Clapham, John Harold

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Clapham, John Harold



John Harold Clapham (1873–1946), English economic historian, was born in Salford, Lancashire, of Wesleyan parents; his father was a jeweler and silversmith. Clapham’s family was down-to-earth, disciplined, and unsentimental, and these qualities, coupled with integrity, characterized both the man and his scholarship. As a schoolboy he read Classics at the Leys School, Cambridge, and won a history scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1892. Then, after a first class in the historical tripos, he won the Lightfoot scholarship in ecclesiastical history and the Prince Consort prize in 1898. Much of his early work lay in general European history, as did two of his first books, The Causes of the War of 1792 (1899) and The Abbe Sieyès (1912), and several articles.

From 1898 to 1902 he resided as a fellow at King’s College and worked under Lord Acton, Frederic W. Maitland, and Alfred Marshall. It was largely the influence of Marshall that induced Clapham to bend his energies to British economic history. Indeed, a letter from Marshall to Acton dated November 13, 1897, reveals Marshall’s hopes: “I feel that the absence of any tolerable account of the economic development of England during the last century and a half,” he wrote, “is a disgrace to the land, and a grievous hindrance to the right understanding of the economic problems of our time.… Clapham has more analytic faculty than any thorough historian whom I have ever taught; his future work is I think still uncertain.… If you could turn him towards XVII and XIX century economic history economists would ever be grateful to you.…” (Sir John Clapham… 1946, p. 115). Marshall’s influence was powerfully reinforced during the next formative period in Clapham’s life when, in 1902, he went to Leeds, in Yorkshire, as professor of economics. He did much to shape the fortunes of the economics faculty in the new university and to establish close links with the local business community. His first important monograph in economic history was in an area appropriate for a Yorkshire professor: The Woollen and Worsted Industries (1907). During this period he also wrote many articles in economic history. Then, in 1908, Clapham returned to King’s as dean and assistant tutor in history. From that date until his death in 1946, except during the two world wars, he lectured on English economic history, establishing this subject in the historical tripos for many generations of undergraduates.

He became increasingly burdened with office and dignities, conscious that he represented economic history perhaps more than any other scholar in the field in Britain. In King’s College he was for 20 years senior tutor and, after 1936, vice-provost. The first chair of economic history in the university was established for him in 1928, and this constituted a major gesture of recognition on the part of that university. He became a hard-working president of the Economic History Society, president of the British Academy, a syndic of the Cambridge Press for 30 years, and founder and editor of the Cambridge Studies in Economic History and the Cambridge Economic History of Europe—grander designs than Marshall had envisaged. Clapham was knighted in 1943. His stature as a scholar did not diminish, however, as his administrative responsibilities accumulated. His own career gave a sort of institutional imprimatur to economic history as his own writings gave it scholastic probity. Characteristically, he took on two new lecture courses a few years before his death, one on the economic history of Europe, the other on France before the Revolution, and completed his major historical work The Bank of England (1944), at the same time fulfilling various wartime commitments. He was working to the last on volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of Europe and on his own general work, published posthumously as A Concise Economic History of Britain From the Earliest Times to 1750.

Clapham’s greatest work was to lie not in the detailed working out of particular problems in monographs or articles but in the clearing of whole landscapes. First came The Economic Development of France and Germany, 1815–1914 in 1921; then followed the three massive volumes of An Economic History of Modern Britain (1926–1938). He set his sights in the preface of the first volume, intending to work on a completely new scale, “to make the story more nearly quantitative than it has yet been made … to offer dimensions in place of blurred masses of unspecified size” ([1926] 1950, vol. 1, pp. vii–viii). Unsubstantiated assumptions as well as ignorance gave way before his steady accumulation and deployment of data. As his successor to the chair, M. M. Postan, acknowledged in 1938: “On the ground in which Dr. Clapham has worked and still works he found a mass of half-knowledge, overgrown with picturesque and stubborn weeds. This ground he not only cleared but in his own inimitable, lapidary way, has covered with a structure of facts as hard and certain as granite” (1939, p. 6).

Clapham did not believe that economic history should have its own methodology but that it should remain integral with human history. He was never imprisoned by hypotheses couched in purely economic or quantifiable terms. Indeed, his own view of economic history as a discipline was firm but modest: it was the most fundamental of all varieties of history, he wrote, not the most important. He marshaled his data not so much into statistical series upon which to forge theoretical tools of analysis as into a human record of change and achievement, and his landscape is not one of explanatory hypotheses but one of developing institutions, changes in the broad pattern of industrial and commercial organization, output, policy, trade, and agriculture.

This is not to say that Clapham worked in an analytical vacuum, isolated from theory. He was widely admired by the economists at the London School of Economics, agreeing with their advocacy of economic liberalism in current policy. Marshall was his mentor and A. C. Pigou and J. M. Keynes were his colleagues at King’s College. Perhaps being so close to Keynes and the Cambridge economists in his everyday life made him aware that economic theory was changing so rapidly that historical investigation organized in terms of one set of assumptions would soon be overtaken by investigations organized in terms of others. He did not say this explicitly, but he did comment that much of the theoretical apparatus current in the social sciences was revealed as vacuous when put to the test of a concrete historical situation (1922). He thus became a man of periods rather than of problems, conscious that he was providing the ground-work upon which others might construct. Varying interpretations might come and go upon the winds of new theories, but the essential infrastructure (a word he would not have wished to use himself) would remain. The assumption that tested facts, firm in the light of critical historical research, stand somehow apart from and prior to ideas and hypotheses—that economic history can be built from them brick upon brick—raises problems of its own, of course. The result may be unchallengeable but largely tangential to problems and relationships that later generations see as crucial areas for analysis. In this sense, perhaps, Clapham’s massive surveys have become dated more than his monographs. Certainly, Clapham’s call for quantities has been answered by a deluge of figures: by national income accounts, with the intersectoral comparisons they make possible; by investment and output series; by growth-rate calculations; and by balances of payments, terms of trade, and cyclical and trend analysis tables. All these came after his death, as did the flood of economic history inspired by theoretical concepts of Keynesian or post-Keynesian economics and by the problems of economic growth facing the postwar world.

Peter Mathias

[For the historical context of Clapham’s work, see the biographies of Acton; Maitland; Marshall. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeHistory, article oneconomic history.]


1899 The Causes of the War of 1792. Cambridge Historical Essays, No. 11. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1907 The Woollen and Worsted Industries. London: Methuen.

1912 The Abbé Sieyès: An Essay in the Politics of the French Revolution. London: King.

(1921) 1961 The Economic Development of France and Germany, 1815–1914. 4th ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1922 Of Empty Economic Boxes. Economic Journal 32: 305–314, 560–563.

(1926–1938) 1950–1952 An Economic History of Modern Britain. 3 vols. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Volume 1: The Early Railway Age, 1820–1850. Volume 2: Free Trade and Steel, 1850–1886. Volume 3: Machines and National Rivalries (1887–1914) With an Epilogue (1914–1929).

1944 The Bank of England: A History. 2 vols. Cambridge Univ. Press.

(1949) 1957 A Concise Economic History of Britain From the Earliest Times to 1750. Rev. ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Cambridge Univ. Press.


Bibliography of Sir John Clapham. 1946 Cambridge Historical Journal 8:205–206.

Clark, G. N. 1946 Sir John Harold Clapham, 1873–1946. British Academy, London, Proceedings 32:339–352.

Postan, Michael M. 1939 The Historical Method in Social Science: An Inaugural Lecture. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Sir John Clapham, 1873–1946. 1946 Cambridge Historical Journal 8:115–116.