Seebohm Rowntree was born on the 7th July 1871 at Bootham, St Olave Marygate, the third son of wealthy chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree and his second wife, Emma Seebohm. He joined the family chocolate company and in 1897 joined the Board of Directors, helping to develop the scientific research department of the Rowntrees.
He is known for his first book, “Poverty, a Study of Town Life in York” which he wrote in 1899 and which was published in 1901 by Methuen. The book was a look at the social conditions which people in York lived in, and second, third and fourth editions were published in 1902 and it became an important book because it defined just how bad housing and poverty was in parts of the city. The conclusions of the book are available here.
Rowntree’s research showed that 9.9% of the city’s residents could not afford the necessities of life, and that although 12% of working class families lived in comfortable homes, and 62% lived in tolerable homes, he found that 26% lived in slums. His research was comprehensive and he was one of the first to question families in detail about their living conditions, paying for one full-time assistant to help him but also securing the help of many volunteers.
Rowntree was a friend of David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister, and he hoped that his research would be useful to developing social policy. In 1911 Rowntree published a joint book with GR Lavers titled “Poverty and the Welfare State” and he published two further studies into poverty in York, in 1936 (the conclusions of his second book are available here) and 1951. Rowntree is remembered for his contribution to social policy, and his belief that welfare helped productivity, so it was in the interests of the country to minimise poverty. He died on the 7th October 1954 following a heart attack, his wife Lydia had died before him in 1944, and he left four sons and one daughter.