Joseph Rowntree (24th May 1836 to 24th February 1925)


On route to a long weekend in Scarborough I had a few hours in York and decided to see if I could find the grave of Joseph Rowntree, a real-life Willy-Wonka chocolate-maker. Though he brought the pleasure of chocolate to millions he brought respite, succour and a compassionate spirit to people that spears through the present. I saw it myself on this visit.


A clue to the purity of Joseph’s heart lay in the place he was buried (written in pencil in my notebook): “The Friends Burial Ground, Retreat Hospital”. I came off the motorway at the York exit to find it. I nosed through the maelstrom of traffic feeding into York city and - at one red light - poured a coffee in the cup wedged between my thighs. I followed the Sat-Nav lady and busy streets gave up to quieter ones and I nose through suburbia wondering if I was going to right way. I arrived at a government-type looking building that had been tagged onto a grander building. This was it.


I got behind an ambulance that was turning into the circular drive. I following it passing people out on the front whose contorted faces showed signs of poor mental states. The ambulance continued but I veered off with the confidence of someone who works there and drove round the back to the staff car park. Under a tree I had a peanut-butter sandwich, coffee and a Twix; I looked out onto the lawns, paths and trees of a large estate. Mmmm, where was the grave? No spire, no church to guide me in. I know Joseph was a Quaker and they seem to have meeting houses than churches.


I got out and walked around the sprawling splendid grounds. Dotted about were huts and benches occupied by people who had mental problems. Some had helpers with them, some just sat in wheelchairs observing nature. I walked passed a carer walking a woman with a contorted facial look and dragging foot. His frown said I shouldn’t be there but his full attention was taken up with the woman. This was obviously a retreat for mentally or physically impaired people. It wasn’t a public place.


I strolled round the lawns and wooded well-manicured gardens wondering where the grave was. There was no chapel or towering headstone sticking out of the bushes. I was preparing for the disappointment that comes when a geek can’t find what he’s seeking out when I saw a clearing in some trees. I walked across and a field opened up containing rows of Quaker graves.


After walking up and down the rows of graves I found Joseph buried with his second wife and, under the next headstone, his first wife. York was in the blood – he worked and died in it. He was born not that far away on Pavement Street where his dad owned a grocer's shop. Aged 14 he joined his dad on a visit to Ireland and saw the appalling effects of the potato famine. This marked him and started shaping his mind on how others were in need of help.


He started work as an apprentice in the grocery business. However his dad died when he was 23 and he took over the running of the business with his brother. He married his first wife Julia Seebohm aged 26 but a year later she died. Five years later he married her cousin Emma (and they had six children together.) Five years later he joined his other brother Henry Isaac who owned a chocolate factory in York. The company was growing quickly and Rowntree brothers oversaw the opening a new factory when Joseph was 47. When Henry died Joseph found himself the head of a real-life Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. He invested time and money into progressing ideas rather than being an aggressive hotspur. The fledgling company had started with about 30 employees but by the time Joseph was in his early sixties there were 4,000 employees making it Britain's eightieth largest manufacturing employer.


Though he was a hugely successful chocolate manufacturer Joseph diverted huge profits to good causes. Being a solemn Quaker he was desperate to improve the lives of his employees; there was free education, a library, a works magazine, a social welfare officer, a doctor, a dentist and a pension fund. Aged 68, not knowing how long he would live, he created the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust - all brimming with good deeds today. Perhaps the milky goodness in the chocolate was in him too as he lived to 88 – a good age for the time.


I had a walk around the graveyard. I found a cluster of Rowntree’s were buried together in one corner of the field. All the stones were the same, nothing fancy here, no hierarchy, no stone the size of a school bus. A humble Quaker Joseph considered himself equal to others in life as he was now in death. Yet he had done astounding well in business and could have probably retired a wealthy man aged 50.


If anyone deserved a second life it’s people like this. A century had passed since he died and the repercussions of this good man are still unfurling today. As I sauntered back up to the car I felt guilty I’d done little of worth in life. Recently I was out jogging and a woman with crutches had fallen off the bench at a bus stop. I got my arms under her armpits and hoisted back onto the bench. That was a good deed I suppose.


The Rowntree giant continued to grow, merging with John Mackintosh in 1969 before being absorbed into global giant Nestlé in 1988.



At Joseph’s grave…


Here he is buried with first wife Julie and second wife Emma…



The grave is behind these trees. Note helper taking patient for a walk round the grounds. It was Joseph’s mission to improve people’s lives…



At the front of the retreat…