The literature on interwar British industrial management has been severely critical. British firms have been generally presented as being conservative in organisation; comprising a small core of progressive firms in a sea of conservatively-run, family-dominated enterprises (see Hannah 1983: Ch. 6). Wilson’s contributions (Wilson 1995; Wilson and Thomson 2006) emphasise the grip of tradition on British business culture. Despite this very pessimistic assessment, we know that there was a growing core of British management thought (Urwick 1956; Child 1969; Urwick and Brech 2002; Brech, Thomson and Wilson, 2010) and a substantial number of firms employing management consultants (Kipping 1999; Ferguson 2002). By the outbreak of the Second World War, this list must have comfortably passed 500 firms. However, we might seek to extend this “core of progressive firms” by looking at peer-to-peer communication among managers themselves. In this context, the Quaker employers led by Edward Cadbury and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree led the way with three significant management innovations. First, they convened a conference of Quaker (the Cadbury conferences) employers to engage in the debates on the post-war industrial and social order. From this meeting, another prominent Quaker industrialist, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree organised a separate set of meetings (the Rowntree lecture series) so that employers and employees could come together and discuss key questions facing industry. Finally, B.S. Rowntree returned from his very successful visit to the USA in 1921 with the germ of an idea for key industrialists to meet to discuss and find solutions for some of the intractable problems before them. This initiative gave birth to the Management Research Group (MRG) movement in 1926-7, when Rowntree, with the help of Lyndall Urwick, brought together directors from around the country into eight Management Research Groups. Together these three initiatives represented a major expansion of practice-oriented learning for managers. Our aim in this project is to bring this material to much wider attention and to examine the extent to which it questions the received, highly critical, view of British management conservatism.

The Rowntree lecture series always mixed discussion of public policy issues with practical demonstrations of progressive management initiatives. Rowntree’s (often very prominent) speakers were drawn from a broad span of engineering, politics, industrial psychology, economics and both British and American management science to provide representatives of British industry guidance and support in negotiating the varied menu of challenges before them in the interwar years. All lectures after April 1920 contain lists of firms attending (never fewer than 33 and rising to the mid-70s at times of acute industrial difficulty) and we estimate that the average firm sent six representatives. The lecture series was a major landmark in interwar management education and thinking, and deserves more than the cursory attention it has received to date. Rowntree’s biographer, Asa Briggs (1961), gave insufficient attention to the ways that Rowntree’s progressivism shaped the theory and practice of British industry and did not explore the lectures in any great depth beyond recognising that Rowntree was “the first person to succeed in developing the co-ordination of management knowledge in this country” (1961: 271). Several hundred papers from this conference series still survive, albeit in a rather fragile state, primarily at The Borthwick Institute for Archives in York, but also in other UK archives.

If the original purpose of the Rowntree Business Lectures, like the Cadbury series, was crisis avoidance, Rowntree soon identified a longer-term educational purpose to modernise British management thinking and practice. In an early lecture, Rowntree (1920) argued that directors should be able to understand both underlying economic trends and the history of their industries, and so the Rowntree Lecture series contained early attempts at economic forecasting, with lectures from: A.L. Bowley, Hubert Henderson, J.A. Hobson, Walter Layton, D.H. MacGregor and context from economic historians G.C. Allen, C.R. Fay, J.L. Hammond, J. Harry Jones. Rowntree’s lecturers seem to fall into a number of clearly defined groups, with the core coming from the Rowntree company itself, with its mission to re-fashion British management in a more scientific and humanistic style. In addition to Rowntree himself, this group included labour director, C.H. Northcott, William Wallace, Oliver Sheldon, Lyndall Urwick, and James Wardropper (see biographical section of the database). There is a consistent core of ‘the Rowntree way’ running through the lecture series, but the other groups of contributors are easily identified.  These are:

  • Representatives of the British business elite (Sir Arthur Duckham – member of the Sankey Commission on the coal industry in 1919-20; Sir Henry Fowler – CME of the Midland and then LMS Railways; W.L. Hichens – Quaker and chairman of Cammel, Lairds; Sir Arthur Lowes-Dickinson – senior partner of Price Waterhouse, both in London and New York; P.J. Pybus – MD of English Electric).
  • Representatives from the growing field of industrial psychology (like Cyril Burt A.F.S. Kent, G.H. Miles, Charles Myers and T.H. Pear) whose message emphasised the avoidance of waste from poor employee selection and management, lack of sensitivity to worker capacities and misunderstanding worker motivations.
  • Leading management specialists of the period from both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the “Rowntree men”, and Americans noted above, the conferences heard from such emerging British authorities as Edward Elbourne and John Lee. In addition, Rowntree sought to bring US best practice to the attention of a British audience, inviting, among others, Henry Dennison, Mary Parker Follett and Elton Mayo.
  • Eminent representatives of interwar progressive thought. They included voices from “the labour view”, including Ernest Bevin, J.R. Clynes, Arthur Greenwood and Sidney Webb, with a leavening of Liberal views from personalities such as Sir William Beveridge, H.A.L. Fisher, Philip Kerr, Ramsay Muir and E.D. Simon (Liberal Lord Mayor of Manchester and Liberal MP). Many of them also spoke at interwar ILP and Liberal Summer Schools.
  • Industrial “stars” of the 1920s in particular, people who had run successful businesses and who were invited by Rowntree to share their knowledge.

Aims and Objectives

The aims of the research are twofold: First to help preserve and make more widely available the Rowntree Business Lectures and second to explore the material in terms of the impact of these ideas on the development of a British Management Movement. This work builds in part on preliminary archive scoping using pump-priming funding from the University of Exeter.

The aims are supported by the following research objectives:

  1. To audit all the Rowntree material and create a digital copy of all the lectures. Initial research estimates that there are more than 170 sets of lectures some of which are in a very fragile state.
  2. To make the Rowntree material widely available to a wider public via a project web site. This web site will start by hosting the lectures but then later it will be added to by the vast amount of material from investigating the Management Research Groups established by Rowntree
  • To examine the extent to which this largely practice-based learning related to the main ideas circulating in British management theory during the inter-war period. This will consider the Rowntree material in the context of such contemporary management writers as; Lee (1921, 1928), Sheldon (1923) and Urwick (1928, 1929 and 1933).
  1. To establish the scale of interest in progressive management theory and practice during the inter-war period. This will be investigated by developing a relational database recording the biographical details of all these participating in Cadbury, Rowntree and MRG activities.
  2. To assess whether the Management Research Groups established by Rowntree functioned as communities of practice for knowledge exchange. We will utilise the data base to examine the activities of firms within these groups by considering different clusters of firms in the various regional groupings
  3. To examine eight selected case studies of individual firms to assess the impact of the Rowntree lectures on actual management practices. These case studies will be selected from the data base according to firm size, type, location but mainly on the availability of business archives