Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Expanding and extending business knowledge: civic societies, profession institutions, academia and social networks in Manchester
Victoria Barnes, Peter Wardley

Last modified: 2014-03-10


This paper builds on previous studies of business networks and their influence on business practices, to investigate further, in an extended timeframe, the linkages between professional associations and civic societies.  Its primary focus is the Manchester Statistical Society which was founded in 1833 and remains active today. Created by a group largely comprising of local prosperous businessmen, the Manchester Statistical Society first gathered to collect statistical data to document and identify areas of poverty. The society’s organisation and method was disseminated rapidly across England and Wales. Yet, the Manchester Statistical Society (MSS hereafter) apart, and unlike the London Statistical Society (which became the Royal Statistical Society, and had a very different history) not one of the provincial replicas, that originally accompanied it, survived for but a short time. By contrast, the MSS underwent a series of transfigurations which reflected its members shared interests, collective objectives and common aspirations. Initially, speakers at the Manchester Statistical Society (hereafter, the MSS) meetings were gentleman scholars, bankers and other business leaders. By the late nineteenth century, papers delivered to the MSS were more likely to be given by academic lecturers and professional experts on their specialism. The society’s formation, and its survival, contributed significantly  the development of the laissez-faire economics, often  referred to, then and now, as the ‘Manchester School’.

This paper demonstrates not only the significance of family ties and social connections unifying the business elite in civic societies in Manchester, but also shows the extent to which civic societies were more than merely social networks which comprised of business leaders and other prominent citizens. This paper examines how the society’s purpose(s) developed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century. With the identification of a web of activities and an enumeration of leading activists, this paper demonstrates the overlap between business, university and civic societies in Manchester. Were these societies frequented by the business elite and principally designed as a mechanism to exchange commercial insight and foster connections? Or were they preserved by an open membership and designed to disseminate business knowledge, technique and skills to junior members? Were these meetings significant in developing economic and quantitative statistical theory? Why did the MSS survive when its counterparts did not? This paper suggests that civic societies initially provided a means for the exchange of commercial knowledge, but later became important institutions delivering informal business education and served as the precursors to professional associations. The professional associations that emerged from these societies employed common mechanisms for the diffusion of expertise and knowledge. We suggest that civic societies have hitherto been neglected but played an important role in the foundation and development of social and business networks. This paper utilises a dataset which examines the society’s changing membership and the topic of discussion at each meeting. Finally, in the context of this conference, it indicates the geography, a spatial view, of the MSS in the settings of it Manchester environment.