THE outbreak of the First World War posed a genuine problem for York’s greatest philanthropist.

Joseph Rowntree was a committed Quaker, and therefore devoted to peace. But he was also one of York’s leading citizens: a wealthy man and major employer, with an assured social position in York and also nationally.

Was he to support the war, or risk opposing himself to the tide of popular patriotism that was sweeping the nation by opposing it?

It was one thing for a young man to become a conscientious objector.

“It was quite another for an elderly Quaker like Joseph Rowntree to make a martyr of himself, possibly to destroy his business and to cause thousands of employees to lose their livelihoods,” writes historian David Rubinstein in this fascinating account of the Rowntree family’s dilemma.

Joseph’s solution was to try to find a middle way.

“Instead of expressing outright or even implied opposition, he devoted his energies to co-operating with the civil and military authorities and manifesting personal support for those of his workforce - nearly 500 as early as December 1914, nearly 2,800 three years later - who joined the armed forces,” Mr Rubinstein writes.

But at the same time Joseph “made clear his hopes for peace and (for) the formation of an international body which would prevent future wars”.

In the space of just over 40 pages, Mr Rubinstein examines how different members of the Rowntree family confronted the same dilemma as Joseph. Seebohm Rowntree, Joseph’s son, was 43 when war began. He did not enlist or join in relief work, but instead decided to devote himself to welfare and reconstruction.

He was eventually invited by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to become director of welfare at the Ministry of Munitions: a role in which he worked for the welfare of the Ministry’s civilian employees.

Arnold Rowntree, Joseph’s nephew and one of York’s two MPs, helped set up the Friends’ Ambulance Unit; but also became a high-profile supporter of conscientious objectors, protesting in parliament about the bullying and brutal behaviour they were often subjected to.

Arthur Rowntree, the son of Joseph’s cousin John and headmaster of Bootham School, became a member of the national committee of the Friends Ambulance Unit. Only one young Rowntree was imprisoned.

Maurice, the only son of Joseph’s cousin Joshua, was put behind bars because he refused to leave his post as a lecturer and assistant warden at a Quaker educational centre in Leeds for “work which his conscription tribunal deemed to be of greater national importance”.

Overall, Mr Rubinstein concludes that while the wealth and prominence of the Rowntree family prevented them being too radical in their opposition to war, they did try to work to counter its effects. “Taken as a whole, the Rowntree family adhered to the Quaker peace testimony,” he writes.