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Rowntrees memories shared
ASK a hundred former Rowntrees workers what they remember most about the great York chocolate company and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. They will have certain things in common, however.
Affection for an employer which looked after them and their families; a yearning for the sense of belonging that being a Rowntrees employee gave: and possibly a bit of nostalgia for a time when the world seemed a simpler place and a pack of fruit pastilles was a real treat.
The Rowntree Society did exactly that: ask former employees and ordinary people in York for their memories of the chocolate firm which played such a big part in the life of York in the last century.
Starting at an open day on January last year at Penn House – the former home of the Rowntree family on the corner of Bootham and St Mary’s – the society began to invite people to write their memories on small cards and post them in special collection boxes.
More than 600 memories were gathered altogether. These were collated to form a travelling exhibition which spent a year or so at different locations in York – including the Castle Museum, The Retreat and the York Explore library learning centre, among others.
There were a number of common themes, says Bridget Morris, the Rowntree Society’s executive secretary.
“One of the things that came out was how personally and deeply people in York feel for the Rowntree roots. And I think there was a deep nostalgia, and a sense of how the company cared for the workforce. If people got sick, they were looked after.
“There was a sense of belonging. If you were one of them (a Rowntree employee) then you were all right, you were looked after from the cradle to the grave.”
The exhibition came to an end earlier this year – the year which marks, incidentally, the 150th anniversary of Henry Isaac Rowntree beginning his world- famous chocolate empire. But here are just a few of the memories posted in...
• Michael Addy: “My father, Harold, worked at Rowntrees, moulded choc, in the 1950s. He got cancer in 1958 and was sick for two years. The factory nurse visited him at home every week and I think he was paid all this time. He died in June 1960, aged 52 years.”
• Derek Sigston: “My favourite memory of Rowntrees, among many, is of the ‘open day’ when families were invited to tours of the factory. Children from six years old upward were included – and seeing some very small nine-year-olds being led wide-eyed through the millions of sweets was quite delightful.”
• Mrs M Willis: “I worked in the sales office in the 1940s. I started in 1942 in the post office delivering round the factory then moved on to filing, statement m/cs, invoice m/cs then, after a diploma for comptometers, finished with a section of seven operators doing all the export figures.
“My two sisters worked in the nut department and pastille department. My father worked in KitKat. My brother worked in gum starch before he joined the RAF. He was killed in the war, his name is on the memorial.
“I took part in a gymnastic display in about 1948 and went to the woodwork classes and remember the bath house where we could go and have a bath…”
• Wendy Lacy: “As part of the domestic science class the girls at Beckfield Secondary School had a tour around the Rowntree factory (in 1954). We started in the chocolate-making room and saw the chocolate mixed in what looked like cement mixers.
“We saw the chocolate on assembly lines and the twirls being put on by hand. We saw the packing room and finally the chocs being put in storage. We were all amused when our guide said; “Have you chosen the department where you would like to work?”