Unwin, George

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Unwin, George



George Unwin (1870–1925), English economic historian, was born at Stockport, the eldest of six children of working–class parents. He left school when he was 13 to become an office boy in a firm of hatmakers for which his mother had previously worked. He was fortunate, however, to have an employer who kindled in him an interest in books and in politics; this interest was developed by attendance at the Unitarian Chapel, the Mechanics Institute, and the Stockport Literary Society. At the age of 20 he won a scholarship to the University College of Cardiff, but the £20 this brought him annually did little more than cover his fees. It was to the privations of the three years at Cardiff that he used to attribute the frailty of his constitution in later life. A second scholarship opened the way to Oxford, which he entered at the age of 23 (along with another youth of humble origin from Stock–port, Ernest Barker, who was to rise to eminence as a political philosopher and historian). After four years of exciting intellectual activity, culminating in a first in Greats, he spent a few months under Schmoller at Berlin and from there went to the London School of Economics, where he collected voluminous material on the history of the fraternities, guilds, and companies of the City.

Unwin’s first salaried post was as private secretary to Leonard (later Lord) Courtney—then engaged in vigorous opposition to the Boer War— who was to be his close, lifelong friend and adviser. The post allowed him leisure to continue historical research, and in 1904 he produced a tightly packed volume, Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, in which the essential economic conflict of the period is displayed, not as between capital and labor, but as between trading capital and industrial capital. This was followed by an illuminating study of the woolen industry of Suffolk and, in 1908, by The Gilds and Companies of London, with a brilliant opening chapter on the place of the guilds in the history of western Europe. The same year saw his appointment as lecturer in economic history at Edinburgh, and in 1910 the University of Manchester created for him the first chair in the subject in England.

At the University of Manchester, Unwin taught in the history school directed by T. F. Tout. A volume of essays written by him and several of his postgraduate students, Finance and Trade Under Edward III(1918), demonstrated, among much else, that far from having been “the father of English commerce,” Edward was a serious impediment to its development. William Cunningham’s generous acceptance of this revision was the source of great satisfaction to Unwin.

During his 14 years at Manchester, Unwin planned and began works on several major themes; but the demands made on him by his students and an urge to engage in political protest against both the imperialist and the socialist trends of thought of his day made the completion of them impossible. The discovery by an extramural student of a mass of business documents in an old stable in Derbyshire, however, led to the publication in 1924 of Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights, in which the industrial revolution was depicted, not as the disaster many have thought it, but as a seedbed of those various voluntary communities (the modern family, friendly societies, trade unions, churches, schools, universities, and so on) which in Unwin’s view were more fundamental to the growth of society than was the compulsory, authoritarian state. A few months after it appeared, Unwin died, at the height of his powers, in his 56th year.

Much of Unwin’s most characteristic work was published posthumously in a volume of papers edited, with a masterful biography, by R. H. Tawney (see Unwin 1927, especially Tawney’s essay on pp. xi–lxxiv). But it was in informal conversations, rather than in writings or lectures, that his wealth of historical learning, his gentle irony, his native shrewdness and humanity, were most fully revealed. His economic ideas were drawn largely from Adam Smith; his political doctrines from T. H. Green, William James, and (in later years) R. M. Maclver. He regarded the state as a lion in the path of progress, inimical to the voluntary associations on which his social philosophy centered. It was the decline of state intervention in the late eighteenth century that led not only to a rapid growth of industry but also to a rise of working–class organizations in England long before these appeared in more closely regulated societies abroad (1904, p. 227). By demonstrating, for each period he touched, the inefficacy or hurtfulness of “policy,” he opened the way for historical interpretations more in line with the thought of economists and sociologists. His influence on economic history in England has extended far beyond the field, wide as this was, of his own specialized researches.

T. S. Ashton

[For the historical context of Unwin’s work, see the biographies ofcunninghamandtoynbee; for discussion of the subsequent development of Unwin’s ideas, seehistory, article, oneconomic history.]


(1904) 1957 Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. London: Cass.

1907 Industries. Volume 2, pages 247–289 in The Victoria History of the County of Suffolk. Edited by William Page. London: Constable.

(1908) 1964 The Gilds and Companies of London. 4th ed. New York: Barnes & Noble.

(1918) 1962 Finance and Trade Under Edward III. London: Cass.

1924 Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights: The Industrial Revolution at Stockport and Margie. Manchester Univ. Press; New York: Longmans.

1927 Studies in Economic History: The Collected Papers of George Unwin.... Edited with an introductory memoir by R. H. Tawney. London: Macmillan. → A bibliography appears on pages 465–471.


BARKER, Ernest 1953 Age and Youth: Memories of Three Universities and Father of the Man. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → Details of Unwin’s career are given on page 294.

Daniels, George W. 1926 George Unwin: A Memorial Lecture. Manchester Univ. Press; New York: Longmans.