'Shareholder Democracies?' Corporate Governance in Britain, c. 1720-1844
Mark Freeman, Robin Pearson and James Taylor
Department of History, University of Hull

The project






'Shareholder Democracies?': themes and issues addressed by the project

Below: The Royal Exchange building in 1751. The Royal Exchange was the site of numerous joint-stock company promotions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This building burned down in 1838.

Below: The new Royal Exchange building. This was built in 1842-4, and opened by the Queen on 28 October 1844, a significant year in the history of the company in Britain. An Act of 1844 allowed joint-stock companies to become incorporated by registration, whereas previously an Act of Parliament had been required to achieve the status of a corporation. Our forthcoming book, Shareholder Democracies?, explores the evolution of the legal framework surrounding joint-stock companies in Britain before c.1850. An article in the English Historical Review (vol. 122, 2007, pp. 61-81) examines the legal status of the joint-stock company in Scotland.


Left: 'A Doe in the City' (Punch, 1845). Little Kitty Lorimer signs the deed of the Didland Junction Railway 'with the greatest coolness in the world'. The writer (Thackeray) wonders, in verse:

What! are ladies stagging it?
Sure, the more's the pity;
But I've lost my heart to her,-
Naughty little Kitty.

Our article entitled '"A Doe in the City": Women Shareholders in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain' , Accounting, Business and Financial History, vol. 16 (2006), pp. 265-91, examines the extent of women's shareholding in a large sample of companies across many sectors of the economy. A futher article on the same theme will appear in a collection edited by Josephine Maltby, Jeanette Rutherford and Anne Laurence. See Outputs.

Right: Joint-stock companies were promoted, and established, in many sectors of the economy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The promotion featured here, by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (in Caithness), advertised an ambitious joint-stock venture in agriculture. Several prominent subscribers were claimed, and the venture was also advertised in the Annals of Agriculture for 1800. Sinclair hoped to use the capital raised to establish experimental farms, and presented an optimistic account of the benefits to agriculture, and the expected profits.

Sinclair was the compiler of the Statistical Account of Scotland, and the founder of the Board of Agriculture in 1793.

Click here or on the image to read the pamphlet in full.

Left: Conflict was a feature of the internal and external relationships of many of the companies we have examined in the course of the 'Shareholder Democracies?' project. All joint-stock companies, to some extent, can be viewed as 'political' entities, but nowhere was the political dimension of joint-stock organisation more evident than at the East India Company, one of the great chartered companies of the period.

In this pamphlet, published in 1749, 'a director' of the East India Company proposes that the shareholders defer consideration of a government proposal to reduce the rate of interest on East India bonds. The director proposed that the company should be permitted to issue annuities to offset its potential future losses of income from bonds.

The question was to be voted on by the shareholders at their 'General Court'. The general meeting - of large companies like the East India Company, and of much smaller entities - was viewed as the company 'parliament', and political analogies abounded in the contemporaneous literature on joint-stock companies.

Click here or on the image to read the pamphlet in full.

Right: 'Jack and the Giant Joint-Stock', printed in Town Talk, 5 June 1858.

The undesirable results of speculation in joint-stock companies are starkly presented in this cartoon, which features a helpless Jack in the grips of the monster unleashed by the growth of the joint-stock economy.

The names of failed joint-stock banks appear in the background: the Western Bank of Scotland had failed in 1857, the year before the publication of this cartoon, and the Royal British Bank had occasioned a famous trial of fraudulent directors. James Taylor, a member of the 'Shareholder Democracies?' team, has recently published two articles on the Royal British Bank scandal: ‘Commercial Fraud and Public Men in Victorian Britain’, Historical Research, vol. 78 (May 2005), pp. 230-52, and ‘Company Fraud in Victorian Britain: the Royal British Bank Scandal of 1856’, English Historical Review, vol. 122 (2007), pp. 700-24.


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Page created and updated by Mark Freeman. Last modified September 16, 2008 .