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  Josiah Charles Stamp (1880–1941), by Lafayette, 1930 Josiah Charles Stamp (1880–1941), by Lafayette, 1930
Stamp, Josiah Charles, first Baron Stamp (1880–1941), statistician and business administrator, was born at Kilburn, London, on 21 June 1880. Of the seven children of his father, Charles Stamp (1852–1935), he was the third but eldest son to survive infancy; was his youngest brother. His father had been manager of W. H. Smith's railway bookstall at Wigan, but at the time of Josiah's birth he owned and managed a provision and general shop in London. His mother was Clara Jane (1857–1942), daughter of Richard Evans, a Welsh farrier and veterinary surgeon settled in Southwark. At the age of seventeen Clara had set up her own successful millinery business in Notting Hill, but this was sold by her husband after their marriage, without her knowledge, because he objected to the idea of a working wife. She was to be a powerful influence upon her son's lifelong passion for self-education and self-improvement (Jones, 5–7, 26–7).

Josiah was a delicate child. At the age of six, after a holiday away from home while his mother was in childbirth, he was diagnosed as suffering from severe malnutrition. At the age of eleven he was sent out of London to Bethany House, a private Baptist boarding-school at Goudhurst in Kent; there he received a deeply religious training, and, gaining in health, he overcame his early nervousness and reserve. He enjoyed drawing and playing the organ, began to succeed at most academic subjects, and ‘became really excited with the approach of examinations’ (Jones, 19). He made also a first acquaintance with political economy: he wrote home at the age of twelve to say that he was reading this subject because it seemed to him likely to be important.

Inland Revenue

Stamp's formal schooling ended before he was sixteen years old. A threatening illness of his father helped his decision to begin earning at once. In 1896 he entered the civil service by examination as a boy clerk in the Inland Revenue. Apart from a brief interval at the Board of Trade, he spent the next twenty-three years and the whole of his official life in that department. He passed by examination into the next higher grade and went swiftly up the official ladder, becoming assistant inspector of taxes in Hereford at the age of twenty-three, first-class inspector in London at twenty-nine, and assistant secretary to the Board of Inland Revenue at thirty-six. The first of these promotions coincided with his marriage on 17 October 1903 to Olive Jessie (d. 1941), daughter of Alfred Marsh, a builder, of Twickenham; they met at a gathering of the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon movement. Olive had trained as a teacher at the University of Wales, and this led to a lasting association of both partners with Aberystwyth. The marriage decided also the religious community to which Stamp should belong. Having been brought up by a Baptist father and Church of England mother, he joined his wife (who became president of the National Free Church Women's Council) in the Wesleyan connexion, and became one of its pillars.

Self-taught economist and taxation expert

Long before this, Stamp, having overcome his childhood delicacy, had begun to show the inexhaustible energy which later became legendary. Neither his official work nor his marriage interfered with determined pursuit of academic studies. He wrote to an old schoolmaster that he was ‘fully realising the importance of harmonious and synchronic development of the faculties’, and was accumulating a library of major authors—his favourites being ‘Carlyle (first and foremost), Meredith, Ruskin, de Quincey, Macaulay, Emerson, George Henry Lewes and Bishop Butler’ (Jones, 135). He also read widely in nineteenth-century political thought, and taught himself statistical theory. Steadily it became clear to one fresh circle after another how remarkable a brain and personality had come to the public service through the boy clerks' examination. In March 1910 he published his first paper in the Economic Journal, ‘Wasting assets and income tax’; this caught the attention of the editor, F. Y. Edgeworth, who entered into correspondence with him. Stamp prepared himself at home, without teaching or guidance, for the external degree of BSc in economics of the University of London, working late at night and amid the noise of a growing family; in 1911 he was awarded a first class so distinguished that Graham Wallas, one of the examiners, asked to see him. He was drawn thus into the ambit of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and was helped and encouraged to write a thesis, by which he gained the degree of DSc in economics in 1916. The thesis, published as British Incomes and Property, rapidly became the classic work on the subject and established his academic reputation.

Stamp had already, through the new fiscal problems of war, had the chance of impressing people more important than examiners. He was the main theorist behind the wartime excess profits duty, and, as he wrote in the preface to one of his later books, Taxation during the War (1932), he was ‘in constant contact with all the chancellors of the Exchequer and financial secretaries to the Treasury during the period from 1914 to 1920’. The end of the war gave him yet more remarkable opportunities. He appeared in 1919 as one of the first witnesses before the royal commission on income tax; the commissioners were so impressed by his grasp and judgement that they asked to have him added to their number, and this was duly done by a special letter of appointment—perhaps unique among honours won by public service. He used his influence on the commission to press for ‘practicality’ rather than abstract justice in tax policies, and defended the ‘minimum aggregate sacrifice’ approach of Alfred Marshall against the ‘pure curves’ of progressive redistribution favoured by F. Y. Edgeworth. He also recommended introduction of full tax liability for large co-operative retail firms, a view he justified on the ground that co-ops had ceased to embody the ‘mutuality’ principle of their nineteenth-century forebears. He also served on the 1919–20 select committee on the increase in war wealth, where he at first supported and then opposed the principle of a capital levy; he explained his change of mind with reference to the increasingly unstable international monetary climate. On both inquiries he became notorious for mercilessly tearing to shreds the evidence of ill-prepared witnesses who did not fully grasp their subjects (Jones, 105, 113–36).

Chemical and railway industry executive

In March 1919, when just short of thirty-nine, Stamp had made a critical change of career, leaving the civil service for business, to join as secretary and director Nobel Industries Ltd, from which Imperial Chemical Industries later developed. After seven years he made another change, becoming in 1926 president of the executive of the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS), recently constituted under the post-war amalgamation of the railways. In each case Stamp was sought out to give shape and direction to vast new organizations. In 1928 he was appointed a director of the Bank of England; this gave yet another section of the business world the chance to appreciate his qualities, and other tempting offers came his way. But the economic crisis of 1931 made it clear to him that he must make the railway his main task, and he did so to the end.

Government economic adviser and other public services

Nevertheless, Stamp combined this work by which he earned his living with an unbroken succession of public services of every kind. He was a member of the special arbitration committee on Northern Ireland's share of national taxation in 1923–5, of the Colwyn committee on national debt and taxation in 1924–7, of the court of inquiry into the dispute in the coal-mining industry in 1925, of the statutory commission on the University of London constituted by an act of 1926, and of the Economic Advisory Council established in 1930. He sat on the council's subcommittee on free trade and protection, supporting J. M. Keynes's proposal for a 10 per cent tariff on imports, and he chaired the council's committee on economic information. Before the Macmillan committee of 1931 he supported the view that banks should do more to provide domestic industries with investment capital (Jones, 299–300).

More important than any of these domestic tasks was the part played by Stamp in 1924 as British representative on the Dawes committee on German reparations, and its successor, the Young committee of 1929. On the first of these Stamp played a major part in drafting the Dawes plan, which ‘reinstated German economy and for five years kept the peace’. The Young report fell in more troubled times and exposed its authors to much unfriendly criticism; Stamp himself was widely blamed for sacrificing British interests to European stability. But the two reports made and left him an outstanding international figure; the marriage of his second son to a daughter of General Dawes, meanwhile, made him an increasingly frequent visitor to the United States. At home, from the age of forty-five onwards he was established as a principal link between the academic world, business, and Whitehall.

Less important possibly than his services to governments, but even more characteristic of Stamp, was the service he gave to innumerable private organizations. He was, for more than twenty years in each case, president of the Abbey Road Permanent Building Society and chairman of the governors of the Leys School for Boys and of Queenswood School for Girls. He became a patron of the university-based Christian movement known as COPEC (Conference on Politics, Economics, and Citizenship), and an active member of Christian Order in Industry. He was an original member of the Pilgrim Trust, treasurer of the International Statistical Institute, joint secretary and editor of the Royal Statistical Society for ten years until he became its president (1930–32), and treasurer of the British Association from 1928 to 1935 until he became president (1936) of that also. He repaid his debt to the London School of Economics and Political Science by many years of service, as governor from 1925, vice-chairman from 1925 to 1935, and chairman thereafter until his death. As chairman he gave decisive help to the director in introducing children's allowances as an addition to academic salaries; unheard of until then in any university of Britain, such allowances were familiar to Stamp in the Wesleyan ministry.

The good nature which led Stamp to undertake these and many other services was shown in other ways also—by his inexhaustible readiness to give addresses and by the number of prefaces which he contributed to books by others. Nor was he ever content with mere formalities: he had always something to say that was worth saying and not expected by his audience. The preface to a book on building societies declared that ‘a democracy that will not let its wealthy save and will not save for itself must slowly sink’. Eugenists were told that ‘before every eugenic programme’ they ought to ‘pose the imminent question, What do I want to do in a stationary population?’ Religious audiences and others with eyes fixed on moral regeneration were reminded by this obviously religious man that ‘so many of the problems of today are fundamentally intellectual or mental, and not moral’. Much of Stamp's fervour for public service was fuelled by a deep-seated tension between his Christian beliefs and his fears of the long-term implications of Darwinism and of popular democracy. He told an audience at Aberystwyth in 1935:
we do not know whether it is possible so to raise the mental power of the millions … as to make the postulates of democracy come true … we do not know whether humanitarianism is not biological suicide for the race. The forcible support of the weaker at the expense of the stronger is right by every moral canon, but may lead to political entropy, akin to the second law of thermodynamics. (J. Stamp, We Live and Learn, 1938, 11–12)

Adviser to the National Government

For most of his life Stamp was a non-partisan figure who held aloof from politics. He regarded himself as a Liberal and contributed to the 1929 Liberal ‘yellow book’, but he always refused invitations to stand as a Liberal parliamentary candidate or even to join the Liberal Party. In 1935, however, he declared his public support for the National Government, and appears thereafter to have played an increasingly significant role in the inner closets of power. He was the author of the plan for a ‘National Defence Contribution’ proposed by Neville Chamberlain in the budget of 1936.

Some months earlier Stamp had paid an unofficial visit to Nuremberg, where he had been introduced to Adolf Hitler, and shortly afterwards had had an interview in Berlin with Von Papen, at the latter's request. At this meeting Stamp expressed sympathy with German desires for a return to pre-war ‘normality’ and for ‘reasonable counteraction of Jewish domination’, but warned against illegal unilateral action to press Germany's claims. Von Papen assured him that ‘Hitler was peaceable’ and that the main threat of militarism came from a take-over by Goering. ‘We discussed the two Hitlers that I had observed at Nuremberg’, Stamp recorded, ‘and he agreed with my diagnosis of the statesman and demagogue combined’. A year later Stamp again visited Nuremberg, this time to attend a Nazi party conference—a visit that had the unofficial blessing of the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax (‘I certainly see no reason to discourage you from seeing Hitler, as I feel that conversation between him and a person in your position might well have a good effect’). Stamp on this occasion was greatly impressed by Hitler's economic and administrative achievements, which appeared to contrast favourably with the muddle and stagnation of 1930s Britain (Jones, 326–32). Throughout this period Stamp was increasingly close to Neville Chamberlain, and it seems probable that his was one of the influential voices persuading Chamberlain that Hitler could be side-tracked from a major European war.

When war became inevitable Stamp was invited by Chamberlain to become the chief adviser on economic co-ordination and the chairman of the economic co-ordination committee, set up in 1939 to prepare the national economy for war. He was seconded from his chairmanship of the LMS, and acquired the services of two senior economists, Henry Clay of the Bank of England, and Hubert Henderson. The work of the committee soon attracted a number of younger and more radical economic theorists who were later to play a major part in wartime economic administration, but in 1939–40 Stamp firmly set his face against ‘heroic’ measures, and strongly supported Chamberlain's view that the war could best be fought by defending sterling, restraining inflation, and maintaining Britain's role in the international economy, rather than by precipitate conversion to production for total war. This cautious policy initially fitted very closely with the popular mood, but by the start of 1940 was being increasingly criticized in many political quarters and in the press. On 2 January 1940 Chamberlain told Stamp that he wanted him to take over from Sir John Simon as chancellor of the exchequer—for which role it would be necessary to deprive him temporarily of his peerage, so that he could sit in the House of Commons (Stamp had been a peer since 1938). Stamp prevaricated, saying that he had no experience of parliamentary life and that his appointment would not be popular in the City, and the move appears to have been warded off by the resistance of Simon (Jones, 336–45). Over the next few months Stamp's policies of caution became increasingly unpopular in face of the mounting war emergency, and, although he retained his post after the change of government in May 1940, the economic co-ordination committee became thereafter increasingly peripheral to the conduct of the war.

Honours and assessment

Throughout Stamp's public life, honours, official and academic, came thick and fast upon him. He was appointed CBE in 1918, KBE in 1920, GBE in 1924, and GCB in 1935. In June 1938 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Stamp of Shortlands, in the county of Kent. His first honorary degrees were conferred upon him at the age of forty-six by the universities of Cambridge and Oxford; in the same year, 1926, he was elected FBA and served as president of the economics section of the British Association. His first honorary degree from overseas was conferred by Harvard in 1927; thereafter the flow of such distinctions was unbroken. The final number of his honorary degrees was twenty-three—six from the British Isles, ten from the United States, four from Canada, and three from other parts of the world. He was awarded the Guy medal of the Royal Statistical Society in 1919, and the grand cross with star of the Austrian order of merit in 1936. He was an honorary member of many foreign learned societies, including the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Stamp's career illustrates four points in particular: the significance of religion, the conflict between scholarship and affairs, the qualities which go to the handling of men, and a certain latent conflict between the sphere of power politics and the sphere of public service. Religious feeling at home and in school formed his character; as a lifelong friend said of him, religion pervaded his whole life. Pursuit of academic scholarship ranked next among his interests: he continued to read and to write throughout his life, and was never quite so happy as among academic people. His first book, British Incomes and Property, in which he used his unrivalled direct knowledge of taxation to throw new light on the subject, remained his best book, though his Fundamental Principles of Taxation in the Light of Modern Developments (1921) and his Wealth and Taxable Capacity (1922) were both important. Despite his technical mastery of applied economics and statistics, he was always sceptical of abstract approaches to economic problems and, in particular, of what he perceived as over-reliance on mathematical formulae. Throughout his life he was a powerful advocate of ‘generalist’ rather than ‘specialist’ academic culture, and was contemptuous of theoretical solutions remote from social reality.

In middle life the claims of affairs on Stamp proved too absorbing to allow even his energy to equal his first original work. These claims were so insistent because, by honesty and simplicity allied to intellect, he was so well-equipped to deal with them. It was said of him that his handling of problems was so transparently honest and so sympathetic to all the different arguments presented to him that, however he decided any issue in dispute, those who were unsuccessful went away feeling little less happy than those who had succeeded. Many felt that if there was something affecting them which ought to be decided by someone other than themselves, they would sooner have Stamp decide it than anyone else of their acquaintance. In the political sphere, by contrast, Stamp's straightforward idealism was not always so effective. His brief forays into back-door diplomacy in the late 1930s suggest a certain naïvety about high politics that he certainly did not display in other areas of professional life or public administration.

Stamp, with his wife and eldest son, Wilfrid Carlyle, was killed in an air raid in the shelter of his home at Shortlands on 16 April 1941; the second of his four sons, Trevor Charles, became third baron. By this direct hit the Germans did more harm to their chief enemy than they could then have realized. In the difficult economic aftermath of war Stamp would have been an ideal negotiator between Britain and the United States, which he knew so well.

Beveridge, rev. Jose Harris

Sources  

J. H. Clapham, ‘Lord Stamp, 1880–1941’, PBA, 27 (1941), 453–65 · Economic Journal, 51 (1941) · The Times (18 April 1941) · personal knowledge (1959) · J. Harry Jones, Josiah Stamp, public servant (1964) · A. M. Stamp, Josiah Stamp and the limitations of economics (1970) · A. Booth, ‘Economic advice at the centre of British government, 1939–41’, HJ, 29 (1986), 655–75 · TNA: PRO, committee on economic co-ordination MSS, CAB 89/1 · S. Howson and D. Winch, The economic advisory council, 1930–1939: a study in economic advice during depression and recovery (1977) · R. S. Sayers, The Bank of England, 1891–1944, 3 vols. (1976) · A. Cairncross and N. G. M. Watts, The economic section, 1939–1961: a study in economic advising (1989) · GEC, Peerage · Burke, Peerage (1999) · M. Bywater, ‘Stamp, Josiah Charles 1st lord of Shortlands’, DBB

Archives  

BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55207 · BLPES, corresp. with Lord Beveridge · BLPES, letters to Edwin Cannan · Nuffield Oxf., Sir Henry Clay papers · TNA: PRO, committee on economic co-ordination MSS, CAB 89/1  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1920, NPG · Lafayette, photograph, 1930, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, 1930–38, Hult. Arch. · I. Opffer, chalk drawing, 1931, NPG · F. May, caricature, gouache drawing, 1934, NPG · J. A. A. Berrie, oils, Abbey National headquarters, London · S. P. Hendrick, oils (posthumous), priv. coll. · S. P. Hendrick, oils (posthumous), Leys School, Cambridge · S. P. Hendrick, oils (posthumous), Queenswood School, Hertfordshire

Wealth at death  

£163,548 16s. 1d.: probate, 23 Jan 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales