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 13th December 2018. 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.

How well off were the occupants of early modern almshouses?

by Angela Nicholls (University of Warwick).

Almhouses in Early Modern England is published by Boydell Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 13th December 2018. See below for details.


Almshouses, charitable foundations providing accommodation for poor people, are a feature of many towns and villages. Some are very old, with their roots in medieval England as monastic infirmaries for the sick, pilgrims and travellers, or as chantries offering prayers for the souls of their benefactors. Many survived the Reformation to be joined by a remarkable number of new foundations between around 1560 and 1730. For many of them their principal purpose was as sites of memorialisation and display, tangible representations of the philanthropy of their wealthy donors. But they are also some of the few examples of poor people’s housing to have survived from the early modern period, so can they tell us anything about the material lives of the people who lived in them?

Paul Slack famously referred to almspeople as ‘respectable, gowned Trollopian worthies’, and there are many examples to justify that view, for instance Holy Cross Hospital, Winchester, refounded in 1445 as the House of Noble Poverty. But these are not typical. Nevertheless, many early modern almshouse buildings are instantly recognisable, with the ubiquitous row of chimneys often the first indication of the identity of the building.


Burghley Almshouses, Stamford (1597)


Individual chimneys and, often, separate front doors are evidence of private domestic space, far removed from the communal halls of the earlier medieval period, or the institutional dormitories of the nineteenth century workhouses which came later. Accommodating almspeople in their own rooms was not just a reflection of general changes in domestic architecture at the time, which placed greater emphasis on comfort and privacy, but represented a change in how almspeople were viewed and how they were expected to live their lives. Instead of living communally with meals provided, in the majority of post-Reformation almshouses the residents would have lived independently, buying their own food, cooking it themselves on their own hearth and eating it by themselves in their rooms. The importance of the hearth was not only as the practical means of heating and cooking, but was central to questions of identity and social status. Together with individual front doors, these features gave occupants a degree of independence and autonomy; they enabled almspeople to live independently despite their economic dependence, and to adopt the appearance if not the reality of independent householders.


Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 16.40.44
Stoneleigh Old Almshouses, Warwickshire (1576)


The retreat from communal living also meant that almspeople had to support themselves rather than have all their needs met by the almshouse. This was achieved in many places by a transition to monetary allowances or stipends with which almspeople could purchase their own food and necessities, but the existence and level of these stipends varied considerably. Late medieval almshouses often specified an allowance of a penny a day, which would have provided a basic but adequate living in the fifteenth century, but was seriously eroded by sixteenth-century inflation. Thus when Lawrence Sheriff, a London mercer, established in 1567 an almshouse for four poor men in his home town of Rugby, his will gave each of them the traditional penny a day, or £1 10s 4d a year. Yet with inflation, if these stipends were to match the real value of their late-fifteenth-century counterparts, his almsmen would actually have needed £4 5s 5d a year.[1]

The nationwide system of poor relief established by the Tudor Poor Laws, and the survival of poor relief accounts from many parishes by the late seventeenth century, provide an opportunity to see the actual amounts disbursed in relief by overseers of the poor to parish paupers. From the level of payments made to elderly paupers no longer capable of work it is possible to calculate the barest minimum which an elderly person living rent free in an almshouse might have needed to feed and clothe themself and keep warm.[2] Such a subsistence level in the 1690s equates to an annual sum of £3 17s which can be adjusted for inflation and used to compare with a range of known almshouse stipends from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The results of this comparison are interesting, even surprising. Using data from 147 known almshouse stipends in six different counties (Durham, Yorkshire, Norfolk, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire and Kent) it seems that less than half of early modern almshouses provided their occupants with stipends which were sufficient to live on. Many provided no financial assistance at all.


The inescapable conclusion is that the benefits provided to early modern almspeople were in many cases only a contribution towards their subsistence. In this respect almshouse occupants were no different from the recipients of parish poor relief, who rarely had their living costs met in full.

Yet, even in one of the poorer establishments, almshouse residents had distinct advantages over other poor people. Principally these were the security of their accommodation, the permanence and regularity of any financial allowance, no matter how small, and the autonomy this gave them. Almshouse residents may also have had an enhanced status as ‘approved’, deserving poor. The location of many almshouses, beside the church, in the high street, or next to the guildhall, seems to have been purposely designed to solicit alms from passers-by, at a time when begging was officially discouraged.

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Click the link, add to basket and enter offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends one month after the date of upload. Any queries please email



[1] Inflation index derived from H. Phelps Brown and S. V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and Prices (London and New York, 1981) pp. 13-59.

[2] L. A. Botelho, Old Age and the English Poor Law, 1500 – 1700 (Woodbridge, 2004) pp. 147-8.

Wheels of change: skill-biased factor endowments and industrialisation in eighteenth century England

by Joel Mokyr (Northwestern University), Assaf Sarid (Haifa University), Karine van der Beek (Ben-Gurion University)

Shorrocks Lancashire Loom with a weft stop, The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Available at Wikimedia Commons

The main manifestation of an industrial revolution taking place in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century was the shift of textile production (that is, the spinning process), from a cottage-based manual system, to a factory-based capital-intensive system, with machinery driven by waterpower and later on by steam.

The initial shift in production technology in the 1740s took place in all the main textile centres (the Cotswolds, East Anglia, and in the middle Pennines in Lancashire and the West-Riding). But towards the end of the century, as the intensity of production and the application of Watt’s steam engine increased, the supremacy of the cotton industry of the northwestern parts of the country began to show, and this is where the industrial revolution eventually took place and persisted.

Our research examines the role of factor endowments in determining the location of technology adoption in the English textile industry and its persistence since the Middle Ages. In line with recent research on economic growth, which emphasises the role of factor endowments on long run economic development, we claim that the geographical and institutional environment determined the location of watermill technology adoption in the production of foodstuffs.

In turn, the adoption of the watermill for grain grinding (around the tenth and eleventh centuries), affected the area’s path of development by determining the specialisation and skills that evolved, and as a result, its suitability for the adoption of new textile technologies, textile fulling (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) and, later on, spinning (eighteenth century).

The explanation for this path dependence is that all these machines, including other machinery that was developed in various production processes (such as sawing mills, forge mills, paper mills, etc.), were all based on similar mechanical principles as the grinding watermills. Thus, their implementation did not require additional resources or skills and it was therefore more profitable to invest in them and expand textile production, in places that were specialised and experienced in the construction and maintenance of grinding watermills.

As textile exports expanded in the second half of the eighteenth century (both woollen and cotton textiles), Watt’s steam engine was introduced. The watermills that operated the newly introduced spinning machinery began to be replaced with the more efficient steam engines, and almost disappeared by the beginning of the nineteenth century. This stage of technological change took place in Lancashire’s textile centre, which enjoyed both the proximity of coal as well as of strong water flows, and was therefore suitable for the implementation of steam engine technology.

We use information from a variety of sources, including the Apprenticeship Stamp-Tax Records (eighteenth century), Domesday Book (eleventh century), as well as geographical databases, and show that the important English textile centres of the eighteenth century, evolved in places that had more grinding watermills during the Domesday Survey (1086).

To be more precise, we find that on average, there was an additional textile merchant in 1710 in areas that had three more watermills in 1086. The magnitude of this effect is important given that there were on average 1.2 textile cloth merchants in an area (the maximum was 34 merchants).

We also find that textile centres in these areas persisted well into the eighteenth century and specialised in skilled mechanical human capital (measured by the number of apprentices to masters specialising in watermill technology, that is, wrights, in the eighteenth century), which was essential for the development, implementation and maintenance of waterpower as well as mechanical machinery.

The number of this type of worker increased in the 1750s in all the main textile centres until the 1780s, when their number was declining in Lancashire as it was adopting a new technology that was no longer dependent on their skills.

Revisiting the changing body

by Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

The Society has arranged with CUP that a 20% discount is available on this book, valid until the 11th November 2018. The discount page is:

The last century has witnessed unprecedented improvements in survivorship and life expectancy. In the United Kingdom alone, infant mortality fell from over 150 deaths per thousand births at the start of the last century to 3.9 deaths per thousand births in 2014 (see the Office for National Statistics  for further details). Average life expectancy at birth increased from 46.3 to 81.4 years over the same period (see the Human Mortality Database). These changes reflect fundamental improvements in diet and nutrition and environmental conditions.

The changing body: health, nutrition and human development in the western world since 1700 attempted to understand some of the underlying causes of these changes. It drew on a wide range of archival and other sources covering not only mortality but also height, weight and morbidity. One of our central themes was the extent to which long-term improvements in adult health reflected the beneficial effect of improvements in earlier life.

The changing body also outlined a very broad schema of ‘technophysio evolution’ to capture the intergenerational effects of investments in early life. This is represented in a very simple way in Figure 1. The Figure tries to show how improvements in the nutritional status of one generation increase its capacity to invest in the health and nutritional status of the next generation, and so on ‘ad infinitum’ (Floud et al. 2011: 4).

Figure 1. Technophysio evolution: a schema. Source: See Floud et al. 2011: 3-4.

We also looked at some of the underlying reasons for these changes, including the role of diet and ‘nutrition’. As part of this process, we included new estimates of the number of calories which could be derived from the amount of food available for human consumption in the United Kingdom between circa 1700 and 1913. However, our estimates contrasted sharply with others published at the same time (Muldrew 2011) and were challenged by a number of other authors subsequently. Broadberry et al. (2015) thought that our original estimates were too high, whereas both Kelly and Ó Gráda (2013) and Meredith and Oxley (2014) regarded them as too low.

Given the importance of these issues, we revisited our original calculations in 2015. We corrected an error in the original figures, used Overton and Campbell’s (1996) data on extraction rates to recalculate the number of calories, and included new information on the importation of food from Ireland to other parts of what became the UK. Our revised Estimate A suggested that the number of calories rose by just under 115 calories per head per day between 1700 and 1750 and by more than 230 calories between 1750 and 1800, with little changes between 1800 and 1850. Our revised Estimate B suggested that there was a much bigger increase during the first half of the eighteenth century, followed by a small decline between 1750 and 1800 and a bigger increase between 1800 and 1850 (see Figure 2). However, both sets of figures were still well below the estimates prepared by Kelly and Ó Gráda, Meredith and Oxley, and Muldrew for the years before 1800.

Source: Harris et al. 2015: 160.

These calculations have important implications for a number of recent debates in British economic and social history (Allen 2005, 2009). Our data do not necessarily resolve the debate over whether Britons were better fed than people in other countries, although they do compare quite favourably with relevant French estimates (see Floud et al. 2011: 55). However, they do suggest that a significant proportion of the eighteenth-century population was likely to have been underfed.
Our data also raise some important questions about the relationship between nutrition and mortality. Our revised Estimate A suggests that food availability rose slowly between 1700 and 1750 and then more rapidly between 1750 and 1800, before levelling off between 1800 and 1850. These figures are still broadly consistent with Wrigley et al.’s (1997) estimates of the main trends in life expectancy and our own figures for average stature. However, it is not enough simply to focus on averages; we also need to take account of possible changes in the distribution of foodstuffs within households and the population more generally (Harris 2015). Moreover, it is probably a mistake to examine the impact of diet and nutrition independently of other factors.

To contact the author:


Allen, R. (2005), ‘English and Welsh agriculture, 1300-1850: outputs, inputs and income’. URL:

Allen, R. (2009), The British industrial revolution in global perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Klein, A., Overton, M. and Van Leeuwen, B. (2015), British economic growth, 1270-1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Floud, R., Fogel, R., Harris, B. and Hong, S.C. (2011), The changing body: health, nutrition and human development in the western world since 1700, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, B. (2015), ‘Food supply, health and economic development in England and Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica, 4 (7), 139-52.

Harris, B., Floud, R. and Hong, S.C. (2015), ‘How many calories? Food availability in England and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Research in Economic History, 31, 111-91.

Kelly, M. and Ó Gráda, C. (2013), ‘Numerare est errare: agricultural output and food supply in England before and during the industrial revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 73 (4), 1132-63.

Meredith, D. and Oxley, D. (2014), ‘Food and fodder: feeding England, 1700-1900’, Past and Present, 222, 163-214.

Muldrew, C. (2011), Food, energy and the creation of industriousness: work and material culture in agrarian England, 1550-1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Overton, M. and Campbell, B. (1996), ‘Production et productivité dans l’agriculture anglaise, 1086-1871’, Histoire et Mésure, 1 (3-4), 255-97.

Wrigley, E.A., Davies, R., Oeppen, J. and Schofield, R. (1997), English population history from family reconstitution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Britain’s post-Brexit trade: learning from the Edwardian origins of imperial preference

by Brian Varian (Swansea University)

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886. Wikimedia Commons

In December 2017, Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, stated that ‘as the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships, and usher in a new era where expertise, talent, goods, and capital can move unhindered between our nations in a way that they have not for a generation or more’.

As policy-makers and the public contemplate a return to the halcyon days of the British Empire, there is much to be learned from those past policies that attempted to cultivate trade along imperial lines. Let us consider the effect of the earliest policies of imperial preference: policies enacted during the Edwardian era.

In the late nineteenth century, Britain was the bastion of free trade, imposing tariffs on only a very narrow range of commodities. Consequently, Britain’s free trade policy afforded barely any scope for applying lower or ‘preferential’ duties to imports from the Empire.

The self-governing colonies of the Empire possessed autonomy in tariff-setting and, with the notable exception of New South Wales, did not emulate the mother country’s free trade policy. In the 1890s and 1900s, when the emergent industrial nations of Germany and the United States reduced Britain’s market share in these self-governing colonies, there was indeed scope for applying preferential duties to imports from Britain, in the hope of diverting trade back toward the Empire.

Trade policies of imperial preference were implemented in succession by Canada (1897), the South African Customs Union (1903), New Zealand (1903) and Australia (1907). By the close of the first era of globalisation in 1914, Britain enjoyed some margin of preference in all of the Dominions. Yet my research, a case study of New Zealand, casts doubt on the effectiveness of these polices at raising Britain’s share in the imports of the Dominions.

Unlike the policies of the other Dominions, New Zealand’s policy applied preferential duties to only selected commodity imports (44 out of 543). This cross-commodity variation in the application of preference is useful for estimating the effect of preference. I find that New Zealand’s Preferential and Reciprocal Trade Act of 1903 had no effect on the share of the Empire, or of Britain specifically, in New Zealand’s imports.

Why was the policy ineffective at raising Britain’s share of New Zealand’s imports? There are several likely reasons: that Britain’s share was already quite large; that some imported commodities were highly differentiated and certain varieties were only produced in other industrial countries; and, most importantly, that the margin of preference – the extent to which duties were lower for imports from Britain – was too small to effect any trade diversion.

As Britain considers future trade agreements, perhaps with Commonwealth countries, it should be remembered that a trade agreement does not necessarily entail a great, or even any, increase in trade. The original policies of imperial preference were rather symbolic measures and, at least in the case of New Zealand, economically inconsequential.

Brexit might well present an ‘opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships’, but would that be a reinvigoration in substance or in appearance?

Could fiscal policy still stimulate the economy?

by James Cloyne (University of California, Davis), Nicholas Dimsdale (University of Oxford), Natacha Postel-Vinay (London School of Economics)


No means test for these ‘unemployed’! by Maro.
1935 was the Silver Jubilee of King George V. There were celebrations and street parties across Britain. However with the country in a financial depression not everyone approved of the public expense associated with the Royal Family. Available at Wikimedia Commons

There has been a longstanding and unresolved debate over the fiscal multiplier, which is the change in economic growth resulting from a change in government spending or change in taxation. The issue became acute in the world recession of 2008-2010, when the International Monetary Fund led a spirited discussion about the contribution that fiscal policy could make to recovery.

In our research, fiscal policy is shown to have had positive impacts on growth, at least during the period surrounding the Great Depression in Britain. The implications for the potential benefits of fiscal policy in a high-debt, low-interest rate environment – and over a turbulent business cycle – may be significant.

The recent controversy follows the debate over the use of fiscal policy to counter the high level of unemployment in interwar Britain. Keynes argued that increased government spending would raise economic activity and reduce unemployment. In the General Theory (1936), he claimed that the multiplier for government expenditure was greater than unity.

A few more recent studies have confirmed that the multiplier effect is greater than unity for both the interwar and post-war period. But these results may be spurious since a rise in government expenditure that raises income may also result from a rise in income. Thus, changes in taxes and changes in income may not be independent. What we observe is a strong co-movement of GDP and fiscal measures in which it is hard to isolate the direction of causation.

What is needed is a source of exogenous variation, so that the impact of fiscal changes on GDP can be observed. Fiscal policy may take the form of changes in taxes or expenditure. The problems of endogeneity are generally greater for expenditure than for taxes, since it should be possible to find changes in taxes that are truly exogenous.

Romer and Romer (2010) have developed the so-called ‘narrative technique,’ which has been designed to overcome the problem of endogeneity of tax changes. This involves carefully distilling the historical record in order to infer Chancellors’ motivations behind each fiscal policy move, and isolate those that may be seen as more independent from the contemporaneous fluctuations of the economy.

One may thus be able to distinguish, for example, between taxes that arise from a direct will to stimulate the economy, as compared with changes that are more motivated by a Chancellor’s longstanding ideology. The latter may include, for example, a will to improve transport efficiency within the country, or a desire to make society less unequal.

Interwar Britain is a particularly appropriate period to apply this approach, since the potential for fiscal policy was great on account of the high level of unemployment. In addition, this was a period in which Keynesian countercyclical policies were generally not used, in contrast to the use of demand management policies in the post-war period.

By examining changes in taxes in interwar budgets, we have been able to produce a sample of 300 tax changes. These have been classified into changes in taxes that are endogenous or exogenous. We have been able to test the backward validity of our classification.

The outcome of this work has been to show that changes in taxes that are exogenous had a major impact on changes in GDP. The estimated value of the multiplier for these tax changes is greater than unity and as much as two to three. This is in accordance with results reported in post-war studies of the United States and a study of tax changes in post-war Britain (Cloyne, 2013).

In contrast to earlier work on measuring the multiplier, we concentrate on changes in taxes rather than changes in government expenditure. This is done to reduce problems of endogeneity.

While Keynes argued for using government spending to stimulate the economy, it was only when post-war fiscal policies were being formulated that the potential benefits of fiscal policies via changes in taxes were recognised. While this research does not argue in favour of tax changes over spending policies, it provides evidence that tax policy is a relevant part of the policy toolkit, especially in times of economic difficulty.

London fog: a century of pollution and mortality, 1866-1965

by Walker Hanlon (UCLA)

Photogravure by Donald Macleish from Wonderful London by St John Adcock, 1927. Available at <;

For more than a century, London struggled with some of the worst air pollution on earth. But how much did air pollution affect health in London? How did these effects change as the city developed? Can London’s long experience teach us lessons that are relevant for modern cities, from Beijing to New Delhi, that are currently struggling with their own air pollution problems?

To answer these questions, I study the effects of air pollution in London across a full century from 1866 to 1965. Using new data, I show that air pollution was a major contributor to mortality in London during this century – accounting for at least one out of every 200 deaths during this century.

As London developed, the impact of air pollution changed. In the nineteenth century, Londoners suffered from a range of infectious diseases, including respiratory diseases like measles and tuberculosis. I show that being exposed to high levels of air pollution made these diseases deadlier, while the presence of these diseases made air pollution more harmful. As a result, when public health and medical improvements reduced the prevalence of these infectious diseases, they also lowered the mortality cost of pollution exposure.

This finding has implications for modern developing countries. It tells us that air pollution is likely to be more deadly in the developing world, but also that investments that improve health in other ways can lower the health costs of pollution exposure.

An important challenge in studying air pollution in the past is that direct pollution measures were not collected in a consistent way until the mid-twentieth century. To overcome this challenge, this study takes advantage of London’s famous fog events, which trapped pollution in the city and substantially increased exposure levels.

While some famous fog events are well known – such as the Great Fog of 1952 or the Cattle Show Fog of 1873, which killed the Queen’s prize bull – London experienced hundreds of lesser-known events over the century I study. By reading weather reports from the Greenwich Observatory covering over 26,000 days, we identified every day in which heavy fog occurred.

To study how these fog events affected health, I collected detailed new mortality data describing deaths in London at the weekly level. Digitised from original sources, and covering over 350,000 observations, this new data set opens the door to a more detailed analysis of London’s mortality experience than has previously been possible.

These new mortality data allow me to analyse the effects of air pollution from a variety of different angles. I provide new evidence on how the effects of air pollution varied across age groups, how the effect on different age groups evolved over time, how pollution interacted with infectious diseases and other causes of death, etc. This enriches our understanding of London’s history while opening up a range of new possibilities for studying the impact of air pollution over the long run.

Cash Converter: The Liquidity of the Victorian Capital Market

by John Turner (Queen’s University Centre for Economic History)

Liquidity is the ease with which an asset such as a share or a bond can be converted into cash. It is important for financial systems because it enables investors to liquidate and diversify their assets at a low cost. Without liquid markets, portfolio diversification becomes very costly for the investor. As a result, firms and governments must pay a premium to induce investors to buy their bonds and shares. Liquid capital markets also spur firms and entrepreneurs to invest in long-run projects, which increases productivity and economic growth.

From an historical perspective, share liquidity in the UK played a major role in the widespread adoption of the company form in the second half of the nineteenth century. Famously, as I discuss in a recent book chapter published in the Research Handbook on the History of Corporate and Company Law, political and legal opposition to share liquidity held up the development of the company form in the UK.

However, given the economic and historical importance of liquidity, very little has been written on the liquidity of UK capital markets before 1913. Ron Alquist (2010) and Matthieu Chavaz and Marc Flandreau (2017) examine the liquidity risk and premia of various sovereign bonds which were traded on the London Stock Exchange during the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. Along with Graeme Acheson (2008), I document the thinness of the market for bank shares in the nineteenth century, using the share trading records of a small number of banks.

In a major study, Gareth Campbell (Queen’s University Belfast), Qing Ye (Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University) and I have recently attempted to understand more about the liquidity of the Victorian capital market. To this end, we have just published a paper in the Economic History Review which looks at the liquidity of the London share and bond markets from 1825 to 1870. The London capital market experienced considerable growth in this era. The liberalisation of incorporation law and Parliament’s liberalism in granting company status to railways and other public-good providers, resulted in the growth of the number of business enterprises having their shares and bonds traded on stock exchanges. In addition, from the 1850s onwards, there was an increase in the number of foreign countries and companies raising bond finance on the London market.

How do we measure the liquidity of the market for bonds and stocks in the 1825-70 era? Using end-of-month stock price data from a stockbroker list called the Course of the Exchange and end-of-month bond prices from newspaper sources, we calculate for each security, the number of months in the year where it had a zero return and divide that by the number of months it was listed in the year. Because zero returns are indicative of illiquidity (i.e., that a security has not been traded), one minus our illiquidity ratio gives us a liquidity measure for each security in our sample. We calculate the overall market liquidity for shares and bonds by taking averages. Figure 1 displays market liquidity for bonds and stocks for the period 1825-70.

Figure 01. Stock and bond liquidity on London Stock Exchange, 1825-1870. Source: Campbell, Turner and Ye (2018, p.829)

Figure 1 reveals that bond market liquidity was relatively high throughout this period but shows no strong trend over time. By way of contrast, there was a strong secular increase in stock liquidity from 1830 to 1870. This increase may have stimulated greater participation in the stock market by ordinary citizens. It may also have affected the growth and deepening of the overall stock market and resulted in higher economic growth.

We examine the cross-sectional differences in liquidity between stocks in order to understand the main determinants of stock liquidity in this era. Our main finding in this regard is that firm size and the number of issued shares were major correlates of liquidity, which suggests that larger firms and firms with a greater number of shares were more frequently traded. Our study also reveals that unusual features which were believed to impede liquidity, such as extended liability, uncalled capital or high share denominations, had little effect on stock liquidity.

We also examine whether asset illiquidity was priced by investors, resulting in higher costs of capital for firms and governments. We find little evidence that the illiquidity of stock or bonds was priced, suggesting that investors at the time did not put much emphasis on liquidity in their valuations. Indeed, this is consistent with J. B. Jefferys (1938), who argued that what mattered to investors during this era was not share liquidity, but the dividend or coupon they received.

In conclusion, the vast majority of stocks and bonds in this early capital market were illiquid. It is remarkable, however, that despite this illiquidity, the UK capital market grew substantially between 1825 and 1870. There was also an increase in investor participation, with investing becoming progressively democratised in this era.


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Twitter: @profjohnturner



Acheson, G.G., and Turner, J.D. “The Secondary Market for Bank Shares in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Financial History Review 15, no. 2 (October 2008): 123–51. doi:10.1017/S0968565008000139.

Alquist, R. “How Important Is Liquidity Risk for Sovereign Bond Risk Premia? Evidence from the London Stock Exchange.” Journal of International Economics 82, no. 2 (November 1, 2010): 219–29. doi:10.1016/j.jinteco.2010.07.007.

Campbell, G., Turner, J.D., and Ye, Q. “The Liquidity of the London Capital Markets, 1825–70†.” The Economic History Review 71, no. 3 (August 1, 2018): 823–52. doi:10.1111/ehr.12530.

Chavaz, M., and Flandreau, M. “‘High & Dry’: The Liquidity and Credit of Colonial and Foreign Government Debt and the London Stock Exchange (1880–1910).” The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 3 (September 2017): 653–91. doi:10.1017/S0022050717000730.

Jefferys, J.B. Trends in Business Organisation in Great Britain Since 1856: With Special Reference to the Financial Structure of Companies, the Mechanism of Investment and the Relations Between the Shareholder and the Company. University of London, 1938.

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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