EXACTLY 100 years ago tomorrow, in a ceremony at The Guildhall, one of the greatest men in York’s history became a freeman of the city.

Joseph Rowntree, the great Quaker philanthropist and businessman, was approaching his 75th birthday. But, as our main photograph – taken on the very day of the ceremony – shows, he was still spry and dapper.

He is pictured on the right, with neatly trimmed white moustache and beard. The man on the left, with the heavy white mutton chop whiskers, is the almost equally legendary Dean Arthur Purey-Cust. Between the two men stands the Lord Mayor of the day, Thomas Carter.

On that day Mr Rowntree gave a great speech: one that has lost none of its passion or humanity a century on, and that resonates in today’s post-recession age almost as much as it must have done back then.

He began by thanking the Corporation of York for the honour they had conferred on him: and then congratulated them for the huge improvements that had been made in York since his own childhood – in health, sanitation, education, and housing.

He also pointed to the way politics had been cleaned up. “As a young man, I saw, shortly after a municipal election, a tradesman sitting at his shop door with a bowl of half crowns at his side, with no sense of shame, paying out the coin to those who had voted for him.

“Another incident I recall is that of a man who, in the Exhibition Square, asked me for alms, urging, as his principal plea, that the £3 which he had received for his Parliamentary vote had been stolen from him.”

But despite the huge strides forward, all was far from rosy in the York of 1911, he told his audience. We can imagine how his voice must have rung out as he spoke on. Reading the speech today still makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

“If we make a true survey of the life of our city we know there is another side to it,” he said. “Which of us has not known cases such as this? The bread winner in the family breaks down in health; his wages cease; with illness the expenses in the family are more likely to increase than to diminish. For a time the payments for the sick club are available, but at last come to an end.

“The rent begins to fall behindhand; the neighbouring shop, which has given some credit, refuses to increase it. The children, too young to earn wage, are insufficiently led; the overtaxed and ill-fed mother is in danger of breaking down; the landlord, who has given some reasonable credit, says that he cannot extend it, and that the family must leave at an early date.

“The only asset to fall back upon is the furniture purchased by the savings before marriage, or in the early period of married life. If brought to the hammer it will realise much less than had been given for it, and the family will be left destitute.

“In despair, the mother appeals to one with the question: ‘What shall I do?’ Perhaps by a gift we relieve the momentary distress, but in doing so we feel the inadequacy, almost the heartlessness, of any counsel we can offer.”

Tomorrow, on the anniversary of this remarkable occasion, this great speech will be brought to life at the University of York’s Sir Ron Cooke Hub.

A recording of extracts from the speech will be accompanied by early photographs showing the York of the day. There will also be a “tea and cakes”-style reception which aims to recreate the reception at the Mansion House made in Mr Rowntree’s honour 100 years ago.

The event runs from 6pm to 8pm, and there may still be a few places available if you’re lucky. To find out more, email the Rowntree Society on info@rowntreesociety.org.uk It promises to be a unique event.

• Photos courtesy of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and imagineyork.co.uk

• Read the entire text of Joseph Rowntree’s speech