Ashton, Thomas Southcliffe (18891968), economic historian, was born at Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire, on 11 January 1889, the second son and third child of Thomas Ashton, manager of the local Trustee Savings Bank, and his wife, Susan Sutcliffe. From Ashton under Lyne secondary school he won a scholarship to Manchester University, where he read history and political economy and obtained his MA in 1910. After a brief and inappropriate spell as a schoolteacher in Dublin, he returned to England to lecture to trade unionists on economic topics, continuing to do so until 1912, when he was appointed to lecture in economics at Sheffield University. In 1915 Ashton married Marion Hague, daughter of Joseph Slater, of Ashton under Lyne; they had one son.
Unfit for military service, Ashton remained at Sheffield throughout the war but moved to Birmingham University in 1919 where, however, he found the dominating figure of Sir William Ashley wholly uncongenial. In 1921 at the instigation of a man to whom Ashton was devoted and whose influence on him was powerfulGeorge Unwin, professor of economic history at Manchester and still, then, the sole professor of that subject in BritainAshton became senior lecturer in economics at Manchester. There he stayed for twenty-three years, lecturing mainly on public finance (he became reader in public finance and currency in 1927), but researching and writing on economic history.
Ashton's most important early works were written during this period. They included two major studies in industrial history: Iron and Steel in the Industrial Revolution (1924) and The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century (with Joseph Sykes, 1929); an entertainingly written centenary history of the Manchester Statistical Society: Economic and Social Investigations in Manchester, 18331933 (1934); and a small but illuminating piece of business history, An Eighteenth-Century Industrialist: Peter Stubs of Warrington (1939). In 1944 he was persuaded by R. H. Tawney to move to the chair of economic history at the London School of Economics, which he occupied until his retirement in 1954. During that time he published two books of a notably more general nature than those of his Manchester period: The Industrial Revolution (1948) and An Economic History of England: the Eighteenth Century (1955). In 1953 he was Ford's lecturer at Oxford and from those lectures emerged his last major work, Economic Fluctuations in England, 17001800 (1959).
In his own upbringing and in his intellectual approach, Ashton seemed to reflect some of the qualities of the men who had been associated with the very industrial revolution on which he became the most notable authority of his day. He was something of a Manchester radical; his faith was in economic liberalism. Reared in a thrifty nonconformist household, he was practical and pragmatic, not overtly brilliant nor given to flights of intellectual fancy. His range was limited but he brought to his subject what it then badly needed: an insistence on asking economic questions of historical sources. His concern was always to find the typical and representative characteristics of the phenomena he investigated, using quantitative data wherever possible. Such a path could easily have led to history of a very arid sort. That it did not do so in Ashton's books was a consequence of his warmth of character, his concern for the role of the individual in history, and his great lucidity in writing. These qualities were probably best exhibited in the brief compass of The Industrial Revolution, which was a superb compression of his learning, experience, and technique; it deservedly enjoyed substantial sales and was translated into French, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.
Short in stature and wiry in build, Ashton was one of the kindest of men, utterly devoid of self-importance and pretentiousness, friendly, and immensely helpful to many students and colleagues. He was at his best in seminars, and those who attended them soon became familiar with the penetrating and pertinent questions gently delivered in a Lancashire accent and through a fog of cigarette smoke. His long labours, in a field of enquiry which orthodox British historians had too easily regarded with a suspicion and contempt born of ignorance, were eventually rewarded with due honours: elected FBA in 1951 and an honorary vice-president of the Royal Historical Society in 1961, he received the honorary degrees of DLitt from Nottingham in 1963, LittD from Manchester in 1964, and DPhil from Stockholm in the same year. He declined honours other than those of the academic variety. He was the recipient of a Festschrift, entitled Studies in the Industrial Revolution (ed. L. S. Pressnell), on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Shortly after his retirement Ashton and his wife went to live at Tredwells, Blockley, in the Cotswolds. He died in hospital in Oxford on 22 September 1968. Among his bequests were £500 to a local school, Campden grammar school, and £500 to the Economic History Society, which was used in helping to endow a T. S. Ashton prize in his memory.
D. C. Coleman, rev.
R. S. Sayers, Thomas Southcliffe Ashton, 18891968, PBA, 56 (1970), 26381 · personal knowledge (1981) · private information (1981)
BLPES, corresp. and research notes | JRL, Manchester Guardian MSS
Wealth at death
£31,515: probate, 18 Dec 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales