The Rowntree Archives: Poverty, Philanthropy and the Birth of Social Science

On 1st August 2017 the Borthwick Institute launched a new 27 month project ‘The Rowntree Archives: Poverty, Philanthropy and the Birth of Social Science.’  The project, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, will arrange, describe, publicise and make publicly available the archives of the four Rowntree Trusts, the Rowntree family, the research papers of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and the follow up research into Seebohm’s groundbreaking study of poverty undertaken by Professor Sir Tony Atkinson in the 1970s.

For many the name of Rowntree is synonymous with chocolate and confectionary.  The Rowntree Cocoa Works, founded by the family in York in the nineteenth century, produced internationally famous brands such as Kit Kat, Aero and Smarties.  But equally central to the Rowntree name was the family’s commitment to philanthropy, social welfare and social action and it is this crucial aspect that underpins this new and ambitious archive project.  

From the pioneering empirical research of Joseph and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree into poverty and working conditions in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to the work of the Rowntree Trusts established by Joseph in 1904; the Rowntrees have helped to shape public attitudes to inequality and played a significant role in the the foundation of the welfare state and the development of social science as a discipline.  Their archives offer a unique opportunity to trace influential ideas about poverty, public health, welfare and political reform from their genesis in private notes, correspondence and minutes to their impact on public opinion, political action and scientific methodology.

The project will take in existing Rowntree archives that have yet to be arranged and described to modern archival standards as well as sorting, arranging and describing as yet unlisted material.  The completed catalogues will be contextualised by the creation of archival ‘authority records’, giving the histories of the people, families and organisations mentioned in the records, and by the creation of detailed subject and place access terms, under the guidance of an expert Project Board.  The result will be a substantial and internationally important body of material in one place, with enormous research potential, accessible through the Institute’s online catalogue Borthcat and open to all.

The project will run until November 2019 and you can follow updates through the Borthwick Blog and through our Twitter and Facebook pages.