The following passage comes from the author's Personal Business: Character and Commerce in Victorian Literature and Culture, which is reviewed elsewhere in the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow


otwithstanding profound changes in company law and the emergence of a number of noteworthy large joint-stock corporations, the Victorian economy in Britain is most strongly marked by personal capitalism: the survival of the family firm and the congruence—rather than decoupling—of ownership and control (in the sense of day-to-day management. Throughout the nineteenth century most British businesses were either individually owned or owned by partnerships: they might be family firms composed of partners from a single family with continuity over generations, or they might be short-lived ventures started by an individual only to fail or be quickly sold; they might involve large factories and hundreds of workers, or they might consist simply of a couple of family workers; but the general pattern was far from a wholesale midcentury transformation in which identifiable, responsible owners vanished from the scene. To the contrary, there was no rush to adopt limited liability; it made slow advances until the 1880s, and even in the middle of that decade private family partnerships remained the most common form. Furthermore, when limited liability was adopted, it by no means meant the end of family identification; as late as 1914, Mary B. Rose notes, "four-fifths of registered joint stock companies were private," "predominantly one-time partnerships, availing themselves of limited liability." That same year, the three largest companies in Britain, J&P Coats, Imperial Tobacco, and Watney Combe Reid, were family firms run by the families that had founded them, testifying to the persistence of businesses associated with identifiable, personal representatives.

In fact, a remarkable feature of British business is the degree to which families and individuals maintained control not only over ownership bur also over the practical management it their enterprises, through the nineteenth century and beyond. This chiracteristic was not limited to small family firms but extended even to larger publicly held companies, as rammes maintained control through concentrating ownership of stock.32 Though a class of managers did exist, particularly in industries such as railways that nosed complex organizational problems, more commonly management remained in the hands of family members. The majority of business owners, William Lazonick has noted, "brought their sons and sons-in-law to manage rheir businesses, thus perpetuating the integration of family ownership and control."33 Family control remained a priority in the mergers and acquisitions of the lare nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, guiding the arrangement of loose federations of relatively autonomous companies and giving a distinctive aspect to the big businesses that emerged.34 Finally, as Alfred Chandler has suggested, this managerial conrrol was often passed on from one generation to another, sometimes with little heed to the interests or aptitudes of those on the receiving end; businesses were seen "in personal rather than organizational terms, as family estates to be nurtured and passed on to heirs."35 [12/13]


Hunt, Aeron. Personal Business: Character and Commerce in Victorian Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. [Review by George P. Landow]

Created 27 January 2015