BOWLEY, Arthur Lyon



6th November 1869 to 21st January 1957


Biographical Text

Bowley was one of Britain’s leading statisticians and a pioneer in fields such as sampling techniques. He spent much of his career at the London School of Economics.

Bowley was born in Bristol on 6 November 1869, the son of a Church of England vicar. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and then Trinity College, Cambridge where studied mathematics and was named tenth wrangler. At Cambridge he also met the economist Alfred Marshall, who took an interest in Bowley and helped further his career. Bowley graduated in 1892, winning the Cobden Essay Prize for an essay on foreign trade; in 1894 he went on to win the Adam Smith Prize, this time for a paper on wages. After graduation, Bowley taught mathematics at Brighton College and then at St John’s School, Leatherhead, during which period he developed his interest in statistics. In 1895 he read his first paper for the Royal Statistical Society.

The year 1895 also saw the establishment of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Sidney Webb wished to include statistics as part of the core curriculum, and at the suggestion of Marshall, Bowley was invited to join the founding faculty of the LSE as a part-time lecturer in statistics. Bowley taught statistics there from 1895 to 1936. He was promoted to reader in 1908, professor in 1915, and in 1919 was awarded the first chair in statistics in the social sciences. From 1900 to 1919 Bowley also taught mathematics at University College, Reading, and was appointed professor of mathematics and economics there in 1907. He married the artist Julia Hilliam in 1904.

Bowley retired in 1936, and was awarded the CBE in 1937. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Bowley became director of the Oxford Institute of Statistics and devoted himself to war research. In 1941 he also advised Sir William Beveridge on his Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services. Bowley retired for a second time in 1944, and was knighted in 1950.

Bowley was awarded an honorary DSc by the University of Cambridge in 1913, and an honorary DLitt by Oxford in 1943. He became a Fellow of the Royal Economic Society in 1893, and a council member of the Royal Statistical Society 1898, serving as its president from 1938-40; 1903 he joined the International Statistical Society, and in 1933 helped to found the International Econometric Society, also serving as its president from 1938-9. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1922, and a member of the senate of the University of London in 1930. From 1921 until his retirement he was a member of the editorial board of Economica.

Roy Allen, Bowley’s colleague and friend, comments in his biography of Bowley in the Dictionary of National Biography comments that ‘as a mathematician, Bowley was competent but rather old-fashioned.’ He is however widely regarded as a pioneer in statistical methods. In part, his work in this field was driven by a lack of adequate statistical methods to measure the economic phenomena that interested him, such as national income and wages. He made repeated calls for the collection of more complete and reliable national statistics which would inform policy, and for greater coordination between government departments in terms of generational and analysis of statistics. His arguments were partly responsible for the creation of the Central Statistical Office in 1941, which later became the Office of National Statistics.

Bowley’s major contribution to statistics, arguably his most important legacy, was the development of sampling techniques. These techniques are demonstrated in his many of his works, notably Livelihood and Poverty (1915), and his work with Roy Allen in the early 1930s on household expenditure, published as Family Expenditure (1935). Bowley had a strict policy of ‘measurement before theory’, and believed in gathering data and analysing it before any attempt at hypothesis-building was made. He developed accurate methods for determining sample size and enabling accurate sample selection, relying on earlier statistical theories but developing innovative ways of putting these into practice (Darnell 2004).

It was probably Alfred Marshall’s influence that led Bowley to apply mathematics and statistical methods to economics, and he became one of the leading econometricians of the inter-war years. His most important contribution was in field of national income. His work with Josiah Stamp, The National Income, 1924, was the first serious effort to measure national income. Later, John Maynard Keynes used many of Bowley’s methods when compiling the first formal estimates of national income during the Second World War. Bowley also expressed an interest in using statistics to measure social change, and his The Nature and Purpose of the Measurement of Social Phenomena set out a programme for mathematical research in sociology. He also conducted research into unemployment and poverty.

Bowley’s Rowntree lecture was on the subject of national income, and gives some insights into both his views on national income and his frustration with the lack of easily available data. He begins by pointing out a little wryly to his audience that it is difficult to discuss the national income as no statistics of any kind had been collected for the past eight years; that is, since before the beginning of the First World War. He then gives his audience a brief breakdown of what the terms ‘national income’ means, dividing income into four parts: unearned income (rents, interest, etc), salaries, wages (noting that there is overlap between the two) and a mixed category of miscellaneous income. Using 1913 figures, the last available, he explains the sources of the income in each category. He then produces some estimates – and by his own admission they are no more than that – as to what the picture might look like in 1921.

There follows a discussion of the impact of pools and monopolies on profits and wages. Bowley is inclined to think that pools and monopolies have a negative impact, for the profits received by companies are outweighed by the depressing effect these organisations tend to have on wages. At the same time, though, combinations on the part of labour – that is, large-scale organisation of labour – are also likely to have a depressing effect on overall income, even though wages might rise. Bowley favours competition in labour markets and argues that it is more likely to create benefit for both sides, though he notes that there must also be competition for labour and workers must be free to bargain for higher wages, individually rather than collectively.

Bowley also casts doubt on whether taxation is an effective way of redistributing wealth, suggesting that taxation serves rather to divert capital out of industry and hamper new investment. He is dubious too about state ownership, and says again that the net impact is likely to be negative: ‘The State cannot create capital; when it borrows, there is so much less left for private concerns.’ He goes on to make some interesting observations on wages, noting that during the First World War, wages of unskilled labourers went up faster than those of skilled labourers (artisans) or, indeed, the salaries of managers and the professional classes. He is particularly concerned about the comparatively low wages of skilled workers, and questions the impact on future labour markets:

There will still remain the question of whether, with so slight a difference as now exists [between the wages of skilled and unskilled labour], young men will take the trouble to be trained. If skill of any kind in any grade is not paid for, it will presently not be forthcoming. I should not contemplate with any satisfaction a nation of labourers all guaranteed a high minimum wage when employed, with no inducement to improve their output.

For Bowley, the best way to ensure an increase in national income is to ensure that people are paid according to the contribution they make, and that workers and employers both have equal power to bargain with each other. His observations illustrate a leitmotif that can be found in much of his work. For all that he was a mathematical economist, economics for Bowley was ultimately not about numbers, but people and the impact that economic forces had on their lives.

Major works
A Short Account of England’s Foreign Trade in the Nineteenth Century, 1893.
Statistical Studies Relating to National Progress in Wealth and Trade since 1882, 1904.
An Elementary Manual of Statistics, 1910. (with A.R. Burnett-Hurst) Livelihood and Poverty, 1915.
The Nature and Purpose of the Measurement of Social Phenomena, 1915. The Mathematical Groundwork of Economics, 1924.
(with J. Stamp) The National Income, 1924, 1927.
(with R.G.D. Allen) Family Expenditure, 1935.


Allen, R.G.D. and George, R.F., 'Professor Sir Arthur Lyon Bowley (with bibliography)', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 1957, vol. 120, pp. 236-41.

Allen, R.G.D., ‘Bowley, Sir Arthur Lyon’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Darnell, A.C., ‘A.L. Bowley 1869-1957’, in D.P. O'Brien and J.R. Presley (eds), Pioneers of Modern Economics in Britain, 1981.

Darnell. A.C., ‘Bowley, Arthur Lyon’, in D. Rutherford (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of British Economists, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2004.


“BOWLEY, Arthur Lyon,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed March 30, 2020,