The Economic History Review

‘The city has been wronged and abused!’: institutional corruption in the eighteenth century

Volume 68 Issue 3
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Pages: 1038-1061Authors: Mark Latham
Published online: January 20, 2015DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12091

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Corruption by office holders in eighteenth-century British institutions, from state to local level, played an instrumental role in the emergence of modern bureaucracy, and the development of accountable, professionalized systems of administration. Due to the similarities between the institutional culture of eighteenth-century Britain and those within many contemporary developing societies, social scientists have also sought to draw lessons from Britain’s historical experience of corruption. Yet little is known about the extent, impact, and causes of corruption by eighteenth-century office holders. This article presents the first detailed research into the topic. It utilises the rich administrative and financial records associated with the institution charged with funding and undertaking the maintenance of London Bridge–the Bridge House–to conduct a systematic qualitative and quantitative study of corruption by office holders. The article identifies an ingrained culture of corruption amongst Bridge House officers, and provides quantitative evidence of the substantial impact corruption had on the organization’s finances. However, contrary to existing studies on corruption, this article concludes that, although extensive and significant, corruption did not perform a functional role in the context of this institution. The article also provides a methodology and comparator for future studies into this topic.