Vision for a Golden Age

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The nineteenth century dawned bright and clear over England. Not that she had achieved some utopian status amidst the small family of newly industrializing nations. For certain, she still had her share of problems. Dickens was yet to write his distressing, albeit colorful, novels about the dire conditions of poverty in proud London. The lower classes remained "illiterate, sodden with gin, given over to vicious living and brutal past times." Ill-clothed ragamuffins prowled the alleys like hungry rats in search of food scraps. Public whipping of women was a common practice. The ugly slave trade was still a powerful institution in the expanding maritime economy, its ethic contaminating the whole of labor-management relations in the land. Tenement children fortunate enough to land a factory job labored fourteen-hour days in abysmal sweat-shops. Others - the smaller ones - worked as chimney sweeps, squeezing through sooty flues where bigger bodies would not fit. But in spite of the wretchedness of her streets and the oppressiveness of the pollution which belched from her smokestacks, the skies were very bright as England faced the dawn of the 1800s, a century that would become known as her golden age. The preceding century had been a period of turbulent transition between two civilizations. The civilization of the saddle and packhorse gave way to that of the canal and rail, subsistence agriculture yielded to machines and factories, and a rising middle class wrenched political power from a ruling aristocracy. An ingenious engine had been invented by Watt that could harness the power of steam with efficiency far greater than that of horses and water. Industries once limited to painstaking hand-work now sprang to life with machines that out-stripped old methods by a hundredfold. The courageous statesman Wilberforce, whose passion was to eradicate the slave trade in the British Empire, had been troubling a complacent parliament. Fiery Wesley and Whitefield had been stirring the Commonwealth with sermons on personal salvation and holy living, penetrating the culture from statehouse to slum. The power of their message pricked the conscience of the nation and ignited a spiritual awakening that would spread like a wildfire across the land. An illiterate populace, thirsty for learning, prompted churches to begin Sunday schools to teach common folk to read the Bible. "Ragged schools" soon began to appear that recruited volunteers to teach the three R's to the children of the poor. The seeds of change had been sown and a momentum toward goodness and justice was building that would eventually infiltrate every aspect of nineteenth century British society.

The wealth of the land was now shifting from nobility and the landed gentry to the new captains of industry. Successful business entrepreneurs found themselves positioned for the first time at levels of influence equal to and sometimes greater than that of bishops and lords. And when the spirit of evangelical fervor touched the lives of these innovators, tremors of change shook the bedrock of social and political life. George Cadbury was such a person.

Born in 1839 into a hard-working but far from wealthy Quaker family, George Cadbury left school at age fifteen to work in his family's small cocoa business in Birmingham. The product they produced was nothing to be particularly proud of - "a comforting gruel" of inferior quality - but the business did put a modest amount of bread on the family table. By the time George reached his 22nd birthday, the weight of adulthood was heavy on his shoulders. His mother had died and his father's health had failed, leaving the full responsibility of a floundering business upon him and his brother. The diligent, sacrificial efforts of the two brothers over the next three years did little to right the business and they sunk deeper into debt with each passing month. Reluctantly, George and his brother decided to abandon the cause and pursue other career paths. It was one last experimental venture that would trigger an unimaginable change in their business.

The practice of chocolatiers of the day was to add large percentages of potato starch and flour to their mix to counteract the unpleasantness of the cocoa butter taste. George had discovered that there was a process to extract the butter from the cocoa, producing a pure, sweet taste - but at considerably higher cost. It was certainly a product he could be proud of but there was serious doubt that the market would bear the expense. George and his brother decided to take the risk. Leveraging their last remaining assets, they made the investment in the new "absolutely pure" Cadbury Chocolate and launched a vigorous marketing campaign. The delightful sweetness proved irresistible. Cadbury Chocolate was on its way to becoming a household name in England and around the world. By the time he was 40, George would be the largest producer of chocolate in the British Empire.

Strangely, however, George's greatest passion was not the chocolate business - nor business at all, in fact. He saw it as a means to other ends. Though his temperament was well suited to industry, his heart was consistently drawn toward people - especially people in need. He had been deeply disturbed by conditions he had seen in the once charming Birmingham neighborhood of his childhood. Its attractive bungalows and spacious gardens had deteriorated into putrid, suffocating slums as industrial plants invaded the area. George refused to believe that the triumph of machinery need inevitably be linked to the degradation of human life - a commonly accepted result of industrialization. He determined to make his growing manufacturing enterprise a model of how industry could be the catalyst for community health.

George Cadbury rejected another traditional view of his day - that labor, like other commodities, must be bought in the cheapest market. The central doctrine of the Christian faith, as he understood it, is that human life is sacred and infinitely valuable. To him it was not only bad ethics but bad business to squeeze a laborer's wages. On the contrary, he invested in his employees through generous wages and the unheard of benefits of a shorter work week, health care, education and recreation. In George's view, these were fundamental labor-saving and waste-elimination tactics. "Behind all the athletics, the dentistry, the swimming baths, the arrangements for meals, lies the supreme commercial objective - speed of hand coupled with accuracy of eye." The wages may have been high, the hours shortened and the benefits costly, but "the labor is concentrated, eager, effective." The proof was in his profits.

Undoubtedly, Cadbury's greatest and most far-reaching social venture was his model housing initiative. His company was expanding rapidly and he began seeking a new manufacturing site. Rather than build in booming Birmingham where new industrial impulse was almost wholly uncontrolled and where mean streets were filling with squalor and vice, he chose a site outside the city where he and his workers could be surrounded by "green fields and the woodlands, springing flowers and the song of birds." His decision was met with laughter and derision from the business community, for his site was well away from the urban housing where his work force lived. But George had a carefully devised plan. Around his new plant site he had assembled a large tract of land where he would construct homes - not narrow rows of cheap mill housing like other industrialists had thrown up, but a well-designed village with architectural interest and scale, and wide, tree-lined streets. The homes would have their own gardens and be clustered no closer than six per acre. There would be fine schools and churches (but no pubs!) and excellent recreational facilities for both children and adults. The town would be laid out so that one could walk from one end to the other without leaving parkland. He would call it Bournville.

This "garden city" concept that Cadbury pioneered was more than an inducement to draw a workforce to a factory. It embodied George's conviction that "no man ought to be compelled to live where a rose cannot grow." But it was neither a charity program nor a brick and mortar subsidy for hourly labor. Bournville was a sound business investment that produced wholesome community living and yielded both direct and indirect economic returns. Attractive savings and mortgage programs enabled workers to purchase their homes. Larger houses for top management were interwoven with the smaller bungalows of hourly laborers, promoting neighborly relationships and a friendly corporate culture. A trust which held title to the land would insure that covenants were kept and the landscape beautifully maintained. The village even incorporated several attractive "alms houses" for older or infirm citizens who needed charitable support.

Under the watchful eye of George Cadbury, Bournville grew into a fine village of 1100 homes with a population of 5500 residents. It became the seed plot of ideas, spawning the "garden village" movement which played no small role in eliminating industrial slum housing in England. Cadbury's Bournville, which remains to this day a highly desirable community, inspired Christian business leaders throughout England to take the lead as unlikely social reformers. In addition to housing, these innovators championed and funded such great causes as education for the working classes, public health and sanitation, humane labor laws, and churches for the neglected masses. Allied with Christian parliamentarians and committed ministry leaders, these enlightened entrepreneurs became the visionaries who took the risks and invested the resources to reshape their nation's history and raise a standard for the entire world to emulate.

Bob Lupton

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