8th February 1880 to 9th June 1954


Biographical Text

Greenwood was a Labour Party politician who served in successive Labour governments from 1924 into the 1950s. He also wrote on the importance of public health and education. 

Greenwood was born in Leeds on 8 February 1880, the son of a prosperous painter and decorator. He was educated at St Jude’s board school and then Bewerley Street School in Leeds, becoming a pupil teacher at the latter institution in 1895. He also read socialist pamphlets, and was particularly influenced by a public speech by Philip Snowden, which helped to form his lifelong views on socialism. In 1899 he won a scholarship to Yorkshire College (later the University of Leeds), and received a BSc in 1902, along with a teaching qualification. In 1903 took a post as a teacher at Huddersfield Technical College, where he was appointed head of economics. He married Catherine Ainsworth, the daughter of an accountant, in 1904. 

Through the first decade of the twentieth century Greenwood wrote a number of journal articles, some for academic publications including Political Quarterly and Economic Journal, and also popular publications such as Highway and The Crusade. The theme of these articles was a call for more and better public health and public education for young people, to help them overcome the damaging physical and moral effects of poverty.  

Many of his views were summed up in The Health and Physique of Schoolchildren, published just before the First World War. This pamphlet was published by the Ratan Tata Foundation in association with the London School of Economics, and the LSE’s director, R.H. Tawney, wrote the introduction. As Whiting (2004) says, this shows how seriously Greenwood was now being taken by the left-wing establishment. Subsequently, Greenwood was recruited by Tawney to teach in the Workers’ Educational Association. Greenwood served chairman of the WEA’s northern section until 1945. 

In 1914 Greenwood took a post as secretary to the Council for the Study of International Relations in London. His journalistic work continued, and he served for a time as editor of The Athenaeum. In 1915 he spoke at a Ruskin Conference with Sidney Webb and the economist Arthur Pigou; they later co-authored the pamphlet, The Reorganisation of Industry. This was the beginning of a long friendship with Sidney and Beatrice Webb. For a time Greenwood was involved with the Fabian Society, and sided with the Webbs in their dispute with G.D.H. Cole.  

In 1917 Greenwood moved to the Ministry of Reconstruction, where he helped to establish the Joint Industrial Councils, or Whitley Councils. This led Greenwood to take an increasing interest in the problems of labour. He was particularly interested in industrial psychology and working conditions, and served on the council of the National Institute for Industrial Psychology. 

Greenwood stood for parliament in the 1918 general election, representing Labour in Southport. He was unsuccessful, but in 1922 he stood again in Nelson and Colne, and was elected. In 1924 he was appointed parliamentary secretary to John Wheatley, minister of health in Ramsay MacDonald’s first government, and played a role in drafting the Wheatley Act on housing. In 1929 he became minister of health in the second MacDonald government, which post he held until 1931, and also a privy councillor. He lost his seat in the 1931 general election, but was re-elected for Wakefield in 1932, holding this post until his death. 

This was the high-water mark of Greenwood’s career. He continued to be respected by his peers on both sides of the House of Commons, but alcoholism increasingly impaired his abilities. In 1935 he stood for the party leadership against Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, but lost on the first ballot; he switched his support to Attlee, and was rewarded with the deputy leadership. In 1939 he made a notable speech in the House of Commons urging Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain not to make further concessions to Hitler.  

Greenwood was appointed to Winston Churchill’s war cabinet in 1940, and again played a notable role in urging that German peace initiatives should be rejected, but in 1942 he was dismissed from the cabinet. In the post-war Attlee government he served as lord privy seal and, briefly, as paymaster-general, but by 1948 his health had broken down. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1945, but refused a peerage. He died at home in Hampstead, London on 9 June 1954. 

After taking up politics, Greenwood largely ceased writing. His most important works were produced early in his career. As noted, The Health and Physique of Schoolchildren reflected his long-standing interest in public health and education. He opposed in particular the practice of putting children to work and expecting them to be educated part-time, through night courses or continuation schools. In his view, born out in part by his own experience, work created such fatigue that children were unable to learn properly. Therefore, much of this education was wasted. He also argued strongly against purely vocational education, which reduced young people to mere units of work, cogs in the capitalist machine. Greenwood stressed the importance of a general education which would expand the mind and spirit and enable children to grow into well-rounded human beings. They would, he said, contribute much more to society in this way. 

The War and Democracy was written for the Workers’ Educational Association as an attempt to explain the causes of the war and discuss some of its consequences. Written shortly after the outbreak of the war, it betrays a fairly standard approach to the causes of war, which Greenwood’s co-authors lay squarely at the door of German and Slavic nationalism. Greenwood’s own chapter, on the economic consequences of the war, offers the view that the popular enthusiasm for war in democratic countries like Britain and France could be taken to mean that the war was an expression of democracy; the people freely chose war, and got it. 

Greenwood went on to discuss the economic consequences of war, and noted how state intervention in markets had been necessary to deal with many of these consequences, particularly in markets related to foreign trade. Also, the generation of employment in the armaments industry was necessary to soak up the jobs lost in peacetime trades damaged by the war. Greenwood forecast a new era of cooperation between government, capital and labour; this would be necessary in the short term for the war effort, but he believed this cooperation would continue after the war, ushering in a new relationship between the state, business and workers. His view is that, terrible though the cost of war will be, there is also a chance to remake society. 

It is notable that in 1914 Greenwood makes disapproving references to scientific management. He reckons it is only a matter of time until scientific management is introduced into British factories in order to ‘screw up industry to a maximum of production’.  

It is clear that the adoption of such methods gives the “scientific manager” great power; it also seems inevitable that the workman should degenerate into an automaton; it is obvious that in the hands of employers ignorant of the principles underlying it, and seeing merely a new and highly profitable method of exploitation, it will be open to serious abuse, as experience has already shown in America. 

Greenwood understands the underlying principles of scientific management, which was originally designed to reduce fatigue and provide a more fair system of reward, but he also understands clearly how easily the system could be abused. 

The Reorganisation of Industris a collection of papers by Pigou, Sidney Webb, the historian Alfred Zimmern and Greenwood, published along with the questions and discussions after each lecture. Here Greenwood continues on the theme of how industry might best be organised once the war is concluded. He notes how the shortage of labour occasioned by conscription has already forced industry to become more efficient, and cites the munitions industry as leading the way. However, this industrial efficiency has not been accompanied by a similar advance in industrial democracy and this, Greenwood rightly forecasts, will lead to unrest. Workers expect their unstinting efforts for war production to be rewarded by more control. The problem will become more acute at the end of the war, he says, when demobilised soldiers flood the labour markets and a period of oversupply ensues. Similarly, the women who entered industry during the war to make up for the shortage of male workers will not surrender their rights lightly. Greenwood expects the end of the war to bring economic prosperity but, with it, considerable social change. 

The answer, says Greenwood, is increased cooperation, instead of seeing each other as opponents, workers and capital need to come together. He later had a chance to put this philosophy into action in the creation of Whitley Councils, that not entirely successful experiment in cooperation between labour and capital. 

Greenwood’s paper at the York conference in 1921 followed that of Max Muspratt, chairman of United Alkali, who gave the employer’s view on the need for increased production, and it was expected that Greenwood would provide a rebuttal. In fact, Greenwood wonders whether in trying to answer the question of ‘how far is increased production desirable?’ the conference may be addressing the wrong issue: ‘…the problem is one of greater production in an industrial system against which organised labour is in revolt. It involves considerations not merely of wages, but of the status of skilled workers, and ultimately, of course, the rights and wrongs of the existing system. 

Many of the people from organised labour who spoke at the Rowntree conferences were relatively mild in their attitude to capital. Greenwood, however, is less inclined to pull his punches. He criticises the inequality and disparities of wealth which grew out of the Industrial Revolution, and attacks the capitalist system for producing a series of boom-and-bust trade cycles which are harmful to the interests of working people. 

Increased production is possible, says Greenwood, but only if ‘accompanied by conditions which, whilst perhaps not fully realising Labour’s ultimate policy, were nonetheless in harmony with its aspirations.’ British industry ‘is not the wonderfully efficient machine that it is generally considered to be.’ Root and branch reform of the system to reduce waste and inequality and bring about social justice is essential if higher productivity is to be considered. ‘I want to suggest that, before employers ask for greater effort on the part of labour, they should put their own houses in order’, says Greenwood. He then lists a series of conditions under which organised labour might be prepared to increase productivity, including security of employment and more participation in decision making. ‘We ought to link the appeal for increased productivity to an appeal for justice and liberty in the community’, he ends. 

The transcript also includes the discussion after the Greenwood and Muspratt papers were given. It is interesting to note that the great majority of those who spoke, both on behalf of labour and of industry, agreed with Greenwood in whole or in part and urged industry to do more. Even Muspratt acknowledged that Greenwood had a case. Surprisingly, the most emphatic negative reaction came from Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree himself: 

Mr Greenwood gave employers a tremendous slating. He said that our works were appallingly administered, and that a great number of improvements were possible which would result in increased production, and it was up to introduce them. I would like to say to him, as a distinguished member of the Labour Party: ‘Will you call off your dogs?’ In other words, will you give us a free hand? 

Major works 

The Health and Physique of Schoolchildren, 1913. 

(with R.W. Seton-Watson, J.D. Wilson and A.E Zimmern) The War and Democracy, 1914 

(with A.C. Pigou, A.E. Zimmern and S. Webb) The Reorganisation of Industry1916. 



Pimlott, B., Labour and the Left in the 1930s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

WhitingR.C., ‘Greenwood, Arthur’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Original Source

‘How far is increased production desirable in the interests of the workers? The workers’ standpoint’, 12 February 1921, York


“GREENWOOD, Arthur,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed June 18, 2024,