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Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree often known simply as Seebohm Rowntree (7 July 18717 October 1954) was a British sociological researcher, social reformer and industrialist.


Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree was born in York on 7 July 1871 the third child of Quaker chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree and Emma Seebohm. He was educated at the York Quaker Boarding School and Owens College, Manchester, where he studied for five terms focusing on chemistry. When he returned to York he started working in his father's chocolate factory where he used his knowledge of chemistry to carry out research and laboratory testing for the firm. On Sundays he started teaching at the York Adult School which he continued doing for twenty years. His interaction with members of the working class at the Adult school combined with a visit to Newcastle in 1895, in which he was shown the living conditions of the poor first hand, made him determined to look into the problem of poverty. In 1897 he married Lydia Potter of Middlesbrough and together they were to have five children. In the same year he was appointed as a director of his father's successful business which allowed him time to embark on his first investigation of poverty in York. During the First World War he was the director of the welfare department of the Ministry of Munitions and in 1917 became a member of the reconstruction committee which later became the Ministry of Reconstruction. He became chairman of Rowntrees in 1923 a post he held until 1941.


First York study (1899)

Rowntree investigated poverty in York, inspired by the work of his father Joseph Rowntree and the work of Charles Booth in London. He carried out a comprehensive survey into the living conditions of the poor in York during which investigators visited every working class home. This amounted to the detailed study of 11,560 families or 46,754 individuals. The results of this study were published in 1901 in his book Poverty, A Study of Town Life.

In Rowntree's work, he surveyed poor families in York and drew a poverty line in terms of a minimum weekly sum of money "necessary to enable families... to secure the necessaries of a healthy life" (quoted in Coates and Silburn, 1970). The money needed for this subsistence level of existence covered fuel and light, rent, food, clothing, and household and personal items, adjusted according to family size. He determined this level using scientific methods which hadn’t been applied to the study of poverty before. For example he consulted leading nutritionists of the period to discover the minimum calorific intake and nutritional balance necessary before people got ill or lost weight. He then surveyed the prices of food in York to discover what the cheapest prices in the area for the food needed for this minimum diet were and used this information to set his poverty line.

According to this measure, 27.84 percent of the total population of York lived below the poverty line. This result corresponded with that from Charles Booth’s study of poverty in London and so challenged the view, commonly held at the time, that abject poverty was a problem particular to London and was not widespread in the rest of Britain.

He placed those below his poverty line into two groups depending on the reason for their poverty. Those in primary poverty did not have enough income to meet the expenditure necessary for their basic needs. Those classed as in secondary poverty had high enough income to meet basic needs but this money was being spent elsewhere so they were unable to then afford the necessities of life.

In analyzing the results of the investigation he found that people at certain stages of life, for example in old age and early childhood, were more likely to be in abject poverty, living below the poverty line, then at other stages of life. From this he formulated the idea of the poverty cycle in which some people moved in and out of absolute poverty during their lives.

Rowntree's argument that poverty was the result of low wages went against the traditionally held view that the poor were responsible for their own plight.

Second York study (1936)

Rowntree conducted a further study of poverty in York in 1936 under the title Poverty and Progress. This was based largely on a similar research method as his earlier study and found absolute poverty among the working class in York had decreased by 50% since his first study. However as he changed his definition of the poverty line, and so the measure of absolute poverty, from his earlier study this is not a direct comparison. In this study he included allowances for some items which were not strictly necessary for survival, these included newspapers, books, radios, beer, tobacco, holidays, and presents. His results showed that the causes of poverty had changed considerably over half a century. In the 1890s, the major reason for primary poverty was low wages, 52%, whereas in the 1930s unemployment accounted for 44.53% and low wages only 10%. Despite the inclusion of the extra items, he found that the percentage of his sample population in poverty had dropped to 18 per cent in 1936 and 1.5 per cent in 1950. Rowntree helped manys, as the poverty became lower, and more people became wealthy, due to jobs.

Third York study (1951)

Rowntree published a third study of York's poverty in 1951 under the title Poverty and the Welfare State which was produced in collaboration with his research assistant Commander G. R. Lavers. Unlike his other studies of York a sampling technique was used rather than a comprehensive survey.

By the 1950s, it appeared that absolute poverty was a minor problem pockets did remain, for example among the elderly, but it was believed that increased welfare benefits would soon eradicate this lingering poverty. The conquest of poverty was put down to an expanding economy as the 1950s were the years of the 'affluent society', to government policies of full employment, and to the success of the welfare state. It was widely believed that the operation of the welfare state had redistributed wealth from rich to poor and significantly raised working class living standards.

Further writings

David Lloyd George urged Rowntree to write on rural living conditions in Britain: The Land (1913) and How the Labourer Lives (1913) looked at the living conditions of farming families. Rowntree argued that an increase in landholdings would make agriculture more productive.

His work The Human Needs of Labour argued for family allowances and a national minimum wage, and in The Human Factor in Business, Rowntree argued that business owners should adopt more democratic practices like those at his own factory rather than more autocratic leadership styles.

Criticism of his work

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, researchers became increasingly dubious about the ‘conquest of poverty’. Rowntree’s concept of subsistence poverty, and the indicators he used to measure poverty, was strongly criticized. His measurement of adequate nutrition is a case in point. With the help of experts, Rowntree drew up a diet sheet that would provide the minimum adequate money required for food. It was very unlikely, however, that this minimum budget would meet the needs of the poor. As Martin Rein argues, it was based on an unrealistic assumption of no waste and extensive knowledge in marketing and cooking. An economical budget must be based on knowledge and skill, which is least likely to be present in low-income groups. (Rein, 1970)

Rowntree’s estimates further ignored the fact that most of their income was for food that his budget disallowed. Nor did he allow for the fact that choice of food is based on the conventions of a person’s social class and region, not upon a diet sheet drawn up by experts. Thus Peter Townsend argues that in relation to the budgets and customs of life of ordinary people, the make-up of the subsistence budget was unbalanced.


Liberal reforms

Rowntree was a supporter of the Liberal Party and hoped that his work would influence Liberal politicians. Rowntree became close friends with David Lloyd George in 1907 after the two men met when Lloyd George was serving as President of the Board of Trade. The influence of Rowntree can be seen in the Liberal reforms passed by the Liberals when in power.

Labour Party

Poverty and Progress impacted on the policies of the post-war Labour Government and Poverty and the Welfare State was used in a 1951 Labour party election manifesto headed Ending Poverty although this was without his knowledge.

Industrialist and philanthropist

Seebohm and the Rowntree's firm broke new ground in terms of industrial relations, welfare and management. Colonel Lyndall Urwick describes him as "the British management movement's greatest pioneer" in his book Golden Book of Management. His religion impacted on his business practices and he believed that the existence of companies which paid low wages was bad for the "nation's economy and humanity". With his father, Joseph Rowntree, a number of employee benefits were implemented including wage increases, an eight hour day and a pension scheme. In 1904 a doctor was employed to offer free advice to all employees and this was followed a short time later by the creation of a dental department with a resident dentist.

Seebohm oversaw the formation of an industrial psychology department in 1922 which pioneered the use of psychological recruitment tests in British industry. Employing psychologist Victor Moorrees who developed a new test, the form board selection test, to ascertain how well prospective employees would be able to fit chocolates into their box. He was also heavily involved in the National Institute of Industrial Psychology serving on its executive committee from its foundation in 1921, as chairman from 1940-47, until his resignation in 1949.

In 1947 when the British Institute of Management was created he became an Honorary Founder Member and in 1952 the first English person to become an Honorary Fellow of the Institute.


Rowntree died on 7 October 1954.



External links

See also

Works by Seebohm Rowntree
Poverty, A Study of Town Life''' | The Land | How the Labourer Lives | The Human Needs of Labour | The Human Factor in Business | Poverty and Progress | Poverty and the Welfare State | English Life and Leisure

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