The son of an ironmonger in Calne, Wiltshire, Henry Phelps Brown won a Scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford. He took a First in Modern History after three years, adding a degree in PPE in 1929, becoming a Fellow of New College in the following year. He represented the university in cross-country running in 1926 and was Secretary of the Union Society in 1928. After taking up his Fellowship at New College, he spent a year in the United States as a Rockefeller Travelling Fellow.
At the outbreak of war, he joined the Army and was posted to the Royal Artillery. He had earlier presented himself at the Board of Trade, to enquire of the chief statistician, Hector Leak, whether they were likely to have need of the services of a statistician familiar with economics. Leak, however, was busy trying to save labour by discontinuing the collection of statistics, so that, far from recruiting more statisticians, he would be releasing as many as possible for other work. Later in the war, Austin Robinson made a fresh attempt to bring Phelps Brown into the newly formed Ministry of Production, but was unsuccessful. By this time, Phelps Brown felt that his duty lay with his men, and he remained in army service until the end of the war .
As a college tutor, Phelps Brown was obliged to embrace both economic theory and applied economics. Out of the former came his book The Framework of the Pricing System (1936). As to the latter, he was active in supervising empirical studies being developed in and around the newly formed Institute of Statistics, as well as engaging in his own work: "British Economic Fluctuations 1924-38 "(in Oxford Economic Papers, 1939), a statistical study which he wrote together with G.L.S. Shackle, is an instance. His second book, A Course in Applied Economics (1951), was written, he said, not as a textbook, but as a "course" in which he gave some illustrations of the ways in which the main branches of economic analysis can be brought to bear on present policy questions. This book was printed and reprinted five times, before a new, and extended, edition, with Jack Wiseman as extra author, came out in 1964. Another example of Phelps Brown's gift for exposition was a series of lectures on factor shares, given at Manchester University in 1968, and published in a slim volume, Pay and Profits, which is still recommended to students in this field. His undergraduate lectures were carefully planned, each student being provided with a typed outline: "the best
lectures I ever heard", in the words of one grateful student.
For the rest, and with the exception of one novel, by far the greater part of his research and writing at LSE, and in the 20 years after his retirement, was in developing his new field. He acknowledged the great importance of economic factors in explaining the size of incomes and their distribution, but he also insisted on the influence of social factors. So his method would be comparative, both in space and time. The more he wrote the more the historian emerged. Of all his work, possibly th e best known internationally is the paper he published in 1955, together with Sheila Hopkins, on "Seven Centuries of Building Wages", providing a fairly continuous record of the money wage-rates of builders' craftsmen and labourers in southern England fro m 1264 to1954. (Phelps Brown would often remark on how fortunate he had been in his research colleagues.) A number of related papers followed, and were reprinted in A Perspective of Wages (1981). A reviewer wrote that "there could not be a better manual to put in the hands of students contemplating research in economic history".
From the late 1950s, Phelps Brown was a public figure of some importance. In 1957 the Macmillan government had set up a Council on Prices, Productivity and Incomes ("The Three Wise Men"), to monitor wage and price rises, and to discuss how they might be slowed down. The first reports were much influenced by the economist member, Dennis Robertson, and found the causes of rising prices in excess demand, or the overheating of the economy. This view, which might have been better received by the Government in the 1980s, did not go down at all well at the time, and Robertson was replaced by Phelps Brown, who gave greater credence to cost- inflation, and saw in incomes policy a possible means of reducing inflation without requiring higher unemployment. In 1962, Phelps Brown became a founder member of the National Economic Development Council. He was called into service again in 1974 to act as a member of the Royal Commission on Income and Wealth, and guided much of its research until it was wound up in 1978.
Two of the books Phelps Brown wrote in his retirement came out during the high tide of monetarism and Thatcherism, during which the idea that the pattern of incomes indicated by purely economic factors might be tempered by social considerations, and ide a s of social justice, was at a discount. It is apparent that, both in the United States and in Britain, questions of fairness are coming back on to the agenda, as well as the question of whether the only way to increase employment is by reducing the payo f those already at the bottom of the scale, and Phelps Brown's books, notably the splendid final philosophical and statistical study of Egalitarianism (1988) may come more into fashion.
After his retirement, Henry Phelps Brown was made an honorary fellow of Wadham College, and was given honorary degrees by Heriot-Watt and Durham universities. In 1970, he was elected President of the Royal Economic Society, and used his presidential address - "The Underdevelopment of Economics" - to underline the mismatch between the problems of the greatest interest to professional economists, and those most in need of a solution from the point of view of society: concluding that economics had reached no further in its development than astronomy in the days of Tycho Brache.
Henry Phelps Brown was an imposing figure, tall and handsome, and with a military bearing. He was an active man, and fond of walking. His demeanour was serious, and he was never flippant. Slow and deliberate in speech, and elegant and lucid in his choiceof words, he was free from exaggeration and cant, with an open-mindedness and forbearance that disposed him to listen rather than to speak. In 1990, he had a stroke, which affected the left side of his body, but left him with his mind unimpaired, and with sufficient strength in his right hand to go on writing. His determination to win back as much independent movement as possible was remarkable, though ultimately his ceiling was limited. Earlier this year, he fell and broke his leg, and the outcome wasthe end of any independent mobility. But his mind remained clear, and he put up with his condition with admirable stoicism.
In 1932, he married Evelyn Bowlby, daughter of Sir Anthony Bowlby, and sister of John Bowlby, the psychiatrist. He was a happily married man, and he and Evelyn passed their diamond wedding two years ago. They had two sons and a daughter, all of whom survive him.
Alec Cairncross and David Worswick
Henry Phelps Brown spent his very productive academic life in the role of an applied economist. For such a work he was most richly qualified, writes Professor James Meade.
As a student he proved himself to be a first-class historian and a first-class economist. He was always interested in measuring the importance of different factors in the real world and for this purpose he acquired a full competence in handling statistics which he applied in his historical analysis of eonomic developments. To all this, as befitted a brother-in-law of John Bowlby, he added a deep interest in social psychology and the ways in which groups of men and women developed loyalties and traditions.
His service in the Army during the five years of war gave him a profound experience of the way in which social groups were formed and behaved. Combining these qualifications with an interest in the structure of good, meaningful English prose, he wrote a n d taught upon many problems of applied economics, such as the history of prices and the assessment of economic inequalities. But, above all, these qualities fitted him to become the leading professor of labour economics as well as a leading practitioner in labour market problems concerning wage settlements, relations between employers and employed and other trade-union matters.
His death means the loss to society of a uniquely endowed applied economist, and to me personally the end of a close friendship that lasted over six decades. With his wide knowledge of history and literature, and his interest in the foibles of mankind, he could be a most entertaining companion.
Ernest Henry Phelps Brown, economist: born 10 February 1906; Fellow, New College, Oxford 1930-47, Honorary Fellow 1987; MBE 1945; Professor of Economics of Labour, London University 1947-68 (Emeritus); FBA 1960; Chairman, Tavistock Institute of Human Relations 1966-68; Honorary Fellow, Wadham College, Oxford 1969-94; President, Royal Economic Society 1970-72; member, Royal Commission on Distribution of Income and Wealth 1974-78; Kt 1976; married 1932 Evelyn Bowlby (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 15 December 1994.Reuse content