The Economic History Review

Large-scale Victorian manufacturers: Reconstructing the lost 1881 UK employer census

Volume 75 Issue 3
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Pages: 830-856Authors: Leslie Hannah, Robert Bennett
Published online: November 26, 2021DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13118

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This study presents the first available—and near-complete—list of large UK manufacturers in 1881, by complementing the employer data from that year’s population census (recovered by the British Business Census of Entrepreneurs project) with employment and capital estimates from other sources. The 438 largest firms with 1 000 or more employees accounted for around one-sixth of manufacturing output. Examples can be found in most industries. Exploiting powered machinery, intangible assets, new technologies, and venture capital and generally operating in competitive markets, their exports approximately equalled domestic sales. The more capital-intensive firms accessed stock markets, more—and in larger firms—than in follower economies. Some alleged later causes of UK decline relative to the US or Germany cannot be observed in 1881. Indeed, contemporary overseas observers—capitalist and socialist—correctly recognized the distinctive features of UK manufacturing as its exceptional development of quoted corporations, professional managers, and ‘modern’, scalable, factory production.