Monthly Archives: May 2014

Cold, Calculating Political Economy’: Fixed costs, the Rate of Profit and the Length of the Working Day in the Factory Act Debates, 1832-1847

By Steve Toms (Leeds University Business School)


The paper re-analyses the evidence presented by pro and anti-regulation interests during the debates on factory reform. To do so it considers the interrelationship between fixed costs, the rate of profit and the length of the working day. The interrelationship casts new light on the lobbying positions on either side of the debate. It does so by comparing the evidence presented in the debates before parliament and associated pamphlets with actual figures contained in the business records of implicated firms. As a result the paper identifies the compromise position of the working day length compatible with reasonable rates of profit based on actual cost structures. It is thereby able to reinterpret the validity of the claims of contemporary political economy used to support the cases for and against factory regulation.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-03-22 and its a follow up to that reviewed by Masayoshi Noguchi in an earlier post on the NEP-HIS blog (click here)

This second paper by Toms draws on a range of archival materials from both government and businesses to explore in detail the implications of legislative changes on British business during the industrial revolution.  It shows how the debates concerning the implementation of stricter working hours were contentious. Outlining the difficulties faced by the government and businesses to uniformly apply these new measures, particularly since businesses were exposed to different pressures according to their contribution to society, it shows how these factors further influencing the implementation and drafting of these measures.   By citing the debates of the anti-regulation bodies in Parliament, and also Parliamentary debates, it exemplifies how the interpretations of profit influenced the debates tabled by the Ten Hours movement – the pressure group created with a view to enshrine, in legislation, a maximum 10 hour working day.   This perspective in itself is new, particularly since it moves away from the traditional approaches adopted by trade union historians such as Alistair Reid and others who have examined the influence of unions in these disputes, but have examined them from the perspective of strikes (Reid, 2005).



Adopting a theoretical approach, especially in its examination of different interpretations of profit in the nineteenth century, this paper scrutinizes the range of factors that determined wages in nineteenth century factories, concluding that the reasons were much more complex than originally assumed.  In claiming that accounting manipulators were used as a major force in setting these wages, Toms shows how the considerations governing the decisions about wages were based on a range of accounting methods, although these methods at this time were not well-developed.  Furthermore, he claims convincingly that accountancy was poorly practiced in the nineteenth century, primarily owing to the apparent paucity of regulations governing the profession.   In adopting this approach, Toms highlights the two sides of the debate suggested by historians so far concerning the role of accountancy, that being: that it did not have an important role at all; or that it played a role that was sufficient to encourage competition.  By doing so, he has lucidly integrated the laissez faire ideology to elucidate the role of accountants in the policymaking process.

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Pressures on workers and the arduous hours did result in greater pressure on government to develop measures to regulate working hours

Much of the debates concerning workplace rights have adopted either a policy history perspective (examining the efforts of the government to regulate the economy) or a social history perspective (examining the perceived improvement in rights for workers).  Yet a detailed analysis of the implications of company accounting on government policy decisions has not yet been undertaken.  While economic historians such as Nicholas Crafts have used econometrics as a method to try and explain the causes of the industrial revolution, (Crafts, 2012) little attention has been given to the implications of these changes in terms of workplace legislation on not only the workers themselves, but on the calculations affecting industrial output and their response to government intervention.  Through examining the role of prominent socialists such as Robert Owen, this paper highlights the complex nature of the debates concerning profits, loss and its correlation with productivity to show that while the pro-regulation movement sought to protect the rights of individual workers, the anti-regulation movement created an inextricable link between the reduction of profit and the justification for longer working days. Locating this argument within the debate concerning fixed costs, it demonstrates how the definitions and arbiters of profits, loss and value was a moveable feast.

Robert Owen's ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

Robert Owen’s ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

This approach to the data has led to a different account of the costs faced by businesses than has hitherto been suggested by historians, and while Toms is careful to claim that this does not resolve the conceptual disputes surrounding the practice of accounting in the nineteenth century, it does provide a platform for further debate and a re-examination of the figures.  For example, in the analysis of the Ashworth accounts, Toms claims that the adoption of a variable approach to costing of volume-based products shows an annual running cost of £2500 per year, £3800 less than Boyson concluded in his 1970 study.  In his analysis of profit, Toms concludes that there could be a 3 hour variable that would not have detrimentally affected the profitability of companies.  Claiming that profitability would be at last 10 percent with 58 hour or 55 hour working week, this challenges previous assumptions those longer working hours would yield greater profits.  However, he highlights that the only significant difference would be that if these figures were compared to the onerous 69 hour week, where the profit margins could be expected to rise by a further 5 percent, although the pro-regulation body, for the purposes of strengthening their argument, presented this variable as high as 15 percent.

The final part of the paper lucidly examines the impact of foreign competition.  Citing the increased costs of British production when compared with European counterparts, with Manchester reported to be 50 percent higher in terms of spinning production costs than Switzerland, Toms shows how superficially the justification for maintaining the British market was now becoming even more difficult.  However, a deeper analysis of the figures reveals a different story, and to illustrate the point, evidence from Mulhausen is juxtaposed with Lancashire to show how wages were on average 18 d per day higher in Lancashire, although their productivity was almost double that of their German counterpart, and concludes that in effect, the overseas threat to the British market was as substantial as originally assumed.


This paper is extremely ambitious in its scope and development, and has covered significant ground in its analysis.  Its conclusions are convincing and are based on deep theoretical and conceptual understandings of the accountancy process.  My only suggestion is that the final section of the paper examining the ideological theories of profit could be fleshed out more so as to fully contextualise the political, legislative and business developments at this time.  It may also be possible to connect these issues with the contemporary debates concerning ‘thrift’, and the development of commercial banking.  For example, the idea of thrift was widely debated with the growth of friendly societies, and the decision of the government to open a Post Office Savings Bank to enable workers to deposit their savings.  Therefore, was there any connection between contemporary ideas of profit and thrift, and if so, was there a common ideological strand that linked people together in terms of their perceptions of money and its role in the wider society?



Crafts, NFR., “British Relative Economic Decline Revisited: the Role of Competition”, Explorations in Economic History (2012), 49, 17-29

Reid, Alastair J., United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London: Penguin, 2005).


What Chance Change? Driving Development through Transport Infrastructure

Locomotives of Local Growth: Short- and Long-Term Impact of Railroads in Sweden

By Thor Berger (Lund University) and Kerstin Enflo (Lund University)

Abstract: This paper uses city-level data to examine the impact of a first wave of railroad construction in Sweden, between 1855 and 1870, from the 19th century until today. We estimate that railroads accounted for 50% of urban growth, 1855-1870. In cities with access to the railroad network, property values were higher, manufacturing employment increased, establishments were larger, and more information was distributed through local post offices. Today, cities with early access to the network are 62% larger and to be found 11 steps higher in the urban hierarchy, compared to initially similar cities. We hypothesize that railroads set in motion a path dependent process that shapes the economic geography of Sweden today.


Review by Alexander Horkan (final-year PPE student, Queen’s University Belfast)

What impact did the introduction of railroads to Sweden have on town-level growth? This is the question being explored by Thor Berger and Kerstin Enflo, both of Lund University, in their EHES working paper circulated as part of NEP-HIS-2013-08-05. The paper focusses on the early development of the Swedish railroad network, between 1855 and 1870, and examines whether towns with early access to the network[1] experienced higher levels of expansion of economic activity, using population growth as a proxy measure for this. They expand the possibility of their have been effects beyond merely the initial shock and scrutinise whether there was a long-run impact on economic development over the 20th Century.

Berger and Enflo contribute to the discourse on the value of transport infrastructure to lowering trade costs, which frequently hypothesises that large infrastructure projects foster economic development ‘ahead of demand’. Although an intuitive suggestion serving as a core belief of policymakers regarding the localisation of growth and planning possibilities, it is historically troublesome to provide evidentiary credence that such growth is independent from endogenous, observable and unobservable preconditions. Modern transport infrastructure is rarely assigned randomly to locations, instead being focussed around connecting ‘hubs’ that inevitably possess advantageous biases towards growth. This builds on various works detailing how such biases plague neutral analysis of development, as infrastructure projects are seemingly inextricably linked with political interference at either end of the spectrum, whether promoting growth in areas of economic sterility, or those already growing through endogenous factors.

Berger and Enflo show how railroads affect the location, not the level, of growth

Does railroad access increase the overall level of growth, or just the location of growth?

This paper seems to be of extreme relevance to current debates surrounding the future of a high-speed rail network connecting Birmingham to London in the UK. Contemporary debates have been hazy, lacking clear focus on precise and demonstrable economic incentives, leading to many questioning the value brought to northern cities. This research can increase the scope of such debates, providing clear evidential support that early adoption of technological advancements in transport infrastructure ignites and fosters long-term economic growth, yet simultaneously causes large negative ‘spillover’ effects on nearby, unconnected towns. Such research seems valuable and relevant to both sides of the question and must only serve to enrich any subsequent discussion.[2]

Proof of their hypothesis is offered through the calculation of comparative populations of cities both connected and unconnected to the railroad network between 1855 and 1870. Through using a difference-in-difference framework, they show that those who gained early exposure to the rail network grew larger, with additional population growth of 26% on average. Such increases imply that levels of urbanisation in 1870, and the aggregate rate of growth by the same point, would have ‘decrease[d] by 15% and 50% respectively’ (p. 3) independent from rail infrastructure. These calculations prove correlation between the exposure to railways and subsequent growth, echoing work by Fishlow (1965).


Where Bergen and Enflo really contribute to expanding existing literature, however, is by providing robust justification to draw direct causal relationships between railroad placement and subsequent ‘ignition’ of economic development. This is achieved through a tripartite construct, initially matching observationally similar towns and their growth patterns before the railway introduction. These measures ensure that observable differences are not key to explaining growth of specific towns, i.e. they were not already growing faster than surrounding cities.

Secondly, they calculate a strong instrumental variable; this relies on proposed routes drawn up by Adolf van Rosen in 1845 and subsequently by Nils Ericson in 1856. As such routes were constructed in relative isolation of political and economic pressures; favouring conditions of topographical simplicity and military strategic importance (avoiding coastal areas traditionally predisposed to growth) such an instrument is robust in corroborating the evidence of the first measure. By estimating the pre-rail differences in population growth for towns included in these original plans, and calculating their relative differences as close to zero, further corroboration is given to assertions that there were no pre-existing conditions conducive to growth in these towns.

The final measure is the imagined construction of these proposed lines, and further ‘low cost routes’. By creating this strong counterfactual, the authors presuppose that these lines that were not built, due to political obstinacy and lassitude, and those proposed later, to link profitable hubs of commerce would show large increases in populations if the driving factor behind growth was some unobservable, predetermining factor. Conversely however, if growth failed to materialise, it would be clear that the most significant force at work was early exposure to railways.


What can policymakers today learn from the Swedish case?

In his 1964 paper Robert Fogel identified the aggregate contribution of railroads to the US economy through social savings, deeming it of very little significance to social savings against a comparable counterfactual canal system. The measures used by Berger and Enflo are inversely interested in the relative impact of the railroad on cities. The negative ‘spillovers’ to nearby, unconnected towns examined in this paper further confirm Fogel’s argument that, whilst railroads had little impact on aggregate economic activity, they had large effects on relative growth patterns.

The final key significance Berger and Enflo draw out is the persistency of the impact of early exposure to rail networks. There are a myriad of reasons for this: high value sunk investments provide large barriers to both entry to and exit from the market, prompting concentration of economic activity in specific places. Additionally emerging towns become identifiable with growth and development, thus almost gaining critical mass and organically attracting further growth by this virtue. This emergent path dependency mirrors that cited by Bleakley and Lin (2012) regarding US cities being focussed around portage sights, despite the increasing irrelevance of such a factor. The implications of this paper however shadow those of Redding, Sturm and Wolf (2011) and Jebwad and Moadi (2011), examining man-made advantages over natural ones, contributing more greatly to discourse on policy implications and growth strategy.


Throughout the paper, however, despite great lengths to isolate geographical preconditions for local growth, there was an absence of discussion regarding elasticity of demand for rail services across the country. It seems remiss to address reduction of trade costs, whilst ignoring the possibility for elasticity of demand for such services, for example during winter months where winter roads open new avenues of trade, significantly reducing goods transportation costs via substitutions. Such questions could raise insightful analysis of unexplored geographical factors in northerly cities not experiencing the same degree of negative ‘spillovers’ suffered by more central ones.

The scope of this rigorous analysis could be expanded beyond current high-speed rail debates explored above to varying fields. Pertinent could be investigation of whether such findings have significance surpassing large-scale travel infrastructure and technological advancements, to the increasingly relevant information and communication sector for example; examining whether early adoption of communications advancements and infrastructure lead growth in specific locations.


[1] Less than a third of towns were connected by the end of this period, and only around a tenth of the peak network size had been realised.

[2] For a wider discussion of the minutia of this debate please refer to:




Bleakley, H. and Lin, J. (2012). Portage and Path Dependence. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, 2, 587{644.

Fishlow, A. (1965). American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-bellum Economy. Vol. 127. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fogel, R. (1964). Railroads and American Economic Growth. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Jedwab, R. and Moradi, A. (2011). Transportation Infrastructure and Development in Ghana. Mimeo.

Redding, S. J., Sturm, D. M., and Wolf, N. (2011). History and Industry Location: Evidence from German Airports. Review of Economics and Statistics 93, 3, 814{831.