STEPHEN LEWIS visits the pizza restaurant in Pavement where, almost 200 years ago, York’s Rowntree story began.

AT FIRST glance you might mistake 28 Pavement for any other branch of Pizza Hut. There’s the bright, clean interior; the contented diners; the “smile, it costs nothing!” instruction to staff printed over the cash register.

Yet stand back on the other side of the road and lift your eyes above the modern shop frontage, and there is more to this property than first meets the eye. It is an old, ornate building in the Victorian style that towers above the shops on either side; and it has been around a lot longer than Pizza Hut.

That is true of many buildings in central York, but 28 Pavement really is special. It is where the Rowntree story began. In 1822, a young Quaker named Joseph Rowntree – the Joseph we know today as Joseph Senior, to distinguish him from his better-known son – bought his first shop in York.

Little is known about Joseph Senior’s earlier life, except that he came from a Quaker family in Scarborough. We do know he came to York on his 21st birthday to attend an auction at The Elephant and Castle Inn, in Skeldergate. The auctioneer was drunk, says Bridget Morris, executive secretary of the Rowntree Society. “He had to sober him up by sticking his head in a bucket of water!”

It obviously did the trick, because Joseph Senior was able to buy 28 Pavement. By 1823, he was registered as a “Grocer and tea-dealer” at the address. He lived here, too – and continued to do so after his marriage to Sarah Stephenson in 1832. “All the Rowntree boys – John, Joseph and Henry – were born in the house,” Bridget says.

Back then, 28 Pavement looked very different to the way it does today. Older photographs show just how different. It was in the Georgian style, much less tall than it is today, with two entrances and different proportions. The house was given a makeover some time in the late 18th century, Bridget says, during which it took on the appearance it has today.

Nevertheless, it was here that Joseph Junior, the great philanthropist and chocolate magnate, spent his early childhood. Years later, he wrote a letter to his daughter, Lilly, four, in which he described life in the house.

In his letter, he remembers “the cheerful Sunday evenings in winter, when we gathered round the table, or sat by the fire, in the old drawing-room in Pavement, and repeated the hymns we had learned. Father was generally so fully occupied that he was not able to give much time to our school studies, but I have the recollection of one or two delightful lessons on geography, from a large dissected map of Europe, and of his telling me where the raisins and the figs came from, and the straits and seas that the vessels would sail through”.

They may have been well-brought-up Quaker children, but the Rowntree boys, like boys everywhere, could be boisterous.

“A stranger, coming into the family, would probably have been struck with the freedom which we boys enjoyed in many ways,” Joseph Junior wrote.

“We had the reputation of being very wild children. My brother John swung down the banisters in a way that excited the terror of his nurses. At another time he burnt off his eyebrows when playing with some gas which he had collected in a large jar.”

He also described his stern-seeming father – the man who had once dunked that auctioneer’s head in a bucket of water to sober him up.

“Those who did not see my Father in his home life would hardly be likely to estimate the tenderness and depth of feeling, which to the outside world was veiled under a somewhat stern exterior,” he wrote.

“One of the most touching recollections of my early life was witnessing the stricken look of my Father on the day of the funeral of our sister Sally. When we were poorly or in trouble our Father’s manner was particularly kind and sympathising. Many a time as I lay in my little bed or crib, unable to get to sleep, sometimes through a slight ailment, and sometimes from childish trouble, did my Father come into my room, and with soothing and strengthening words, calm and comfort me.”

It is a touching portrait. Tragically, Joseph Junior was to suffer a bereavement similar to that which so affected his father. His daughter, Lilly, to whom he addressed this letter, died the following year. The letter, and its wonderful description of life at 28 Pavement, endures, however.

Upstairs today, above the busy chatter of Pizza Hut below, it is a huge, empty cavern of a house stretched out over several stories. An ornate spiral staircase leads up through the house. Dusty corridors open off it, leading to an endless succession of rooms; many have views over Lady Peckitt’s Yard or across the rooftops to All Saint’s, Pavement.

Because the house was given that makeover in the late 18th century and extensively rearranged internally, these aren’t the actual rooms the Rowntree boys would have grown up in, Bridget stresses. But this is the physical space where the great Joseph Rowntree spent his boyhood.

The Rowntree family – Joseph senior, his wife and children – moved out in 1845, first to Blossom Street and later to Bootham. But they kept this shop and house, and Joseph senior installed two live-in managers and eight apprentices, one in each room on the top floor.

Among the apprentices who lived in this building was George Cadbury, who went on to found his own chocolate factory in Birmingham.

This house was never directly associated with the Rowntree chocolate business; Joseph senior’s business was a grocery.

In 1855, his eldest son, John Stephenson Rowntree, followed him into that business, and three years later so did his second son, Joseph. It was the third son, Henry Isaac, who began the family’s involvement in chocolate, Bridget says. He went to work for Tuke & Co in Castlegate, where he bought out the cocoa part of the business in 1862. His older brother Joseph later joined him, taking his money out of the Pavement shop in 1869.

Henry died of complications from appendicitis in 1883, leaving Joseph junior, with his sound business sense, to lead the chocolate firm on to huge success.

Nevertheless, it was in this shop that the Rowntree connection with York began.

Rob Scott-South, the general manager of Pizza Hut at 28 Pavement, couldn’t be more pleased.

Until Bridget Morris approached him, he had no idea that the building had such historical associations.

He used to tell his staff that there was a ghost, the 26-year-old jokes, but to find that it is associated with York’s most famous family... “Well, it’s really nice to be associated with that family. We get all sorts of visitors coming from all over. It’s good to have something like this to tell them.”

A wall of memories

TO CELEBRATE the part 28 Pavement has played in York’s history, the Rowntree Society is planning to create a ‘memory wall’ that tells the building’s story from its Rowntree beginnings right up to its incarnation as a Pizza Hut today.

Even though it is more than a century since the Rowntree family sold the building it was still, until comparatively recently, often referred to as ‘the Rowntree shop’, the Rowntree Society’s executive secretary Bridget Morris says.

She would love to know why that is and she wants to gather together any memories people have of the building.

The memories will be used to create the ‘memory wall’ – a travelling exhibition in the form of a giant placard containing extracts from the Rowntree family’s diaries and letters, together with more recent memories of the building contributed by the people of York, that will be displayed at points throughout York next year – the 100th anniversary of Joseph Rowntree Junior becoming an Honorary Freeman of the City of York.

“The idea is to create a local “Who do you think you are?” for this historic York building,” she said.

“We want all your memories of the Pavement building – from modern to old. Do you still remember this as the Rowntree shop? Has something memorable or personal happened to you in this building? Can you remember the look and feel of the shop interior? Can you remember how long it was still known as the ‘Rowntree shop’? Can you remember rationing and coupons in the war? Can you remember what sort of chocolates, tea and cheeses were sold? What happened to the building in the 1970s and 1980s?”

Steven Burkeman, the chair of the Rowntree Society, is fired up about the project. “It’s going to be really exciting to see how much people recall and hopefully to link back to the original owners in the Rowntree family by asking people to remember what their parents and grandparents told them,” he said.

“This is a great way of making the Rowntree story come alive in the building where the whole story starts.”

• If you have any memories of the building or shop, write to or The Rowntree Society, Tanner’s Yard, Huntington Road, York YO32 9PX. After Christmas, a series of ‘Rowntree memories’ post-boxes will also be on display around the city, where you can post your memories. Each memory should be limited to 100 words, although you can send more than one.

Timeline of 28 Pavement

1822, June 10: Building bought at auction by Joseph Rowntree from Scarborough, aged 21.

1823: ‘Joseph Rowntree Grocer and Tea dealer’ – registered at this address.

1832: Joseph marries Sarah Stephenson from Manchester.

1845: Family moved to Blossom Street but Pavement shop maintained.

1848: Family moved to Bootham.

1851: A manager with eight apprentices and four to five domestic servants at 28 Pavement.

1858: Business at 28 Pavement known as Rowntree & Sons: (the sons being John and Joseph junior).

1859: November 4, Joseph Rowntree senior dies.

1876: 28 Pavement (which by now extends into 26-27 Pavement) known as ‘Rowntree, Hills & Co, grocers and teadealers’.

1884: Business disposed to Thomas Hills and styled Rowntree Hills & Co.

1892: Firm taken over by Thomas Coning of 39 Goodramgate who kept Rowntree name.

1896: Coning & Sons.

1932: Street numbers are changed in Pavement.

1943: July. Coning business at Pavement sold to JB Collinson and Sons. Now no.10 Pavement.

1967: Acropolis Restaurant.

1968: Rowntrees Grocery Supermarket.

1976: Vacant.

1982: Corinthia Restaurant.

1984: Acropolis Restaurant.

1985: Vacant and under alteration.

1987: Pizza Hut.