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How did Quakers conquer the British sweet shop?

Fry's, Cadbury's and Rowntree's - all Quaker companies

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Cadbury, which has been sold to US firm Kraft, is one of several great British firms founded by Quakers. But how did they gain such a stranglehold on the chocolate industry and why were they so successful in business?

For a religious group more interested in championing social reform than industry, the Quakers have established an impressive roll call of household business names.

Barclays and Lloyds banks, Clarks shoes, Bryant & May matches and the biscuit firms Huntley & Palmers and Carrs are just a few of the companies founded by members of the pacifist group.

But when it comes to confectionery, there has been a virtual monopoly for more than a century, led by Cadbury of Birmingham, Fry's of Bristol and Rowntree's and Terrys of York.

Society of Friends founded in England in 1650s by George Fox
Pacifist religious group values all people equally and believes there's something of God in us all
Name derives either from founder telling magistrate to tremble - quake - at God's name, or from shaking associated with religious experience
About 17,000 Quakers in Britain today, and 210,000 worldwide

This achievement is all the more remarkable given the tiny numbers of Quakers. In 1851 they only accounted for about one in 1,400 of the population of 21 million in England, Scotland and Wales - less than 0.1%.

The move into chocolate began with cocoa drinks in the 19th Century as a reaction against the perceived misery and deprivation caused by alcohol, says Quaker historian Helen Rowlands.

"Quakers and other non-conformists at the time were concerned about levels of alcohol misuse in the population at large, they were part of the temperance movement.

"Cocoa was a way of providing cheap and available drink. It was healthy because you had to boil the water to make it when they didn't have good water supplies."

There was a friendly rivalry between the manufacturers, many of whom started out as general grocers, but also a fraternity.

A Quaker meeting in London in the late 1780s
Quaker gatherings for worship take place in meeting houses, not churches

"There were certainly strong networks between them. They knew one another from their church-based life, and because of the way they had been excluded and persecuted on the edge of society, there was a strong sense they should help each other out," says Ms Rowlands.

"So they developed strong business networks as well as personal ones."

As they moved into producing chocolate bars, several of the Victorian Quaker firms bought new cutting-edge machinery and established a competitive edge over other producers.

The other advantage was their reputation for honesty and reliability running parallel with their quest for justice, equality and social reform.

Map of Quaker businesses

"They were amongst the first to set a firm price for goods. There was a lot of bartering before, but the Quakers said 'no, we'll state the price for goods and a fair price'," says Ms Rowlands.

"People appreciated that, they knew where they stood with Quaker businessmen - they were in it to make a livelihood but not at the expense of customers or employees."

Company swimming baths for Cadbury's workers
The workers' pool in Bournville

This ethical approach gave Quaker retailers a competitive advantage over their resentful rivals because their customers knew they were not being ripped off and did not have to haggle to get a fair price.

Cadbury, which built the village of Bournville for its workers complete with schools, leisure facilities and parks, was amongst the first firms to make pension provisions and provide a canteen.

It also knew a healthy workforce was a productive workforce, and employed doctors and dentists at a time when there was still child labour in Britain.

Ms Rowlands says evidence shows the new ethical stance led to a successful business, but it was unclear how other firms viewed it at the time.

"[The Quakers] were not the only people doing that kind of thing but they were in the vanguard of it. The connection between faith-based motivation and business was very clear and perhaps less overt amongst others."

The Quakers were formed as a protest against the established Church and, crucially, members were excluded from universities and debarred from many public and civic offices along with other non-conformists.

So professions such as medicine or the law were not open to them, which explains why so many gravitated towards business and commerce.

"During the 18th and early 19th Centuries, non-conformists were barred from universities. You had to be a practising Anglican to take a degree," Ms Rowlands says.

First advert for Dairy Milk in 1905

"Lots of the middle classes who might have taken the intellectual route went into trade and industry, and their talents were well used there."

There was an inventive streak and an interest in science among Quakers, typified by the Darbys of Coalbrookdale, who founded the British iron industry, and the Hanburys who brought tinplate to Wales.

Their pacifist stance also created new markets. Unlike their competitors, the Darbys refused to make cannon during the Napoleonic wars and instead concentrated on domestic ironware, which proved a more lucrative industry than weapons.

In the 1820s, the Peases ran the first train from Stockton to Darlington on what became known as the Quaker Line, and the Quakers influenced pharmacy (Allen and Hanbury), chemicals (Albright & Wilson and Sturge) and engineering (Ransomes of Ipswich).

Natural capitalists

But they were also people of their own era, forcing women to leave work once they married and employing slaves on West Indian sugar plantations despite later starting Britain's campaign against the slave trade.

Making Easter eggs in 1950s
Jobs for the girls... but only until marriage

Academic Sarah Moss, who wrote Chocolate: A Global History (Edible), says conditions on Quakers' slave plantations may have been better than others, "but it was still slavery without any doubt".

Quaker confectioners were seen as trustworthy, she says, with good and safe factory conditions - bucking the trend at the time.

"Contamination of sweets was a big issue in the 19th Century. Red lead was a common colouring for sweets, which was poisonous, and brick dust was added to chocolate to make it go further," she explains.

She also thinks aspects of the Quakers' religious ethos and self-reliance make them natural capitalists.

Caricature of a Quaker businessman by Richard Dighton
A caricature of wealthy Quaker banker Samuel Gurney published in 1823

"Non-conformists put the burden of responsibility for salvation on the individual. Quakerism doesn't have any kind of priesthood. That approach to life is the prototype of successful capitalism - you just get on, it's just you and the system and no welfare state."

By the 1870s, Oxford and Cambridge universities began accepting Quakers, opening up new professions and opportunities.

Paul Whitehouse, treasurer of Quakers and Business, says this helps explain why there are fewer Quaker firms today.

"People went into a large selection of different walks of life. There was no longer this concentration of people in business. [Once] the best and brightest went into business, now they were spread across so they didn't stand out."

After World War II, Quaker-owned family businesses began to disappear - Cadbury merged with Schweppes in 1969 and Rowntree's was bought by Swiss multinational Nestle in 1988.

Quaker Oats with Pepsi can
Quaker Oats in name alone, and now owned by PepsiCo

Ms Rowlands says there was a sense among Quaker bosses that holding on to their companies as wholly family enterprises would made them competitively vulnerable.

Quakers and Business tries to apply the same ethical values of yesteryear to today's society, and the Quaker brand remains a powerful, trusted and at times exploited one.

The US company Quaker Oats, founded in the late 19th Century, still uses the image of a traditionally dressed Quaker on its cereal boxes - despite never having any connection to the group.

Below is a selection of your comments.

One very impressive thing among the Quakers was perhaps their process of decision making in controversial subjects. They didn't decide things by vote. Instead they went on discussing the matter until a unanimous conclusion was arrived at. It appears to be the ultimate in democracy. I wonder whether they keep up this tradition even now.
V P Ninan, Kottayam-Kerala-India

Old Quaker business ethics were indeed admirable. It would be admirable also if today's chocolate candy producers would start using Fairtrade, Equal Exchange and Traidcraft chocolate in their products, and free chocolate confectionery from the curse of slavery forever.
Sarah Q Malone, State College, PA

For an example of a thriving present-day Quaker business, see chemical company Scott Bader Commonwealth. Ernest Bader, a Quaker, gave his very successful business to his employees in the early 1950s. This was such a novel idea at the time that a specific legal procedure had to be devised to make this possible. The present company has a constitution which makes it totally impervious to takeovers.
Charles, Colchester, UK

Not to detract from any of the fine work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation or the Cadbury family but William Cobbett, MP draws other conclusions as to Quaker business success in his writings of the 1820s. In particular he notes how Quakers could be seen to operate co-operatively to "work" the fledgling stock exchanges, and how Quaker groups would club together in order to corner a market in any given commodity.
Mark Bell, Guildford

I've been interested in Quaker business practices for a while, and would be very interested to see if their business ethos' could be practiced in the modern business world. However, as most successful companies are now owned and run for and by shareholders for the most amount of profit, there is rarely any room for the ethical trading that the Quakers would have promoted. It's sad that today this desire for a good product and a clear conscience is drowned out by marketing data and a drive towards ridiculous profits.
Heather, Willenhall

Whilst travelling around India I became aware of the influence of the Jains who like the Quakers have strict modes of behaviour which govern every aspect of life but are also very successful in the arenas of business and academia. They have the highest literacy in India and have the oldest libraries.
Des Chamberlain, Amsterdam

It is all most intriguing. How did the Quaker businesses maintain their philanthropic principles when they had to sack people? Did they do it very kindly?
David Butland

Sad to see a formerly family owned company go the way of a leveraged buy-out. To be fair the Cadbury family had already sold out in the 60s, but in my opinion this is one step too far. The board justified their decision with the sole intention to rake in as much cash for the shareholders as possible. Hardly the ethical approach a Quaker would take.
Lee, Manchester, UK

Lee, The board of directors are required by their responsibilities in law to obtain the best value in any bid for their shareholders. Had they insisted on an "ethical" buyout, they could, and likely would, have been subject to legal action. This is true of any publicly owned company. Cadbury lost its ability to take decisions purely on ethical grounds, rather than on economic grounds, once the shares in the company were sold by the original family, who consequently lost their controlling interest. The company is now owned by the shareholders, alone to whom the directors owe their duties. Any publicly quoted company directors are subject only to the law and to the requirement to maximise benefit to their shareholders. The message? If you want to ensure a company is run in line with your own personal philosophy, don't sell it.
Mark Jones, London, UK

It was with some regret that I stopped buying a particular brand of confectionary when it was bought by a company which failed to maintain the funds to the model village supported by the original company; as a multi-national I felt it just didn't need my money as much as a donation to that charity did.
Fee Lock, Hastings, East Sussex

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