The archives of the Rowntree Trusts

Sally-Anne Shearn, Collections Information Archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, explains the history of the archives of the different Rowntree trusts.

Name of archive collection:  Joseph Rowntree Foundation Archive, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Archive and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Archive

Can you give us a brief overview of the various charities linked to the Rowntree family?

The three original Rowntree trusts were founded in 1904 by the York Quaker philanthropist and confectionery manufacturer Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925).  Believing that ‘money is generally best spent by persons during their lifetime’, Joseph invested half of his wealth, in the form of Rowntree company shares, in the creation of the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust, later the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF); the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT); and the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, later the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT). 

A photo of Joseph Rowntree
Joseph Rowntree. Courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives

Rowntree tasked the Trusts with seeking out the ‘underlying causes of weakness or evil’ in society, rather than ‘remedying the more superficial manifestations’, and the Trusts have made significant contributions to social reform.  The three Trusts shared Trustees, the majority of whom were members of the Rowntree family until the 1950s, and continued to draw the bulk of their income from their Rowntree company shares until the 1970s.

Tell us a little about how these collections came to be at the Borthwick Institute for Archives?

The Rowntree Trusts were instrumental in the foundation of the University of York and as such the Trusts and the Borthwick Institute have always enjoyed a close relationship.  The earliest Rowntree records were deposited at the Borthwick in the early 1980s and since then frequent deposits of family, company and trust records have followed.  However there remained no complete catalogues available for the full range of archives until 2017-2019 when a Wellcome Trust funded project saw the creation of new, up to date online catalogues for the Rowntree Trusts and Rowntree family archives for the first time.

What is significant about the collection?

The archives provide a comprehensive record of the work of three pioneering Trusts which have made important contributions to the fields of poverty studies, housing law, social justice, peace and international relations, and ethical investment in the UK and overseas.  In many cases the Trusts provided crucial early funding to organisations that went on to become significant forces for change, including the Runnymede Trust, the Child Poverty Action Group and Amnesty International.  Moreover the preservation at the Borthwick of the Rowntree Trust archives, alongside those of the Rowntree company and Rowntree family, allow researchers to understand each archive in its full context, showing the strong interrelationships between family, trust and company and the ways in which these together brought significant influence to bear on social, political and industrial developments.

Can you give us some examples of the sort of sources researchers might find in the collection?

The archives include the administrative records of the Trusts, including detailed minute books, accounts, annual reports, and regular reviews of the Trusts’ past, present and future work.  Each archive also contains extremely valuable project files, recording the work of the Trusts from 1904 to (at present) the late 20th century.  For the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this includes records relating to the foundation, planning and development of the model village of New Earswick outside York, as well as the JRF’s pioneering work in the field of housing law and its library of published social research reports.  The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust’s project files cover its work in social investigation and welfare, peace and international relations, education, racial justice and Irish and African affairs, whilst the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust’s work focuses strongly on political change and its project files include detailed papers concerning its funding of the British Liberal Party amongst other causes.

Black and white postcard showing New Earswick village, image shows cottage style houses with washing hanging outside.
Postcard of New Earswick VIllage, Courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Do you have any top tips for researchers accessing this collection?

Use all of the Rowntree archives.  In the early decades especially there was little separation between the company, trusts and family and as such there is a great deal of crossover between the archives.

Use the short histories of the organisations and people related to the Rowntree archives available on the online catalogue Borthcat.  They are a useful way into the archives and provide links to related records you might not have known about.

Rowntree archives at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, The University of York

The Rowntree Society is an independent charity based in York which aims to built knowledge about the histories of the Rowntree family, company and trusts and their continuing relevance today.

About Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at UCL
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