Have the Quaker business leaders had their day?

By Emma Kasprzak
BBC News

image captionGeorge Cadbury cared for his workforce in a paternalistic way

Abraham Darby, George Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree were captains of industry, their names synonymous with the industrial revolution and the history of British business.

They were also known for their honesty and paternalistic way of caring for their workforce which stemmed from their Quaker beliefs.

But have the Quaker business leaders had their day?

In Britain today there are about 17,000 Quakers, and 400 Quaker meetings for worship each week.

Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, do not share a fixed set of beliefs but they do try to uphold a set of values, which they call testimonies, around themes such as truth and equality.

When Quakers went into business they tried to uphold these testimonies which often resulted in ethical businesses which looked after their workforce.

And many believe their reputation for honesty and fair dealing led to their success.

Decent beer

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation was set up in 1904 in York as the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust by Joseph Rowntree, a Quaker, businessman and philanthropist who with his brother developed a confectionery company.

Tony Stoller, chair of the foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, said Quakers initially went into business for two reasons.

He said: "Quakers got into business partly because they couldn't go into anything else and also because they were close-knit.

"When groups of people are excluded from certain aspects of public life they focus on others. In the 18th and 19th Century they wouldn't go into the military or the church, they were excluded from politics and large areas of public life so they found themselves going into industry."

He said the "close-knit" nature of the Quaker community at that time meant they supported each other and were also critical of each other ensuring they maintained high standards in their work. In fact a Quaker could be disowned if he was declared bankrupt.

Mr Stoller said contrary to popular belief Quakers did drink alcohol and many became brewers.

"Quakers were known to have such high standards of probity. Their measures were very good - decent beer was a good alternative to bad gin. Their beer wasn't watered down; there was no sawdust in their flour. They were regarded as very honourable," he said.

But the Quaker's time as business leaders has passed, according to Mr Stoller.

"By the beginning of the 20th Century Quakers were becoming liberalised," he said.

The liberalisation occurred as Quakers had the chance to enter professions more in keeping with their values.

Mr Stoller said: "They entered the caring professions; there was a shift into teaching, social work and medicine. At the same time the great Quaker businesses had run their course - a family business typically runs for three generations.

"Quakers didn't wring every last penny out of a business so they were appealing companies to be taken over."

image captionMany Quakers prospered in industries such as banking

Many former Quaker companies still exist, including manufacturers Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry's and Clarks, banks Barclays and Lloyds and the financial institution Friends Life which was formally Friends Provident.

Mr Stoller: "Arguably Quakers as big entrepreneurs have had their day because we have found other outlets that are easier to square with prevailing attitudes."

But some Quakers do still go into business.

Quakers and Business (Q&B) is a group made up of Quakers and non-Quakers who try to uphold Quaker principles in their work.

Paul Whitehouse, the group's treasurer, said: "Q&B was set up to encourage those Quakers in business (including those employed by businesses) to get together and give them mutual support, and to bring in those who were seeking support for an ethical approach to business, who might find the Quaker approach helpful.

"Quakers were very successful in business because they were very determined, hardworking people who used their initiative.

"But there were also failed Quaker businesses and banks; it's just that everyone remembers the successes."

He said although the group currently has about 140 members there are many Quakers who could be working in different industries they were not aware of.

But many Quakers still prefer other career options to entering the world of business.

Anne van Staveren, spokeswoman for Quakers in Britain, said: "I think there aren't famous Quaker captains of industry today, the major Quaker family firms have been taken over.

"There are small firms run along Quaker lines and there are successful Quakers in business."

But she said Quakers were very active in public life, in contrast to when they were blocked from entering many professions because non Anglicans were barred from attending university.

"When Quakers were excluded from public life they went into and prospered in business," she said.

"Nowadays we are not captains in industry but we are active in public life, notably, Quakers work for social change, for example through the Rowntree Trusts."

She added Quakers were involved in setting up non-governmental organisations including Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Anti-Slavery International, Campaign Against Arms Trade and Circles of Support and Accountability (a programme to help prevent sex offenders re-offending on release from prison).

Converted to Anglicanism

Ben Pink Dandelion is a tutor at Woodbrooke, a Quaker study centre based in Birmingham in the former family home of chocolate maker George Cadbury.

He said the options for Quakers widened with The Universities Tests Act 1871 which meant non Anglicans could attend university.

image captionWoodbrooke is a Quaker study centre based in the former family home of George Cadbury

"There were a lot more options available to Quakers and they got into education in quite a big way and became more involved in worldly affairs," he said.

"The other shift from the 20th Century was more Quakers joined (the faith) as adults rather than being brought up in big Quaker dynasties. A lot of businesses were highly inter-related with strategic marriages to secure family businesses before that.

"With a greater number of Quakers coming in as adults who were not part of the business world that changed and it's estimated that a third of Quakers today are teachers, while 20 per cent are in the caring profession."

He added: "Also the other thing that happened was some of the big Quaker business leaders converted to Anglicanism."

He said some Quakers decided that their look, clothing and other aspects of their religion at the time held them back so converted to fit in with the business elite of the day.

But he said business itself is not embraced so readily by Quakers today.

He said: "People tend to join (the faith) as adults in their 40s and 50s and while they might have a business background they're more likely to be teachers or social workers.

"Today Quakers are very cautious about capitalism."

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