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Max Hartwell: Influential economic historian unafraid to provoke controversy

By happy chance, Max Hartwell erupted into British academic life at a time when the subject of economic history was growing in importance and regard. He arrived at Oxford's Nuffield college in 1956, and shortly afterwards published, in the Economic History Review, an article entitled "The Rising Standard of Living in England, 1800-1850". Few academic articles have generated more controversy and Hartwell's argument – that industrialisation had immeasurably improved the lot of the poor – put him at odds with Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawn. During a scholarly career largely spent at Nuffield college and, in later years, as a visiting professor at the universities of Virginia and Chicago, Hartwell was a major figure in his field, becoming assistant editor of the Economic History Review in 1957, editing it between 1960 and 1968.

Ronald Max Hartwell was born in Red Range, a village in the northern tablelands of New South Wales, in 1921, and throughout his life proudly paraded his Australian origins. He was brought up in a co-operative community where the only public official was his schoolmaster father. Quick-minded and cocky, he went young to teacher-training college and to the University of Sydney where, after service in the army, he took his degree in both history and economics.

His very able MA thesis later became his first book: The Economic Development of Van Diemen's Land, 1820-1850 (1954). He then wanted to know what was done with the wool Australia was producing in increasingly quantities, and it was this that took him to Oxford in 1948 for two intensive years of doctoral research on the British woollen industry.

When he went back to Australia in 1950 it was to a newly established chair of economic history at the technological university in Sydney, later the University of New South Wales. He had a happy five years establishing the teaching of humanities and social sciences at what was still a new institution, until his career juddered to a halt when he objected strongly to the vice-chancellor's refusal to agree to the appointment of a Marxist colleague on purely ideological grounds. After a great battle, Hartwell resigned on principle. Later in life he was sometimes accused of being right-wing, but he was in fact a classic liberal, and he loved to épater les bien pensants.

This proved to be the turning-point in his career. Hartwell found himself unemployed just as Asa Briggs – later Lord Briggs - was vacating the readership in economic history at Oxford on becoming Professor at Leeds. The job was advertised; Hartwell – with no expectations – applied and got it, and his life from 1956 was transformed. He became a fellow of Nuffield college, then a relatively new addition to the Oxford scene, and immediately loved it. He sorted out its library, because he loved books; and its wine cellar, because he loved wine. Indeed, he loved Oxford too, since he believed deeply in the unity of the central tripartite academic activities – teaching, research and administration – now, alas, thought to be an old-fashioned idea.

Soon after Hartwell arrived in Oxford he wrote "The Rising Standard of Living in England, 1800-1850". The very title was provocative to the supposedly orthodox Marx-Toynbee-Hammonds view that the industrial revolution represented a dramatic collapse in working-class living standards and was an exploitative disaster. This view had been expressed trenchantly in an earlier article in the Economic History Review by Hobsbawm. Hartwell showed that simple quantification piled up evidence against this view. The resulting debate about living standards fed the growth of economic history as a subject throughout the 1960s. Taking place as it did in the period of the Cold War, it had ideological overtones that gave it a resonance well beyond the sedate pages of the Economic History Review.

In 1970 the centrepiece of the Economic History Society conference at Birmingham University was a summarising debate between Hartwell and Hobsbawm. It was a professional meeting, but sparks were expected. With the austere W.H.B. Court in the chair, the protagonists disagreed totally but affably in the academic manner, calling each other "Eric" and "Max", the first time that given names had been used on the platform of an academic history conference. (Later there was a plaintive cry of: "But who will know about whom they are speaking?" from Professor T. S. Willan of Manchester, perhaps the last academic never to call a colleague by his given name).

Hartwell quickly became involved in the affairs of the booming Economic History Society, becoming in 1957 assistant to the heroic figures of Sir Michael Postan and Sir John Habakkuk at the Economic History Review. Then, remarkably, from 1960 he became their successor, a self-proclaimed rough diamond alongside first, Charles Wilson, a highly polished Cambridge gem, and then, D.C. Coleman, LSE steel. Hartwell gave up the editorship in 1968, but stayed on as book-review editor until 1972, thus remaining a key "gatekeeper of science" throughout the heyday of economic history's expansion as a subject.

Hartwell was a great teacher with an irreverent sense of humour. He loved provoking people and students who could stand up to him became his friends; many are now eminent themselves. Most of the articles he published originated as lectures. His collection The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth (1971) stands well-used on the shelves of economic historians throughout the world, and still informs many lectures on the subject.

After he semi-retired from Oxford in 1977, Hartwell taught every autumn at the University of Virginia and often at the University of Chicago. A keen controversialist, he was long a member (and for two years President) of the Mont Pelerin Society founded in 1947 by Friedrich Hayek to defend liberal thinking; Hartwell was given to musing about Hayek's reference to the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions.

Hartwell achieved the unusual distinction of two Festschriften in his honour: one from Cambridge University Press in 1993, the other from the University of Chicago Press in 1994. He might himself have produced more had he not loved life so much. Max died a fulfilled man – five minutes after the doctor left, aware he had a devoted family as well as an extraordinary number of friends, and knowing that he had almost finished drinking the best vintages in his fine cellar.

Negley Harte

Ronald Max Hartwell, economic historian: born Red Range, New South Wales 11 February 1921; Professor of Economic History, University of New South Wales, 1950-56; Reader in Recent Economic and Social History, University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College Oxford, 1956-77 (Emeritus 1977); Editor of the Economic History Review 1960-68; married 1945 Lorraine Perkins (three daughters and one daughter deceased); died Oxford 14 March 2009.