Does British business have a history?

The proofs for a book out in April, 

by Bernhard Rieger, have landed here in Enlightenment Towers. It looks terrific, although I’ll put off reading it until a bit closer to publication date.

[amazon_image id=”0674050916″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle: A Global History of the Volkswagen Bettle[/amazon_image]

I do like a business history but can’t think of all that many on British firms. No doubt that’s my ignorance, and people will have lots of suggestions. But the only one that comes to mind this morning is 

by Georgina Ferry (partly because I was chatting to a friend about it). Geoffrey Owen did a splendid overview of post-war British industry a few years ago in
. I can think of one or two other more general books, like Andrew and Melanie Kelly’s
, which combines business and regional history.

There are loads of books on American computer and internet pioneers – we didn’t have many of those in the UK although by beloved husband Rory Cellan-Jones wrote about the millennial dot com boom in the UK in


American business historians have a rich tradition beyond the tech sector – Alfred Chandler forged the way with his

, albeit covering more than one firm in that masterwork. (The Economist obit of Chandler describes him as: “the man who more or less invented the history of the big corporation.”) Daniel Yergin has written definitely about the oil industry in 
and the more recent 
on energy security. I can even think of a number on German firms – like this VW book and also Harold James’s recent

Help me out on the history of British business giants! Surely there are histories of BP, Rolls Royce, John Lewis, the Pru?


5 thoughts on “Does British business have a history?

  1. Hello Diane
    Not sure if these will help.
    “Eminent Corporations” (2010) by Simms and Boyle. A helpful overview
    of some UK companies M&S, Rover, BP, BBC, Virgin, Cadbury, and Barclays. (good for further references too).
    “Rise and fall of M&S – and rise again” by Judi Bevan (2007)
    Recently Deborah Cadbury “Chocolate Wars” (2010)
    or try Arnold Weinstock and the Making of GEC by Stephen Aris (97/8)
    The Shire library has some overviews of the UK toy and motor car industries.

    • Thank you for these, Martyn. Now you mention it, I did know about the Judi Bevan book and had forgotten about it. The reminder has prompted the thought that actually there must be many more corporate stories of that kind around, lying beyond the edge of my awareness/memory.

  2. This comment from John Green came in by email:

    I have two company histories, Metal Box and John Dickinson, on my bookshelves. I worked for MB for over 30 years, some of it on the site which is now, I believe, Kendal Avenue Sports Centre, just beyond West Acton on the Central line from Ealing Broadway. I have lived for half a century in Hemel Hempstead and was a councillor millions of years ago for the Apsley ward of the HH Borough Council and John Dickinson virtually built Apsley.

    The MB book was written whilst I was there and the chap who headed publicity and public relations and who I took lunch with in the Alsop Arms at the top of Baker Street, was given the job, directly by the chairman, of liaison with the professional historian who wrote the book. There is a note that he, Dr W J Reader had previously worked with the author of a history of Unilever.

    It is a while since I read the two books but I didn’t feel that either did justice to the subject but I doubt that anyone could. I had some idea of what it was like to work in factories – MB had over 50 in the UK and I had been in most and not just on the guided tour. And the commission for the books was given from the top so that was inevitably reflected in what was highlighted. My recollection is that the lady who wrote the Dickinson book was a historian but, more importantly, she was one of the family.

    I can appreciate some of the difficulty having attempted to set down (40 000 words) some recollections of my early working life. What I finished up with was a bit of food chemistry and technology, a bit of amateur sociology and some reminiscence of what it was like to work in a jam factory during and after the war. It was a family firm and I had no intention when writing it of any of the family seeing my oeuvre but it has happened and I don’t think that it was well received. The family has its own website which I have looked at occasionally and I do feel that the sub-title could be ‘Tales of mystery and imagination’. None of the contributions came from anyone who actually worked at the factory. However I have softened my opinion on some of the main characters over the years, they gave a pretty stroppy young man a lot of rope.

    I don’t remember that there was much about the economics in either book, I tried to work out the relationship between wages in Leeds and in Apsley but failed abysmally. But others didn’t have too much of a grasp either; when Schweppes bought Chivers and Hartleys, two big names in jam manufacture in the late 1950s, they were surprised to find that the firm I had been with, Moorhouses, which they also bought, was much the more profitable.

Comments are closed.