Quakers and Capitalism in the Nineteenth Century

Have Quakers always championed workers in their struggle with their capitalist bosses? Surprisingly, the answer is “no, they have not” as you will discover in this excerpt from The Philadelphia Quakers in the Industrial Age 1865 -1920 by Philip S. Benjamin:

Harpers_Burning_Freight_Cars

This image depicts the destruction of Pullman cars in response to industrialist, George Pullman, laying off workers and slashing wages during an economic downturn.

Literary flights involving descriptions of arcadian beauty appealed to many Quakers who found the problem of urban life too depressing or too difficult of solution. But others demanded more realism on the subject. Haverford professor Rufus Jones tried to persuade Friends that a rural environment was no “Garden of Eden. But though he warned that rural religious life was “lower” than most people supposed, Jones had to admit that Quakerism was better adapted to rural communities than large urban centers. While the 1904 editors of The Friends’ Intelligencer viewed rural life and farming as ideals, they argued, like Jones, that Quakers had been satisfied to condemn the city instead of trying to save it. Because most people lived in the cities out of necessity, the editors believed it better to improve housing and sanitary conditions instead of trying to move people out to vacant land. Their demand for more serious study of urban economic and social conditions reflected the influence of the Progressive forces at work in the social settlements. [Editor’s note: Couldn’t the same be said today about the contemporary Quaker’s alacrity to criticize the business world but reluctance to engage in it. If you abandon a key post in society, then do you have the right to criticize the conduct of those who occupy it?]

We have already seen how the commercial temper of the modern city challenged the tenets of the Quaker business ethic. But the danger s Friends saw in industrial Philadelphia were not confined to the banks and brokerage houses of Center City. The great mass of the laboring classes which populated the rapidly growing area north of Spring Garden Street as well as the mean row house districts of South Philadelphia posed further worries for those who hankered after a smaller, more socially homogeneous city. The old deference of working men to their employers in a simpler era gave way to harsh confrontations between organized laborers and management. The critical spirit which Friends had developed toward postwar commercial leaders did not predispose them to take the side of the workingmen in clashes over wages and working conditions. They were truly devoted to the Gospel of Work, believing it to be the fountain of all human intelligence without which men would easily be demoralized. When the labor union leaders began to talk about an eight-hour day, Friends began to worry over the appearance of this demand of “an underlying assumption that labor is an undesirable thing.” Friends may have opposed economic expansion which was too rapid, but their commitment the concept of production itself was strong enough enough to prompt them to view any strike as an immoral interference with man’s basic economic function. They deplored work stoppages because they deprived laborers in related industries from gaining a livelihood. They fretted too over capital denied the opportunity to earn a profit in strike periods.

Friends’ love of pacific relations strengthened their antilabor predisposition. As workers rioted against railroad wage cuts by destroying property and battling with police, what sympathy there was for their cause in Quaker circles evaporated. Some in Philadelphia began to think of workers as an anarchic bomb bent on pillage and destructions; they even favored brute force and weaponry as the only way to check the violence. And their anger led some to urge the death penalty for convicted rioters. Yet Philadelphia in these years experienced only the mildest sorts of labor strife as “law and order” forces in the city government employed large numbers of police to confront strikers. More in line with pacific Quaker ideals was the suggestion that arbitration be used to settle labor disputes. Rufus Jones urged this solution during the railroad strike of 1894, although he viewed the workers’ tactics as “ill advised and radically wrong.” A decade and a half later, when a transit strike against the Philadelphia Transportation Company crippled the city, Jones served on a special panel of religious leaders which recommended settlement by arbitration. With such procedures older Orthodox Friends had no sympathy. The aging Joshua Baily believed that the P.T.C. could employ anyone it wished and discharge workers whenever it thought necessary. He declared that the employees of Joshua L. Baily & Company were not permitted to dictate how he ran his business; if they tried, he would quickly replace them.

While considerable agreement with such conservative views could be found in most Protestant churches in the late nineteenth century, a small minority of churchmen grew more sympathetic to labor in the wake of the force used against strikers. It prompted even some to question the capitalist system. Within Philadelphia Quakerism hardly anyone doubted the efficacy of that system until the twentieth century.         

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Where Are Quaker Business Men Today?

 

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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.

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.”

Scott Bader  —   Chemical company Scott Bader was formed by Swiss Quaker Ernest Bader in London in 1920.
In 1940 the company moved to Wollaston, Northamptonshire, to escape the Blitz.
The company employs 600 people, two of whom are Quakers, and has sites in France, Croatia, South Africa, the USA, China and Dubai.
The company makes resins, gelcoats, adhesives and pastes that are used in everything from boat manufacture to cosmetics.
In 1951 Ernest Bader placed the entire company in the hands of a charitable trust. The move ensured the business could never be bought out and that workers could have a say in how it was run.
To this day the company will not manufacture anything that could be used for warfare or violence. It also follows a set of Quaker principles.
Philip Bruce, the CEO, said: “Our view is to live within our means. Our job is to take the business and nurture it.
“When I retire I can pass it on to the next generation and keep employment in this place.”

Many 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.”

By abandoning business for the more consonant professions, have we Quakers surrendered the moral high ground which was ours a century ago?

Quakers in Business

 

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Quakers have been involved in business since the start of the movement in 17th century England. Most early Quakers were involved in small-scale local trade, as farmers, craftspeople and artisans.

As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in Britain in the 18th century, many Quakers poured their energies and talents into innovative business ventures. Like other nonconformists, they were barred from university, and most professions, so business was a natural outlet for their talents. They also often had ready access to advice and support, and start-up resources, within their community: Quakers had become a close-knit network of mutually supportive families, many of whom were involved in interconnected businesses.

Quakers sought enterprises that were non-military and also useful – the ‘innocent trades’. They pioneered the mass production of iron, and there were mining and metal production concerns, all central to the early Industrial Revolution. Alongside older occupations such as wool and cloth production, farming, craft and shop keeping, they made domestic china, cast iron utensils, engine and railway components, medicines, chocolate, and much else.

The Quaker network and associated business activity were not confined to Britain. Both were increasingly transatlantic. During the 17th and 18th centuries many British, Irish and German Quakers went to the new colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America, especially to Pennsylvania, where Penn’s Holy Experiment was under way. There was also considerable Quaker missionary work during this time, and sizable Quaker communities developed in Rhode Island, Nantucket and elsewhere, as well as Pennsylvania. Philadelphia merchants traded in both directions with their counterparts in Britain, in many sectors. Nurserymen traded in plants. The Nantucket whaling industry, providing fuel for lamps, was largely a Quaker enterprise.

From the beginning, Quakers brought new standards of truth and honesty to the conduct of business, putting into practice the testimony to Integrity and Truth. People realised they could trust Quakers with their money and in the 18th century this led to the rapid growth of Quaker banks such as Barclays and Lloyds. Quaker communities oversaw local Quaker businesses in order to maintain these standards and prevent over-indebtedness and bankruptcy. They also regulated the master-servant and employer-employee relationships in the interest of equality and fairness. People who fell short of these standards were disowned if they did not change their ways.

In the nineteenth century there were more changes. The US was independent, and expanding westwards, and new Quaker communities emerged. In Britain and the US opportunities in politics, academia and the professions were opening up to Quakers, and many took advantage of this. Some wealthy Quaker businessmen resisted community oversight, and left. There were some Quaker bank failures due to speculation and over-extension. Nevertheless several family businesses became enormous and thriving concerns – such as Clark’s shoes, Western Union, the chocolate manufacturers (Frys, Rowntrees, Cadburys). Quaker employers did much to improve the general living conditions of their employees, building houses, schools and infirmaries for their benefit. Some became involved in general issues of social justice (like the anti-slavery campaign), and in philanthropy.

By the 20th century, things had changed again. Changes in company law meant that businesses on both sides of the Atlantic were usually public companies rather than family concerns, and far fewer Quakers were involved. Some family wealth was channelled into Quaker philanthropy and there are several charitable trusts.

A large community of Friends Churches had begun to grow in East Africa, especially Kenya, at the turn of the century, and today many of them run small local businesses to generate funds for Quaker work. In Africa and elsewhere there are micro-credit schemes, community projects, and some initiatives focused on building business skills.

With a few exceptions, such as the international Scott Bader Commonwealth, most Quaker enterprises nowadays are small-scale. Work on business issues focuses on ethics and governance, (including ethical investment and business education), and there is also QUNO work on the global business framework. QUNO Geneva has worked on Labour Standards with the International Labour Office, and helps to bring about a more even playing field in international trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation, through capacity building work with developing country missions.

Abraham Darby and the Iron Bridge

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Abraham Darby I (1678 – 1717) was the son of a farmer and locksmith, from Staffordshire, England.  He was apprenticed to Jonathan Freeth, who made malt mills (for brewing beer).   In 1699 he married Mary Sergeant and moved to Bristol, where he set up his own malt mill business. However he soon shifted to brass casting and joined other Quakers to found the Bristol Brass Company.

Darby clearly had an inquiring and inventive mind, and his interest in metals didn’t stop at brass. Dutch craftsmen were using cast iron to make hollowware (pots and pans) and he went to the Netherlands in 1704 to study their methods. He set up a small ironworks and he and fellow Quaker John Thomas began to experiment with different (and cheaper) ways of making cast iron hollowware. In1707 they patented their innovative sand casting method: now they could produce cast iron hollowware at a fraction of the cost of their Dutch counterparts.

In 1709 Abraham Darby I moved to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, on the Welsh border, where all the raw materials he needed were close at hand. He took over the derelict furnace there, and rebuilt it. He started to experiment again, this time with fuel. Soon they were using coking coal instead of charcoal to smelt the iron: coking coal was plentiful, had fewer impurities, and produced a better quality of metal, so it was a vast improvement.  Although not the first coke fired furnace in Europe it was the first to remain productive for several years.  This change of fuel was a major breakthrough and the consequent mass production of iron certainly helped accelerate the industrial revolution.

Abraham Darby I died in 1717 when his son Abraham Darby II (1711–1763) was only six. His mother Mary partnered with fellow Quakers Thomas Goldney and her son-in-law Richard Ford, to form the first Coalbrookdale Company.  Mary died a year later so Richard Ford protected the interests of young Abraham until he could join the company in 1732.

Abraham Darby II was an innovator like his father. Within ten years he had solved the problem of water supply for the furnace by introducing a steam engine to recycle used water. His initiative enabled the company to expand through taking leases on other furnaces in the area.  After Ford’s death in 1745 Abraham II took over the management of the firm.  In 1757 another Quaker, Richard Reynolds of Bristol, (who later married Darby’s daughter Hannah) was taken into partnership.  He helped Abraham with his expansion plans and made a key innovation himself. Packhorses had been towing vast quantities of iron and coal along wooden rails, which soon wore out: Reynolds replaced the wooden rails with longer-lasting cast iron ones in 1767, setting a precedent for all future railways.

Abraham Darby III (1750 – 1789) was only thirteen when his father died in 1763, so Richard Reynolds took control.  Abraham joined the firm in 1768 followed a few years later by his younger brother Samuel.

All three Darbys, and Richard Reynolds, were good employers. Coalbrookedale had a school, workers’ cottages, and lovely country walks. The ironworks paid higher wages than the local potteries or mining.  In times of food shortages Abraham III bought up farms and grew food for his workers.

The 1770s was a period of expansion for Coalbrookdale, and a bridge across the river Severn was badly needed.  Shares were issued to raise the £3,200 required to build the world’s first cast iron bridge, using an innovative arch design, and Darby agreed to fund any overspend. Although it had been predicted that 300 tons of iron would be needed (costing £7 a ton), 379 tons were eventually used. This and other cost overruns amounted to nearly £3000 over and above what had been anticipated.   Darby bore most of the cost over-run, and was in debt for the rest of his short life.

The bridge was completed in 1781 and made Coalbrookdale famous.  The village of Ironbridge sprang up and the area became known as Ironbridge Gorge.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The bridge and some Darby cottages still remain.

 

Abraham Darby I (1678 – 1717) was the son of a farmer and locksmith, from Staffordshire, England.  He was apprenticed to Jonathan Freeth, who made malt mills (for brewing beer).   In 1699 he married Mary Sergeant and moved to Bristol, where he set up his own malt mill business. However he soon shifted to brass casting and joined other Quakers to found the Bristol Brass Company.

Darby clearly had an inquiring and inventive mind, and his interest in metals didn’t stop at brass. Dutch craftsmen were using cast iron to make hollowware (pots and pans) and he went to the Netherlands in 1704 to study their methods. He set up a small ironworks and he and fellow Quaker John Thomas began to experiment with different (and cheaper) ways of making cast iron hollowware. In1707 they patented their innovative sand casting method: now they could produce cast iron hollowware at a fraction of the cost of their Dutch counterparts.

In 1709 Abraham Darby I moved to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, on the Welsh border, where all the raw materials he needed were close at hand. He took over the derelict furnace there, and rebuilt it. He started to experiment again, this time with fuel. Soon they were using coking coal instead of charcoal to smelt the iron: coking coal was plentiful, had fewer impurities, and produced a better quality of metal, so it was a vast improvement.  Although not the first coke fired furnace in Europe it was the first to remain productive for several years.  This change of fuel was a major breakthrough and the consequent mass production of iron certainly helped accelerate the industrial revolution.

Abraham Darby I died in 1717 when his son Abraham Darby II (1711–1763) was only six. His mother Mary partnered with fellow Quakers Thomas Goldney and her son-in-law Richard Ford, to form the first Coalbrookdale Company.  Mary died a year later so Richard Ford protected the interests of young Abraham until he could join the company in 1732.

Abraham Darby II was an innovator like his father. Within ten years he had solved the problem of water supply for the furnace by introducing a steam engine to recycle used water. His initiative enabled the company to expand through taking leases on other furnaces in the area.  After Ford’s death in 1745 Abraham II took over the management of the firm.  In 1757 another Quaker, Richard Reynolds of Bristol, (who later married Darby’s daughter Hannah) was taken into partnership.  He helped Abraham with his expansion plans and made a key innovation himself. Packhorses had been towing vast quantities of iron and coal along wooden rails, which soon wore out: Reynolds replaced the wooden rails with longer-lasting cast iron ones in 1767, setting a precedent for all future railways.

Abraham Darby III (1750 – 1789) was only thirteen when his father died in 1763, so Richard Reynolds took control.  Abraham joined the firm in 1768 followed a few years later by his younger brother Samuel.

All three Darbys, and Richard Reynolds, were good employers. Coalbrookedale had a school, workers’ cottages, and lovely country walks. The ironworks paid higher wages than the local potteries or mining.  In times of food shortages Abraham III bought up farms and grew food for his workers.

The 1770s was a period of expansion for Coalbrookdale, and a bridge across the river Severn was badly needed.  Shares were issued to raise the £3,200 required to build the world’s first cast iron bridge, using an innovative arch design, and Darby agreed to fund any overspend. Although it had been predicted that 300 tons of iron would be needed (costing £7 a ton), 379 tons were eventually used. This and other cost overruns amounted to nearly £3000 over and above what had been anticipated.   Darby bore most of the cost over-run, and was in debt for the rest of his short life.

The bridge was completed in 1781 and made Coalbrookdale famous.  The village of Ironbridge sprang up and the area became known as Ironbridge Gorge.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The bridge and some Darby cottages still remain.