By Ryland Thomas
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Charles Feinstein’s famous National Income, Expenditure and Output of the United Kingdom 1855-1965. Known affectionately as the “Big Red Book” by the many students and researchers that have consulted it, the volume remains the foundation of our knowledge of UK GDP growth since the industrial apotheosis of the British economy in the mid-19th Century. Permission was kindly granted by Cambridge University and Professor Feinstein’s family to make a digital copy of the volume in 2020 and the dataset was subsequently transcribed into a spreadsheet available in ESCoE’s Historical Data UK repository.
Feinstein’s work was the culmination of decades of research on the components of GDP by the Department of Applied Economics at Cambridge University led by Richard Stone and Phyllis Deane, which in turn had built on the work of others such as Arthur Bowley, Josiah Stamp and Colin Clark. But the compilation of the complete set of accounts, which involved the collation of a vast amount of additional statistical material necessary to fill the remaining gaps, was largely the work of Feinstein himself with little Research Assistant or computer assistance. Indeed much of the calculation was done with simple pen and paper (see example below). Feinstein’s papers and correspondence, including his working notes for the national income volume, can be consulted at the Nuffield College, Oxford library.
Feinstein’s work on historical UK GDP has been built on by many subsequent scholars, including many ESCoE researchers. Steve Broadberry and Alex Klein, who have been working with ESCoE on historical business cycle dating and historical regional accounts, were part of the team that constructed estimates of British GDP growth back to 1270 (with Bruce Campbell, Mark Overton and Bas van Leeuwen). Steve Broadberry has also been working with Alexandra Pleijt on estimates of the capital stock back to 1270 which will allow growth accounting techniques to be applied to the medieval and early modern economy. Solomos Solomou and Ryland Thomas are currently working on updating the income-based estimates of the national accounts for the period 1841-1920, largely based on Feinstein’s own improvements made after the 1972 volume was published (see link for their technical paper and early provisional estimates).
Feinstein ended his series in 1965, based on the post-WW2 data in the 1968 Blue Book and the system of accounts described in the 1967 Sources and Methods volume by Rita Maurice. Since then, both the system of national accounts and the estimates themselves have been revised many times, which provides a challenge when trying to link historical estimates with the latest ONS data. James Sefton, Martin Weale, Bill Martin and Anne Harrison have all worked on compiling and improving the available 20th Century national accounts data so that historical data can ultimately be linked to current ONS national accounts series, many of which only start in 1997. For example, James Sefton and Martin Weale kindly made available their balanced estimates of GDP between 1920 and 1990 as part of the ESCoE project on Historical National Accounts Data. Anne Harrison has also provided a compilation of official national accounts data for the UK between 1948 and 1997, based on the earlier system of accounts preceding the introduction of the ESA95 standard in 1998. The National Accounts section of Historical Data UK will act as a repository for these datasets alongside a whole range of documentation on sources and methods.
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