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Numbers, Character and Trust in Early Victorian Britain: The Independent West Middlesex Fire and Life Assurance Company Fraud

Research output: Contribution in Book/Report/ProceedingsChapter (peer-reviewed)

Published

Publication date2011
Host publicationStatistics and the Public Sphere: Numbers and the People in Modern Britain, c. 1800-2000
EditorsTom Crook, Glenn O'Hara
PublisherRoutledge
Pages185-202
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)978-0-415-87894-4
Original languageEnglish

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Modern British History

Abstract

The development of the joint-stock company in the nineteenth century challenged the foundations on which business had hitherto been based. Given the scale of company operations, it was unlikely that investors would have direct contact with boards of directors. Companies therefore developed mechanisms to foster trust in the new impersonal economy. This chapter identifies a tension between new forms of trust formation (usually involving ‘objective’ statistics enshrined in balance sheets and financial reports), and old ones (faith in the character of the gentlemen behind a business). Focusing on a case study of a major fraud, this chapter argues that investors tended to rely on the perceived character of the directors. In exposing the unreliability of these traditional processes of trust formation, the scandal prompted the state to attempt to improve access to objective data on companies, and this chapter ends by examining the reasons for the failure of these reforms.