Credit, Currency & Commerce: New Perspectives in Financial and Monetary History

Conference Report: University of Cambridge, 13-14 September 2016
by Sabine Schneider, University of Cambridge

‘Dividend Day at the Bank of England’ by George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914), Bank of England Museum. Copyright: The Governor and Company of the Bank of England


Retracing the path to the Great Recession, Barry Eichengreen has observed how ‘The historical past is a rich repository of analogies that shape perceptions and guide public policy decisions.’[1] Certainly, recent years have shown that analogies drawn from historical experience are most in demand ‘when there is no time for reflection.’[2] Beyond the study of banking crises and financial regulation, the past decade of economic turmoil has generated renewed scholarly interest in the evolution and politics of financial capitalism. While the legacy of the Great Recession has profoundly shaken established tenets of mainstream economics, it has also stressed the need for new historical narratives that understand the world economy within the specific cultural contexts, economic ideas and political debates of the past. On 13 and 14 September, the Centre for Financial History at Darwin College, Cambridge, hosted an early career conference to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue about histories of finance, global trade and monetary policy. Over the two conference days, twenty early career scholars and doctoral researchers presented papers that ranged, in period and geography, from medieval Catalonia and eighteenth-century Scotland to pre-war China and post-war Britain. This review will reflect on three major themes of the conference: the art and science of central banking, studies in political economy, and cultural approaches to the history of finance.

Central banking and the formation of monetary policy have resurfaced as key concerns for economic historians since the 2007/8 financial crisis. The debate over the Bank of England’s evolving role as Lender of Last Resort, for instance, was re-examined by Dr Paul Kosmetatos (Edinburgh). His paper analysed Adam Smith’s and Henry Thornton’s differing recommendations for crisis containment as a starting-point for evaluating the Bank’s conduct in 1763 and 1772. Kosmetatos concluded that the Bank’s timely injection of liquidity via the banknote channel during the latter crisis showed that ‘the attitude and means of intervention described by Thornton were already practically in place.’ Pamfili Antipa (Banque de France/Paris School of Economics) presented new Bank of England balance sheet data that adds considerably to our knowledge of how the British government financed the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars. Her joint research with Professor Christophe Chamley (Boston) revealed that the Bank strategically operated in the secondary market for Exchequer bills in order to re-direct funds to the Treasury. For the post-war period, Oliver Bush’s paper (Bank of England/LSE) investigated Britain’s approach to monetary and macroprudential policies in the years after the UK Radcliffe Report (1959). Based on collaborative research with Dr David Aikman (Bank of England) and Professor Alan M. Taylor (California), Bush presented new findings on the ‘causal impacts of interest rates and credit controls’ on inflation and economic activity.[3]

The evolution and management of modern central banks in mainland Europe and Great Britain formed the focus of three further papers. Starting with the foundation of Germany’s Reichsbank in 1876, Ousmène Mandeng (LSE) explored the role of competition and monetary stability as integral elements of the operation of Germany’s central bank prior to 1890. Mandeng argued that the Reichsbank’s flexible reserve requirements, as well as its rivalry with regional note issuing banks in the market for bills, created an effective, incentives-based system of central banking. Enrique Jorge-Sotelo (LSE) took a micro-historical approach to the Spanish banking crisis of 1931, assessing the criteria the Banco de España employed for the provision and conditions of its emergency loans. In her closing keynote, Dr Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) examined the origins of modern management practices at the Bank of England.[4] Shedding light on the Bank’s working processes, recruitment, and staff training during the 1780s, Dr Murphy demonstrated that the Bank took important steps towards fostering and monitoring good managerial practice, which over the long run may have aided ‘the development of trust in the British public finances.’[5]

The politics of currency, taxation, and trade shaped a second major strand of the conference. Professor Martin Daunton (Cambridge) delivered a wide-ranging keynote on ‘Bretton Woods Revisited: Currency, Commerce and Contestation’. Shifting the focus away from the predominant narrative of US-UK rivalry at Bretton Woods, Daunton re-evaluated the specific domestic concerns of several Western European and Commonwealth countries, which affected their negotiating positions at the 1944 summit and at subsequent international trade conferences. The League of Nations’ work in the field of trade finance in the years leading up to the Great Depression was re-examined by Jamieson Gordon Myles (Geneva). His paper investigated the League’s failed internationalist efforts, and traced how economic nationalism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies could take hold in the inter-war period. New research on France, China, and Germany prompted further reflections on the impact of global integration in capital markets, and its effect on nations’ public finances. Jerome Greenfield (Cambridge), for example, investigated the political economy of France’s fiscal constitution between 1789 and 1852. Greenfield’s paper elucidated the central government’s rationale for re-introducing and extending indirect taxes after they had been abolished during the French Revolution. Ghassan Moazzin (Cambridge) discussed the Chinese state’s practice of raising capital for public expenses through foreign bond markets in the early twentieth century. His paper demonstrated that the interventions of Western bankers to uphold China’s credit had a critical influence on the political outcome of the Republican Revolution of 1911. Considering the nexus between finance and diplomacy, Sabine Schneider (Cambridge) appraised the role of cosmopolitan financial elites in Germany’s conversion to a gold standard. Her paper examined the semi-official position of Gerson von Bleichröder, private banker and economic advisor to Bismarck, and his interventions in the monetary reforms Germany pursued after unification.

Several papers pointed to the underexplored potential of cultural and social history to broaden our understanding of how economic cultures, ideologies and policies are themselves socially constructed. Owen Brittan’s paper (Cambridge) drew on autobiographical evidence to assess men’s anxiety over bankruptcy and debt in later Stuart England, and revealed how such fears were mediated through ideals of masculinity, honour and economic independence. Henry Sless (Reading) discussed the news reporting of financial events in the Victorian era, while Damian Clavel (Geneva) revisited the speculative bubble in Latin American bonds that gripped investors in the 1820s, focusing, in particular, on how underwriters constructed the notorious story of the ‘fictitious country of Poyais’.[6] Exploring changing cultural attitudes to speculation, Kieran Heinemann (Cambridge) traced the practices of brokers and investors in Britain’s grey market for stocks and shares during the half-century leading up to the Prevention of Fraud Act of 1939. Heinemann recovered a largely forgotten ‘discursive struggle over the boundaries between investment, speculation and gambling’, which still resonates with the concerns of investors and regulators today.

Credit, Currency & Commerce brought together thirty-six junior researchers and senior academics from across history, economics, development economics, business management, and philosophy. Their contributions from a variety of disciplinary angles and methodologies produced lively exchanges on the trajectory of financial and monetary history, and the opportunities it holds for mastering a deeper understanding of the world economy.


The full conference report and programme are available at

The conference was generously funded by the Economic History Society, the Centre for Financial History and the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. For more information on grants and conference funds:


[1] Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession and the Uses and Misuses of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 377.

[2] Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors, 377.

[3] David Aikman, Oliver Bush, and Alan M. Taylor, ‘Monetary Versus Macroprudential Policies: Causal Impacts of Interest Rates and Credit Controls in the Era of the UK Radcliffe Report’, NBER Working Paper No. 22380 (June 2016).

[4] Anne Murphy, ‘The Bank of England and the Genesis of Modern Management’, eabh Working Paper, No. 16-02 (August 2016); see also, Anne Murphy, ‘“Writes a fair hand and appears to be well qualified”: the recruitment of Bank of England clerks, 1800-1815’, Financial History Review, 22 (2015), 19-44.

[5] Murphy, ‘The Bank of England and the Genesis of Modern Management’, 29.

[6] Carmen M. Reinhardt and Kenneth S. Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 93.

How (much) were British workers paid ? Evidence beyond wage rates

J. Cobden (1953) The White Slaves of England

Since Phelps Brown Hopkins published ‘Seven centuries’ in the mid 1950s economic historians and cliometricians have used ‘day wages’ – day rates for masons, carpenters and bricklayers taken from building accounts – to estimate the earnings of workers of the past. Whilst recent work has shown that these rates were not what the masons, carpenters and bricklayers actually received [1] many historians have been working on the means of earnings of other groups. A wage formation conference at the Institute of Historical Research on 16 September aimed to bring the notion that wages are more multifarious than day rates to the fore. The programme brought research on lead and coal miners, hostmen, keelmen, laundresses, sailors, bankers, spinners, agricultural labourers and clergy to debate, and the features that all these groups had in common in their pay before 1900 was an observation that all who attended shared.

Kicking off the day in opening remarks, Leigh Shaw-Taylor put the conclusions that authors such as Greg Clark, and Robert Allen and others have drawn from long run compilations of builder’s day rates within a theoretical context of structural change, pointing out that the role of real wages and average wages has been confused by cliometricians, and reminding us that Malthus predicted shifts in the wages of the poor, not of the average worker.

In the first presented case of the day Jane Humphries and Ben Schneider (Oxford) overturned the notion, common in recent historiography, that spinners were well paid and part of a high wage economy in England in the 18th century; rather they showed only the most productive spinners in England earned what Arthur Young described, moreover many spinners were employed by parishes at low piece rates under the poor laws. Amy Ridgway (Exeter) presented the only data from agriculture at the conference. Using the records of Kingston Lacy in Dorset she showed that the number of day labourers hired on a casual basis increased throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century, contrary to the established literature. Kathryn Gary (Lund) presented a new wage series for unskilled men in Sweden in the long run. She showed definitively that the wages unskilled men were not enough to support a family.

Four papers presented at the workshop dealt with the earnings of miners or those engaged in the coal industry. Andy Burn (Durham) showed that the keelmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the late 17th and early 18th century had pay that consisted of variable elements. Part was for hauling, another part for loading, and the rates varied according to location and season. Although the men were relatively well-paid when they were at work, the seasonality of the trade challenged living standards, and created a public order problem for the authorities. Tim Barmby (Newcastle) has been researching the Allendale lead miners. There men and mine owners bargained a price per fathom to be mined. To bargain effectively they needed to be able to predict, or have better information about the seams and geology that they were mining. Barmby shows that wage bargains were a means by which the mine owners extracted information from the more knowledgable miners. Unsurprisingly, the system produced unequal gains, with the best teams repeatedly winning the bargains. Guy Solomon (Exeter), who has fully quantitatively analysed Peter Kirby’s 2010 data shows that piece rates in coal mining in Northumberland brought about large variations in wage amongst workers doing the same job. Matthew Pawelski (Lancaster) showed how a Derbyshire free miner of the mid 18th century, John Naylor, used his own rights to common mining land to earn a large amount to take him out of a period of significant indebtedness. The case shows that as well as having his own resources, Naylor took local work with other employers when he could, and highlights the multifarious nature of earning for men of this class, and the role of book credit in such small enterprise.

Richard Blakemore (Reading) has spent the last three years looking at how sailors were paid. He debunked the common myth that sailors were an early modern global proletariat paid poorly wages. Instead he shows that Sailors earnings were, again, highly variable – many mariners made money from trading goods between ports. The form in which sailors were paid varied according to risk. Blakemore showed that the bargaining systems between shipowners and mariners benefited both parties at different times. Laundresses – a vital group never properly examined before – are the subject of Kathryne Crossley’s (Oxford) research. Drawing on the records of Oxford Colleges she shows that their status, and the means by which they were paid shifted over the 17th and 18th centuries. In the earlier period they operated as enterprising sole traders, in the 19th century they were integrated into the discipline of college staff. Anne Murphy (Hertfordshire) brought some badly needed research into white collar workers. Bank of England clerks had much in common with sailors – and laundresses – it turns out. The basic salary that the clerks received was at the very lowest end of white-collar earnings in in London. Variation and extra income were earned by the clerks through gratuities, frequently for favours for clients, and trading illegitimately as brokers. Judy Stephenson (Oxford) gave a review approach, centred around the question of trying to work out how representative day wages used in macroeconomics series really are of earners in London across the long eighteenth century. Early research, funded by Cambridge Humanities Grant, indicates that few London workers were paid by the day before 1800. Wouter Marchand (Utrecht) demonstrated that the pay of clergy in early modern Friesland was dependent on the quality of land that church lands produced income from. The clergy are one of those groups that economists love to refer to as sacrificing wages for status. Marchand shows that their wages were not determined by custom. The best paid clergy were in merged or combined parishes on fertile soil.

The commonalities between the cases presented at the workshop was remarkable. These kept coffee breaks and lunch and dinner abuzz with debate, conversation and connections. The most marked was the observation of varying levels of income due to the effects of piece rates, bargaining and variable pay structures. Variation in earnings of people doing the same jobs was a consistent theme throughout the cases presented. Moreover, nearly all the cases showed only small part of income came from basic pay, and auxiliary rates, gratuities, alternate employment and bargains, were used to meet the problems of information asymmetry, seasonality or uncertainty. This was directly related to the materiality of some of the occupations. It was also noted that the agency or bargaining power of workers in a number of sectors was a determinant of their income. A final comment was that that ‘custom’, which dominates a great deal of historical literature, was not mentioned all day as as a determining variable in any of the cases presented.

The conference reinforced the idea held by many participants that wages in the early modern period and nineteenth century were a more complex issue than the use of real wages in long run studies have suggested, but it also showed that the topic of wage formation is ripe for further research. The full proceedings and papers will be published at a later date.

Judy Stephenson.

[1] Stephenson, EcHR, forthcoming.