Rowntree’s: books and beauty

Arts and Crafts style building
Here on Haxby Road it isn’t just about the large looming factory block. In its shadow is a small and charming building, in the midst of a whole collection of Rowntree buildings, grouped around the factory’s Haxby Road entrance. As the factory expanded in the first half of the 20th century the workers here had their own dining block on the other side of the road, a swimming baths and a theatre. And here, just by the factory entrance, a library.

Above the door it says ‘Joseph Rowntree Memorial Library’. It’s empty now, but retains its fixtures and fittings. In 2007 it was given a Grade II listing, recognising its importance as an intact and unaltered example of an inter-war library and of Arts and Crafts inspired architecture, and because of its strong historical associations with the nationally important figure of Joseph Rowntree.

It dates from 1927, and was designed by a relative, Fred Rowntree.

Black and white photo, man and woman browsing bookshelves
An article in the Rotarian, in 1937, included this photo of its interior. The article waxes lyrical on the scene in and around the factory:

‘Together Labour and Capital have built a works in a garden city which has provided a comfortable living for both.

… Driving through the parklike approaches to the cocoa factory, one is immediately impressed by the atmosphere. More like a gentleman’s country estate than the grounds of a factory … A climb to the tower of the tallest building gives a view of a veritable sea of factory roofs, beyond which may be seen the company tennis courts, bowling greens, sports fields, rose gardens, and swimming pool. The entire works is surrounded by a living hedge of green trees.’

It goes on to commend the fact that beauty isn’t abandoned at the factory door, and expresses admiration for the decor: ‘a little blue or green pigment’ has been added to the whitewash on the walls. There are plants, ‘brought from the company greenhouses’, and paintings on the walls.

Leaded windows, panes reflecting distorted view of building opposite

All that has gone now, of course. The factory building behind the library is empty and no longer in use.

The library remains, unaltered, a reminder. I noticed the way its many-paned windows reflect the building opposite, once the dining block for the factory. In a kind of jumbled, distorted way. Which is perhaps particularly appropriate for this scene. Things aren’t what they seem, aren’t what they were when the library was built. The building opposite is now a Nuffield Hospital, and there are no workers heading for the dining block at lunchtime.

Plans for the site mention this building’s possible reuse as a café. A ‘reading café’ perhaps, like the one recently opened on the other side of town, in Rowntree Park. A park which, of course, is another gift from the Rowntrees to the citizens of York.

Biographies of Joseph Rowntree note that he also helped to found York’s first city library. York has many reasons to be grateful to the Rowntrees, but I think we all know that, don’t we. This cluster of buildings here on Haxby Road just one of many reminders.

Update: library interior

Some years after this page was written I was able to visit, and wrote about, the interior of the building.

Elsewhere on the web

There is of course a lot of information online on the Rowntrees in York, but the very best resource, which also contains links to many other websites of interest, is the Rowntree Society website.

About Lisa @YorkStories

Lisa @YorkStories is the creator, administrator, and writer of content on She can be contacted on this link or via Twitter, @YorkStories
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