Category Archives: Industrial Revolution

Governance structures and market performance

Contractual Freedom and Corporate Governance in Britain in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

by Timothy W. Guinnane (Yale), Ron Harris (Tel-Aviv University), and Naomi R. Lamoreaux (Yale)

Abstract: British general incorporation law granted companies an extraordinary degree of contractual freedom. It provided companies with a default set of articles of association, but incorporators were free to reject any or all of the provisions and write their own rules instead. We study the uses to which incorporators put this flexibility by examining the articles of association filed by three random samples of companies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as by a sample of companies whose securities traded publicly. Contrary to the literature, we find that most companies, regardless of size or whether their securities traded on the market, wrote articles that shifted power from shareholders to directors. We find, moreover, that there was little pressure from the government, shareholders, or the market to adopt more shareholder-friendly governance rules.

Business History Review, Volume 91 (2 – Summer 2017): 227-277.


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

Tim Guinnane, Ron Harris and Naomi Lamoreaux are three scholars that every young (and old) economic historian should seek to emulate. This paper showcases once again their prodigious talent – there is careful analysis of the institutional and legal setting, a lot of archival evidence, rigorous economic analysis, and an attempt to understand how contemporaries viewed the issue at hand.

In this paper, Guinnane, Harris and Lamoreaux (GHL) examine the corporate governance of UK companies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The UK liberalised its incorporation laws in the 1850s and introduced its first Companies Act in 1862. From a modern-day perspective, this Act enshrined very little in the way of protection for shareholders. However, the Appendix to the 1862 Companies Act contained a default set of articles of association, which was the company’s constitution. This Appendix, known as Table A, provided a high level of protection for shareholders by modern-day standards (Acheson et al., 2016). However, the majority of companies did not adopt Table A; instead they devised their own articles of association.

The aim of GHL’s paper is to analyse articles of associations in 1892, 1912 and 1927 to see the extent to which they shifted power from shareholders to directors. To do this, GHL collected three random samples of circa 50 articles of association for 1892, 1912 and 1927. Because most (if not all) of these companies did not have their securities traded on stock markets, they also collected sample of 49 commercial and industrial companies from Burdett’s Official Intelligence for 1892 that had been formed after 1888. However, only 23 of these companies had their shares listed on one of the UK’s stock exchanges.

GHL then take their samples of articles to see the extent to which they deviated from the clauses in Table A. Their main finding is that companies tended to adopt governance structures in their articles which empowered directors and practically disenfranchised shareholders. This was the case no matter if the company was small or large or public or private. They also find that this entrenchment and disenfranchisement becomes more prominent over time. However, GHL unearth a puzzle – they find shareholders and the market appeared to have been perfectly okay with poor corporate governance practices.

How do we resolve this puzzle? One possibility is that shareholders (and the market) at this time only really cared about dividends. High dividend pay-out ratios in this era kept managers on a short leash and reduced the agency costs associated with free cash flow (Campbell and Turner, 2011). Interestingly, GHL suggest that this may have made it more difficult for firms to finance productivity-enhancing investments. In addition, they suggest that the high-dividend-entrenchment trade-off may have locked in managerial practices which inhibited the ability of British firms to respond to future competitive pressures and may ultimately have ushered in Britain’s industrial decline.

Another solution to the puzzle, and one that GHL do not fully explore, is that the ownership structure of the company shaped its articles of association. The presence of a dominant owner or founding family ownership would potentially lessen the agency problem faced by small shareholders. In addition, founders may not wish to give too much power away to shareholders in return for their capital. On the other hand, firms which need to raise capital from lots of small investors on public markets may adopt more shareholder-friendly articles. The vast majority of companies in GHL’s sample do not fall into this category, which might go some way to explaining their findings.

A final potential solution is that the vast majority of firms which GHL examine may have raised capital in a totally different way than public companies, and this shaped their articles of association. These firms probably relied on family, religious and social networks for capital, and the shareholders trusted the directors because they personally knew them or were connected to them through a network. Indeed, we know precious little about how and where the multitude of private companies in the UK obtained their capital. Like all great papers, GHL have opened up a new avenue for future scholars. The interesting thing for me is what happens when private firms went public and raised capital. Did they keep their articles which entrenched directors and disenfranchised shareholders?

Unlike the focus of GHL on mainly private companies, a current Queen’s University Centre for Economic History working paper examines the protection offered to shareholders by circa 500 public companies in the four decades after the 1862 Companies Act (Acheson et al., 2016). Unlike GHL, it takes a leximetric approach to analysing articles of association. Acheson et al. (2016) have two main findings. First, the shareholder protection offered by firms in the nineteenth century was high compared to modern-day standards. Second, firms which had more diffuse ownership offered shareholders higher protection.

How do we reconcile GHL and Acheson et al. (2016)? The first thing to note is that most of Acheson et al’s sample is before 1892. The second thing to note is that in a companion paper, Acheson et al. (2015) identify a major shift in corporate governance and ownership which started in the 1890s – companies formed in that decade had greater capital and voting concentration than those formed in earlier decades. In addition, unlike companies formed prior to the 1890s, the insiders in these companies were able to maintain their voting rights and entrench themselves. This corporate governance turn in the 1890s is where future scholars should focus their attention.


Acheson, Graeme G., Gareth Campbell, John D. Turner and Nadia Vanteeva. 2015. Corporate Ownership and Control in Victorian Britain. Economic History Review 68: 911-36.

Acheson, Graeme G., Gareth Campbell John D. Turner. 2016. Common Law and the Origin of Shareholder Protection. QUCEH Working Paper no. 2016-04.

Campbell, Gareth and John D. Turner. 2011. Substitutes for Legal Protection: Corporate Governance and Dividends in Victorian Britain. Economic History Review 64:571-97.


A Tale of Two Wages: Spinners and the Industrial Revolution

Spinning the Industrial Revolution

by  Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Benjamin Schneider (Cornell)

The prevailing explanation for why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in Britain is Robert Allen’s (2009) ‘high-wage economy’ view, which claims that the high cost of labour relative to capital and fuel incentivized innovation and the adoption of new techniques. This paper presents new empirical evidence on hand spinning before the Industrial Revolution and demonstrates that there was no such ‘high-wage economy’ in spinning, a leading sector of industrialization. We quantify the working lives of frequently ignored female and child spinners who were crucial to the British textile industry in the Early Modern period with evidence of productivity and wages from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. Our results show that spinning was a widespread, low-wage, low-productivity employment, in line with the Humphries (2013) view of the motivations for the factory system.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016‒07‒23

Review by Thales Zamberlan Pereira

In Spinning the Industrial Revolution, Humphries and Schneider last words are: “the route to mechanization and factory production was a response to low not high wages.” This is a direct statement against Robert Allen’s high wage economy (HWE) explanation for the Industrial Revolution. The low wage authors (LWA) argue that the wages Allen uses were only available to a “rare group of spinners” and, therefore, were not a representative sample, which should include lower wages from women and children. There was a direct link between productivity and remuneration, and only a limited number of spinners could produce several pounds of fiber in a week and/or had the ability to make finer counts of yarns.


Water Frame, about 1775

Humphries and Schneider present an important discussion about different sources for spinner’s wages and how we should measure their earnings, but what does their evidence mean for Allen’s HWE? I leave to Allen himself to respond: “Humphries never analyses the British labour supply from an international perspective.”[i] Even considering the lower wages from women and children in spinning, the important question is if real wages in Britain were higher than other parts of the world. The authors avoid this discussion, making the alternative argument that “there should have been an increase/jump” in spinners’ wages before the innovations period (around 1760s). But since Allen’s explanation for the Industrial Revolution has a “global perspective”, what matters is if wages in Britain (or in the northwest regions) were higher than in comparable regions in Europe (we can also add Asia here). Humphries and Weisdorf ‘s paper (“Unreal Wages”), along with many other recent research (Broadberry et al. latest book), shows that real wages were slowly increasing for centuries, so why there is a need for a spike? In addition, since inventions in spinning were largely associated with cotton, one important limitation of the paper is that most of the primary sources used for spinning productivity are not for cotton (See Table 4). As pointed out by John Styles, there is even no proper data for Lancashire, the main cotton region.

The LWA also make the argument that inventors (such as Arkwright) never expressed concern about high wages in spinning. But if spinners did not have wages higher than the British average, even if Britain had the highest wages in the world, one would not expect this demand. In the age before spinning machinery, when the “earnings in weaving were constrained” by low productivity, how much the average wages should be used to measure the connection between high costs and innovation? There are two aspects here that deserve some attention: higher wages for those workers with higher productivity, and a “wage premium” for those who produced finer yarns. Humphries and Schneider argue that, since spinners were paid piece rates, there was a demand for more “experienced spinners” to produce finer counts of yarn. As the long debate between Nick Harley and Javier Cuenca Esteban has showed, finer cotton textiles were the first wave of products that came out of the new inventions. The low productivity of a spinner to produce a 20-count yarn (a high count at the time), presented in the paper, suggests that to use averages wages to test its impact on innovation may be misleading in the case of textiles. The average spinner could not produce a yarn with the quality (and quantity) required to test the HWE hypothesis. This, I think, is part of the argument that John Styles makes when he writes about the “general tendency in much of the literature to think about spinning as if were a single activity – unskilled women’s work.”


Humphries and Schneider conclude that “overcoming the low productivity and inconsistent quality in spinning and taking advantage of low wages for spinners
and female and child workers more generally may have been the spur for tinkerers
and inventors in the late eighteenth-century textile industry.” While the first part of this sentence is an important one, it would be interesting to see more evidence on the latter part. The reason for this is that recent projects to reconstruct the famous spinning machines showed that they were “uncomfortable” to use and needed “a fair degree of strength to operate.”[ii] Since some of the locations for the author’s spinning records contain a large proportion of children, it would be useful to know if they really could operate the spinning machines.

The debate between the LWE and the HWE hypotheses prompted a series of very interesting replies during the last few weeks (see Judy Stephenson, Vincent Geloso, John Styles, Psedoerasmus). There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but maybe the next step for this debate to move forward is to have better real wages for France. New French real wages would present the “global perspective” that Humphries and Schneider’s paper lack. My take on this debate is that we should be conservative about what new pieces of evidence really mean for our broader interpretations of historical events. Otherwise we will just be jumping to the next omitted variable as the “real explanation.” The fact that the average wage for spinners was lower than the one presented by Allen does not imply that British high-wage economy was a statistical artifact. We need better data for other countries before claiming that “the route to mechanization and factory production was a response to low not high wages.”

[i] Robert C. Allen, “The High Wage Economy and the Industrial Revolution: A Restatement,” The Economic History Review 68, no. 1 (February 1, 2015): 14, doi:10.1111/ehr.12079.

[ii] R. L. Hills, “Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton. Why Three Inventors?,” Textile History 10, no. 1 (October 1, 1979): 114–26, doi:10.1179/004049679793691321.


Does Technological Progress Lead to more Human Capital Formation? Evidence from the French Industrial Revolution

The Complementarity between Technology and Human Capital in the Early Phase of Industrialization

By Raphael Franck (Bar-Ilan University and Brown University, and Oded Galor (Brown University,



The research explores the effect of industrialization on human capital formation. Exploiting exogenous regional variations in the adoption of steam engines across France, the study establishes that in contrast to conventional wisdom that views early industrialization as a predominantly deskilling process, the industrial revolution was conducive for human capital formation, generating broad increases in literacy rates and education attainment.

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay (University of Warwick)

While human capital is often thought to be at the root of any development process, early industrialization itself is often thought to be de-skilling. Images of children working long hours executing repetitive tasks usually come up when one thinks of the Industrial Revolution (Humphries, 2010). Yet there is also the idea that industrial and technical development might lead to a greater need for skilled labour to maintain, fix and adapt new machinery. In this case industrial development might lead to a greater supply of schooling and might result in significant human capital improvements. Focusing on early French industrialization in a recent working paper (distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-05-02), Franck and Galor attempt to demonstrate just this.

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Steam engine from Lille (Nord departement)

Making use of data from the 1840s, the authors find a positive correlation across French departements between the number of steam engines and human capital indicators such as the share of literate conscripts, the share of pupils in the population, and the number of teachers (which would be more suggestive if also set relative to population). This correlation is best illustrated in a series of shaded maps (Figure 3), although the strikingly high levels schooling and literacy in the north-eastern part of France remain to be explained. Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation: it may be that other factors caused both the number of steam engines and the number of teachers to increase in certain areas, which could render any relationship between the two fortuitous.

Figure 3 in Franck and Oded Galor (2015).

Figure 3 in Franck and Oded Galor (2015).

To tackle this endogeneity problem, the authors make clever use of the fact that the first steam engine was introduced in 1735 in Fresnes-sur-Escaut in the Nord departement, near the northern tip of France. Since technology diffusion can be reasonably assumed to occur first around the region where the new technology was first introduced (which was indeed the case), it seems possible to use each departement’s distance from Fresnes-sur-Escaut as an instrument in the regression. In the first stage of the regression, they successfully show that the shorter a departement’s distance from the first steam engine location, the larger the number of steam engines in the departement, which seems quite reasonable.

To prove the exogeneity of the instrument, the authors have to show that human capital formation was not higher closer to the first steam engine location. This is trickier. To support their case, Franck and Galor investigate the relationship between distance from Nord and economic development indicators from around 1700, such as urban population, literacy rates and university location. They find that there is no correlation (although this may be surprising in light of Figure 1). More importantly, human capital may be quite imperfectly captured by these indicators in the pre-industrial era, when human capital may have developed in ways that are quite difficult to measure: through the transmission of skills from masters to apprentices, or learning-by-doing. It has often been shown that there was no clear relationship between technological progress and literacy rates in the early modern era (Mitch, 1999). Accordingly perhaps more detail should be provided in the paper as to why the steam engine was first introduced in this region and not elsewhere.

Figure 1 in Franck and Galor (2015)

Figure 1 in Franck and Galor (2015)

Which brings me to a broader point about the paper. Although its stated aim is to investigate the causal relationship running from technological progress to human capital formation, causality could run the other way around. Although endogeneity issues are explicitly addressed in the paper from (and confounding factors such as land suitability, rainfall, access to waterways, distance from Paris, and market integration duly controlled for), the specific problem of reverse causality is not explicitly dealt with in the text. Reassuringly the IV model should theoretically take care of reverse causality, but the authors could still discuss this possibility in more detail.

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Boys at school in Nord departement in the 19th c.

Overall though, Franck and Galor rather successfully tackle a very important and highly complex aspect of industrialization processes. By showing that technological improvement led to advances in human capital accumulation, these results in turn trigger a number of questions. Through which mechanism did industrialization lead to better schooling and literacy rates? Was the process demand-driven? Or did parents’ higher wages mean that children no longer had to work to help the family? Finally, could child labour abuse in factories have led to local initiatives to promote schooling? This latter hypothesis is discussed by Weissbach (1989), who emphasizes a particularly strong will to change the status quo in Alsatian and nearby regions — which could partly explain the greater spread of schooling in this part of France. Such inquiries could be the subject of fascinating future research.

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Children in a textile factory in 19th c. Provence


Humphries, Jane. 2010. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitch, David. 1999. “The Role of Education and Skill in the British Industrial Revolution.” In Joel Mokyr, ed., The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective, 2 ed. Boulder, nd CO: Westview Press, pp. 241–79.

Weissbach, L. S. 1989. Child Labor Reform in Nineteenth Century France: Assuring the Future Harvest. Louisiana State University Press.

Failed by #EconomicGrowth?

Asia’s Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan before 1850

by Tuan-Hwee Sng (National University of Singapore) and Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University)

Abstract: This paper explores the role of state capacity in the comparative economic development of China and Japan. Before 1850, both nations were ruled by stable dictators who relied on bureaucrats to govern their domains. We hypothesize that agency problems increase with the geographical size of a domain. In a large domain, the ruler’s inability to closely monitor bureaucrats creates opportunities for the bureaucrats to exploit taxpayers. To prevent overexploitation, the ruler has to keep taxes low and government small. Our dynamic model shows that while economic expansion improves the ruler’s finances in a small domain, it could lead to lower tax revenues in a large domain as it exacerbates bureaucratic expropriation. To test these implications, we assemble comparable quantitative data from primary and secondary sources. We find that the state taxed less and provided fewer local public goods per capita in China than in Japan. Furthermore, while the Tokugawa shogunate’s tax revenue grew in tandem with demographic trends, Qing China underwent fiscal contraction after 1750 despite demographic expansion. We conjecture that a greater state capacity might have prepared Japan better for the transition from stagnation to growth.


Reviewed by Joyman Lee


This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-09-25 and 2014-10-03. In it Sng and Moriguchi ask why China – with its large population and high levels of technological prowess – was not the first country to industrialize. Existing studies of “divergence” have not explained differences in economic performance between China and Japan. Despite the similarities between the two economies in levels of proto-industrialization, political and legal structures, and living standards. Sng and Moriguchi argue that differences in public finance accounted for important differences in the two countries’ ability to promote economic growth.

In this paper Sng and Moriguchi focus on the important question of size and geography as the central explanatory variable. In particular, the authors develop a context-specific model which suggests that rulers’ need to rely on agents to govern (principal-agent problem) in a pre-modern dictatorship meant that “agency problems increase with its geographical size and heterogeneity” (p5), owing to information challenges which precluded close supervision by rulers of their agents. The model predicts that the larger the polity, the higher the corruption rate, and the lower the tax rate out of fear that subjects will revolt, as expropriation reduces the ruler’s ability to provide social goods commensurate to the tax levied. The higher level of corruption also reduces rulers’ incentives to invest, and hence the provision of public goods per capita. Graft and inefficiencies mean that population and economic growth actually reduces the proportion of the economic surplus available to the ruler. As a result, the size of the polity lowers the tipping point where the negative effects of growth outweigh the positive effects.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Sng and Moriguchi test their hypothesis against a pool of primary and secondary data, which confirms that tax rates were higher in Japan than China, averaging around 34% in Japan (rising to 50-55% in some domains, p29): more than twice of China’s level in 1700 and approximately six times by 1850. Population growth was far greater in China than Japan, where the population stagnated after 1700. Compared to the Qing, Tokugawa Japan enjoyed a higher level of public services in terms of coinage, transportation, urban management, and environmental management (forestry), and in famine relief the Qing’s strengths were cancelled out by 1850. The authors conclude that the large size of China “imposed increasingly insurmountable constraints on the regime’s capacity to collect taxes and provide essential local public goods as its economy expanded,” and that “this factor alone might have been sufficient in holding back China’s transition from stagnation to growth even in the absence of Western imperialism” (p38). In line with the existing scholarship, Sng and Moriguchi contend that Japan’s healthier tax system provided the Westernizing Meiji regime (1868-1912) with revenues to conduct far-reaching reforms.


Despite its significance in global history, the comparative history of China and Japan is surprisingly overlooked. The “California school,” for instance, has focused largely on the economic “divergence” between China and the West, whereas Japanese economic historians have labored over Japan-Europe differences (Saito 2010). Sng and Moriguchi’s focus on the comparative history of China and Japan is thus relatively new. The authors join political scientist Wenkai He, whose recent book Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State also explores China’s failure to develop a modern fiscal state in the nineteenth century, in comparison with early modern England and Meiji Japan (He 2013). China’s “failure” is especially puzzling in view of the Qing’s overall success in raising revenue in the late nineteenth century (Wong 1997, 155-56).

Sng and Moriguchi’s argument that a state’s ability to increase revenue is inversely affected by size is persuasive. In the absence of institutions to monitor graft, China had seldom been able to pursue rational fiscal strategies – especially at the county level – since the Tang-Song transition (Hartwell 1982, 395-96). In contrast, Japan’s decentralized polity in the early modern period bore close resemblance to Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early modern Japan’s experiences of proto-industrialization and industrious revolution had clear parallels both in England and in the Netherlands.

A magistrate's office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing's inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing's ideological goals.

A magistrate’s office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing’s inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing’s ideological goals.

What this narrative does not explain, however, is why China pursued such an inefficient mode of fiscal management. Given the challenges of graft and the fear of revolt, Sng and Moriguchi assume that it was the most rational or “optimal” course. The authors point to but dismiss lightly the question posed by Qing historians that the goals of the late imperial Confucian state might not have been compatible with “rational” state expansion. In other words, rather than fearing peasant revolt, the choice of tax rate might have to do with ideological reasons. Similarly, the idea that the Japanese state shared a “Confucian” outlook (p4) is overly simplistic, especially as consistently high levels of taxation in Tokugawa Japan undermine the idea that Tokugawa Japan was a “benevolent” state.

While size might have been a key variable in China’s state “weakness,” this does not in itself explain the strengths or weaknesses of China’s overall economy. The large size of China’s internal market, for example, allowed differentiation and specialization which appear to have sustained economic growth even in the absence of an active state. This was true both in the Qing and more recently in China’s informal and private sectors since 1978. Thus there is no reason to assume that the adoption of a “modern” fiscal apparatus was a natural goal for the Qing before 1850. Similarly, by focusing on the state’s fiscal abilities to the exclusion of other factors, Sng and Moriguchi also sidestep an important Japan-centered literature that considers how similarities in economic structures between China and Japan enabled the results of Westernizing experiments in Japan after 1850 to be transferred to China. This point is important because revenues from Japan’s trade with Asia propelled Meiji Japan’s economic growth, no less than the revenues collected by Japan’s indigenous tax structures. Moreover, this was a form of self-sustaining growth built upon constant competitive pressures from below, i.e. from China which was rapidly reproducing strategies developed in Japan (ed. Sugihara 2005).

Despite these criticisms, Sng and Moriguchi’s model offers clear quantitative analysis on an important aspect of a greatly understudied topic, and is recommended for anyone interested in the longue durée economic development of the two countries.

Additional References

Hartwell, R. 1982. “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 365-442 [Dec, 1982].

He, W 2013. The Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State: Early Modern England, Meiji Japan, and Qing China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saito, O. 2010. “An Industrious Revolution in an East Asian Market Economy? Tokugawa Japan and Implications for the Great Divergence,” Australian Economic History Review, vol. 2010, vol. 50, issue 3, pp. 240-261.

Sugihara, K. (ed.) 2005. Japan, China, and the Growth of the Asian International Economy, 1850-1949. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wong, R. 1997. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.