We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Sir  John Harold Clapham (1873–1946), by Lafayette, 1926Sir John Harold Clapham (1873–1946), by Lafayette, 1926
Clapham, Sir John Harold (1873–1946), economic historian, was born at Broughton, Salford, Lancashire, on 13 September 1873, the younger son of John Clapham, jeweller and silversmith, and his second wife, Mary Jane, daughter of John Chambers, accountant, of Manchester. There were two sons and a daughter.

Upbringing and education

Clapham's father was a Methodist who, in the words of M. M. Postan, handed down ‘the intellectual and moral virtues of the Victorian middle classes at their best—a head which was shrewd and cool, an outlook which was wholly unsentimental and a rule of life disciplined to the point of being hard’ (Postan, 56). In 1887 Clapham was sent to the Leys School in Cambridge, which had been founded by Wesleyan Methodists in 1875. He distinguished himself as an enthusiastic sportsman who came second in the public schools' quarter-mile. He was ‘tall, strongly built and energetic’ (Clark, 339), and he became a mountaineer, climbing in the Alps or Cumberland every summer for forty years; he was elected vice-president of the Alpine Club. He also distinguished himself in the classroom, and particularly in history. His father's leisure was spent in reading the works of Lecky, Buckle, and Freeman, and at the Leys Clapham's interest in history was recognized when he was excused from ordinary routine and placed under the supervision of G. E. Green, who had graduated from Cambridge with a first in history in 1885. Clapham won a history exhibition to King's College in 1892, was elected to a scholarship in 1894, and graduated with a first in 1895.

In 1896, Clapham won the Lightfoot scholarship in ecclesiastical history, and in 1898 his fellowship dissertation on the causes of the war of 1792 won the prince consort prize, which was awarded to the best dissertation involving original research by members of the university who were no more than four years from admission to their first Cambridge degree. The dissertation secured him a fellowship of King's College. At this stage Clapham was influenced by Acton, at whose suggestion he turned to study the French Revolution: The Abbé Sieyès: an Essay in the Politics of the French Revolution was published in 1912. Neither study showed any inclination to explain political events and ideas in terms of economics, which was peripheral to an essentially political narrative. However, another crucial influence on his historical career was Alfred Marshall, for whom he worked for a time in marking essays. In 1897 Marshall informed Acton that the absence of a decent account of the economic development of England in the last 150 years was ‘a disgrace to the land, and a grievous hindrance to the right understanding of the economic problems of our time’. Marshall felt that Clapham was the man to provide this account, for he
has more analytic faculty than any thorough historian whom I have ever taught. … If he works at anything but recent economic history he will disobey Babbage's canon that every one should do that work for which all his best faculties are wanted and no other. (Marshall to Acton, 13 Nov 1897, cited in CHJ, 8, 1946, 115)
The decision to turn to economic history was not intended to be permanent, and did not mark a rejection of political history. As Clapham explained to G. N. Clark, ‘I decided to shift into economic history for twenty years—if I were allowed—and to begin at 50 to build up some part of history on its economic frame’. He feared (correctly as it transpired) that by the time he completed his account of the economic development of modern Britain he would not have the ‘years, learning and vigour’ (Clapham to Clark, 9 Feb 1930, quoted in Clark, 343) for the wider task, but he did return to an interest in the French Revolution at the end of his life. In the preface to his last book, the Concise History, his frustrated ambition was apparent: ‘Of all varieties of history the economic is the most fundamental. Not the most important: foundations exist to carry better things’ (Introduction to Concise Economic History of Britain from the Earliest Times to 1750, ed. J. Saltmarsh, 1949). This remark should not be taken to imply that he was a historical materialist. He always assumed that economic and political history could be written as separate narratives without any causal superiority; he never made any general reflections on the connection between economics and politics.

Chairs at Leeds and Cambridge

Clapham's decision to turn to economic history had a practical basis, for the lack of openings to teach history in Cambridge led to his reluctant move in 1902 to the chair of economics at the Yorkshire College, shortly to become the University of Leeds, at the instigation of Marshall. He turned to a study of the local worsted and woollen industries, which appeared in 1907. The book was not primarily historical, but it could only have been written by a historian with an orderly mind; he took an optimistic and robust approach to the problems of the industry, and showed a quality which was to appear in his future work: a careful use of statistics, and a ‘vivid imagination of physical facts’ (Clark, 344). In 1905, he married Mary Margaret, daughter of William Edward Green, surgeon of Ross, Herefordshire, who was working in Leeds for the Yorkshire Ladies' Council of Education; they had one son, , printer and industrialist, and three daughters. He returned to a fellowship of King's College in 1908, as assistant history tutor and, from 1913, tutor. In 1916 he joined the Board of Trade and served as a member of the cabinet committee on priorities, for which he was appointed CBE in 1918.

In 1921 Clapham published an account of the economic development of France and Germany between 1815 and 1914, but the work on which his reputation was based was An Economic History of Modern Britain, which appeared in three volumes, covering 1820 to 1914: The Early Railway Age, 1820–50 (1926); Free Trade and Steel, 1850–86 (1932); and Machines and National Rivalries, 1887–1914, with an Epilogue, 1914–1929 (1938). The first volume, and the project as a whole, was welcomed by The Times for offering ‘a picture of normal society in a past age in the same fullness of detail as we can picture our own age. … It is the beginning of what we have never had before, a history of the English people’ (quoted on jacket of vol. 3). The great strength of the three volumes was a combination of carefully used statistics in order to challenge legends too easily accepted by literary historians. He therefore offered an account which was more quantitative, but he also warned that the statistician's world was not that of the historian. He balanced the ‘unreality of the generalised statistical statement’ by ‘scattered historical facts’ to produce a sense of divergent social realities throughout Britain (Preface to Clapham, The Early Railway Age, 1926, viii).

The achievement was impressive, and in 1928 Clapham was elected to the newly created chair of economic history at Cambridge, which he held until his formal retirement in 1938. He continued to teach during the war, and had an impressive range of commitments to the end of his life. He was appointed vice-provost of King's in 1933, and held the position to 1943. He chaired the Cambridge employment committee, the refugee committee, and the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, as well as serving as a member of the conscientious objectors' tribunal. The death of Eileen Power in 1940 meant that he had sole responsibility for editing the first volume of the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, which appeared in 1941, and he was well advanced with editing a second volume. He wrote a two-volume history of the Bank of England up to 1914 to mark the 250th anniversary of the charter of the bank, which appeared in 1944. The posthumous publication of the Concise Economic History of Britain from the Earliest Times to 1750 preserved the substance of his undergraduate lectures from 1908 to 1935, which were highly regarded for their ‘complete mastery in delivery and presentation’ (Clark in DNB). He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1928, and served as president from 1940 to his death in 1946. At the time of his death he was chair of the government's committee on social and economic research; he saw the report in draft, and its recommendations were adopted by the government. He was knighted in 1943.

The economic historian

G. N. Clark commented that ‘as an historian, after his sheer capacity for work, his best quality was a power of reducing large masses of detailed facts to systematic form’ (DNB). Clapham did not make explicit use of economic theory, preferring to supply concrete information which indicated the complexity of the past than to develop a theoretical position. He saw his task as supplying accurate, well-chosen and -presented factual information for economists. He took no pleasure in speculation or in keeping abreast of recent developments in economics: he never read the General Theory for he concluded from discussions with Keynes that it would be too difficult, and he had no interest in other social sciences. He preferred to put his commentary ‘in the form of a well-regulated assemblage of facts’ (Clark, 348). This left him open to criticism for failing to analyse the significance of his material, and for producing books divided into separate compartments rather than forming a single argument. As Postan remarked, he was the master of the mot juste and the arresting sentence, but not of the fluent page or balanced volume. However, Postan's general assessment of the three volumes gives a fair measure of their importance: ‘He was a pioneer in the sense in which all men who colonise virgin lands are pioneers; there were beasts and even men in the field before him, but he was the first to live and to build in a civilised way’ (Postan, 57).

Although Clapham accepted Marshall's point that economic history could not be entirely separated from an interest in contemporary social problems, he felt that the writing of history should be a scientific activity separate from immediate political or policy aims. As for his own position, he was a free-trade Liberal and supporter of social reforms, but he did not use economic history for immediate political ends as did Cunningham (in arguing for protection) or the Hammonds, R. H. Tawney, or G. D. H. Cole in arguing for social reform or socialism. One of his few contributions to current policy debates accused tariff reformers of being ‘amateurs in economic pathology’ (J. H. Clapham, ‘Protection and the wool trade’, Independent Review, 1, 1904). But Clapham was not one to adopt a dogmatic position. His approach was careful and hostile to over-assertive generalization, and in his study of the woollen and worsted industries he argued that the case for protection depended on comparative economic research rather than categoric assertion: protection was linked in Germany with rising exports and in France with falling exports, and controversialists exaggerated the importance of government action compared with ‘deep working economic forces’ beyond government control. ‘That this is a moral distasteful to the controversialists cannot be helped’ (J. H. Clapham, The Worsted and Woollen Industries, 1907, 293–4). It followed that such topics should be removed from theoreticians and controversialists and passed to political economists and their successors, the economic historians.

Clapham's interest in history and economic history did not emerge from ‘pursuit of some external ideology’ (Kadish, 223), and he avoided any sense of moral outrage at the horrors of capitalism in favour of a dispassionate account which stressed gains as well as losses. In the opinion of some critics, he aimed to debunk the views of the left and to reinstate the complacency of Samuel Smiles, but G. N. Clark was moved to defend Clapham's economic history of modern Britain from accusations of lack of sympathy for economic misery and oppression. As Clark explained, Clapham ‘felt sympathies which he did not put into words’, preferring to support charity in secret and taking for granted the need for social reforms proposed by the Liberal Party. ‘His purpose was scientific: he wanted to make available the information which economists, statesmen, and general historians needed, and in the form which would be useful to them. … He did not write against anyone’ (Clark, 347–8). Clapham had an ‘admiring appreciation of the self-adjusting action of the economic mechanism’ (Postan, 56), and a horror of sudden and dramatic change. He was a liberal reformer who believed that ‘great inequalities of wealth are a danger and an evil’. What was needed was gradual reform to prevent casual employment, to make towns healthy, to prevent dangerous and unhealthy work, and to mitigate the worst inequalities of wealth, so that ‘trades and classes will have learnt to work better together than they now do’. These changes rested on the growth of Christian virtues of ‘self-restraint, self-denial, an honest attempt on the part of all classes to understand and help one another. … A Christian nation in the real sense of the word would certainly come very near to the socialist ideal’ (Clapham, ‘Christianity and the problem of poverty’, Social Ideas, 1909, 90, 100–01). Clapham remained a committed Christian throughout his life, retaining an interest in biblical scholarship, and gradually moving from Methodism to Anglicanism.


In terms of methodology, Clapham was always a historian rather than an economist. In 1930 he explained that ‘the method of economic history differs in no way from that of history in general. … The central problems of economic theory, although they may be stated in terms of some particular historical phase, are in essence independent of history’ (Clapham's entry on economic history in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, 5, 1930). His obituary of Eileen Power could apply to his own approach:
[she] was not an economist. She was not trained as one. That is unimportant: Ricardo was not nor, I think, Jevons. Much more fundamental—she would have hated to spend her life with attention concentrated on one aspect of human activity, and could never have brought herself to neglect men and women for generalizations about them. … And from the other side, as she was the first to allow, even proclaim, she had not that combination of speculative and practical interest and sagacity which makes the ideal economist. (Clapham, Economica, 7, 1940, 351)
Much the same point was made of Clapham, that ‘men and women, the things they made, the villages and the towns and the land in which they lived, came first, for their own sake. Explanations and theories came afterwards’ (J. Saltmarsh in John Harold Clapham … a Memoir, 8).

Clapham developed the point in his famous article on ‘empty economic boxes’ of 1922, when he expressed doubts on the utility of modern economic theory. Economists could be divided into those who studied things and those who studied categories and had great difficulty in filling their empty boxes with complex reality. He suggested that empirical research should not be controlled by theoretical categories, and implied that facts should come before or be separated from theory. He had hoped for the reappearance of a comprehensive political economy, as he had hinted in his study of the woollen and worsted industries; he continued to refer to himself as ‘a political economist and historian. I underline the word political’ (Authority and Individual, Harvard Tercentenary Publications, 1937, 117). However, A. C. Pigou responded by reasserting the boundaries between economics and economic history, and defending the use of ‘empty boxes’. In his inaugural lecture in 1929, Clapham accepted that the economists and economic historians were at peace in Cambridge, and that he should go about the work assigned to him by Marshall of filling empty economic boxes with empirical fact. But he did not entirely accept his subordinate role. Although ‘the economic historian has his modesties in the presence of the pure economist, he also has his pride. He is proud because, by definition an historian, he is one to whom the tangled variety of human life is attractive in itself’ (Clapham, The Study of Economic History: an Inaugural Lecture, 1929, 32–5). At the founding meeting of the Economic History Society, of which he was to become president, he urged his colleagues to ‘beware of becoming a “craft gild”’ (Barker, 15), and to retain their links with history and economics.

Clapham ‘absorbed to the full the sober Nonconformist spirit of his paternal household’ (Postan, 56) and Cambridge did not have much impact. As a fellow undergraduate remarked:
he was not the man to throw up the old lightheartedly and plunge without restraint into a more highly coloured world. I imagined him fighting a strong defensive fight for each old position and, when it was finally abandoned, taking resolute care that all that was good in the old one was retained. Such a progress would be quiet, a little dour, and very self-contained. (L. F. Giblin in John Harold Clapham … a Memoir, 15)
He retained an attachment to ‘the old standards of morality and patriotism that might be called conservative and conventional’ (Clark, 345). He had a strong sense of his own intellectual limits, which he carefully marked out and worked within. Although he was a kind and just man, he had a certain dourness and experienced difficulties in forming easy relations. His manner was ‘professorial’, ‘rather formal and perhaps a little important. He did not cultivate airs and graces; he was never effusive in praises or complaints, and he sometimes expressed disapproval or disagreement with uncompromising bluntness’ (Clark, 351). Only at the end of his life did he become more tolerant, and his response to life ‘kindlier and freer’ (Postan, 58). He died on 29 March 1946, on the train returning from London to Cambridge.

Martin Daunton


DNB · G. N. Clark, ‘Sir John Harold Clapham, 1873–1946’, PBA, 32 (1946), 339–52 · A. Kadish, Historians, economists and economic history (1990) · H. Butterfield, ‘Journal of Lord Acton: Rome 1857’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 8 (1944–6), 186–204 · M. M. Postan, Economic History Review, 16 (1946) · John Harold Clapham, 1873–1946: a memoir (1949) · T. C. Barker, ‘The beginnings of the Economic History Society’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 30 (1977), 1–19 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1946)


CUL, Department of Manuscripts, notes on medieval Linton, Add. MS 8652 · King's AC Cam., correspondence and papers |  BLPES, Beveridge MSS · BLPES, Cannan MSS · Bodl. Oxf., Society for Protection of Science and Learning MSS · CUL, Department of Manuscripts, James MSS · King's AC Cam., Browning MSS · King's AC Cam., Saltmarsh MSS · U. Cam., Marshall Library of Economics, Keynes MSS


Lafayette, photograph, 1926, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1930–40, NPG · J. Gunn, oils, King's Cam. · photograph, repro. in Clark, memoir, facing p. 339

Wealth at death  

£16,052 16s. 10d.: probate, 21 Aug 1946, CGPLA Eng. & Wales