The returns to invention during the British industrial revolution

by Sean Bottomley (Max Planck Institute for European Legal History)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website


british industry
Ancoats, Manchester. McConnel & Company’s mills, about 1820. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Since the Victorian period, it has been commonly assumed that inventors were rarely remunerated for their inventions. To contemporaries they were ‘the miserable victim of [their] own powerful genius’, ‘Martyrs of Science’ who worked ‘alone, unfriended, solitary’, while ‘the recorded instances of the[ir] martyrdom would be a task of enormous magnitude’. Prominent examples of important inventors from the industrial revolution period, but who had the misfortune to die in penury (the steam engineer Richard Trevithick, for example), has meant that this view has passed into the modern literature almost without scrutiny.

This assumption, though, is significant, as it directly informs how we might explain probably ‘the’ big problem in economic history: what were the origins of the industrial revolution, and concomitantly, of modern economic growth. In particular, if inventors did usually fail to obtain financial rewards, this precludes potential explanations of the industrial revolution that invoke incentives to explain the actions of those who invented and commercialised the new technology industrialisation required. It also precludes the applicability of endogenous growth theory to the industrial revolution (theory which has earnt two of its progenitors 2018 Nobel prizes) as it assumes that profit incentives determine the amount of inventive activity that occurs.

In an attempt to determine the wealth of inventors, I have collected probate data for over 700 inventors born in Britain between 1660 and 1830, from a list first compiled by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr. This probate data indicates that inventors were in fact extremely wealthy. For instance, in one exercise, I compared the probated wealth of 422 inventors who died between 1800 and 1870, with that of the overall adult male population.


Table 1.           Probated wealth of inventors, 1800-1870

Probated wealth Adult male population (1839-1841) Adult male population (1858) Inventors
<£200 or no will 73302 (88.14%) 87043 (87.70%) 124 (29.4%)
<£1,000 5570   (6.70%) 6690   (6.74%) 39   (9.2%)
94.84% 94.44% 163 (38.6%)
<£10,000 4296 (5.16%) 4554 (4.59%) 104 (24.6%)
<£50,000 812 (0.82%) 95 (22.5%)
   £50,000+ 154 (0.16%) 60 (14.2%)
5.16% 5.56% 259 (61.4%)

Notes: For details on how the distribution of male probated wealth was estimated for 1839-41, and 1858, please refer to the appendix in the original article published in the Economic History Review.


The table above shows us that approximately 5 to 6 percent of adult males who died in 1839-41 and 1858 (years for when these figures can be collated), left behind wealth probated in excess of £1,000. The equivalent figure for inventors was over 60 percent. The disparity only increases as we move up through the wealth categories. Whereas only 0.16 percent of adult males left behind wealth probated in excess of £50,000 in 1858 (one in 650), for inventors it was 14.2 percent (one in 7).

It does not, however, automatically follow that the wealth of inventors was actually derived from their inventions. These were presumably talented individuals and their income may have been accrued over the course of a ‘normal’ business career and/or inherited. Unfortunately, this is a prohibitively difficult subject to approach directly: accounts rarely survive for these inventors and in any case, it is doubtful whether income from an invention could be neatly distinguished from ‘normal’ business income. As an indirect approach, I have also collected probate information for the brothers of inventors. Brothers are an especially apposite group for comparison: they would have enjoyed a very similar inheritance to their brothers (although inheriting financial capital appears to have mattered less than inheriting social capital) and they tended to enter similar occupations to their (inventive) brothers. Indeed, 24 of the inventors in the entire dataset were related as brothers – the talents and opportunities required to become an inventor were clearly not evenly distributed among the adult male population.

For 143 of the 422 inventors discussed in table 1, it was possible to confirm the existence of at least one adult brother who reached at least the age of 25 and who died in Britain between 1800 and 1870 (253 brothers in total). In the table below, the top row divides these 143 inventors into the same wealth categories as those used in the table above, with the number in parentheses denoting how many of the 143 inventors are in each category. The columns beneath this then show the distribution of the wealth of their brothers. So, there are 25 inventors in this exercise whose estate was worth less than £200. Of their 45 brothers, 31 were also left behind less than £200. Three had probated wealth between £200 and £1,000, nine between £1,000 and £10,000 and two between £10,000 and £50,000. None left behind more than £50,000.


Table 2.           Brother’s Probates, 1800-1870

< £200 (25) < £1,000 (11) < £10,000 (35) < £50,000 (44) £50,000+ (28)
     < £200 31 12 26 35 23
  < £1,000 3 3 7 7 2
< £10,000 9 2 14 31 13
< £50,000 2 2 3 9 8
    £50,000+ 3 2 6

Notes: as Table 1


Overall, if inventors were wealthier than their brothers, then the latter should be concentrated at the top and to the right of the table, and away from the bottom left corner. Clearly, they are – overwhelmingly so when one considers how important simple happenstance can be in influencing an individual’s financial success over the course of their career.

Previous work has relied on impressionistic evidence to suggest that inventors in this period rarely obtained financial rewards commensurate with their technical achievements. Probate information, though, shows that inventors were extremely wealthy relative to the adult male population. Inventors were also significantly wealthier than another group who would have received a similar inheritance (in terms of both financial and social capital) and entered similar occupations: their brothers. Their additional wealth was derived from inventive activities: invention paid.


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The Price of the Poor’s Words: Social Relations and the Economics of Deposing for One’s “Betters” in Early Modern England

by Hillary Taylor (Jesus College, Cambridge)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website

Poverty and Wealth. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England was one of the most litigious societies on record. If much of this litigation was occasioned by debt disputes, a sizeable proportion involved gentlemen suing each other in an effort to secure claims to landed property. In this genre of suits, gentlemen not infrequently enlisted their social inferiors and subordinates to testify on their behalf.[1] These labouring witnesses were usually qualified to comment on the matter at hand a result of their employment histories. When they deposed, they might recount their knowledge of the boundaries of some land, of a deed or the like. In the course of doing so, they might also comment on all sorts of quotidian affairs. Because testifying enabled illiterate and otherwise anonymous people to speak on-record about all sorts of issues, historians have rightly regarded depositions as a singularly valuable source: for all their limitations, they offer us access to worlds that would otherwise be lost.

But we don’t know much about what labouring people thought about the prospect of testifying for (and against) their superiors, or how they came to testify in the first place. Did they think that it presented an opportunity to assert themselves? Did it – as some contemporary legal commentators claimed – provide them with an opportunity to make a bit of money on the side by ‘selling’ dubious evidence to their litigious superiors?[2] Or were they reluctant to depose in such circumstances and, if so, why? Where subordinated individuals deposed for their ‘betters’, what was the relationship between the ‘pull’ of economic reward and the ‘push’ of extra-economic coercion?

I wrote an article that considers these questions. It doesn’t have any tables or graphs; the issues with which it’s concerned don’t readily lend themselves to quantification. Rather, this piece tries to think about how members of the labouring population conceived of the possibilities that were afforded to and the constraints that were imposed upon them by dint of their socio-economic position.

In order to reconstruct these areas of popular thought, I read loads of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century suits from the court of Star Chamber. In these cases, labouring witnesses who had deposed for one superior against another were subsequently sued for perjury (this was typically done in an effort to have a verdict that they had helped to secure overturned). Allegations against these witnesses got traction because it was widely assumed that people who worked for their livings were poor and, as a result, would lie under oath for anyone who would pay them for doing so. Where these suits advanced to the deposition-taking phase, labouring witnesses who were accused of swearing falsely under oath and witnesses of comparable social position provided accounts of their relationship with the litigious superiors in question, or commentaries on the perceived risks and benefits of giving evidence. They discussed the economic dispensations (or the promise thereof) which they had been given, or the coercion which had been used to extract their testimony.

Taken in aggregate, this evidence suggests that members of the labouring population had a keen sense of the politics of testimony. In a dynamic and exacting economy such as that of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, where labouring people’s material prospects were irrevocably linked to their reputation and ‘honesty,’ deposing could be risky. Members of the labouring population were aware of this, and many were hesitant to depose at all. Their reluctance may well have been born of an awareness that doubt was likely to be cast upon their testimony as a result of their subordinated and dependent social position, which lent credibility to accusations that they had sworn falsely for gain. More immediately, it reflected concerns about the material reprecussions that they feared would follow from commenting on the affairs of their ‘betters.’ Such projections were not merely the stuff of paranoid speculation. In 1601, a carpenter from Buckinghamshire called Christopher Badger had put his mark to a statement defending a gentleman, Arthur Wright, who had frustrated efforts to impose a stinting arrangement on the common to, as many locals claimed, the ‘damadge of the poorer sorte and to the comoditie of the riche.’ Badger recalled that one of Wright’s opponents – also a gentleman – later approached him and said ‘You have had my worke and the woorke of divers’ other pro-stinting individuals. To discourage Badger from further involvement, he added a thinly veiled threat: ‘This might be an occasion that you maie have lesse worke then heretofore you have had.’[3] For members of the labouring population, material circumstance often militated against opening their mouths.

But there was an irony to the politics of testimony, which was not lost on common people. If material conditions made some prospective witnesses reluctant to depose, they all but compelled others to do so (even when they expressed reservations). In some instances, labouring people’s poverty rendered the rewards – a bit of coal, a cow, promises of work that was not dictated by the vagaries of seasonal employment, or nebulous offers of a life freed from want – that they were promised (and less often given) in return for their testimony compelling. In others, the dependency, subordination and obligation that characterized their relations with their superiors necessitated that they speak as required, or face the consequences. In the face of such pressures, a given individual’s reservations about testifying were all but irrelevant.

To contact Hillary Taylor:


[1] For debt and debt-related litigation, see Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1998).

[2] For suspicions surrounding the testimony of poor and/or labouring witnesses, see Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2015).

[3] TNA, STAC 5/W17/32. Continue reading

Medieval Clothiers and their workers: an early ‘gig’ economy?

by John S. Lee (University of York)

The Medieval Clothier is published by Boydell Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 31 March 2019. See below for details.


Dyers soaking red cloth in a heated barrel. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Casual wage-earners dependent on wealthy entrepreneurs for their work are not just a modern phenomenon. A new book by John S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier, charts the rise of clothiers in the period 1350-1550, and the innovative ways in which they organised their workforce.

Clothiers co-ordinated the different stages of textile production and found markets for their finished cloth. They increasingly managed all the stages of cloth-making, operating what historians have called the ‘putting out’ system. In this method of organising work, clothiers put-out raw materials for spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to process. Clothiers paid these cloth-workers, often based in their own homes, on a piece-rate basis, rather than receiving a regular wage.

Like the modern ‘gig’ economy, the benefits of this system were hotly contested. Clothworkers enjoyed the independence to choose their own hours, and combine their craft with other activities; clothiers incurred no overheads for work done in the homes of their workers and benefitted from lower labour costs. When clothworkers protested in Suffolk in 1525, their spokesman, John Green, explained that the clothiers

‘give us so little wages for our workmanship that scarcely we be able to live, and thus in penury we pass the time, we our wives and children.’

Another, a group of weavers, accused ‘the rich men, the clothiers’ of setting a single price for their work. Others complained that clothiers reimbursed their workers in ‘pins, girdles, and other unprofitable wares’ rather than in cash. Clothiers were even accused in 1549 of paying poor labourers with ‘soap, candles, rotten cloth, stinking fish, and such like baggage’.

Local and national governments responded with ambivalence. On the one hand, cloth exports brought welcome revenue through customs. Governments were also aware though, that disruptions to overseas cloth sales created unemployment and unrest. The putting-out system relied on outworkers, whom the clothier only paid when work was available, and on keeping labour costs low. Following disruption to overseas markets, the government tried to prevent clothiers from laying off their workers. Even the king’s leading minister, Cardinal Wolsey, pressurised London merchants to continue buying cloth from the clothiers.

A few clothiers were able to amass great wealth from this industry, construct lavish mansions and erect elaborate church memorials, which can still be seen today. Thomas Paycocke’s house at Coggeshall, Essex, built to impress in 1509-10 with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling, is now a National Trust property. The wealth of Thomas Spring III, ‘the rich clothier’ of Lavenham, Suffolk, caught the attention of the royal court’s poet, John Skelton, in 1522. The screen constructed to surround Spring’s tomb in Lavenham church in Suffolk engaged craftsmen familiar with commissions for the royal court.

Clothiers that profited from their trade often remembered their workers in their wills. Thomas Paycocke, who died in 1518, left bequests in their wills to ‘my weavers, fullers and shearmen’. He gave additional sums for those ‘that have wrought me very much work’. Paycocke’s bequests to his workers, which totalled £4, may have stretched to as many as 240 workers, while those of Thomas Spring II of Lavenham, who died in 1486, may have supported nearly 4,000 workers. Both these clothiers operated large-scale production through the putting-out system, although exactly how large must remain a matter for discussion.

Cloth-making became England’s leading industry in the late Middle Ages – no other industry created as much employment or generated as much wealth. By the 1540s, as many as 1 in 7 of the country’s workforce were probably making cloth and 1 in 4 households were involved in spinning. This book offers the first recent survey of this hugely important and significant trade and its practitioners, examining the clothiers and their impact within the industry and in their wider communities.

Intended for the general reader, as well as students and academics, this book is the first in a new series – Working in the Middle Ages – which will examine different trades, professions and industries. The series aims to provide authoritative, accessible guides to medieval trades and professions, offering surveys of their origins and development, alongside the practicalities of the occupation.

New proposals for the series are welcomed, and should be sent to the series editor, Dr James Davis, School of History, Queens University Belfast ( or to the Editorial Director (Medieval Studies), Boydell and Brewer (


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Wages in the Middle Ages

by Jordan Claridge (London School of Economics)


index.jpgHistorical research on labour and wages has been an object of considerable attention
for both industrial and post-industrial societies. Even in the contemporary period, issues surrounding concepts of work and remuneration, such as growing inequality and the gender pay gap, are regularly debated topics. Indeed, modern English society is currently dealing with fallout in these areas as a result of deindustrialisation and the idea of a universal basic income is gaining traction.

But for the more distant past, understanding these issues often becomes a battle with shadows. My research uses a new method for computing real wages (income adjusted for cost of living) for agricultural labourers in medieval England.

An accurate understanding of these wages is critically important for our conceptions of historic economic development, especially as existing scholarship on medieval wage rates are incompatible with the most recent estimates of historical GDP data and therefore our understanding of precisely how, when and why Western Europe grew rich while other parts of the world did not.

Current scholarship on wages and labour before 1500 tends to be highly extrapolated and interpolated and lacks systematic analyses grounded in precise evidence. My project employs a methodology connecting wage payments to precise data on the number of days worked by individual labourers and the prices for the goods that these same individuals needed to purchase, and facilitates the creation of a wage series based entirely on accurate historical data.

The systematic analysis and quantification of wage levels for the medieval period has been frustrated by the relative lack of records, or, even where records might be plentiful, by the inconsistency or obscurity in the ways in which wage levels are framed. As a result, current discussions of wages and labour before 1500 lack the bite of more systematic analyses grounded in precise evidence and leads to the divergence in results that we currently see in the literature.

My study attempts to break through this impasse by adopting a new method for determining the wage profile of workers on medieval English demesnes (the home farms of lords as against those of their tenants). It uses uniquely detailed agricultural accounts from these demesnes, which survive in tens of thousands for the period of this study (c. AD 1250 – AD 1450).

The method depends on connecting precise data on wages paid both in cash and ‘in kind’ in a manner that allows wages to be calculated without the distorting effect of proxy measurements. This approach promises to facilitate the creation of an accurate wage series for medieval England, based entirely on historical data both over region and over time and to allow surveys of the degree of both female and male labour evident in medieval demesne agriculture.

Wages of sin: slavery and the banks, 1830-50

by Aaron Graham (University College London)


From the cartoon ‘Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions’ by C.J. Grant. In Richard Pound (UCL, 1998), C.J. Grant’s ‘Political Drama’, a radical satirist rediscovered‘. Available at <;

In 1834, the British Empire emancipated its slaves. This should have quickly triggered a major shift away from plantation labour and towards a free society where ex-slaves would bargain for better wages and force the planters to adopt new business models or go under. But the planters and plantation system survived, even if slavery did not. What went wrong?

This research follows the £20 million paid in compensation by the British government in 1834 (equivalent to about £20 billion today). This money was paid not to the slaves, but to the former slave-owners for the loss of their human property.

Thanks to the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at University College London, we now know who received the money and how much. But until this study, we knew very little about how the former slave-owners used this money, or what effect this had on colonial societies in the West Indies or South Africa as they confronted the demands of this new world.

The study suggests why so little changed. It shows that slave-owners in places such as Jamaica, Guyana, South Africa and Mauritius used the money they received not just to pay off their debts, but also to set up new banks, which created credit by issuing bank notes and then supplied the planters with cash and credit.

Planters used the credit to improve their plantations and the cash to pay wages to their new free labourers, who therefore lacked the power to bargain for better conditions. Able to accommodate the social and economic pressures that would otherwise have forced them to reassess their business models and find new approaches that did not rely on the unremitting exploitation of black labour, planters could therefore resist the demands for broader economic and social change.

Tracking the ebb and flow of money shows that in Jamaica, for example, in 1836 about 200 planters chose to subscribe half the £450,000 they had received in compensation in the new Bank of Jamaica. By 1839, the bank had issued almost £300,000 in notes, enabling planters across the island to meet their workers’ wages without otherwise altering the plantation system.

When the Planters’ Bank was founded in 1839, it issued a further £100,000. ‘We congratulate the country on the prospects of a local institution of this kind’, the Jamaica Despatch commented in May 1839, ‘ … designed to aid and relieve those who are labouring under difficulties peculiar to the Jamaican planter at the present time’.

In other cases, the money even allowed farmers to expand the system of exploitation. In the Cape of Good Hope, the Eastern Province Bank at Grahamstown raised £26,000 with money from slavery compensation but provided the British settlers with £170,000 in short-term loans, helping them to dispossess native peoples of their land and use them as cheap labour to raise wool for Britain’s textile factories.

‘With united influence and energy’, the bank told its shareholders in 1840, for example, ‘the bank must become useful, as well to the residents at Grahamstown and our rapidly thriving agriculturists as prosperous itself’.

This study shows for the first time why planters could carry on after 1834 with business as usual. The new banks created after 1834 helped planters throughout the British Empire to evade the major social and economic changes that abolitionists had wanted and which their opponents had feared.

By investing their slavery compensation money in banks that then offered cash and credit, the planters could prolong and even expand their place in economies and societies built on the plantation system and the exploitation of black labour.


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British perceptions of German post-war industrial relations

By Colin Chamberlain (University of Cambridge)

Some 10,000 steel workers participate in a demonstration to demand a 10 per...
A demonstration in Stuttgart, 11th January 1962.  Picture alliance/AP Images, available at <;

‘Almost idyllic’ – this was the view of one British commentator on the state of post-war industrial relations in West Germany. No one could say the same about British industrial relations. Here, industrial conflict grew inexorably from year to year, forcing governments to expend ever more effort on preserving industrial peace.

Deeply frustrated, successive governments alternated between appeasing trade unionists and threatening them with new legal sanctions in an effort to improve their behaviour, thereby avoiding tackling the fundamental issue of their institutional structure. If the British had only studied the German ‘model’ of industrial relations more closely, they would have understood better the reforms that needed to be made.

Britain’s poor state of industrial relations was a major, if not the major, factor holding back Britain’s economic growth, which was regularly less than half the rate in Germany, not to speak of the chronic inflation and balance of payments problems that only made matters worse. So, how come the British did not take a deeper look at the successful model of German industrial relations and learn any lessons?

Ironically, the British were in control of Germany at the time the trade union movement was re-establishing itself after the war. The Trades Union Congress and the British labour movement offered much goodwill and help to the Germans in their task.

But German trade unionists had very different ideas to the British trade unions on how to go about organising their industrial relations, ideas that the British were to ignore consistently over the post-war period. These included:

    • In Britain, there were hundreds of trade unions, but in Germany, there were only 16 re-established after the war, each representing one or more industries, thereby avoiding the demarcation disputes so common in Britain.
    • Terms and conditions were negotiated on this industry-basis by strong well-funded trade unions, which welcomed the fact that their two or three year long collective agreements were legally enforceable in Germany’s system of industrial courts.
    • Trade unions were not involved in workplace grievances and disputes. These were left to employees and managers meeting together in Germany’s highly successful works councils to resolve such issues informally along with engaging in consultative exercises on working practices and company reorganisations. As a result, German companies did not seek to lay-off staff as British companies did on any fall in demand, but rathet to retrain and reallocate them.

British trade unions pleaded that their very untidy institutional structure with hundreds of competing trade unions was what their members actually wanted and should therefore be outside any government interference. The trade unions jealously guarded their privileges and especially rejected any idea of industry-based unions, legally enforceable collective agreements and works councils.

A heavyweight Royal Commission was appointed, but after three years’ deliberation, it came up with little more than the status quo. It was reluctant to study any ideas emanating from Germany.

While the success of industrial relations in Germany was widely recognised in Britain, there was little understanding about why this was so or indeed much interest in it. The British were deeply conservative about the ‘institutional shape’ of industrial relations and had a fear of putting forward any radical German ideas. Britain was therefore at a big disadvantage as far as creating modern trade unions operating in a modern state.

So, what economic price the failure to sort out the institutional structure of the British trade unions?

Transatlantic Slavery and Abolition: a Pan-European Affair

By Felix Brahm (German Historical Institute London) and Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool)

Slavery Hinterland. Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680–1850 is published by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher -offer ends on the 28th June 2018. See below for details.


coverThe history of transatlantic slavery is one of the most active and fruitful fields of international historical research, and an important lesson of the latest work on maritime countries like Britain and France is that there the profits of slavery and indeed abolition ‘trickled down’ to very wide sections of the population and to places well away from the principal slave-trading ports. Recently historians have started to look beyond the familiar Atlantic axis and to apply the same paradigm to the European hinterlands of the triangular trade. That is, they have sought its traces and impacts in territories that were not directly involved (or were relatively minor participants) in the traffic in Africans: the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, Italy and Central Europe. And they are finding that the slave trade, the plantation economies that it fed, the consequences of its abolition, and not least the questions of moral and political principle that it threw up, were very much a part of the texture of society right across Europe.

In material terms, it is clear that the manufacture of trade goods – the wares with which Europeans paid African traders for the enslaved men, women and children whom they then shipped to the Americas – was an important element of many regional economies. Firearms, iron bars and ironware travelled from Denmark and the Baltic to Western Europe’s slaving ports. Glass beads were exported from Bohemia (the Czech lands), and the higher quality Venetian products attracted Liverpool merchants to set up branch offices in Italy to secure their supply. The Swiss family firm Burckhardt/Bourcard began by supplying cotton cloth for the slave trade and importing slave-produced luxury goods and moved into equipping its own slaving ships. Textile plants in the Wupper Valley in Western Germany and the hand looms of Eastern Prussia provided linens of varying quality for use on the slave plantations, though because they were shipped through English and Dutch ports their German origins have often been obscured. And the trading networks established in the context of the slave economy supported German exporting projects even after the trade was abolished, as German firms continued to trade into territories – Brazil and the Caribbean – where slavery persisted until the late 19th century.

Germans in particular were keen observers of the Atlantic slave economy, and they had their own perspective on international debates about the trade and its abolition. At the beginnings of the trade, the rulers of Brandenburg Prussia had some hopes of buying into it, establishing a slave fort on the Gold Coast between 1682 and 1720. One of the key documents of this episode is the diary of a ship’s barber, Johann Peter Oettinger, who sailed on slaving expeditions. He chose to make no comment about the brutalities that he witnessed and recorded. Characteristically, though, when the diaries were published for German readers 200 years later, they were given a moralising spin; by the 1880s, Germany was at the forefront of the Scramble for Africa, justifying colonisation in the name of suppressing the internal slave trade. Before that, and once the German states were no longer involved in the slave trade, German-speaking scientists and administrators placed themselves in the service of those states that were: Ernst Schimmelmann, whose family had one foot in Hamburg and one in Copenhagen, was a plantation owner and manager of the Swedish state slaving company, but also responsible for the abolition of the Danish slave trade in 1792. And initiatives for the post-abolition exploitation of tropical territories relied on the work of German scientists in service to the Danish state like the botanist Julius von Rohr.

Scholarly attention to the German case is also bringing the Atlantic plantation economies into dialogue with the practices of unfree labour that existed in Central Europe at the same time. Analysis of the conditions of linen production on eastern Prussia’s aristocratic estates indicates that their low production costs helped to keep down the costs of production on slave plantations. And when Germans confronted the moral and legal challenges to slavery that were crystallising into a political movement in Britain and France by the 1790s, they could not escape the implications of abolitionist arguments for the future of their own ‘peculiar institutions’ of serfdom and personal service. This was true of Theresa Huber, the author and journalist who stands for two generations of Germans who engaged in transnational abolitionist networks, and who was equally sharp in her critique of serfdom. And it was true of Prussian administrators who, when challenged by enslaved Africans on German soil to enforce the notion that ‘there are no slaves in Prussia’, could not help asking themselves what that might mean for the process towards reform of feudal institutions.

These issues have only begun to receive greater attention – more studies are needed to gain a clearer understanding of the various links through which continental Europe was connected to the Transatlantic slave business and its abolition.


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Offer ends on the 28th June 2018. Any queries please email


To contact the authors:
Felix Brahm (;
Eve Rosenhaft (

EHS 2018 special: Foreign sailors in Nelson’s Navy: a forgotten story

by Sara Caputo (University of Cambridge) 


Nelson as a Midshipman, 1775. Available at <;

Few aspects of British history have attracted more patriotic enthusiasm than the nation’s naval exploits at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar. A less-known fact is that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign sailors.

My doctoral research, co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Robinson College, Cambridge, aims to reconstruct these men’s experiences for the first time, as well as giving an indication of the size of the phenomenon.

A quantitative study conducted on a sample of crews, chosen among those serving the furthest away from Britain – and thus most likely to include foreigners – revealed that 14.03% of the seamen sampled (616 out of 4,392) were born outside Britain or Ireland. Aboard one of the ships stationed in Jamaica in 1813, the proportion rose to 22.83%.

These sailors came from every corner of the world, and their numbers oscillated depending on the British state’s need for skilled seafarers in times of crisis. But their presence is often forgotten in favour of nationalistic narratives of British glory. Quantitative analysis of this kind helps to confirm that the British Navy of the Age of Sail, of Nelson and Trafalgar, was far from being manned only by ‘True Britons’. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not always entirely by her own devices.

Americans were the largest group found in the sample (176 men), followed by natives of what today is Germany, West Indians, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, Dutchmen, Portuguese and East Indians. Italians, Frenchmen (even though they were nominally the enemy), Africans and Spaniards were also well represented, and other smaller groups included Poles, South Americans, Russians, Maltese, Finns, one Greek and even – quite surprisingly – a Swiss, an Austrian, a Hungarian and a Chinese.

Previous studies have analysed the composition of crews in the eighteenth century Navy, but because no one has focused specifically on foreigners the samples had been chosen and interrogated in different ways. My research aims to cast light on changes over the whole time span of these wars, and across different geographical stations.

Three ships were chosen from each of three points in time – roughly the beginning, middle and end of the wars. The results show that the proportion of foreigners was lower in 1793, at the start of the conflict, with only 6.24% of the men in the sample coming from abroad, but went up to 14.94% in 1802, halfway through the war, and 18.49% by 1813, towards the end of it.

This is likely to be a symptom of the Navy’s increasing hunger for manpower, as the war progressed with heavy casualties and the British reserves of seamen becoming depleted.

As is often the case when dealing with matters of national belonging, the status of many of the men in the sample is potentially ambiguous: legal distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ were complex and far from clear-cut, depending on ideas of birthplace and ‘blood’, but also on cultural aspects such as personal choice, length of service, political loyalties, social status and general usefulness to the country.

If the British armed forces today only employ UK or Irish nationals, or Commonwealth nationals with settled status, this was not always the case: 200 years ago, men we would nowadays define as foreigners were actively sought and recruited by the British monarchy, and played an important role in British society and economy at large, as well as in the construction of an overseas empire.

EHS 2018 special: Upstairs, downstairs? Experiences of female servants in England, 1550-1650

Charmian Mansell (University of Exeter)


Servants in London, 1600. Available at <;

Despite women’s increased participation in the workforce, women in 2014 still carried out on average 60% more unpaid work (including cooking, cleaning and childcare) than men. The gender division of labour attracts considerable attention today and the domestic nature of women’s work is assumed to have a longstanding history. Cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and childcare are thought to have made up the bulk of women’s paid and unpaid work.


This conception of women’s work is tied to ideas of female economic and social vulnerability and oppression in the past. The female domestic servant depicted in televised historical dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs corresponds with this view of women’s work. We picture her moving silently around the household of her upper-class employers, lighting fires, making beds and doing laundry, and confined to a life below stairs.

My research shifts the focus to sixteenth and seventeenth century service and to servant-employing households of various levels of wealth. It shows a very different pattern of female service. Around 60% of 15-24 year olds were employed in rural and urban, rich and poor households across the country in exchange for wages, bed and board.

Domestic tasks were a more prominent feature of service in the households of the wealthy, where specific roles such as dairymaid, cook and chambermaid were more common. But in smaller households, there was less requirement for such specialisation or for this type of work.

The workloads of most English women in service between 1550 and 1650 were not made up of what we might classify as domestic chores. Witness statements from early modern church courts detail female servants reaping barley, brewing beer or ale, picking apples, fetching wood and running countless errands. One servant was even involved in the sale of pigeons in Basingstoke in 1631.

As evidence of these work activities suggest, service was an experience that did not confine women to their employer’s homes. Female servants spent only around 50% of their time inside the home. Their working and social lives took them into the streets, fields, marketplaces and a variety of other spaces.

These women were not simply employees – they were also important members of the communities in which they lived. In addition to the work tasks they performed outside of their employers’ homes, they visited their neighbours and friends, attended parish events such as markets and fairs and were embedded in community affairs.

While some women faced vulnerability and subordination within their employer’s households, other servants enjoyed the support and friendship of their neighbours. This was by no means a golden age for women in service; but my research demonstrates the need to assess women’s work in the past on its own terms.

EHS 2018 special: How the Second World War promoted racial integration in the American South

by Andreas Ferrara (University of Warwick)

African American and White Employees Working Together during WWII. Available at <;

European politicians face the challenge of integrating the 1.26 million refugees who arrived in 2015. Integration into the labour market is often discussed as key to social integration but empirical evidence for this claim is sparse.

My research contributes to the debate with a historical example from the American South where the Second World War increased the share of black workers in semi-skilled jobs such as factory work, jobs previously dominated by white workers.

I combine census and military records to show that the share of black workers in semi-skilled occupations in the American South increased as they filled vacancies created by wartime casualties among semi-skilled whites.

A fallen white worker in a semi-skilled occupation was replaced by 1.8 black workers on average. This raised the share of African Americans in semi-skilled jobs by 10% between 1940 and 1950.

Survey data from the South in 1961 reveal that this increased integration in the workplace led to improved social relations between black and white communities outside the workplace.

Individuals living in counties where war casualties brought more black workers into semi-skilled jobs between 1940-50 were 10 percentage points more likely to have an interracial friendship, 6 percentage points more likely to live in a mixed-race neighbourhood, and 11 percentage points more likely to favour integration over segregation in general, as well as at school and at church. These positive effects are reported by both black and white respondents.

Additional analysis using county-level church membership data from 1916 to 1971 shows similar results. Counties where wartime casualties resulted in a more racially integrated labour force saw a 6 percentage points rise in membership shares of churches, which already held mixed-race services before the war.

The church-related results are especially striking. In several of his speeches Dr Martin Luther King stated that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life. And yet my analysis shows that workplace exposure of two groups can overcome even strongly embedded social divides such as churchgoing, which is particularly important in the South, the so-called bible belt.

This historical case study of the American South in the mid-twentieth century, where race relations were often tense, demonstrates that excluding refugees from the workforce may be ruling out a promising channel for integration.

Currently, almost all European countries forbid refugees from participating in the labour market. Arguments put forward to justify this include fear of competition for jobs, concern about downward pressure on wages and a perceived need to deter economic migration.

While the mid-twentieth century American South is not Europe, the policy implication is to experiment more extensively with social integration through workplace integration measures. This not only concerns the refugee case but any country with socially and economically segregated minority groups.