Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Avram Taylor, Working Class Credit and Community since 1918. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002. x + 218 pp. ?45.00 (hardback), ISBN: 0-333-96232-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Scott, Department of Management, University of Reading.

The cost, nature, and availability of credit have played an important role in the working-class family economy. Until recently the economic and social history of British retail credit has been an under-researched area (with the exception of a couple of excellent studies), though the past few years have witnessed an upsurge of interest. In this monograph Avram Taylor, a lecturer in history at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, examines the evolution of those forms of credit traditionally associated with the British working-class, since the end of the First World War. His study follows a broadly thematic structure, based around the different major forms of working-class credit. Chapters examine illegal money-lending, ‘tic’ at local corner-shops, and ‘check’ (voucher) and mail order trading (examined over two chapters).

The central theme concerns the social context of credit within working-class communities and the ways in which the changing nature of credit provision and networks illuminate broader themes relating to the nature of these communities, particularly the decline of the ‘traditional’ working class. These issues are examined using a theoretical tool-box that draws on a variety of traditions, including Marxist political economy, Weber’s ideas about the rationalization of social life, Ferdinand Tonnies’ model of Gemeinschaft (community-based extended families and rural villages) and Gesellschaft (modern capitalist states involving little or no identification with the community), and the work of Anthony Giddens on the nature of modernity, among others. While this theoretical mix may appear rather rich, these different perspectives do have strong commonalities, and are generally applied in a way that serves to illuminate, rather than obscure, the trends under discussion. Credit provision mediated through the community is shown to encompass both important elements of mutuality and self-interest, often even at the level of the individual credit trader or agent. Trends from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ credit provision and customer appraisal and monitoring methods, and the changes in working-class communities that partly underpin them, are also shown to be complex — varying greatly in their timing and extent depending on the social composition of the community in question and the pace of suburbanization and other urban change.

The book’s empirical base includes evidence from a variety of published and archival sources, together with a series of interviews with people who have either been users of credit or involved in its provision. Each chapter presents a national overview of the theme under discussion, together with case-study evidence drawn from the Tyneside area. This has the obvious advantages and disadvantages associated with reliance on a local case-study. The author has been able to provide detailed, in-depth, analysis of the topics under discussion within one area of Britain, yet the reader is left wondering how trends identified in Tyneside — an area traditionally dominated by heavy industries in secular decline — would compare with those in the more prosperous Midlands and South.

The book was developed from a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Durham, and strongly reflects its origins as a thesis. The focus is inevitably narrow, both in terms of geographical scope and subject matter. Forms of working-class credit not mediated through the local community — such as credit cards, bank accounts and hire purchase retailing — receive little discussion. While the omission of the first two is understandable, given that they only became significant for the working-class in the latter part of the period, the neglect of the hire purchase is a more serious omission, as it played an important and distinctive role in working-class credit throughout the period under examination. Greater discussion of hire purchase and other formalized, and largely non-community based, forms of credit would also have provided a useful contextualization for the more community-mediated credit channels on which the author focuses.

Readers interested in the economic impact of consumer credit, both in general and with regard to working-class living standards and consumption levels, will be disappointed at the limited discussion of these issues. Yet the book’s central themes — the trend from community-mediated to impersonal credit channels and what they tell us about wider changes in the nature of working-class communities — are important enough to fully merit a monograph. In providing such a study, Avram Taylor makes a real contribution to our understanding of the changing social context and significance of consumer credit during the twentieth century. While readers looking for a general history of British working-class credit will not find everything they seek, those who read this book on its own terms are likely to find it rewarding and informative.

Peter Scott’s recent publications include “Insurance Companies and the British Capital Market, 1919-39,” Economic History Review (2002) and “The Twilight World of Interwar Hire Purchase,” Past & Present (2002).