STAND on the corner of Bootham and St Mary’s and you will find yourself facing a solid, imposing building of drab brown brick. Despite its size, it is oddly forgettable in appearance: you may have walked past here countless times without really noticing it.
This is, however, a house with a history. It was built by Joseph Rowntree senior – father of the chocolate magnate and philanthropist Joseph Junior – in the 1850s. And over the next 70 years, several generations of the Rowntree family lived, worked and died here.
In fact, there were so many comings and goings by different members of the Rowntree family at one point that it was almost like a Quaker commune, jokes Bridget Morris, of the Rowntree Society.
The house, known by the Rowntree family as ‘Top House’ because of its position at the ‘top’ of St Mary’s – was built in 1851 on land that was previously an orchard by Joseph senior: a “grocer, coffee and tea dealer” with a shop at 28 Pavement. He moved in a couple of years later with his wife Sarah and three boys – John Stephenson, Joseph Junior and Henry Isaac.
Joseph senior died a few years later, whereupon his widow, Sarah, split the house in two. She continued to live in the front half, while Joseph Junior and his new wife, Julia Seebohm, moved into the back half.
Over the next 60 years, various members of the family moved in and out. Joseph’s first wife, Julia, and his six-year-old daughter, Lily, both died here; many of the Rowntree children went to school at Bootham School just over the road; and Bridget believes that both Joseph’s famous ‘Memorandum of 1904’, in which he created the three Rowntree trusts that still exist today and much of Seebohm Rowntree’s famous work on poverty and unemployment, were written here. “There is evidence that Seebohm used it as a base for his research,” she says.
Unless you went to Bootham School, however, you are very unlikely ever to have been able to see around inside this house. In the 1920s, Joseph gave the house to the school, and until last year it was used by boy boarders.
Next weekend, however, as part of the York Residents Festival (what used to be known as Residents First) the house will be open to the public.
It will be well worth a visit. Go through the elegant porticoed front door and you find yourself in a stunning entrance hall. An oddly beautiful, geometric staircase winds up through three floors to a glass ceiling far above.
Large, elegant rooms open off it from every floor, some looking out over the garden. The effect of the design is strangely Spartan, almost ascetic, yet beautiful. Nobody quite seems to know who the architect was, says Bridget. “But I’d like to think it was a Quaker architect. There is something plain yet pleasing about the design.”
The back part of the house, where Joseph and his new wife Julia lived in the 1850s, is more of a rabbit warren, and this part won’t be open to the public.
But there will still be plenty to see.
The Rowntree Society, with the help of Bootham School, is laying on a number of special events. A giant cut-out of Joseph Rowntree will greet you as you come in and there will be a number of exhibitions scattered around the building – showing the history of the building; photographs of York then and now of places that have a Rowntree connection; 1850 Ordnance Survey maps of York; and an exhibition, in what used to be Joseph senior and Sarah’s library, showing what life was like in a Quaker household.
In one room, the recent BBC documentary A Life Without Work, based on Seebohm’s work, will show on a continual loop – and there will be a box for visitors to post their own Rowntree-related memories. All this plus exhibitions by three local schools – Joseph Rowntree, The Mount and Bootham.
With Bootham School now having put the house on the market, this may be your last chance to see inside.
“Penn House carries with it a unique place in York’s history,” says Bootham School headmaster Jonathan Taylor. “I hope visitors will enjoy this glimpse into the lives of one of York’s most historically significant families.”
Penn House is just one of a host of treats lined up for York residents during this year’s Residents Festival.
You can see behind the scenes of York Minster’s bell tower, take a guided tour of the Roman legionary fortress, get your hands dirty doing a bit of archaeology, visit the Regimental Museum or catch an update on how York is doing in its bid for World Heritage Status.
Altogether, there will be more than 100 free and discounted tours and visitor attractions taking part in the week-long event, which is sponsored by CPP and supported by the city council.
“Every year we try to make the residents festival bigger and better,” says Gillian Cruddas of Visit York. “We’re delighted so many of York’s attractions, restaurants and shops are involved.”
The festival runs from January 29 to February 4. There are too many things happening to list them all here, so we have included a few highlights only. The full programme is available at visityork.org or by picking up a Residents Festival leaflet from the Visit York Information Centre at 1 Museum Street.
Some residents festival highlights
Black Swan Folk Club, Peasholme Green, Sunday, January 30, 2pm to 6pm
Sunday Afternoon Folk – Entertainment from some of the singers associated with York’s award-winning folk club. Free to YORKCard holders: 01904 632922.
Haunted, 35 Stonegate, Monday January 31 to Friday February 4, 10.30am- 5.30pm
A real haunted house more than 700 years old. Last entry 30 minutes before close. Not suited to those with limited mobility due to stairs.
Exploring York, St Helen’s Square, January 29-30, 11am and 2pm
An entertaining guided walk presenting stories and images about York’s development and the lifestyle of its people through the ages. 07981 242764.
Rhymes of the Times, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, Saturday January 29, 7.30pm
Rhymes of the Times: A satirical look at current affairs written and performed by award-winning York poet Anneliese Emmans Dean Free entry. Tickets on the door.
Monks of Micklegate Exhibition, Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate, January 29-30, 10am-4pm
Visit the Monks of Micklegate interactive exhibition based in Holy Trinity, Micklegate and explore the life and achievements of the Benedictine monks.
York Minster – Stoneyard, Monday 31, 9am, 11am, 3pm
See carvers and masons preparing stones for restoring the Minster. Tours are limited so as not to disturb the work in progress Pre-booking required. 0844 939 0015.
Quilt Museum and Gallery, St Anthony’s Hall, Peasholme Green, Saturday January 29, 10am-4pm
Free admission to exhibitions 10am-4pm. Free workshops 10.30am-12.30pm & 1.30pm-3.30pm (pre booking required) Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. 01904 613242.
York Minster – Bell Towers, Saturday January 29, 10am, 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3pm
The York Minster Bell Ringers will be giving behind the scenes tours of the Bell Tower for residents. The minimum age is eight, children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. As the climb involves over 100 steps you will be asked to read health and safety restrictions before booking. Pre-booking required. 0844 939 0015.
DIG – An Archaeological Adventure, St Saviourgate, January, 29-30,10am-4pm
Pre-booking is essential due to limited time slots. Visitors can grab a trowel and get their hands dirty whilst going on a fascinating archaeological exploration of Roman, Viking, Medieval and Victorian artefacts. 01904 615505.
York Dungeon, 12 Clifford Street, January, 29-30, 10am-5pm and January 31 to February 6, 10.30am-4.30pm
A feast of fun with history’s horrible bits. Residents must hold one YORKCard per person in order to gain entry. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. 01904 632599