Living Wage Week

By Alex Hutchinson, Nestlé UK Archivist & Historian

07 November 2014 See comments (0)

Here at Nestlé we’ve become the first FMCG company to become a Living Wage employer in the UK. It’s an achievement that we’re proud of, but our confectionery division has a long history of involvement in not just the Living Wage movement, but also the fight against in-work poverty.

In the UK the Living Wage is set by the Living Wage Foundation and calculated by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. They’re doing pioneering work, but they’re not the first organisation to calculate a living wage in this country; they’re actually following in the footsteps of one of our past company chairmen.

Seebohm Rowntree and his father were both passionate about the idea of finding and tackling the root causes of poverty.  In 1899 Seebohm, with his training as a scientist, decided to investigate poverty in an analytical way. Seebohm hired a group of proto-social workers and sent them to interview every family in York that didn’t have a servant, to find out what life was like for working-class people.

The general assumption in Britain at the time was that poor people deserved to be poor because they were feckless, or God had made them poor. Even the famous old English hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful included a verse (rarely used now) that implied that God made you to be rich or he made you to be poor:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Seebohm Rowntree, on the other hand, didn't believe that poverty was a result of God, immorality or laziness. Rowntree graded poverty according to the difficulties the family members were in and he worked out that different levels of poverty had different causes. The principle causes were ill-health, unsanitary housing, and low wages: Seebohm decided to tackle all three.

In 1899 over 27% of the population of York were living below the poverty line. We know this because Seebohm Rowntree published the results of his investigation in his book Poverty, A Study of Town Life. Winston Churchill read it and said that it “fair made his hair stand on end”.

He had chosen York because it was representative of the nation: it had slums in Walmgate and Hungate, and lavish townhouses on the Mount; York offered a good cross-section of society. It has been said that “the history of York is the history of England”, and in respect to the glaring social/economic inequalities, York was typical of the rest of the country in the Victorian era.

Seebohm sent his representatives to interview over 11,500 families across the city. These interviews were trying to establish what level of poverty people were living in, and based on their results, Seebohm established that in order to keep body and soul together in York, a family would need an income of 21 shillings 8d. Seebohm claimed that if a family could live in complete self-denial, and with perfect management of money, they could just survive on this amount.

“A family living upon the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a half-penny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel or give any help to a neighbour which costs money. They cannot save, nor can they join a sick club or trade union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco and must drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or her children, the character of the family wardrobe as for the family diet must be governed by the regulation, ‘nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health, and what must be bought must be the plainest description.’ Should a child fall ill, it must be attended by the parish doctor: should it die, it must be buried by the parish. Finally, the wage earner must never be absent from his work for single day.” Seebohm Rowntree

This was the best achievable standard of living for a family with an income of 21 shillings: the average wage for a labourer in York was from 18 shillings to 21 shillings. Seebohm established that in York in 1899, 27% of the population were living below this poverty level because they were working for low wages.

Equally prominent in Seebohm’s report were those who were in poverty because they were ill and could not work. For those people, Seebohm fought to see the creation of the welfare state.

Seebohm persuaded his father (Joseph Rowntree) that the creation of a model village would be a direct means of addressing another one of the key causes of poverty. Poverty caused by ill-health was often a result of poor housing. Slum dwellers often shared lavatories and water taps with the rest of the slum dwellings in their court.  Seebohm saw that one solution to poverty would be more affordable, sanitary housing. Residents would be less likely to become ill and therefore less likely to slip into the poverty trap.

In 1902 Joseph Rowntree bought some land, one mile to the north of his York Chocolate factory, and in 1904 residents began moving in to this model, garden village called New Earswick. The village is still run by the charity that Joseph left it to, and they continue to provide social housing in a green environment.

Seebohm revisited his poverty study, conducting new studies in the 1930s and 50s. His findings were optimistic; primary poverty had decreased and the slums that caused so much disease had mostly been cleared. Unemployment was still a problem, but Seebohm believed that when the new increases to welfare payments were introduced, poverty would be significantly reduced even further.

The work of the Rowntrees did not end with their deaths. Joseph Rowntree, with the support of his son Seebohm, set up charitable trusts to continue to build affordable, sanitary housing; and to investigate the causes of poverty. The latter charity, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is still campaigning for the Living Wage to this day.

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