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The Great Depression in Britain, 1873–1896: a Reappraisal*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2011

A. E. Musson
Affiliation:
University of Manchester

Extract

It is nearly a quarter century since H. L. Beales produced his notable article on “The Great Depression.” Since then a great deal of work has been done on that period, especially by economists and statisticians, so that it is now possible to make a fuller assessment of the changes in Britain's economic position during those years. Most of this work has been in the form of specialized articles and books covering longer periods, on such subjects as national income, investment, or terms of trade, and there appears to be a need for some attempt at synthesis, especially as the various interpretations put forward are not always in agreement and are sometimes contradictory. It would be impossible, of course, in a mere article, to settle all the theoretical problems suggested by the facts or to resolve all the divergencies of opinion, but it is worth while to draw the evidence and opinions together in an effort to get a general picture.

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Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The Economic History Association 1959

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References

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2 See, for example, the statistical series in the Board of Trade's Memoranda, Statistical Tables and Charts …on British and Foreign Trade and Industrial Conditions, Parl. Papers, 1903, LXVII (Cd. 1761)Google Scholar; 1904, LXXXIV (Cd. 2337). These will henceforth be referred to as Memoranda (1903) and Memoranda (1904). See also Cole, G. D. H., British Trade and Industry, Past and Future (London: Macmillan, 1932), ch. vGoogle Scholar.

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23 Phinney, J. T., “Gold Production and the Price Level,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, XLVII (19321933), 647–79Google Scholar. See also Brown, Phelps and , Ozga, “Economic Growth,” Ec. J., LXV (1955), 58Google Scholar; Higgonet, R. P., “Bank Deposits in the United Kingdom, 1870-1914,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, LXXI (1957), 329–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 The Economist, 1885, pp. 687–88Google Scholar; Marshall, Official Papers, chs. i and ii (evidence before R. C. on Depression of Trade and Industry, 1886, and R. C. on Gold and Silver, 1887); Wells, Recent Economic Changes, passim.

25 Keynes, J. M., Treatise on Money (2 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1930), II, 164–70Google Scholar.

26 ibid., p. 206.

27 , Rostow, British Economy, especially ch. iii. Sec pp. 2: 522Google Scholar of this article for an examination of Rostow's investment theory.

28 See pp. 210-13 of this article. 2 9 See pp. 218-19 of this article.

30 Layton and Crowther, Introduction to the Study of Prices, ch. viii; , Cole, British Trade and Industry, pp. 8992Google Scholar; Clapham, J. H., An Economic History of Modern Britain (3 vols.; Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1938), II, 336–39Google Scholar.

31 , Rostow, British Economy, p. 58Google Scholar.

32 Hoffmann, W., British Industrial Production, 1700-1950 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), pp. 3133Google Scholar.

33 See, for example, Brown, E. H. Phelps and Handfield-Jones, S. J., “The Climacteric of the 1890's: A Study in the Expanding Economy,” Oxford Economic Papers, n.s., IV (1952), 266307CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Coppock, D. J., “The Climacteric of the 1890's: A Critical Note,” The Manchester School, XXIV (1956), 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Coppock follows Lewis, W. A., Economic Survey, 1919-1939 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1949), pp. 7475Google Scholar, in placing the climacteric in the 1870's.

34 Burn, D. L., The Economic History of Steelmaking, 1867-1939 (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1940), especially ch. x and pp. 6769 and 296-305Google Scholar; Burnham, T. H. and Hoskins, G. O., Iron and Steel in Britain, 1870-1930 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1943)Google Scholar, especially ch. ix; , Clapham, Economic History, II, 51 and 60-61Google Scholar; III, 70, 122, and 145-56; Report [on] the Iron and Steel Trades After the War, Parl. Papers, 1918, XIII (C. 9071), 5, 1825, 39Google Scholar.

35 Jones, G. T., Increasing Return (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1933), pp. 5051Google Scholar, 141-45, 236-44.

36 See the third edition of The Coal Question (ed. Flux, A. W., London: Macmillan, 1906)Google Scholar; , Clapham, Economic History, II, 99104Google Scholar, and III, 63-64, 69, 124-25, 162-68; , Hoffmann, British Industrial Production, pp. 215 and 320Google Scholar; Report of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, Parl. Papers, 1925, XIV (Cd. 2600) ch. xiGoogle Scholar.

37 Chapman, S. J., The Lancashire Cotton Industry (Manchester: Sherratt & Hughes, 1904), pp. 3233 and 70-7:Google Scholar; , Clapham, Economic History, II, 8081Google Scholar; III, 70, 126, 175-77; , Jones, Increasing Return, pp. 5051Google Scholar, 114-19, 210, 212, 218; Report. [on[ the Textile Trades After the War, Parl. Papers, 1918, XIII (Cd. 9070), 5152Google Scholar; Farnie, D. A., “The English Cotton Industry, 1850-1896” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Manchester University, 1953), pp. 2127 and 37–40Google Scholar

38 , Clapham, Economic History, II, 105–9Google Scholar; III, 124, 129-38, 171-74, 193-94, 313.

39 See especially Kuznets, S., “Retardation of Industrial Growth,” Economic Change (London: Heinemann, 1954)Google Scholar, who states that a “decline in the rate of increase is a generally observed trait of industrial growth.”

40 , Coppock, “Critical Note,” Manchester School, XXIV (1956), 22Google Scholar.

41 Lewis has pointed out that Britain's failure was a “failure to achieve technological leadership in the new trades, especially in steel, in machinery, and, less important, in chemicals.” International Competition in Manufactures,” American Economic Review, XLVII (1957), 582. See p. 219 of this articleGoogle Scholar.

42 [Hilgerdt, Folke], Industrialization and Foreign Trade (League of Nations, 1945), p. 132Google Scholar, and , Lewis, Economic Survey, p. 74Google Scholar.

43 , Coppock, “Critical Note,” Manchester School, XXIV (1956), 2324 (based onGoogle ScholarWeber, B. and Handfield-Jones, S. J., “Variations in the Rate of Economic Growth in the U.S.A., 1869-1939,” Oxford Economic Papers, n.s., VI [1954], 127Google Scholar; Lewis, W. A. and O'Leary, P. J., “Secular Swings in Production and Trade, 1870-1913,” Manchester School, XXIII [1955], 149Google Scholar; and Stolper, G., The German Economy, 1870-1940 [London: Allen ], p. 41.)Google Scholar See also Clark, C., The Conditions of Economic Progress (London: Macmillan, 1940), chGoogle Scholar.

44 Industrialization and Foreign Trade, p. 13.

45 Gordon, D. F., “Obsolescence and Technical Change: Comment,” Am. Ec. Rev., XLVI (1956), 650Google Scholar.

46 , Clapham, Economic History, II, 122Google Scholar. There is a very good brief discussion of the causes of Britain's relative decline in the article by W. A. Lewis, “International Competition,” cited above (n. 41).

47 Burn, Economic History of Steelmaking, ch. ix.

48 This view has recently been re-emphasized by Frankel, M., “Obsolescence and Technical Change in a Maturing Economy,” Am. Ec. Rev., XLV (1955), 296319Google Scholar, and XLVI (1956), 652-56.

49 , Gordon, “Obsolescence,” Am. Ec. Rev., XLVI (1956), 646–52Google Scholar.

50 , Kuznets, Economic Change (1954), pp. 276–77Google Scholar.

51 , Burn, Economic History of Steelmaking, ch. xiGoogle Scholar; Cairncross, A., Home and Foreign Investment, 1870-1911 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1953), ch. vGoogle Scholar; , Lewis, “International Competition,” Am. Ec. Rev., XLVII (1957), 585Google Scholar.

52 Memoranda (1903), pp. 295359Google Scholar, and Memoranda (1904), pp. 407–28Google Scholar.

53 , Lewis, “International Competition,” pp. 585–87Google Scholar. Cf. , Clapham, Economic History, III, 5253Google Scholar, referring to the great capital export boom after 1905. Rostow, on the other hand, suggests that there was too little foreign investment during the Great Depression. See pp. 215-22 of this article.

54 , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, pp. 225–35.Google Scholar.

65 Douglas, P. H., “An Estimate of the Growth of Capital in the United Kingdom, 1865-1909,” Journal of Economic and Business History, II (1929-1930), 659–84Google Scholar.

56 Lenfant, J. H., “Great Britain's Capital Formation, 1865-1914,” Economica, n.s., XVIII (1951). 151–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brown, Phelps and , Handfield-Jones, “Climacteric,” Oxf. Ec. Pap., n.s., IV (1952), 266307CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brown, E. H. Phelps and Weber, B., “Accumulation, Productivity and Distribution in the British Economy, 1870-1938,” Ec. J., LXIII (1953), 263–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, ch. viGoogle Scholar.

67 , Lenfant, “Great Britain's Capital Formation,” p. 160Google Scholar. Cf. the estimates of Brown, Phelps and , Weber, “Accumulation,” p. 286Google Scholar, and , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, pp. 197201Google Scholar. It must be pointed out, however, that 1870-1874 was a short cyclical boom period, which cannot be fairly compared with an intercyclical twenty-year period. Unfortunately, there are no reliable estimates for the years before 1870.

58 Brown, Phelps and , Weber, “Accumulation,” pp. 271–80Google Scholar. Hoffmann has put forward a similar explanation, British Industry, p. 33, n. 2Google Scholar.

59 Royal Commission on Depression of Trade and Industry, Final Report, 1886, p. xvGoogle Scholar.

60 lbid., pp. xiv-xvi; Memoranda (1903), pp. 454–55Google Scholar; , Bowley, “Tests of National Progress,” Ec. J., XIV (1904), 457–65Google Scholar, National Income, 1880-1913, pp. 8-10, and Wages and Income. … Since 1860, pp. 90-99; , Prest, “National Income,” Ec. J., LVIII (1948), 57Google Scholar.

61 Memoranda (1903), pp. 456–57Google Scholar.

82 R. C. on Depression, Final Report (1886), p. xivGoogle Scholar. See also the minority observations appended to the report on p. xxvi.

63 , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, pp. 9599Google Scholar.

64 On this last point, see ibid., pp. 197-65.

65 Pezmazoglu, J. S., “A Note on the Cyclical Fluctuations of British Home Investment, 1870-1913,” Oxf. Ec. Pap., n.s., III (1951). 3961CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Meyer, J. R., “An Input-Output Approach to Evaluating the Influence of Exports on British Industrial Production in the Late 19th Century,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, VIII (1955-1956), 1234Google Scholar; , Coppock, “Critical Note,” Manchester School, XXIV (1956), 2831Google Scholar.

67 R. C. on Depression, Final Report (1886), p. xxiiiGoogle Scholar.

68 Figures obtained from the Statistical Abstracts and from Memoranda (1903)Google Scholar and Memoranda (1904)Google Scholar.

69 Schlote, W., British Overseas Trade from iyoo to the 1930's (Oxford: Blackwell, 1952), p. 42Google Scholar. See also Imlah, A. H., “The Terms of Trade of the United Kingdom, 1798-1913,The Journal of Economic History, X (1950), 170–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar. At 1880 prices, exports rose from an annual average of £188.5 millions in 1875-79 t 0 £284.4 millions in 1890-94 (Imlah).

70 , Schlote, British Overseas Trade, p. 42Google Scholar. At 1880 prices, net imports grew from an annual average of £311.6 millions in 1875-79 to 471-7 millions in 1890-94 (Imlah).

71 Imlah, A. H., “British Balance of Payments and Export of Capital, 1816-1913,” Economic History Review, 2d ser., V (1952), 237–38Google Scholar.

72 Jenks, L. H., Migration of British Capital to 1895 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), PP. 332–33Google Scholar.

73 Imlah's figures. For other figures of British foreign investment during this period, see Hobson, C. K., The Export of Capital (London: Constable, 1914), p. 204Google Scholar; , Douglas, “Growth of Capital,” fourn. Ec. Bus. Hist., II (1929-1930), 680Google Scholar; , Lenfant, “Great Britain's Capital Formation,” Economica, n.s., XVIII (1951), 160Google Scholar; , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, p. 180Google Scholar.

74 , Lewis, “International Competition,” Am. Ec. Rev., XLVII (1957), 580Google Scholar.

75 Thomas, B., Migration and Economic Growth (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1954), p. 122Google Scholar, notes that Britain, after “first sowing the seed in the form of capital exports,” was now “reaping the harvest in imports.”

76 , Rostow, British Economy, pp. 68 and 88Google Scholar.

77 , Jenks, Migration of British Capital, ch. ixGoogle Scholar, and Giffen, R., Economic Inquiries, I, 101–8Google Scholar.

78 Comparisons of home and overseas investment are to be found in the works by Douglas, Lenfant, Cairncross, and Thomas, previously cited (nn. 51, 55, 56, 75).

79 Imlah's estimates.

80 , Rostow, British Economy, pp. 8485Google Scholar.

81 See , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, p. 187Google Scholar, and , Thomas, Migration and Economic Growth, pp. 9699Google Scholar.

82 Imlah's figures.

83 From the annual figures of , Lenfant, “Great Britain's Capital Formation,” Economica, n.s., XVIII (1951), 160Google Scholar.

84 , Rostow, British Economy, p. 25Google Scholar.

85 ibid., pp. 102-3.

86 Taussig, F. W., International Trade (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1927), pp. 412–13Google Scholar, and The Change in Great Britain's Foreign Trade Terms after 1900,” Ec. J., XXXV (1925), 110Google Scholar;Silverman, A. G., “Monthly Index Numbers of British Export and Import Prices, 1880-1913,” Review of Economic Statistics, XII (1930), 139–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and “Some International Trade Factors for Great Britain, 1880-1913,” ibid., XIII (1931), 114-24; , Schlote, British Overseas Trade, p. 155Google Scholar; , Imlah, “Terms of Trade,” The Journal of Economic History, X (1950), 170–94Google Scholar; , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, pp. 189–92Google Scholar; Meier, G. M., “Long-Period Determinants of Britain's Terms of Trade, 1880-1913,” Review of Economic Studies, XX (1952-1953). 530Google Scholar; Kindleberger, C. P., “Industrial Europe's Terms of Trade on Current Account, 1870-1953,” Ec. J., LXV (1955), 1935CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

87 , Rostow, British Economy, pp. 100–3Google Scholar; , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, p. 207Google Scholar.

88 , Lewis, Economic Survey, p. 74Google Scholar; , Clark, National Income and Outlay, pp. 269–71Google Scholar. But cf. , Meier, “Long-Period Determinants,” p. 129Google Scholar.

89 Ojala, E. M., Agriculture and Economic Progress (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 15:Google Scholar.

90 , Silverman, “Monthly Index Numbers,” Rev. Ec. Stat., XII (1930), 147Google Scholar.

91 lbid., p. 148; Rostow, W. W., “The Historical Analysis of the Terms of Trade,” Ec. H. R., 2d ser., IV (1951-1952), 6263Google Scholar.

92 , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, p. 189Google Scholar; , Kindleberger, “Industrial Europe's Terms of Trade,” p. 19Google Scholar. But cf. , Meier, “Long-Period Determinants,” p. 115Google Scholar.

93 , Layton and , Crowther, Introduction to the Study of Prices, p. 90Google Scholar; , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, p. 192Google Scholar. See also , Ojala, Agriculture and Economic Progress, p. 158Google Scholar, for the improvement in United States agricultural incomes and purchasing power during this period.

94 Cf. the effects of cost-reducing mechanization in British industry in the first half of the nineteenth century. The net barter terms of trade deteriorated, but so great was die increase in output and trade that Britain gained considerably. Ashton, T. S., “The Standard of Life of the Workers in England, 1790-1830,” The Journal of Economic History, IX (1949), Supplement, 1938CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

95 This view is supported by , Meier, “Long-Period Determinants,” p. 129Google Scholar, and , Meyer, “An Input-Output Approach,” Explorations VIII (1955-1956), 18Google Scholar.

96 , Lewis, Economic Survey, pp. 149–55Google Scholar.

97 , Lewis, “World Production, Prices and Trade (1870-1960),” Manchester School, XX (1952), especially p. 126Google Scholar.

98 , Lewis, Economic Survey, p. 74Google Scholar.

99 This was true even of industrial Britain by the end of this period. Hirschman, A. O., “The Commodity Structure of World Trade,” Q. f. E., LVII (1943), 565–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 Industrialization and Foreign Trade, pp. 14-18 and 157.

101 ibid., p. 16.

102 ibid., pp. 132 and 157.

103 , Lenfant, “Great Britain's Capital Formation,” Economica, n.s., XVIII (1951), 162–67Google Scholar.

104 , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, pp. 190-92Google Scholar.

105 This view-that foreign investment determines the terms and quantity of foreign trade, rather than vice versa-is supported by , Taussig, “Britain's Foreign Trade Terms,” Ec. J., XXXV (1925), 7Google Scholar; , Schumpeter, Business Cycles, II, 668Google Scholar; , Clark, Conditions of Economic Progress, pp. 15Google Scholar and 466. See also , Rostow, “Historical Analysis,” Ec. H. R., 2d ser., IV (1951-1952), 6367Google Scholar.

106 See p. 217 of this article.

107 , Lewis and , O'Leary, “Secular Swings,” Manchester School, XXIII (1955), 145Google Scholar.

108 Ibid.

109 , Thomas, Migration and Economic Growth, especially ch. viiGoogle Scholar; , Cairncross, Home and Foreign Investment, ch. viiiGoogle Scholar.

110 Industrialization and Foreign Trade, p. 157.

111 ibid., pp. 158-63. See also Memoranda (1903), pp. 7-9, 374-79, 476-91.

112 See p. 223 of this article.

113 Cunningham, W., The Rise and Decline of the Free Trade Movement (London: Clay, 1904), pp. 8592Google Scholar. For other works on the growth of foreign competition and protection, see p. 227 of this article.

114 Annual Statements of Trade, Statistical Abstracts, Memoranda (1903), Memoranda (1904). These have been analyzed by Schlote, British Overseas Trade.

115 Memoranda (1903), pp. 18-19. Most European countries, the United States, and Canada were listed as protectionist.

116 ibid., pp. 13-27.

117 , Hirschman, “Commodity Structure,” Q.J.E., LVII (1943), 588–91Google Scholar. See also , Thomas, Migration and Economic Growth, pp. 121–22Google Scholar.

118 Statistical Abstracts.

119 , Clapham, Economic History, III, 63Google Scholar.

120 On this latter point see, for example, the 1886 Royal Commission's Final Report, p. xx, and Gastrell, W. S. H., Our Trade in the World in Relation to Foreign Competition, 1885 to 1895 (London, 1897), ch. iiiGoogle Scholar.

121 , Schlote, British Overseas Trade, p. 74Google Scholar.

122 Lewis points out that “Britain equipped herself in the first half of the nineteenth century to sell cotton and railway materials, and she thus got into a rut which unfitted her to sell steel and machinery at the end of the century.” International Competition,” Am. Ec. Rev., XLVII (1957). 583Google Scholar. This is an oversimplified exaggeration, but contains a substantial element of truth..

123 , Clapham, Economic History, III, 147–48Google Scholar; , Burn, Economic History of Steelmaking, pp. 161–82Google Scholar.

124 Memoranda (1903), pp. 368 and 446-47.

125 Caird, J., The Landed Interest and the Supply of Food (4th ed.; London, 1880), pp. 56Google Scholar.

126 , Lewis, Economic Survey, p. 76Google Scholar.

127 , Clapham, Economic History, III, 2Google Scholar.

128 Memoranda (1904), pp. 437–38Google Scholar; , Clark, Conditions of Economic Progress, pp. 185Google Scholar, 187, and 190.

129 The most important contemporary evidence is contained in the reports of the Royal Commissions on agriculture, 1882 and 1894-97, and in the Royal Agricultural Society's Journal. For general accounts of agriculture in this period, see Ernie, Lord, English Farming, Past and Present (4th ed.; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1927)Google Scholar, ch. xviii, and , Clapham, Economic History, II, ch. vii; III, ch. iiGoogle Scholar.

130 Royal Commission on Agricultural Depression, Final Report, Part. Papers, 1897, XV (C. 8540), 6Google Scholar.

131 Drescher, L ., “The Development of Agricultural Production in Great Britain and Ireland from the early Nineteenth Century,” Manchester School, XXIII (1955), 175Google Scholar; , Ojala, Agriculture and Economic Progress, p. 210Google Scholar.

132 Rhee, H. A., in The Rent of Agricultural Land in England and Wales, 1873-1946 (London: Central Landowners Association, 1949), pp. 2958Google Scholar.

133 Bellerby, R. J., Agriculture and Industry: Relative Income (London: Macmillan, 1956), pp. 56 and 62-71Google Scholar.

134 , Ojala, Agriculture and Economic Progress, p. 129Google Scholar.

135 R. C. on Depression, Final Report (1886), pp. xvii and xixGoogle Scholar.

136 Memoranda (1903), pp. 56Google Scholar. See also , Schlote, British Overseas Trade, pp. 6668Google Scholar.

137 See, for example, Medley, G. W., The Reciprocity Craze (Cobden Club pamphlet; London, 1881)Google Scholar; Farrer, T. H., Free Trade Versus Fair Trade (London, 1885)Google Scholar; Williams, E. E., Made in Germany (London, 1896)Google Scholar. Later historical studies include Cunningham, Rise and Decline of the Free Trade Movement; Fuchs, C. J., Trade Policy of Great Britain and Her Colonies Since 1860 (London: Macmillan, 1905)Google Scholar; Ashley, P., Modern Tariff History (3d ed.; London: Murray, 1920)Google Scholar; Hoffman, R. J. S., Great Britain and the German Trade Rivalry, 1875-1914 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933)Google Scholar; Brown, B. H., The Tariff Reform Movement in Great Britain, 1881-1895 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943)Google Scholar.

138 Hobson, C. K., Imperialism (London: Nisbet, 1902)Google Scholar; Moon, P. T., Imperialism and World Politics (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1926)Google Scholar; , Jenks, Migration of British Capital, ch. viiGoogle Scholar; Gallagher, J. and Robinson, R., “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Ec. H. R., 2d ser., VI (1953-1954). 115Google Scholar.

139 Memoranda (1903), pp. 417-18 and 427-30.

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