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Joseph Rowntree charities pledge action to repair impact of historical ‘deeply disturbing practices’

Melanie May | 20 April 2021 | News

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The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, and The Rowntree Society have issued apologies for historical ‘deeply disturbing practices’ by Rowntree companies that have come to light, and outlined actions they will take.

This includes a pledge by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to work towards repairing its impact through a plan of restorative justice.

The extent of the practices, which include the purchase of raw materials produced by enslaved people, benefitting from colonial indenture, and allegations of racial discrimination and anti-union tactics at the firm’s South African subsidiary in the 1980s, came to light during an investigation begun by The Rowntree Society in February this year, and exploring the Rowntree company’s historic global supply chains.


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It states that while its past had not been actively hidden before now, academic and popular histories have focused primarily on the contributions of the Rowntree family and businesses to civic philanthropy and social reform, with the presence of empire acknowledged but its meanings not confronted. However, the Black Lives Matter movement and growing global recognition of long histories of systemic racism led it to prioritise research into this area.

The investigation has identified five areas for further research in order to create a fuller understanding of how Rowntree businesses benefitted from slavery, unfree labour and other forms of racial exploitation during the eras of colonialism and apartheid. These include working to understand the extent to which the use of indentured workers facilitated the growth of the Rowntree businesses between 1822 and 1920, and further investigating alleged racial discrimination at Wilson Rowntree, Rowntree Mackintosh’s fully-owned subsidiary in South Africa, including the activities of Rowntree Mackintosh, and Wilson Rowntree management.

In a statement, The Rowntree Society says:

“Our initial findings show that the company was an active agent in colonial economies in Africa and the Caribbean across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They indicate that the Rowntree businesses benefited from unfree labour systems which caused harm to people of colour.


“If we are to continue to be inspired by Joseph Rowntree’s belief that religious, political and social work should seek to address the ‘underlying causes’ of problems and not merely their ‘superficial manifestations’, then it is clear that we need to confront uncomfortable questions about the Rowntree family and company’s participation in colonialism and racialised exploitative working practices.


“We will continue to work closely with our colleagues at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to explore global historical perspectives on Rowntree commercial and philanthropic activities. With funding from the Trusts, and in collaboration with academic partners, we will develop options for further academic research arising from our preliminary findings. In addition to this work, we will continue to pursue and support projects locally, regionally and nationally which explore the legacies of welfare and social justice achieved by the Rowntree family.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) Trustees and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) Board also said in their statement that they were deeply sorry for these ‘shameful practices’, and committed to recognising and learning from the past, as well as to action to help in the repair of their ‘harmful impacts:

“We are deeply sorry that the origins of our endowment have roots in shameful practices that caused deep suffering and created enduring harms.


“The JRF Trustees and JRHT Board are committed to recognising and learning from every part of our history. It is especially important to us that the experiences of people whose labour was taken under duress and slavery should occupy a more prominent place in the Rowntree story. We should have done this much earlier.


Therefore, alongside the other independently endowed Rowntree trusts we will fund the Rowntree Society to investigate this part of our history more fully. We know that the harms caused by these practices are still creating injustice and suffering today. Many of the injustices faced by black and minority ethnic people in the UK are fuelled by attitudes similar to those used during imperialism to justify the worst forms of exploitation.


“Inspired by the long history of social movements – including Black Lives Matter – that have rightly challenged the world to do more to tackle racism and its effects, we know we must work harder to achieve lasting change. We cannot truly be an anti-poverty organisation unless we are also an anti-racist organisation.


“We also undertake this knowing that, as the financial beneficiaries of our forbears’ past actions, we have a particular obligation to contribute to repairing their harmful impacts.”

While at an early stage in their thinking they anticipate adopting different areas of focus alongside action to increase their own internal diversity across the group. The Foundation will work with others to make stretching plans to embed race equality within its work developing solutions to poverty and building public and political will for more action, which will include interrogating how it can better use its financial resources and voice and influence as an investor, funder, and partner. The Trust will explore how it can work with other housing associations and care providers as part of a coalition for positive change in the sector and in the communities it serves.

In its statement, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust referred to the past practices of the Rowntree company as ‘abhorrent’ and also set out its plans for change, saying:

“Moving forward, we are committing to change and to building a positive new legacy. We recognise the systemic nature of racism in the UK and how inequalities of power faced by black and minority ethnic people reinforces racial inequality. Correcting this is integral to our mission to address the underlying causes of political inequality. The Reform Trust is deeply committed to building a democracy in which everyone can participate, rectifying the shocking levels of underrepresentation of ethnic minority people as voters and in positions of power.


“This journey will require us to make stretching plans to embed race equality within our work to improve the diversity of our Board, staff and networks and to audit, publish and increase funding for grant making and programmes that tackle racial injustice and political inequality.  We are also reviewing our investment policy and will examine what contribution our investments can make as part of this review. We will start by aiming to increase funding in this space. We are in the early stages of this work, aware that we need to listen to the voices of black and minority ethnic people and that we need to be open to challenge, transparent and accountable for the progress we make.”