Wealth and Welfare: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1851-1951

Wealth and Welfare: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1851-1951

Wealth and Welfare: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1851-1951

Wealth and Welfare: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1851-1951


This collection of essays explores the questions of what counted as knowledge in Victorian Britain, who defined knowledge and the knowledgeable, by what means and by what criteria.

During the Victorian period, the structure of knowledge took on a new and recognizably modern form, and the disciplines that we now take for granted took shape. The ways in which knowledge was tested also took on a new form, with oral examinations and personal contacts giving way to formal written tests. New institutions of knowledge were created: museums were important at the start of the period (knowledge often meant classifying and collecting); by the end, universities had taken on a new promince. Knowledge expanded and Victorians needed to make sense of the sheer scale of information, to popularize it, and at the same time to exclude ignorance and error - a role carried out by encyclopedias and popular publications.

The concept of knowledge is complex and much debated, with a multiplicity of meanings and troubling relationships. By studying the Victorian organization of knowledge in its institutional settings, these essays contribute to our consideration of these wider issues.


The five volumes of the Economic and Social History of Britain series cover the millennium between the Norman Conquest and the opening of the twenty-first century. This was a period of immense change in Britain’s economy and society, of central importance to wider transformations in the history of the world. Until the late eighteenth century, the balance between natural resources and population was finely drawn, with the limits of sustainability reached first in the early fourteenth and again in the early seventeenth centuries. But by the end of the eighteenth century, the population at last exceeded its earlier peak without a collapse into misery and death—and from the mid-nineteenth century both population and welfare moved to new levels. Britain pioneered a fundamental transformation of economic and social life, surpassing by the eighteenth century the levels of urbanization found in other European countries, shifting workers from the land in unprecedented numbers, and developing a highly sophisticated commercial society. Britain was also central to the emergence of a global economy, culminating in the free trade, liberal empire of the second half of the nineteenth century, which was followed by deglobalization in the 1920s and 1930s, and a tentative reconstruction of a global economy after 1945 under American leadership, before the resurgence of globalization in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The economic and social history of Britain is about much more than the insular history of a small European island.

The series takes a distinctive approach to the subject. Its focus is the economy viewed as a social and cultural phenomenon. It does not approach economic history as the application of modern economic theories to the past, but sees the economy through meanings, social relations, and power. Economists make assumptions about homo economicus or rational economic man, even when they admit that rationality is bounded. Equally, economists assume that collective action is extremely difficult to achieve as each person pursues individual self-interest to the point that it may be self-defeating by destroying natural resources, or by allowing population to rise above the ability of the land to sustain it. By contrast, this series seeks to understand how men and women tried to make sense of what it meant to live within a market economy. It seeks to understand the nature of economic life from the perspectives of contemporaries, through an appreciation of cultural meanings, social practices, economic thinking, and political action.

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