Katrina Honeyman’s book is an impressive source of information about the rise of the entrepreneur in England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Her main objective is to test the commonly-held view that was fueled by Samuel Smiles in his popular book, Self-Help, published in 1859, which held that men of humble means had “unprecedented opportunities. . . to attain the role of entrepreneur” (p. 10).
She does not begin by outwardly denying this hypothesis or accepting it, but rather sets up a complex cross-section study of three industries — lead mining, cotton, and lace – in order to test whether Samuel Smiles’ view holds true or not.
Honeyman finds similar results in the origins of the entrepreneurs of the three industries studied. Although there were many opportunities to invest minimal capital in order to begin a business venture, especially in the lace industry, success was often short-lived if there were any profits made at all. lead mining appears to have been the most difficult industry to enter as it was unpredictable and risky, thus making it difficult for the small man to gain the credit needed to purchase or even to rent the initial equipment required which was very costly. Also, the risky nature of lead mining caused a lag time between initial investment and eventual profits, therefore making a small investment less likely to sustain itself in the short term. Only the larger investors, Honeyman reports, were likely to achieve success because their large initial capital could sustain them through the lag time and into long-term financial gain. And indeed this is what her research shows. She also found that because the lead mining industry was so uncertain, many men used it as a “potentially lucrative ‘hobby’ rather than a means of subsistence” (p.51).
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In contrast with the expensive costs of beginning a lead mining business was the lace industry. Honeyman reports that there was a “fever” of investment in the industry from 1823-1826. However this “fever” eventually collapsed due to overproduction, and in the end the small man could not afford to stay in the business, some even regressing back the their initial position or worse depending on their losses.
Investigation into the cotton industry provided similar results. Honeyman’s investigation in the three industries studied in her book included extensive research on the lives of the entrepreneurs, numbering well into the hundreds. By comparing and contrasting the three industries it was the men of more substantial means who were the important entrepreneurs in the long run. Although there are some reports of men of humble origins achieving great success, those reports are often misrepresented. Honeyman found that in many such cases the small men who made it big were not as small as they might seem. Many married into more prominent families and thus gained more money with which to invest in industry. Some also under-reported their own family’s financial contribution.
Honeyman’s work is impressive in the amount of research done to support her thesis. After each chapter are pages of sources used in her study, and the last twelve pages are appendices. It is unusual, as Clarkson points out in his review, “to have a book on the origins of industrial enterprise based on empirical research rather than resting on the currently fashionable assertions of proto-industrialization”1. Her empirical-minded approach to the subject makes the book more of an experimental write-up than a typical history book. However, although in the first chapter Hypothesis, Sources, and Methods in which she fully explains the how and why of the study, some of her methods are questionable. For example, she writes “There is no way in which a random sample of entrepreneurs at this time can be taken, because of the absence of generalizations. This is not serious, however, and viable generalizations can still be made from the purposive convenience samples that have been chosen from this study” (p.12).
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To say that “this is not serious” puts into question, “serious for whom?” Perhaps that answer lies within the audience. For a casual reader, although this book may not make for light reading by any means, it may not be serious, but for an investigative historian, a lack of a clear and reliable sample may make the results less valid.
There are also other problems that Honeyman reports in relation to her research. Her investigation of the lead mining industry is limited to “those who invested in the mine soughs rather than in the mines themselves: (p.25).
Honeyman states that her reasoning for this limitation was based on “the enormous variation in the size, value, and longevity of the mines” (p.25).
However, it may have been helpful to include at least some research into the mines themselves to provide a contrast with the soughs, which were more expensive to invest in initially, skewing the type of man who would invest in them, namely a more wealthy individual. Therefore, when Honeyman’s results show a high proportion of success in lead mining among the upper classes it is not surprising.
Despite these shortcomings, which do not completely confound the study, Honeyman’s book provides a good source of information on the early entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution. For those especially interested in the lead mining, cotton, or lace industries her book is full of sources that may be of great use. However, as Clarkson points out, “lead, cotton, and lace. . . are not the whole story of the Industrial Revolution”2. In order to fully test the notion that Samuel Smiles wrote of in Self-Help further investigation into other industries is needed. Honeyman’s book, then, is a good starting point for an investigation into the lives of the early entrepreneurs and the social mobility they did or did not gain. Because of her extensive list of sources for her research, which are well-used throughout her book, the Origins of Enterprise could provide great interest and routes for further study for scholars or students interested in the topic.
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