Updated on 9 February 2021
Innocent Trades is the historic Quaker term for industries that Friends believed ethical and did no harm.
In Britain, dissenters were not allowed into Oxford or Cambridge universities (until 1871) and Quakers were barred from professions where oath taking was required. Therefore, in order to make a living, the Quakers found themselves in business – where qualifications were not necessarily needed.
For the Society of Friends, Innocent Trades had two meanings. Firstly, it meant asking a fair and fixed price. This was seen as a more upfront honest way of trading than bartering because it avoided any underhand dealings. Secondly, it went against the Peace Testimony to sell or manufacture weapons of war.
Since the start of the movement in mid 17th century England, and before the Industrial Revolution, many early Quakers were in involved in small-scale local trades. These trades were predominately farming, weaving, crafts, and arts.
Because the Society of Friends had a close-knit national network of members, Quakers naturally found it easy to make contacts, swap ideas, loan money and exchange goods.
Seeing no separation between public and personal life, a form of self-regulation organically occurred with the society. If a Quaker acted with dishonest intentions with someone else’s money or goods then that person could be disowned from the society.
With the Quakers reputation for honesty and reliability running parallel with their business method, it meant the general public were eager to purchase Quaker goods and services – an example of which is the chocolate bar. The chocolate bar was first mass produced by the Frys in 1847. Competitors soon set up and the less scrupulous of them would coat their their bars in brick dust to avoid costs.
As the Industrial Revolution kicked in during the late 18th century, Quakers found themselves well placed to make many pioneering achievements.
New processes for smelting iron and mass manufacturing pots were created by the Darby family who also built the world’s first iron bridge. Quakers were also involved in building canals and railways. The most notable of these large transportation constructions was Stockton and Darlington railway line – the world’s first public steam railway.
Friends had now been in business for around a 100 years and during this time they had built a solid foundation for reputable commerce. The Industrial Revolution relied heavily on financing and here again the Quakers were pioneers.
The banking industry grew out of the Goldsmiths trade based in London during the 18th century. Barclays and Lloyds banks were both formed by Quaker families who invested their money ethically as in accordance with being an Innocent Trade (very different to today where both banks are out of Quaker control).
Local merchants and traders quickly realised that the honesty of the Quakers’ business practice meant dealing with Quaker banks them would be a guarantee of financial safety. Both Barclays and Llyods had started small, but through a series of acquisitions and mergers would become two of the world’s largest banks by the end of the 19th century. At this point they became too big to be run by families and the influence of Friends on their governance was phased out.
The Confectionery Industry
The Quakers became first became involved in the chocolate trade with the introduction of cocoa drinks in the early 19th century. This was a reaction to the problems that alcohol caused society at the time. As part of the temperance movement, Friends thought of Cocoa, having medicinal properties, would be a good alternative to alcohol and therefore chocolate drinks were seen as an Innocent Trade.
Three Quaker families – the Cadburys, Rowntrees and Frys – soon began to manufacture edible chocolate as well as sweet pastilles. Because of their size both Cadburys and Rowntrees had several hundred workers between them and looking after their well-being became a key concern of both companies.
Homes were built for the workers in what became known as ‘model villages’ – places that had a high standard of living prided by employers to their employees. Adult education and healthcare were provided as well as the introduction of the five-day week.
Out of this wealth Quaker philanthropy prospered. Funds were made available to help address tackling poverty in Britain and war relief efforts in Europe. Quakers helped the starving during the Irish Famine by providing food and tailor-made large pots to make soup – thus the ‘soup kitchen’ came into existence.
Other Innocent Trades
Not needing a university degree, Quaker Botanists studied and illustrated plants as well setting up nurseries to grow and sell them. Because Quakers were barred from university and shunned from gaining a mainstream education, the Society of Friends took it upon themselves to fund their own schools for children as well as arguably the world’s first schools for adult education. Therefore, as a whole, there was a high degree of literacy within the Society that would have helped in their business dealings.
Elsewhere, Quakers made shoes (Clarks est. 1835), cream crackers (Jacobs est. c.1885) and the mass manufacture of root beer (Hires est. 1886). The last ‘great’ Quaker business is probably Scott Bader Commonwealth, est. 1951.
A global manufacturer of chemical products, the Commonwealth is a charitable trust owned by its trustees who reinvest large parts of its profits into its staff who maintain ownership of the company. This was such a novel idea at the time that a specific legal procedure had to be devised to make this possible.
Nowadays, Quakers have turned away from the large-scale ‘capitalist’ businesses of the past. Rather, Quakers have found themselves helping in the establishment of several campaigning groups such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Anti-Slavery International and the Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Image from cubegroup.com.au