therefore, the task so to organise affairs that people could "earn" an adequate livelihood. This meant, on the one hand, running the business efficiently so that the net product became increased; and then, on the other hand, seeing that this product was fairly shared. This pointed to securing adequate rates of wages for the industry, with opportunities to workers here to add to these through incentive schemes, under which workers were given safeguards against any unfairness. It was one of the reasons leading, in turn, to the division of surplus profits under a profit sharing scheme.

The picture he had obtained of where poverty lay, led to the establishment and development of a pension scheme for old age, and for widows' benefits; though in fact, the lead in this matter had been taken by his father, J.R. This was supplemented, in turn, to cover lack of income beyond the workers' control, arising from sickness and unemployment.

As to unemployment, he appreciated better than most the sense of uselessness and unwantedness resulting from unemployment, as distinct from, and quite apart from, the resultant loss of income. So to take care of unavoidable technological unemployment, he inspired schemes for re-employment, involving large investment in other businesses, and the setting up of men on their own account. He accepted the duty to offer reasonable conditions of work; and as part of this he set himself to reduce hours to a reasonable level. In 1919 standard factory hours were reduced to 44. This, in turn, made possible a five-day week; but-acting on his belief in the democratic approach, he left to a workers' ballot to decide between the five-and-a-half- and five-day week. In the result, we had a five-day week from 1919, at a time when this was almost unknown elsewhere.

Believing that his fellow-man should be regarded as not a hired "hand" but a co-worker, he felt that adequate arrangements should be made to bring him into full consultation. So we had (before I even the appointment of the Whitley Committee in 1917) acceptance of a system of Works' Councils; supplemented later by the workers' Shop Steward arrangements. A further development in this direction, where I believe we were probably the first, and where there are still few other instances, was. the arrangement initiated by B.S.R. many years ago under which, following the Annual Meeting of Shareholders, the Company Chairman addresses an open meeting of employees; in much greater detail.

Believing that the price of all this was efficiency in management, he rejected as not in the interests of the business or its employees any joint sharing of management; though he encouraged in every way the provision of a ladder of promotion on merit alone which has allowed men to rise from the bottom to the top of the organisation. He sought, however, to share the problems of management where the workers could make their equal contribution. Believing that the principles of democracy should be applied as far as practicable in industry, and recognising the part played in political life by the law and the courts, he inspired the arrangement under which a code of Works' Rules was drawn up by agreement, with a provision that these could not be modified except with the mutual consent of the Board and the Central Works' Council: and the setting up of a joint Appeal Committee, with an agreed Chairman, to consider appeals from any disciplinary action under the Rules, and with power of final decision. This Appeal Committee could over-rule, and has, on occasion, over-ruled the decision of the Board.

In this connection I well remember (many years ago) a well-known worker representative saying (in connection with the Works' Rules), "But, Mr. Seaborne" (he always addressed him in this way as if he were something washed up by the tide), "you haven't provided for failure to agree" : and B.S.R., with his most charming smile, saying, "Suppose, for once, we make no provision and just trust one another to agree!" We have never failed to agree: after such an approach it would scarcely be the thing.

Most of you are familiar with this. If I summarise it now, it is partly for the benefit of younger members; but more particularly because this attempt to work out conditions in industry in the true spirit of co-partnership was the expression in practice of that life, and spirit of B.S.R. to which today we pay tribute. This, indeed, is his memorial; and he at least would ask no other .

May I, with your patience, finish on a personal note. On the morning after he died I received a letter from B.S.R. Three days before I had sent him a copy of a recent address of mine to the Industrial Co-partnership Association at Cambridge. I said that I would like him to see it, because I was outlining the labour structure and policy at York, and that It was his policy: we had simply sat at his feet. In this address, I had said that it had been argued that no man was a hero to his valet, but I had been his valet for many years and he was still a hero to me. I said I believed that future social historians would regard him as having made perhaps the most outstanding contribution in this field in the first half of the twentieth century.

His reply was entirely characteristic. He said he usually agreed with what I said about matters of labour policy; but he was afraid he couldn't agree with what I said about himself. In what was probably the last thing he ever wrote, there was thus still this genuine modesty. I am grateful that one of the last things he read before he died was my sincere tribute to his life and work.

This letter fluttered down like the last leaf from his tree of life. This was our friend, B.S.R. This was his life. What is to be our lit response ? Surely it is that he carried a lighted torch through sixty and more years, and that it would be to our eternal shame if it , were now extinguished. I appeal to you all, but In particular to

the younger members, to try to catch the flame of his spirit, and carry it on, as our responsible and fitting response to a fine life finely lived.