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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions