Godless capitalists?

Young Arthur Guinness (1725–1803) was an up-and-coming businessman in 1760s Dublin. He had come to the big city from Celbridge, a small town about 14 miles away, with £100 in his pocket. Already brewing beer from a secret recipe which he took to his grave, he seized the opportunity in 1759 to buy (in the words of one of his biographers) a “poky little brewery” at St. James’s Gate on the banks of the River Liffey. Within five years he acquired a wealthy wife, an impressive country home, the first two of his ten children, and a great deal of public respect and profit.

The older and more famous John Wesley, on the other hand, thought little of Ireland on his visits there, noting the dilapidated buildings and general coldness of its wealthier inhabitants to religious subjects. “Oh, who has the courage to speak plain to these rich and honorable sinners?” Wesley remarked after preaching at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. 

He had equally dismissive words for a meeting at the house of Arthur Guinness’s cousin by marriage, Nonconformist minister William Smyth: “Mr. Smyth read prayers, and gave out the hymns, which were sung by fifteen or twenty fine singers; the rest of the congregation listening with as much attention and devotion as they would have done to an opera. But is this Christian worship?” Arthur Guinness was almost certainly present at the sermon and the meetings. He took Wesley’s message to heart.

From that influence sprang generations of Guinnesses who brewed beer and tried to reform Dublin, never perceiving a conflict of interest in the two endeavors. Arthur began the latter work by founding the first Sunday school in Dublin and working for an organization that tried to prevent dueling. 

“his name is arthur Guinness”

One descendant of the family, Henry Grattan (1835–1910), left off brewing entirely for reforming (see “Did you know?” p. 2). But the brewing Guinnesses did not leave all the religious fervor to their cousins. Under Arthur’s second son, Second Arthur (1768–1855), and his descendants, the Guinness brewing empire expanded along with Guinness involvement in social issues. 

Second Arthur was a defender of Irish Catholic civil rights, an unpopular position for a Protestant businessman. He wrote: “I never could look my Catholic neighbor in the face. I felt I was placed in an unjust, unnatural elevation above him.” Someone who resented this stance forged the signatures of Guinness family members on an anti-Catholic petition in 1812. A Catholic satirical journal, refusing to believe the Guinnesses had not really signed the petition, published a bit of doggerel in response: “To be sure did you hear/ Of the heresy beer/ Which was made for to poison the Pope?/ To hide the man a sin is/ His name is Arthur Guinness/ For salvation he never can hope.” 

“for the laboring poor”

Arthur’s sons Benjamin Lee and Arthur Lee (Third Arthur) gave generously to assist those made destitute by the potato blight that struck Ireland in the late 1840s. Arthur Lee (1797–1863) retired to a country home to indulge his tastes for Oriental art, aesthetic poetry, and dressing like a Greek god; but he so aided his workers that they erected a monument of Connemara marble in his honor. Benjamin Lee also financed a major renovation to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a spiritual and historical Dublin landmark.

Arthur’s grandson Edward Cecil presided over a far-reaching attempt to improve working-class conditions. After Guinness stock went public in 1886, he became the richest man in Ireland and used £250,000 to establish the Guinness Trust for “the creation of dwellings for the laboring poor” of Dublin and London. 

Edward also encouraged the radical idealism of his company doctor, John Lumsden (1869–1944). With company approval, Lumsden tried to visit the home of every Guinness worker (nearly 3,000 people) as well as all the homes surrounding the brewery. He did this in the space of 60 days, visiting over 1,700 homes.

Only one worker refused to let him in, stating that he was a socialist and “it was no business of an employer how or where his servant lived.” Lumsden evaluated nearly  35 percent of the homes as inadequate. “Sickening stench, the inadequacy of water supply, alcoholism, and rooms so vile he could hardly enter,” journalist Stephen Mansfield later described them.

Lumsden was unable to convince Guinness to build a model housing development as other companies were doing. But the company supported his other recommendations. Guinness workers became the highest-paid per hour in Ireland. They had access to company-provided educational and recreational opportunities: lectures, concerts, socials, exercise, cooking, and financial management classes. 

The company built playing fields, swimming pools, reading rooms, day-care centers, and parks, and allowed Lumsden to make his medical staff and equipment the best that money could buy. He advocated breastfeeding (at the time an unpopular cause), and he taught first aid to brewery workers who later became the first Irish division of the famed St. John Ambulance Brigade. 

help for cocoa workers

Guinness was not the only company in the British Isles that responded to social problems with a “cradle-to-grave” approach. Cocoa dealer John Cadbury (1801–1889), a Quaker, took from his faith a commitment to equality as well as objections to slavery, alcohol, war, and the frivolity of high society. John and his son George were shrewd businessmen and committed social reformers. In the early 1880s, George moved the Cadbury factory out of the slums of Birmingham to the rural countryside and named his new site Bournville. 

 Like Guinness, Cadbury provided an educational and social program for its workers—the natural springs at Bournville even led to the development of a spa. In addition, it built nearly 8,000 homes surrounding the factory, designed by a leading architect to be beautiful, clean, and efficient. 

A company history later noted, “Quakers’ respect of the worth of every individual made them, as managers, open to suggestions from the workforce, but none implemented a scheme to facilitate the process on such a scale as did Cadbury. Many Quaker businesses provided recreational facilities for their workers, but none were as directed to improving work efficiency as were those of Cadbury. Quaker firms could always be counted on to provide humane working conditions, but none advertised and promoted theirs as diligently as did Cadbury. The Bournville factory, Bournville Village and the ‘Bournville Experiment’ . . . became almost as famous as the chocolate itself.” 

no fat geese at christmas?

Cadbury’s example directly influenced soap manufacturer William Lever (1851–1925 ), who built a model village called Port Sunlight on the Bournville model. His profit-sharing system reinvested profits into the village—he told employees, “It would not do you much good if you send [profits] down your throats in the form of bottles of whiskey, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant—nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation.” 

Joseph Rowntree (1836–1925), another Quaker cocoa merchant, competed with Cadbury both for the cocoa market and in his concern for his employees. In 1869 Rowntree took over a small cocoa works from his brother Henry. From a small company where the foreman would go around at the end of the week with a hat full of money and ask each worker, “How much time has thee got?” it expanded by the early 1900s to employ over 4,000 people. 

For his growing firm Joseph provided a library and, unusually, pensions. He also started a “suggestions scheme” by which any member of the workforce could make suggestions for improvement, and he gave out prizes for the best ones. 

The Rowntrees too built a model village, New Earswick, near York where their factory stood. They tried to provide houses “artistic in appearance, sanitary, well-built, and yet within the means of men earning about 25 shillings a week.” In time nearly 500 houses were built as well as schools, playing fields, and a Folk Hall, although the vision that the poorest workers could afford to live there remained unfulfilled without government subsidy.

Joseph and a friend, Arthur Sherwell, also published a best-selling encyclopedia about the evils of alcohol, The Temperance Problem and Social Reform. It advised the establishment of “company houses,” clean and pleasant places to drink that would encourage the consumption of tea, coffee, and “soft drinks” (lemonade). Their profits would then finance the construction of “People’s Palaces” providing music, educational lectures, and safe, alcohol-free courting facilities. 

In 1901 Joseph’s son Seebohm published an indictment of industrial conditions, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (which prompted Seebohm’s older brother John Wilhelm, when asked, “Which Rowntree are you,” to quip, “Oh, the brother of Poverty and the son of Drink”).

gold watches and pencils

 Across the Atlantic the “cradle-to-grave” approach was less common. Charles Welch (1852–1926), the former dentist who turned the “unfermented wine” invented by his father, Thomas, into the Welch’s Grape Juice empire, recruited employees, according to a company history, by “the following criteria in descending order: religion, tobacco practices, sobriety, experience, and ambition.” 

Welch preferred to hire Methodists, as he thought this would create a wholesome environment at his Westfield, New York, factory. He built allegiance through annual picnics at the company camp on Chautauqua Lake, where employees gathered for, a newspaper noted, “baseball, motor boating, tennis, quoits, rowing, and swimming parties.” 

Salesmen were invited to annual conventions featuring lectures, picnics, prizes of “gold watches, $20 gold pieces and eversharp pencils,” as well as to services at the Westfield Methodist Episcopal Church, and to musical evenings. In 1913 the salesmen produced a minstrel show, singing to Welch, “There Sits Our Doctor Now” as he beamed paternally. 

Welch was also generous to the town of Westfield—where he served as mayor and donated to the local YMCA and to all the Protestant churches—and to worldwide Methodism, giving over $25,000 to the Foochow Union Christian Hospital in China and $10,000 to the Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals. He signed all his checks “Charles E. Welch, Trustee.” His daughter-in-law explained, “He said he was Trustee for the Lord.”

Asa Candler (1851–1929), founder of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia, and brother of Methodist bishop Warren Candler (1857–1941), took seriously biblical injunctions to use his own wealth for others’ benefit, writing, “What shall it profit us if we gain fortunes and lose the whole world. . . . What can so arouse the wrath of The Lamb as the inhuman indifference which allows souls to perish for whom He died?” Candler mainly used the church, not his business, to accomplish this aim. 

He worked toward ecumenical cooperation: “All the saloon-keepers stand together and with them stand the gamblers, the harlots, and the Sabbath breakers. Why should there not be a solidarity of the good to withstand the combined forces of evil?” He donated extensively to Methodist missions and social causes, and was a trustee of the Methodist Children’s Home in Decatur, Georgia, where he would occasionally eat breakfast to see if the orphans were being properly fed. 

One of his projects was the replacing of First MEC South, which had left for the suburbs, with a new church to serve the inner city, Wesley Memorial. Candler and his brother the bishop envisioned it as a community center, with not only facilities for worship and offices for denominational bureaucrats but an auditorium for night classes for office workers and boarding-house residents, a hospital, and a medical dispensary for the poor. 

The church was built in 1903, and temporary hospital facilities followed, but when it came time to expand the hospital in 1919, a series of events led to its being transferred to the campus of the newly established Emory University. Candler continued to support it generously, but the dream of a full-service church was dead. 

All these men saw themselves, in some sense, as trustees for the Lord. Their responses were heartfelt, their faith real, and their concern for improving the lives of their workers genuine—but in the end, could they have been more helped by a church that would have guided and not merely received their beneficence? Asa Candler’s question still echoes: “Why should there not be a solidarity of the good to withstand the combined forces of evil?” CH 

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #104 in 2013]

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is managing editor of Christian History.
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