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King Cotton: A Tribute to Douglas A. Farnie

Author(s):Wilson, J.F.
Reviewer(s):Wolcott, Susan

Published by EH.NET (March 2010)

J.F. Wilson, editor, King Cotton: A Tribute to Douglas A. Farnie. Lancaster, UK: Crucible Books, 2009. xii + 341 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-905472-09-3,

Reviewed for EH.NET by Susan Wolcott, Economics Department, Binghamton University.

This book’s subtitle indicates its purpose. It might also be subtitled a tribute to Lancashire, though perhaps that is not necessary. Douglas Farnie and Lancashire are so bound up that a tribute to one is a tribute to the other. Farnie, who died in 2008, was the preeminent historian of the Lancashire cotton industry. He was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the business records and statistics of the industry. His best known work was The English Cotton Industry and the World Market, 1815 to 1896 (1979). The contributions of that text were a much more data based examination of old questions, such as the search for foreign markets and the ineffectiveness of the Trusts, as well as introducing several fresh topics such as the entrepreneurship of mill-building, the betrayal of the cooperative ownership model, and the rise and fall of vertically integrated firms. A further interest of Farnie’s was the effect of the industry on the region. Farnie notes in his preface, “the industry’s most significant product may well have been neither yarn nor cloth but the factory communities of Cottonia.”

The editor and contributors of this volume took these topics as their organizing principle. This book is truly focused on the main research themes of the author it honors. The book begins with an interview with Farnie himself, and then there is an authoritative overview of the University of Manchester’s development by Chris Wrigley. The new research contributions are in three areas: work focusing on the cotton industry between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (six articles), work on the expansion of the cotton industry outside of England (three articles), and work on the regional Lancashire economy (five articles). As well as focusing on questions addressed by Farnie, many of the articles have followed him in painstaking presentations of detailed business records. Among the articles focusing on England, examples of this would include the contributions of Morrison, Broadberry and Leunig; Toms; and Higgins. Morrison, Broadberry and Leunig have analyzed records of rental of warehouse space in order to estimate the concentration of merchandising power among British firms. They find that though there were certainly many very large firms, there is a long left tail, indicating more breadth in distribution than had been thought true earlier. Toms looks at ownership of shares to document the decline of the cooperative movement of ownership by employees and the move to a few “oligarchic” directors. And Higgins examines profit data to determine if there was persistence of profits by some firms over the periods 1900-10, 1922-29, and 1950-59. In this article, the shortest in the volume, he finds that profit last period is frequently a good predictor of profit the next period, suggesting persistence of some type of managerial rents.

Along with the virtues of Farnie’s lifework, some of its shortcomings are also replicated in this celebratory volume. In his review of English Cotton Industry for the Journal of Modern History, Duncan Bythell writes, “what he gives us is an extensive commentary on statistical data, interspersed with general comments on less quantifiable aspects of the cotton industry.” I would suggest a similar problem with this volume. All of the articles noted above suggest the beginnings of important contributions. But there is something of a disconnect between what the data can say and what the authors want to claim. Thus Morrison, Broadberry and Leunig want to argue that Britain’s lack of vertically integrated firms did not impede clever penetration of foreign markets. The connection between the size of merchant firms and effectiveness of penetration is not immediately obvious to me. And Toms wants to argue that the lessening of share ownership of workers caused the breakdown in labor relations which impeded cooperation as the world market collapsed in the interwar period. He shows the decline of ownership, but does not link this to profitability or adaptability. Higgins does, I think, prove what he set out to prove, but it is a limited thesis, though an interesting project. The two Japanese papers have similar strengths and weaknesses. Abe gives a complete list of the diversified businesses of the Kanebo firm, but does not discuss how this affected the profitability of the enterprise, and Sasaki has access to the detailed employment records of a Japanese weaving firm, but it is not clear, at least in this work, what general conclusions he has drawn about the industry. All of these authors, however, are very well respected and have taught me much over the years, and I expect to see longer and more complete versions of each of these papers at some later time.

The detailed business history of pre-industrial Lancashire by Latham combines detailed statistical data and what I found to be a compelling fully developed thesis. He argues that in the several hundred years before the Industrial Revolution, Lancashire was engaged in learning-by-doing entrepreneurship based on fortuitous coal supplies and acquired business skills. The artisans he describes as beginning their own businesses in coal mining and bell making with personal capital and local labor appear to be the first step toward the larger mills Farnie discusses. And then there are some quirky, but very interesting, contributions. Parsons and Rose contribute a detailed business history of the development of high-performance mountaineering cloth, complete with a modern test facing off skillfully woven Burberry cotton against Gortex. Although it might be understood as an oblique critique of complaints of the lack of innovativeness of British firms, it is interesting simply as a business history. Fowler and Wyke take one through a tour of Lancashire with detailed histories of each of the union constructed buildings. Nothing could so completely exemplify the rise and fall of this industry as first the building of these monuments to labor’s power, and then their abandonment.

Overall, the genuine fondness everyone who knew him felt for Doug Farnie comes through in this volume. And that is certainly a fine tribute.

Susan Wolcott’s most recent paper on cotton textiles is “Strikes in Colonial India, 1921-1938,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, July 2008. More recently, she is working on credit issues in Indian development, including “The Supply of Financial Entrepreneurs in Colonial India,” in the The Invention of Enterprise, edited by David Landes, Joel Mokyr and William J. Baumol (2009).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII