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Reference group
Founders of the Political Economy Club (act. 1821–1829) were the early members of a dining club formed in April 1821. Of the initial nineteen members only five (Thomas Robert Malthus, James Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Tooke and Robert Torrens) are today remembered as ‘political economists’, and only one—Malthus—actually earned his living as a ‘professor of political economy’ at East India College.

Political economy had yet to become an academic subject in Britain; indeed the term ‘political economy’ was still understood as the principles and precepts concerning the general organization of the body politic in its broadest sense. This body politic was sustained by the sinews of trade and commerce, and accordingly the majority of the early members of the club came from the world of politics, administration, finance, and trade. In 1821 public discussion of economic and political reform could be thought dangerously and controversially radical, especially if conducted before the unlettered. It was not until the 1830s that political economy was openly attached to the new sentiment of social reform and finally became a respectable topic of broad public debate. The shift in political climate following the Reform Act of 1832 is symbolized by the formation in 1833 of section F of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, initially for ‘Statistics’, later ‘Economics and Statistics’. The association had been inaugurated in 1831 as the first national organization for the public discussion and dissemination of the sciences; when Alfred Marshall was president of section F in 1890 he used the position to launch the British Economic Association, chartered as the Royal Economic Society in 1902.

The Political Economy Club survived the formation of other national and public associations devoted to the discussion of political and economic reform, but its greatest impact was during the early years when it formed an important connection for those seeking to link economic to political liberty. The original purpose of the club was to disseminate an understanding of political economy among the men of business and public affairs who formed the majority of its membership, not to promote a wider public understanding. A private dining club restricted to a small number of elected members meeting in London on a regular monthly basis therefore suited this purpose. The economist Henry Higgs later surmised that the original moving spirit was David Ricardo, who had been holding regular ‘economic breakfasts’ at his London home in 56 Upper Brook Street since becoming an MP in 1819; and this indeed captures the social location of the later club—exclusive, radical in sentiment, yet closely linked to contemporary politics and government.

The formal background to the actual formation of the club ran in parallel to this. Thomas Tooke, a partner in a City firm, attended in January 1820 a small dinner party held at the house of S. C. Holland, a partner in Baring & Co. The intention was to further the cause of free trade, but Tooke was struck by the poor grasp of economic principles displayed by some of the guests; and as a result he was asked to draft a petition from the merchants of London to the House of Commons on free trade. This was presented to the house on 8 May 1820 by Alexander Baring. But Tooke also thought that a more permanent means for furthering understanding of free trade among politicians, bankers, and merchants was needed, and on 18 April 1821 a small group met and determined to form a ‘Society for promoting the knowledge of Political Economy’. Present at that inaugural meeting were Swinton Colthurst Holland (d. 1828?), in whose house the original dinner party had been held; Thomas Tooke; Colonel Robert Torrens; George Gerard Larpent; George Warde Norman; James Mill; John Lewis Mallet (1775–1861), secretary to the Board of Audit; Robert Mushet; and John Welsford Cowell (1796–1867), later a poor-law commissioner. It was resolved to meet again at the end of the month at the Freemasons' Tavern, and James Mill was charged with drafting the regulations for the new club. Here a further ten members attended: Thomas Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, Henry Entwistle (1779–1838), Henry Warburton, George Brown (1757/8–1829), William Leader Maberly, William Robert Keith Douglas (1782/3–1859), MP for Dumfries, George Grote, R. Simpson, and Forbes Mitchell (possibly John Forbes Mitchell, an East India merchant).

Many of these were linked to City firms and being in their early thirties were at the start of their careers. The ‘political economists’ by contrast—Malthus, Ricardo, Mill, Tooke, and Torrens—were a good ten to twenty years their senior. And while the spirit of the club's agenda was reformist, radical, utilitarian, and Unitarian, only a very few members matched this profile with any degree of consistency. Some were indeed Benthamite radicals like George Grote, a partner in his family banking firm who met Mill while visiting Ricardo in 1819 and became a convert to utilitarianism and a vigorous advocate of democratic reform, the extension of the franchise, and secret ballots. Another young member, William Leader Maberly, was on the other hand at this time a captain of the 100th foot and MP for Northampton, beginning a third career as a public official in 1831 and becoming secretary of the Post Office in 1836, where he became embroiled in the efforts for postal reform of Rowland Hill, who then eventually replaced him in 1854. Henry Warburton had headed a family business specializing in Baltic timber since 1808, but he was also a friend of Ricardo, became radical MP for Bridport in 1826 (his trading connections helping with the naval vote), but also supported Brougham's efforts to found a university of London and became a founding member of its council in 1827. Malthus of course represented almost the antithesis of this—tory in politics and Church of England by confession, he stood for those forces that would later create King's College, London, as an institution to counter the influence of Brougham's ‘Godless College’.

At the second meeting James Mill proposed a set of rules for the conduct of the club's business, beginning with the restriction of members to thirty (later raised first to thirty-five and then forty) and the reservation of the first Monday of each month, December to June inclusive, for their meetings, at which they would debate questions tabled by members, all for an annual fee of 5 guineas. The members present agreed to his proposal that ‘The members of this Society will regard their own mutual instruction, and the diffusion among others of just principles of Political Economy as a real and important obligation’ and that ‘It shall be considered the duty of the Society to study the means of obtaining access to the public mind through as many as possible of the periodical publications of the day, and to influence as far as possible the tone of such publications in favour of just principles of Political Economy’. Between these two propositions there came, however, several paragraphs acceptance of which was ‘suspended’, including a series of questions to be put to each member in turn at each meeting concerning their recent activity in the field of political economy, as reader, advocate, or practitioner; together with a proposal to monitor the press and seek to influence its activity through a special committee. Mill clearly envisaged the club as a proselytizing force in which each member would assume a personal responsibility for spreading the word, and answer to the club in so doing. In this he was immediately disappointed, and quickly lost interest in the club's proceedings.

Three questions were, however, tabled for the next meeting—one on corn duties by Holland, one on the inflationary effects of taxation (Torrens), and one on general gluts (Malthus). When the next meeting on 28 May 1821 ended at 11.30 p.m. only the first had been discussed, setting a pattern: by early 1822 no more than two questions were resolved at any one meeting, and no fewer than three questions were tabled at each meeting. From 1823 only those questions tabled were recorded in the minutes, our knowledge today of the course taken by discussion depending on later comments made by those present. Not until the mid-1830s did the club settle into a routine of two questions tabled at each meeting to be discussed at the following meeting; and these questions almost always came from those members notable for their writing on the subject of political economy, rather than their involvement in the world of politics and trade.

In the early nineteenth century these two categories naturally overlapped, but this altered in the course of the century. Mill's proposal that the club be restricted to thirty having been accepted, at the May 1821 meeting extension of the membership was discussed. Malthus proposed John Cazenove, a member of his family's City firm and of Lloyd's, and a reviewer for the British Critic who was later the probable editor of the second edition of Malthus's Principles of Political Economy. Torrens proposed Walter Coulson, a former amanuensis of Bentham who at the time edited Torrens's newspaper The Traveller. Holland proposed George Lyall, prominent in shipping and a liberal tory opposed to the Navigation Acts. The secretary, John Cowell, proposed John George Shaw Lefevre, at the time training to be a barrister, later a prominent member of Brougham's Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, but also managing the Spencer family's land deals and as under-secretary of the colonies from 1833 responsible for administering the compensation payments consequent on slave emancipation. At the same meeting Zachary Macaulay was also proposed, a merchant and agent heavily involved in the movement for the abolition of slavery. Many of these and other early members wrote articles and pamphlets directed to the subject matter of political economy, the majority of which turned on currency matters. Ricardo had of course first turned to political economy in 1810 on the occasion of the report of the bullion committee, concerning the relation between price movements and the issue of currency; and Torrens later became a convert to, and leader of, the ‘currency school’ to which most members of the club subscribed.

In the course of time notable political economists were elected to membership, and provision was later made in the regulations for the leading professors of political economy in England and Ireland to be made honorary members. However, new additions generally tended to reinforce, rather than modify, the original mix of bankers and financiers from the City. In 1823 Nassau Senior was elected, and John Charles Spencer, Lord Althorp, was elected in the same year, presumably on account of his parliamentary activities and not least because of Lefevre's connection to the Spencer family. In 1829 John Ramsay McCulloch was elected; but along with (John) Horsley Palmer, originally a merchant banker and in 1828 appointed deputy governor of the Bank of England; and also Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, MP for Newcastle under Lyme and insistent advocate of emigration as a solution to pauperism. This pattern continued through to mid-century, preserving the original constitution of the club into a world that was, by the 1860s, very different from that of the 1820s.

Other members elected up to 1829 were: in 1821 M. Basevi, Sir Henry Parnell, Alexander Prevost, Charles Robert Prinsep, Edward Simeon, and John Abel Smith; in 1824 Moses Ricardo (1776/7–1866) and William Wolryche Whitmore (1787–1858), the free trader and MP for Bridgnorth; in 1825 J. S. Ravenshaw; in 1828 William Bingham Baring (later second Baron Ashburton) [see under Baring, Harriet Mary], James Pennington, and Charles Poulett Thomson; and in 1829 Hugh St John Mildmay (1794–1853), landowner and later a tory protectionist MP.

During the 1830s the radical agenda moved in two directions: into government and into a growing number of public societies formed to promote understanding and social reform. More of the club's members either were, or became, members of parliament; but membership remained firmly rooted in the London business community. Following reform of the civil service in mid-century a background in government and administration became more common among newly elected members, but the development of political economy as an academic discipline in the later nineteenth century left little mark on the club. Fifteen members attended the first meeting in the new century, on 2 February 1900, only four of whom—Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, W. A. S. Hewins, Herbert Foxwell, and Henry Higgs—could remotely be described as economists in any modern sense. Prominent by their absence were the new academic economists—Alfred Marshall, Francis Edgeworth, Sidney Chapman, Edward Gonner—for all of whom the British Economic Association and its new Economic Journal formed their natural organizational home.

The club has continued to meet up to the present day, its present home being the Royal Automobile Club; it has ceased to publish any of its proceedings, maintaining in this way the original principles of a private dining club.

Keith Tribe


Political Economy Club, Minutes of proceedings, vols. 1–6, 1860, 1872, 1881, 1882, 1899, 1921 · W. Thomas, The philosophic radicals: nine studies in theory and practice, 1817–1841 (1979) · S. Collini, D. Winch, and J. Burrow, That noble science of politics: a study in nineteenth-century intellectual history (1983) · BLPES, Political Economy Club archives 1821–1989, 15 boxes