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Douglas Farnie: Historian of the cotton industry

Douglas Farnie was the pre-eminent historian of the Lancashire cotton industry in its 19th- and 20th-century heyday. On the staff of the History Department at Manchester University for over 30 years, he influenced generations of students.

Born in 1926 in Salford, the youngest son of Arthur Farnie, a tailor, and his second wife, Ethel, Douglas went to Salford Grammar School, from which he entered the Intelligence Corps in 1944, serving in Field Security with the Indian Airborne, 1945-46, and then in the Suez Canal Zone, 1947-48.

A student at Manchester University, 1948-53, he gained a First in History, and the Thomas Brown Memorial Prize in 1951. Farnie began researching the history of the Lancashire cotton industry under the supervision of Professor Arthur Redford, another of whose students was R.S. Fitton. Initially, Farnie hoped to investigate the later business records of Strutts of Belper, complementing the work of Fitton (subsequently the definitive biographer of Sir Richard Arkwright). Finding those records incomprehensible, Farnie extended his range of interest from a single firm to the whole of the industry.

His MA thesis (1953) was based on the files of the 1,046 companies registered in the English cotton industry between 1845 and 1896. From this foundation came much of his future research and writing. Years after Farnie had used them, the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), in a space-saving exercise, weeded out and destroyed 90 per cent of the files, thereby making Farnie's work invaluable.

In 1953 he moved to South Africa where he met his future wife, Eve Eato, and spent seven happy years at the University of Natal in Durban. There he lectured on the history of Western civilisation; taught the economic history of South Africa; and wrote the chapter on "The Textile Industry: woven fabrics" for the last (1850-1900) volume of Charles Singer's monumental five-volume History of Technology (1955-58).

Stimulated by the outbreak of the Suez crisis in 1956, he began researching the history of the Suez Canal, the subject of his doctoral thesis. Avoiding the much-told story of the construction of the canal, he examined the century-long history of its commerce and shipping, which took him into a range of topics, from the cotton trade of Bombay to the crude oil trade of Kuwait, spanning political, diplomatic, legal and military aspects, as well as economic ones. It was published as East and West of Suez: the Suez Canal in history, 1854 to 1956 (1969).

In 1960 he was appointed Lecturer in the History Department at Manchester and returned to investigating the cotton industry, producing a variety of studies. The first was a major revision and extension of his MA thesis which became his best-known work: The English Cotton Industry and the World Market, 1815 to 1896 (1979). This related the growth of Lancashire's mill towns to developments in world markets, especially those of India and China. Persuaded by the theories of the Russian economist N.K. Kondratiev, he deployed descriptive statistics to detect the fascinating historical phenomena of cycles and periods of economic growth and decline. Simultaneously he brought together his industry and transport interests, publishing The Manchester Ship Canal and the Rise of the Port of Manchester, 1894-1975 in 1980.

During the 1980s, when for a variety of reasons History at the University of Manchester was under much pressure, Farnie continued to work at the Lancashire cotton industry, increasingly on its 20th-century ascendancy and decline in world markets. A stream of articles, chapters and short studies flowed from his pen – literally, because he never typed or mastered the computer, all his writing being done with a fountain pen.

He wrote seven biographies of Lancashire entrepreneurs for the six-volume Dictionary of Business Biography, edited by David J. Jeremy and Christine Shaw (1984-86), several of them later modified, expanded, and supplemented for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; articles for Business History and Textile History; and other definitive pieces. Of the last, the most important were John Rylands of Manchester (1993), an expanded version of an article-length biography of Manchester's greatest textile merchant manufacturer; and another of John Rylands' widow, Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908), Founder of the John Rylands Library (1989).

In recognition of his research, Farnie was promoted first to Senior Lecturer, then in 1980 to Reader in History at Manchester. Promotion to a chair was thwarted by his profession's Gadarene rush into econometric analyses of economic history.

He retired in 1991 soon after the death of his wife, a loss he kept hidden from many colleagues. In response, perhaps, he channelled his considerable energies into further research. He became connected with the newly established Centre for Business History in Manchester Metropolitan University's Faculty of Management and Business where he was made Visiting Professor in 1997.

Blessed with a capacious memory shaped by decades of wide, erudite reading, he served as an inspiration and a wise counsellor to me and to and Geoffrey Tweedale in our (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to give permanence to the teaching of business history in the faculty after it became MMU Business School in 2001.

Never parochial in his outlook, Douglas Farnie returned to his global interests during the last three decades of his life, developing collaborations which attracted Japanese and American scholars to Manchester and MMU in particular, visits that were reciprocated. He first visited Japan in 1981, to attend the Fuji International Conference on Business History. Between that date and his death he was a frequent and generous supplier of historical information about the Lancashire textile industry to research students and scholars around the world. In two important collaborations of essays he was lead editor: Region and Strategy in Britain and Japan: business in Lancashire and Kansai, 1890-1990 ( 2000) and The Fibre that Changed the World: the cotton industry in international perspective, 1600-1990s (2004).

Like one of his heroes, John Rylands, he kept a low public profile. In later life he regularly attended St Peter's Parish Church, Swinton, but neither there nor among his extended family, in his lifetime, were his academic achievements known. His was a familiar face at economic history conferences and in the reading rooms of the Portico Library, the Central Library and the John Rylands University Library of Manchester.

Self-effacing, courteous, mild-mannered and generous-spirited, Douglas Farnie was disappointed not to see the completion of the final edition of his A Bio-bibliography of Economic and Social History (in which he was assisted by Geoffrey Tweedale) and a Festschrift in his honour, edited by John F. Wilson and already in proof.

David J. Jeremy

Douglas Anthony Farnie, historian: born Salford, Lancashire 31 March 1926; Lecturer in History, Manchester University 1960-72, Senior Lecturer 1972-80, Reader 1980-91; married Eve Eato (died 1990); died Manchester 21 June 2008.