Beliefs and Business:
the experience of Quaker Companies

Sir Adrian Cadbury
A talk in the Faith Seeking Understanding series - May 2003


Few are aware of the extent of Quaker involvement in business in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some may know that the four main chocolate companies - Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree and Terry - were all Quaker businesses in their origin. Quaker leadership, however, covers a wide range of industry and commerce of the period. The iron and steel industry of the country owes its origin to the Darbys of Coalbrookdale (don't miss a chance to visit Ironbridge) and to Huntsman of Sheffield (steel). Our railway system began with the Pease's of Darlington, who ran the first train from Stockton to Darlington in 1825 on what became known as the Quaker Line. To know what train to catch, you consulted Bradshaw's - he was another Quaker. Banking was dominated by the Quakers. Lloyds were bankers and ironmasters and all the founding families of Barclays were Quakers. In addition, the majority of the country banks were Quaker owned and run.

They were involved in brewing. Although much concerned with the scourge of cheap spirits, brewing ale was considered acceptable. Barclay Perkins were the main Quaker brewers and that business was formed when Mrs Thrale sold the Anchor Brewery in which Dr Johnson was an investor. She famously wrote about the sale, "God Almighty sent us a knot of rich Quakers who bought the whole and saved me and my coadjutors (which included Dr Johnson) from brewing ourselves into another bankruptcy".

The Quaker influence extends to shoes - Clark's of Street, K of Kendal and Morlands of Glastonbury, to pharmacy - Allen and Hanbury, to chemicals - Albright & Wilson and Sturge, to matches - Bryant & May, to food - Huntley & Palmers, Carr's Biscuits, Reckitt's and Horniman's Tea, to engineering - Ransome's of Ipswich, and they are just examples taken from a much longer list.

The remarkable thing is that in 1800 Quakers were only 1 in 500 of the population. Thus 0.2% of those living in the country played an important part in the transformation of Britain into an industrial nation.

Why were they in business?

One reason was that they were debarred from any official positions, from most of the professions and from going to university because of their religious beliefs. With the restoration of the monarchy, a number of laws were passed in the 1660s to prevent those outside the Church of England from having positions of influence. They suffered persecution and particular problems were their refusal to swear oaths and to pay tithes to the Church. Their refusal to swear meant they would not take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown which could be interpreted as disloyalty, if not treason.

Industry and commerce were therefore outlets for people with drive and energy and who, in religious terms, thought for themselves. They were also educated, largely through their own efforts, since they all learnt to read and write in order to spread the word. They were not however the only group who were considered outsiders, since Catholics suffered from the same disabilities, but this did not lead them to any extent into the field of business. Looking at the particular beliefs of Quakers helps to explain why, having entered business, they took the lead in so many fields. It is however impossible to separate the kind of people who became Quakers from the beliefs which brought them to join the Society of Friends. It is the combination of the two which accounts for their remarkable record of business leadership.

Quaker Beliefs

The Society was founded by George Fox in 1650. His revelation was that the divine presence was within him. This inspired him to preach that there was, in his words, "That of God in every man", which led him and his followers to look for personal guidance from that Inward Light. This self-reliance meant that there was no need for appointed ministers, or for creeds or sacraments. They preached equality, all were equally children of God and members of a universal brotherhood. The established order felt threatened by this revolutionary approach which did away with hierarchies and which did not recognise worldly honours, distinctions or claims of office, since honour lay with God alone. They were therefore persecuted by those in authority well into the 18th century.

Relevance of their beliefs to business

1) They inspired trust. This was linked to their refusal to swear on oath. Their refusal was based on the biblical injunction against swearing, but fundamentally, on the basis that there could not be two standards of truth. Truth was truth. This led to their success as bankers, because banking depends on trust. It also meant that as shopkeepers they put the price on their goods at which they intended to sell them. This was in contrast to the prevailing custom of haggling over prices. It was an ethical approach but also good business - and resented by their competitors!. Most people prefer to know they are not being fleeced, rather than to have to bargain to achieve the same end.

2) They saw life as a whole; religion was not just for Sundays. One of the Queries Quakers are asked to consider, is: "Do you maintain strict integrity in your business transactions and in your relations with individuals and organizations? Are you personally scrupulous and responsible in the use of money entrusted to you, and are you careful not to defraud the public revenue?" They must be unusual among Christian groups in giving specific advice on business ethics. As a result, they supported each other and kept an eye on fellow Quaker business people, to maintain their reputation. When my great-great-grandfather came to Birmingham in 1794, to open his draper's shop in Bull Street, he went to Bull Street Meeting and met Sampson Lloyd to whom he had an introduction. The firm has banked with Lloyds ever since.

3) Oddly enough their unwillingness to support war opened up business opportunities. The Darbys did not as ironmasters make cannon during the Napoleonic wars like their competitors. Instead, they developed a whole range of domestic ironware which turned out to be a far bigger and more stable business than armaments.

4) Their respect for the worth of every individual influenced the way in which their businesses were managed. I saw many instances of this at Bournville. It encouraged the view that everyone's contribution to the business was of value. This made for good working relations. Suggestions for improvements were welcomed and followed up, whatever their source. Because of their belief in equal worth, women played an important role in Quaker affairs from the outset. The same was true in our company where, in Edward Cadbury's day, women's departments were managed by women to ensure that they had a fair share of managerial posts. I have no doubt that the firm gained greatly from the belief that everyone working there had something of value to offer the enterprise.

5) Another belief was the importance of arriving at decisions by agreement. Voting could mean that the views of minorities were disregarded and overridden. The aim was to arrive at a "sense of the meeting". In industrial relations, which was my field in the firm, it often meant considerable time spent in debate and argument, but it also meant that decisions once arrived at could be implemented quickly and with commitment.

6) The encouragement to look for a better way forward, rather than accept the world as it is, stemmed from the belief that you should follow the Divine Light within yourself. It made Quakers ready to challenge accepted practices and to innovate. The spirit of innovation was unintentionally assisted by one of the laws passed to keep Quakers and other dissenters in their place. The Five Mile Act of 1665 meant that Quakers needed to live more than five miles from established towns and cities, if they were to worship and to go about their trades freely. Birmingham was such place and so became a centre for Quakers and nonconformists. There they had the advantage that they were not bound by the restrictions imposed by the guilds over matters like apprenticeships and methods of working. They were free to invent new products and new methods of production. A good example is Robert Ransome, whose firm makes lawnmowers to this day. In 1803, he invented the self-sharpening plough, which kept its edge as it wore. Then in 1808, to meet the problem that farmers tended to break their ploughs all at the same time at the beginning of the season, he produced ploughs made of interchangeable parts. They could be quickly repaired by inserting new parts, instead of his having to repair the whole plough on site. In effect, he invented the process of mass production used by Ford to make his cars.

7) The Quakers respected education. They were excluded from much of the formal educational system. It was not until 1871 that Quakers and Catholics could enter Oxford or Cambridge. They started their own schools and needed to be literate if they were to carry out their mission. As a Quaker history rather stuffily puts it, their belief in education and study, "was an advantageous factor in the quality of mind of an important portion of their labour." Thus they benefited to the extent that they employed fellow-Quakers. Again their approach to learning was not bound by ancient custom. William Penn on leaving for America in 1682 set out his views on how his children should be educated:

"For their learning be liberal……but let it be useful knowledge, such as is consistent with Truth and godliness…..I recommend the useful parts of mathematics, as building houses or ships, measuring, surveying, dialing, navigation, but agriculture is especially in my eye: let my children be husbandmen and housewives, it is industrious, healthy, honest and of good example, like Abraham and the holy ancients, who pleased God and obtained a good report."

That is a good note on which to finish and anyone who is interested to learn more about the Quaker way of life could not do better than to read, Quaker by Convincement by Geoffrey Hubbard, first published by Penguin in 1974, ISBN 0 14 02.1663 4.

Sir Adrian Cadbury

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
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