Born in York in 1695, Mary came from a prominent Quaker family – her grandfather was one of 4,000 imprisoned for their beliefs in the 1660s.
The death of her father in 1704, followed by her mother in 1723, left Mary as the head of her family, undoubtedly with many mouths to feed. One option at this time, for women in this situation, might have been a quick marriage. However, as a Quaker Mary would not necessarily have adhered to the conventions of the time as readily as her peers, and this was not the path she chose.
As a 30-year-old spinster she opened her own grocery shop in Walmgate, York – towards the south-eastern end of the walled city – in 1725. Alongside the basic diet of the time, this shop sold tea, coffee and chocolate – all increasing in popularity as foodstuffs at the time – but also sugar, spices, tobacco and snuff.
However, the York of the time was not as widely accepting of women bucking conventions as the Quaker society that Mary came from. Permission to trade in the city of York was only granted if you were a member of the Society of Merchant Adventurers, and as a woman Mary was not permitted to join.
Despite the lack of a licence to trade, Mary’s business continued. She was faced with opposition from the Society of Merchant Adventurers, with many threats of fines and imprisonment that continued until around 1733. She was not cowed by this, and her business thrived. Eight years after the business was established Mary paid a small fine to the Society, and was allowed to carry on.
She took on her nephew William Tuke, the son of her younger brother Samuel, as an apprentice in 1746, and the business moved to a more prominent spot at the corner of Coppergate and Castlegate.
Mary died, childless, in 1752, and William inherited the extremely successful business that she had built. In turn, the business was taken over by the Quaker Rowntree Family, and became part of York’s chocolate history.
Mary’s founding of this business, and its involvement in the start of the chocolate business – which, at her time, was imported and sold in hard cakes to be boiled in milk or water to make a fashionable drink – has led her to be referred to as “The Mother of York’s Chocolate Industry”.
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