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date: 27 February 2020

Marshall, Alfredfree

  • Rita McWilliams Tullberg

Alfred Marshall (1842–1924)

by Sir William Rothenstein, 1908

by courtesy of the Estate of Sir William Rothenstein; collection St John's College, Cambridge

Marshall, Alfred (1842–1924), economist, was born on 26 July 1842 at 66 Charlotte Road, Bermondsey, London, the second son of William Marshall (1812–1901), clerk at the Bank of England, and his wife, Rebecca Oliver (1817–1878), daughter of Thomas Oliver, butcher. He had two brothers and two sisters.

Family and education

The story of Marshall's family background and schooling was properly researched only at the end of the twentieth century. The received version was one that his wife, Mary Paley Marshall, perhaps herself unaware of the true story, had passed on to John Maynard Keynes. Keynes used this material in 1924, when he wrote the brilliant, if at times imaginative, Memoir of his old master that remained the standard work of Marshall biography for sixty years. The work of R. H. Coase and P. D. Groenewegen has revealed the truth of Marshall's parental heritage, which, if it lacks the social distinction felt by the Victorians to be so important, lends added weight to Marshall's achievements. It also helps in our understanding of Marshall the man, and the importance that he attached to the role of parents and individuals in overcoming social disabilities. Marshall's background was not that of clerical intellectuals of several generations, as Keynes suggested. His paternal grandfather's financial enterprises failed and he began to slide down the all-important Victorian social ladder. On his early death, his children were cared for by his dead wife's relatives. The eldest child, Marshall's father, eventually achieved the rank of a middle-grade civil servant who through hard work and sacrifice was able to move his family to suburban Clapham from its first home near east London's tanneries.

Marshall was educated at a dame-school, probably in Sydenham, then at a private school in Clapham before gaining a place at Merchant Taylors' School in London in 1852. His father recognized that his second son showed promise and from an early age seems to have kept him hard at his school books. William Marshall secured a nomination for Alfred from a member of the Merchant Taylors' Company, which meant that the boy's schooling was subsidized by the company. This enabled him to attend a school that otherwise would have been far beyond the family's means. None the less, Alfred's schooling involved them in considerable financial sacrifice and it must, therefore, have been all the more difficult for Marshall in his final school year to reject the classics scholarship that he won to St John's College, Oxford, and the automatic right to a life fellowship there, in favour of mathematics at St John's College, Cambridge, on money borrowed from his uncle and, later, college prizes and exhibitions. He graduated in 1865 as second wrangler in the highly competitive and prestigious mathematical tripos.

Legend has it that Marshall proposed to study molecular physics—an unlikely suggestion since there were no laboratories and very limited teaching in physics at Cambridge at that time. It is also suggested that he intended to put himself forward as candidate for priesthood in the Anglican church, the career path followed by most Cambridge graduates at that time. This, however, was a time of doubt regarding Christian dogma and the role of priests and Marshall was never ordained. None the less, as his wife commented, 'he was a great preacher'.

Immediately after his tripos examination results Marshall was engaged as a temporary mathematics master by Clifton College, Bristol, a recently founded public school for middle-class boys. This brief interlude in his life led to several valuable contacts. These included: Canon Percival, the school's headmaster, who took a particular interest in community service for both the masters and boys at his school; Henry Dakyn, a master at the school, who introduced Marshall to a group of radical dons at Cambridge who were members of the Grote Club; and, most probably, Henry Sidgwick. Sidgwick was to be Marshall's guide and mentor in a number of projects at Cambridge intended to bring education to deprived sections of the community and to improve academic standards at Cambridge University.

Early career

Marshall returned to Cambridge in the autumn of 1865 following his election to a fellowship at St John's College. He was drawn to study metaphysics, ethics, and then psychology, especially in connection with the possibilities of moral and material progress among the working classes. In this he was encouraged by his reading of John Stuart Mill and association with like-minded, progressive young dons whom he met at the Grote Club, where, on several occasions, he listened to the Christian socialist Frederick Denison Maurice. The depth of his interest in these subjects was such that in 1868 St John's appointed him lecturer in the moral sciences, a relatively new tripos which involved the study of moral and mental philosophy, political economy, and logic. The tripos attracted a small but growing band of students who believed the study of the moral sciences was pertinent to the social and economic problems that had accompanied Britain's transition from an agrarian to an urban, industrial society.

In 1868 Cambridge established the higher local examinations for women, which were intended to test and attest the competence of young women who planned to become school teachers or governesses. (There were at that time no examinations or qualifications available to women beyond secondary-school age.) One group of subjects in which women could be examined was the moral sciences. Marshall offered his services as an examiner and then lecturer, as he became closely involved in Sidgwick's scheme to provide a hall of residence for women in Cambridge attending lectures on examination topics. For four years (1873–6) Marshall funded a prize for the best essay submitted by a woman moral sciences examinee on a socio-economic topic of his choice. Impressed by the intellectual abilities of two of his women students at Cambridge, including his future wife, Mary Paley, he suggested that they should try the moral sciences tripos and then coached them in political economy. Marshall was also involved on several occasions as examiner in the scheme for university extension teaching in the provinces and new industrial towns, which in part grew out of the initial programme of women's lectures. He shared the goal of the scheme's promoters, which was to bring further education to the lower-middle and working classes.

During these first postgraduate years Marshall displayed what he later called 'a tendency to socialism' (Marshall, Industry and Trade, vii), which included taking a ‘progressive’ view on the contribution to society that women could and should make outside the confines of their families, and the achievements that could be made by the working classes in combination through trade unions and the co-operative movement. In 1875 Marshall spent the long vacation on a visit to the United States to examine economic forces at work in a young country. He returned with somewhat modified views on the value of collective action and with greater faith in the importance of individual achievement. He regarded this trip as one of the most formative experiences of his life.

On 17 August 1877 Marshall married Mary Paley (1850–1944), daughter of the Revd Thomas Paley, rector of Ufford, near Stamford, Northamptonshire, and great-granddaughter of Archdeacon William Paley. His marriage meant the loss of his college fellowship, and he accepted the post of principal and professor of political economy at the recently founded Bristol University College. The selection panel was particularly anxious to employ someone who shared the ideals of the movements for female and worker education. Mary Paley also taught at the college and took over much of the burden of her husband's economic classes when he fell ill in 1879 with kidney trouble and stress, the latter caused by what Marshall felt were the onerous administrative duties of his post as principal and the need to attract financial support to the poorly funded college. Ill health forced him to resign from the college in 1881 and the couple travelled to Sicily, where Marshall recovered his health after several months' rest. He remained, however, convinced that his life would be cut short and retreated into ill health whenever he felt subject to unwelcome stress or controversy.

Professor at Cambridge

After briefly taking up his post again at Bristol as professor of political economy in May 1882, he moved to Oxford the following term to fill the vacancy left at Balliol College by the death of Arnold Toynbee. It seemed that he might stay at Oxford and develop the teaching of economics there, when the sudden death of Henry Fawcett in December 1884 left the chair of political economy at Cambridge vacant. Marshall was widely recognized as the only possible candidate for the post and he was duly elected, to the satisfaction of most of the younger moral sciences dons. Marshall's claim to the post is, however, something of a mystery. He had published very little: a simple textbook with his wife, a few newspaper and journal articles, newspaper reports of some of his lectures, and some theoretical diagrams privately printed and circulated. Yet his status as the man who could rescue the ‘dismal science’ from its reputation as a set of natural laws by which the country and a small group of its inhabitants could remain wealthy only at the expense of the majority who must remain poor, ignorant, and hopeless was widespread among his students and others who had been inspired by his public lectures.

Although Marshall had initially taught both moral philosophy and political economy, he became strongly attracted to the latter, perhaps because of the ease in which some elements of economic theory could be expressed in mathematical terms. Algebraic formulae were generally kept for his own private use but from an early date (between 1872 and 1874) he taught his students to express economic relationships in terms of curves. Marshall believed that economics dealt with regular features of human behaviour that could be measured by the earning, spending, saving, and investment of money. Money could thus be used as a measuring rod for most behaviour. It could measure the strength of motives, and was susceptible to mathematical and logical manipulation. It could be captured in a diagram or a formula and then described in simple English. Marshall was quick to point out that human beings were not motivated solely by a selfish interest to make and spend money, but often had other, more complex motives, such as the care and well-being of their families, the approval of the public or their peers, the pleasure of using a skill, or a sense of duty. By widening and deepening the motives for economic behaviour, Marshall made economics more human or even humane, counteracting its ‘dismal science’ image inherited from the classical economists. This shift of outlook, combined with the apparent rigour that the use of mathematics gave the subject, led to the new economics being described as 'neo-classical'. While Marshall was not alone, nationally or internationally, in its creation, he has been described as the subject's great synthesizer and prime mover in the establishment of neo-classicism as the central paradigm in British economics from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards. He also held that humans were far from perfect optimizers of their economic well-being, giving him the opportunity to preach both to the working classes for their lack of foresight and self-control, and to members of other classes who wasted their opportunities and shirked their duties. His interpretation of economics stemmed largely from his evangelical upbringing, with its great emphasis on duty, reinforced with ideas culled from English idealism and Herbert Spencer's interpretation of evolution which so successfully encapsulated the Victorian belief in progress. When, after the turn of the century, these value judgements were replaced by others, Marshall's ‘preaching’ became increasingly irrelevant, while his techniques of analysis were refined by academic economists and far removed from his original intention, that of understanding the causes of poverty which is 'the cause of the degradation of a large part of mankind' (Marshall, Principles of Economics, 1.3).

Major writings

Initially Marshall planned a book on international trade and protection; several short essays containing his theoretical ideas on the subject were privately published and circulated by Sidgwick in 1879, when he and his friends feared he would not live to publish much else. The simple textbook The Economics of Industry, written with his wife, was published the same year and contained an early, elementary exposition of his theoretical position. The first full version of his theories covering consumer demand, the supply of the agents of production—land, labour, and capital—the relationship between demand and supply and the creation of value, and the distribution of this value between the agents of production, finally became available in 1890 with the publication of the first edition of The Principles of Economics. This weighty tome was described for many years by Marshall as 'volume 1' since he planned to follow it with a companion volume covering foreign trade, money, trade fluctuations, taxation, collectivism, and aims for the future. It contained in its final version familiar Marshallian constructs, such as elasticity, consumer surplus, increasing and diminishing returns, short and long terms, and marginal utility, many of which are still part of the traditional economist's toolkit. Yet if these tools were all Marshall wanted to give the world, they could have been elaborated in far fewer than the 750 pages of the first edition of his book (which grew to 870 in the eighth edition, thirty years later).

From the time Marshall first became interested in economics, he was 'hungry for facts'. His reading, vacation observations in England and in Europe, his trip to the USA, his discussions with trade unionists, reformers, captains of industry, leading churchmen, his excursions into economic history, were all designed to provide him with facts to underpin his theoretical work. This ‘fact-gathering’ worked against him since the facts of economic life were constantly changing and caused lengthy delays in the publication of his books. The plan for a companion volume to the Principles was finally scrapped in 1910, much of its proposed material appearing shortly before his death as Industry and Trade (1919) and Money, Credit and Commerce (1923). More significantly, although Marshall understood the need for ‘economic biology’, which would take account of economic life as something evolutionary, he was a mathematician unable to create an economic theory that was other than static and mechanistic, relying on assumptions of individual optimization and market equilibrium with given preferences, technology, and institutions. He was also hindered by misunderstanding Darwin, as did so many of his contemporaries, accepting instead Herbert Spencer's interpretation of evolution as meaning ‘progress’ rather than simply ‘change’.

Marshall prepared evidence for several royal commissions and inquiries, including those on the aged poor (1893), the Indian currency (1899), and local taxation (1899). He served on the royal commission on labour (1891–4), which he felt was especially important in examining the problems of poverty in depth. In 1903 he wrote a memorandum on the fiscal policy of international trade for the Treasury, as a contribution to the tariff reform question, Marshall providing an interesting, post-Ricardian defence of free trade; it was published as a white paper in 1908. Many of these Official Papers were originally published by John Maynard Keynes in 1926, and supplemented by Groenewegen in 1996. A great deal of other Marshall material, lectures, papers, letters, and critical writings, has been published, most significantly by J. K. Whitaker, as The Early Writings of Alfred Marshall, 1867–1890 (1975) and The Correspondence of Alfred Marshall, Economist (1996), and Groenewegen, Alfred Marshall: Critical Responses (1998).

As the importance of much of his published work has become outdated, increasing recognition has been given to Marshall's role in developing economics from a branch of general knowledge into an academic subject and profession. In 1890 he was instrumental in the foundation of the British Economic Association (later the Royal Economic Society) and the Economic Journal, which remained the central professional journal in Britain for many years. However, it took him many years to convince Cambridge that the subject had the depth and breadth needed for independent status, instead of continuing as one subject among many in the moral sciences and history triposes. It can be questioned whether it was his powers of persuasion or the wish on the part of the existing triposes to be rid of economics and its venerable but troublesome representative that finally converted the university and led to the founding of the independent economic and political science tripos in 1903. Remembering her husband on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Mary Paley Marshall saw the Cambridge economics tripos as Marshall's greatest achievement.

Marshall claimed he hated controversy, and avoided it or left his lieutenants to fight his battles. However, on his return to Cambridge in 1884, he never failed personally to intervene on the university's political stage to promote the independence of his own subject; he also strongly opposed moves that would give women students a firmer foothold in the university and sometimes went to extreme lengths to keep them out. He engaged publicly in bitter professional battles on behalf of free trade against economists who supported protection, and insisted on the paramount importance of parental influence and the quality of life and work in promoting social progress, against those social scientists and statisticians who emphasized nature over nurture.

Marshall died on 13 July 1924, two weeks before his eighty-second birthday, at Balliol Croft, the home in Cambridge that the couple had built following their return there in 1884. He had been fading physically and mentally for some years. Following a short service in the chapel of St John's College, Marshall was buried in St Giles's cemetery, Cambridge, not far from his home. 'At the time of his death', J. M. Keynes wrote in the Dictionary of National Biography, 'he was recognised as the father of economic science as it then existed in England.'


  • P. D. Groenewegen, A soaring eagle: Alfred Marshall, 1842–1924 (1995)
  • J. M. Keynes, ‘Alfred Marshall’, The collected writings of John Maynard Keynes, ed. D. Moggridge and E. Johnson, 12 (1983)
  • J. K. Whitaker, ‘Alfred Marshall’, The new Palgrave dictionary of economics, 4 vols. (1987)
  • A. C. Pigou, ed., Memorials of Alfred Marshall (1925)
  • R. H. Coase, ‘Alfred Marshall's father and mother’, History of Political Economy, 18 (1984), 519–27
  • R. H. Coase, ‘Alfred Marshall's family and ancestry’, Alfred Marshall in retrospect, ed. R. M. Tullberg (1990), 9–27
  • A. Marshall, Principles of economics, ed. C. W. Guillebaud, 9th edn, 2 vols. (1961)
  • A. Marshall, Industry and trade (1919)
  • J. K. Whitaker, Centenary essays on Alfred Marshall (1990)
  • R. M. Tullberg, ed., Alfred Marshall in retrospect (1990)
  • Alfred Marshall's ‘Lectures to women’, ed. T. Raffaelli, E. Biagini, and R. M. Tullberg (1995)


  • U. Cam., Marshall Library of Economics, corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MSS 55174
  • BLPES, letters to Sir A. L. Bowley
  • BLPES, letters to Edwin Cannan
  • BLPES, corresp. with Francis Edgworth
  • BLPES, corresp. and papers relating to Royal Economic Society
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, letters to Edwin Seligman
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning
  • King's AC Cam., Keynes MSS
  • priv. coll., Foxwell MSS
  • U. Cam., Marshall Library of Economics, letters to Charles Fay; letters to John Maynard Keynes; letters to John Neville Keynes
  • University of Sheffield, letters to William Hewins


  • W. Rothenstein, oils, 1908, St John Cam. [see illus.]
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG
  • W. Rothenstein, oils, second version, U. Cam., Marshall Library of Economics
  • photographs, U. Cam., Marshall Library of Economics

Wealth at Death

£13,001 2s.: probate, 18 Oct 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Library of Political and Economic Science
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge
British Library, London
St John's College, Cambridge
National Portrait Gallery, London
private collection