Donna Loftus is a lecturer at The Open University and a social and cultural historian with a particular interest in Victorian understandings of the market and emergent social relations. Recent publications include ‘Limited Liability and the Social Organisation of Production’, in Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture, ed. Cannon Schmitt and Nancy Henry, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2009. This article developed from a research project with Giorgio Riello on manufacturing in London in the late nineteenth century.
This article considers the late nineteenth-century London manufacturing economy in Charles Booth’s Industry Series for the insight it provides into transitions in economic practice and social thought. Drawing on the mass of notes collected for the inquiries and the published volumes themselves, the article shows how Booth struggled to fit the diverse world of work recounted by contemporaries into existing categories of social description and political economy. The proliferation of small masters was particularly problematic. as it represented both the enterprising pursuit of self-interest and the deleterious effects of over-competition. Though Booth found conclusions difficult to make, his empirical study detailed the complexity of the London economy showing the relationship between production and consumption, home and work and the impact of workers’ desires for independence on work practices. The Industry Series needs to be understood as pivotal in highlighting contradictions in contemporary understandings of the workings of capitalism.