Meet The Philanthropists: sweet charity - how Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry gave us some of our greatest philanthropists

In this series, we explore some of the most prolific, trailblazing or notorious philanthropists in history, taken from ‘Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain’. Today, meet the chocolate dyansties creating great philanthopists.

Perhaps the only industry that can claim to outdo brewing in terms of philanthropic heritage is chocolate‑making. Although it might not have quite the quantity of notable givers found among the beer barons of former times, the confectionery trade more than makes up for this in quality, having given us some of our greatest philanthropists in members of the Cadbury, Rowntree
and Fry dynasties.

Elizabeth Fry, by John Cochran, after Charles Robert Leslie stipple engraving, 1823

The philanthropic zeal shared by these major chocolate names is not a coincidence; it is a consequence of the fact that each of them was a family‑owned, Quaker company. This Quaker ideology informed each family’s approach not only to philanthropy but to business, and led them to be notable for their charitable deeds and (particularly in the case of Cadbury and Rowntree) for their forward‑looking approach to employment practices and industrial relations.

The prominence of Quakers in chocolate‑making was matched in a number of other areas of business in the UK: for instance, Barclays Bank, Lloyds TSB, Clarks shoes and Carr’s biscuits are all companies with Quaker origins. This commercial success was partly a consequence of the Quaker’s strong networks, but also of the fact that as non‑conformists, they were barred from going to university or holding public office. This made the commercial arena the obvious place to direct their energies, which many of them did with great success.

Of the other two, the company JS Fry is a slightly less celebrated philanthropic name, partly because the most important philanthropy was
done by members of the Fry family who were not directly connected to the business, and partly because they were less sophisticated in applying their Quaker principles to the commercial operations. However, Joseph Storrs Fry II (the great‑grandson of founder Joseph Fry) was a committed philanthropist, if somewhat less focused than the better‑known Rowntree or Cadbury.

Perhaps JS Fry’s most important contribution to philanthropy is its indirect role in the campaign for prison reform. One of the best‑known figures in this field, Elizabeth Fry, was a Quaker (her mother was part of the Barclay family), who married into the Fry family via the nephew of company founder Joseph Fry.

Advertisement for Fry’s ‘Five Boys’ milk chocolate

More directly, Joseph Storrs Fry II many years later left a sizeable legacy to his niece Margery Fry, who went on to continue Elizabeth Fry’s pioneering working on prison reform.

In the case of Rowntree’s, on the other hand, philanthropy very much went hand‑in‑hand with business and two of the most famous Rowntree philanthropists, Joseph and his son Seebohm, were also senior figures in the company at various times. Although both men were wide‑ranging in their generosity – Joseph, for instance, financed the creation of a public library and
a park in their home town of York — they are best known for their focus on addressing poverty.

Although both men were wide‑ranging in their generosity — Joseph, for instance, financed the creation of a public library and a park in their home town of York — they are best known for their focus on addressing poverty.

Perhaps more than the cause they chose to address, what is distinctive about the philanthropy of the Rowntrees is their approach. They firmly believed that it was important to look beyond the symptoms of poverty and attempt to address its root causes, which they were clear lay in structural failings of society rather than in the moral failure of the poor. To do this both men undertook detailed research, with each of them publishing a book
detailing their findings. They were not content merely to indulge in academic discourse: they realised that they were in a unique position, through both their philanthropy and their business, to do something about the problems they sought to understand.

Joseph Rowntree, 1906

For the Rowntrees, the line between philanthropy, business and politics seems
to have been deliberately blurred. Their endeavours in all three fields were a
reflection of their Quaker beliefs and their deep commitment to addressing the problem of poverty. For instance, Joseph Rowntree was instrumental in
constructing decent affordable housing for the working classes in York. He explicitly viewed this as a way to demonstrate the need for state action, rather than an end in itself. Likewise, in their own business, both Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree introduced many innovations to improve working conditions for their employees that were informed by their beliefs and their research, such as bringing in an eight‑hour day, providing a company doctor and dentist, implementing a pension scheme, and offering facilities such as a staff canteen, a library, a swimming pool and a theatre.

Messrs JS Fry and Sons Manufactory, Nelson Street, Bristol

All of these innovations for their own employees were matched by efforts to influence wider public policy for the benefit of all workers. Seebohm, in particular, became highly influential in policymaking, and developed
relationships with major figures such as Lloyd George and Beveridge. The different aspects of the Rowntree’s philanthropy are continuing today through the various charitable and non‑charitable trusts that bear their name, which focus on a range of issues and activities including affordable housing, research on poverty, tackling global conflict and injustice and promoting
progressive politics.

For your chance to win a copy of Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain, visit the CAF website.

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