The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

So just when was Britain Great?

The First Plawg Rule of the Internet is It's serendipity, not search.

You could look for a hundred years on Google and not find the Open, sesame to unlock this little baby (PDF): Relative British and American Income Levels during the First Industrial Revolution by Marianne Ward and John Devereux.

There's a Queen Victoria's dead quality to my elation at this discovery: I'm sure that, for anyone in the biz, it's old hat. But, for civilians to snag this stuff free and online - therein lies the specialness.

Cliff Notes: the popular story arc of the US sorpasso of the UK - the effect of better technology and industrial methods, especially in the iron and steel industry, happening around 1890 - is completely wrong: Britain was always behind, the only question being, By how much?

In 1831 (p7), UK per capita income was 68% of that in the US [1]; it rose as high as 90% in 1869 (105% in GB) - but only because the Americans had treated themselves to a civil war in the interim, and written off $4 billion or so by emancipating the slaves [2]: a chart on p17 shows that that was the peak; the UK number slid back to plateau at around 85% from 1887 to 1907, a gentle slide to 1929, followed by an uptick [3] in the 1930s; World War 2 took the relative down to 46% [4], from which it crawled up to around 67% in 1990.

Workshop of the world? Whether it's current affairs or ancient history, the watchword is,

It ain't necessarily so.

  1. Though the UK numbers where skewed by the fast-breeding but low-producing Irish. The Great Britain number for 1831 is 83%!

  2. A chart in this interesting piece puts the 1860 value at $3.5bn.

  3. Cliff Notes: the UK had a worse 1920s that either the US or France, but a better 1930s. That needs work, though.

  4. No Marshall Plan = Truman Depression. Read Corelli Barnett's Audit of War for a tour round the junkyard that was the UK economy even before the Luftwaffe started making alterations.


Some historical stats on the Irish economy in Ireland: Economics and the Reinventing of a Nation by William Crotty. Some UK economy stats and charts (PDF).

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