Unwin, George (18701925), historian, was born at 2 Brook Street West, Stockport, Cheshire, on 7 May 1870, the eldest of the six children of Edward Unwin, innkeeper, and his wife, Priscilla, née Whitaker (d. 1919), of a local nonconformist tradesman's family. Having attended the Edgeley Wesleyan day school in the town, he left at thirteen to work in the office of Carrington's hat firm, where he wrote for his employer speeches and letters to the press.
In 1890 Unwin won a scholarship to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff; he lodged with an uncle and had to skimp on £20 per annum. Three years later, a classical scholarship took him to Lincoln College, Oxford; in 1897 he gained a first in Greats and a bursary from Oriel College for six months' residence in Germany. There he studied economic history under Gustav Schmoller, reacted against Schmoller's championing of the state, and acquired a cosmopolitan outlook.
In 1899, after his return to England, he became secretary to Leonard Henry, first Baron Courtney, a Liberal politician and convinced individualist. Courtney's mistrust of imperialism, so destructive of indigenous cultural heritages, complemented Unwin's view that the mainspring of progress in society was to be found in voluntary associations of people for the common good, whether in guild, trade union, or chapel.
On 7 March 1902 Unwin married Frances Mabelle (b. 1869/70), an artist and third daughter of the Revd Mark Guy Pearse, a prominent Wesleyan minister whose biography she later wrote (1930). They had no children. His first full-length book, Industrial Organization in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1904), analysed the growth of corporate and other bodies in England, with plentiful cross-references to similar continental arrangements. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1906.
In 1908, the year in which he publishedagain in a European contextThe Gilds and Companies of London, Unwin was appointed a lecturer in economic history at Edinburgh University. The harsh climate took its toll on his slight frame, weakened by the undernourishment of his earlier years, and in 1910 he accepted the professorship of economic history at Manchester, the only chair of that subject in the British empire. He projected full-scale works on several topics, but most remained unwritten. For he was a man with a mission, resolved to carry his ideas about voluntary groups and the social geology of towns to as many intra- and extra-mural audiences as possible. He regularly rewrote his lectures, pasting new versions over the old until each sheet had the thickness of cardboard. If many listeners were baffled by his complex train of thought, they became inspired by his enthusiasm. He was at his best with graduate students, being supervisor or mentor to, among others, Richard Henry Tawney, Thomas Southcliffe Ashton, and Alfred Powell Wadsworth.
A small man, with a triangular face and lofty brow fronting an outsize brain, Unwin had an elfin quality which was emphasized by his semi-ironic, if sometimes passionate, way of talking. In the First World War, regarding violence as abhorrent, he joined the Union of Democratic Control and other peace-seeking groups, but did his bit by covering for absent colleagues with extra teaching and administration. He also stepped up his extension lectures and classes.
Prematurely aged by the war, insomniac, dyspeptic, and increasingly deaf, Unwin remained industrious in peacetime. No less prolific of new ideas for books, he published two, partly written by others: Finance and Trade under Edward III (1918) and Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights (1924). The latter, in portraying the firm and its industry as growing organisms, marked him out as the forerunner of a coming academic discipline. In the words of H. M. Larson, there he came to the very threshold of business history (Guide to Business History, 1948, 14).
Unwin's weak heart was by then inflicting on him spells of physical exhaustion; as a pick-me-up, he relied on long-vacation visits to continental cities, whose histories he enjoyed tracing. During the summer of 1924, however, atrocious weather in Italy terminally weakened him. Mentally buoyant and a music-lover to the last, on his deathbed he and his wife resolutely sang their way through Handel's Messiah. His heart gave out on 30 January 1925, at his home, 47 Heaton Road, Withington, Manchester. His widow subsequently wrote a life (1928) of the Bristol philanthropist Ada Vachell.
T. A. B. Corley
R. H. Tawney, Introductory memoir, in Studies in economic history: the collected papers of George Unwin, ed. R. H. Tawney (1927) · T. S. Ashton, Introduction, in G. Unwin, Industrial organization in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1963) · R. H. Tawney, Economic Journal, 35 (1925), 1567 · Manchester City News (30 Jan 1925) · The Times (2 Feb 1925) · The Times (7 Feb 1925) · G. W. Daniels, George Unwin: a memorial lecture (1926) · T. S. Ashton, Recollections of four British economic historians, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, 158 (Sept 1986), 33752 · Lancashire: biographies, rolls of honour (1917), 386 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
JRL, papers, incl. material on Bolton
photograph, 1913, repro. in , ed., Studies in economic history
Wealth at death
£4003 13s. 7d.: probate, 1 April 1925, CGPLA Eng. & Wales