The Royal Economic Society was founded as the British Economic Association in November 1890, as a venue for professional economists in the United Kingdom.
Prior to its creation, British economists had been gathered at four other venues, but each of them had their limitations. The oldest, the Political Economy Club in London, founded back in 1821, was an exclusive dinner discussion club, confined to 35 members, and did not put out publications. The Cobden Club, founded in 1866, had open membership and a vigorous publication arm, but it was more geared towards disseminating Manchester School propaganda among the general public, not the interchange of ideas and research among economists. Since 1832, professional economists had been gathered under Section F ("Economics and Statistics") of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), but it was a large association diluted by other sciences. They put out general reports of the proceedings, but economics papers were often buried in the shuffle. Section F presentations at its annual meetings were also not strictly economics - discussions ranged widely, and often covered minutiae of wider public policy issues, such as sanitation and strikes. Moreover, the rest of the scientists viewed the economists with the suspicion - indeed, in 1877, they proposed the BAAS should drop Section F altogether. Finally, there was the Statistical Society of London (SSL), founded in 1834, also inhabited by economists, which indeed had a dedicated journal. However, the SSL was fundamentally empirically-oriented, and refused to expand its scope to cover more theoretical or policy articles.
Outside of Britain, professional economics associations had emerged, much to the envy of some British economists. The German Verein fŘr Socialpolitik (f.1873) had led the way, and was the model followed by the American Economic Association (f.1885). Britain also had no dedicated economics journal, equivalent to the French Journal des Úconomistes or the American Quarterly Journal of Economics, or the multiplicity of German academic Zeitschrifts and Jahrbuchs. Through the 19th C., British economists were still forced to published primarily in general literary reviews or magazines. This was not an inevitable British quirk - British philosophers and historians had already abandoned the reviews, and set up regular specialist journals like Mind (f. 1876) and the English Historical Review (f.1886).
It was with these lessons in mind that the idea for a British society of economists, with a specialist journal, began to form. It emerged initially from discussions around 1883 between journalist R.H. Inglis Palgrave (then president of Section F) and Herbert S. Foxwell (then economics professor at UCL). Palgrave had initially hoped for a society to raise subscriptions to reprint economics classics, but Foxwell persuaded Palgrave it ought to put out a specialist journal instead. The initiative gathered traction when taken in hand by banker-turned-politician George J. Goschen and Cambridge moral sciences professor Henry Sidgwick. Goschen had initially wanted a Verein-like association, at the intersection of academia and public policy, but Sidgwick nudged it in the more purely academic direction. Goschen gradually brought in other political figures, like Leonard H. Courtney, Arthur Balfour, John Morley and the Duke of Argyll, as sponsors, while Sidgwick and Foxwell set about recruiting the academics. For several years, the project remained on the burner as many academics showed little interest - nobody really wanted to take on the task of editing the projected journal. But the idea accelerated quickly when the Christian Social Union of Oxford launched its journal, the Economic Review. Not willing to be left behind, the Cambridge economics professor Alfred Marshall (then also president of Section F for that year) quickly climbed aboard, and sent out circular letters canvassing economist members of other societies (BAAS, SSL, etc.) for the form of organization. Foxwell had originally envisaged a closed society (to keep the quacks out), but Marshall preferred an open one. After some debate, an open society formula was agreed upon.
The first meeting of the British Economic Association was held on November 20, 1890, at University College in London, with some 200 people in attendance (partial list). Viscount Goschen (then chancellor of the Exchequer) chaired the meeting, and Alfred Marshall (as president of Section F) was the first to address it and lay out the case for the formation of the Association and a journal. Resolutions were gradually passed. The open formula was agreed upon for membership. Edgeworth spoke up to insist also on the openness in the journal to all schools of thought ("no test of orthodoxy") and all methodologies.(p.10). Sidgwick piped in to remind that its goal was solely scientific and did not have in mind the advancement of any policy or political stance. This became a wrinkle later on in the meeting, when George Bernard Shaw protested that, if so, then a government official such as Goschen should not be chairing the meeting nor be elected president of the BEA (Goschen was quick to pass the word to Marshall, before sheepishly agreeing with Shaw) (p.13)
Despite misgivings, Viscount Goschen was elected the first president of the BEA while Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (then at KCL) was elected as the first secretary of the BEA, and first editor of the Economic Journal. L.L. Price, H.S. Foxwell and T.H. Elliot were to be the correspondence secretaries (p.12).. Notables on the first council included Charles Bastable (Whately chair at Trinity College Dublin), James Bonar (civil servant), William Cunningham (Cambridge), H.S. Foxwell (UCL, RES secretary), Sir Robert Giffen (government statistician), John K. Ingram (Dublin), John Neville Keynes (Cambridge), Alfred Marshall (Cambridge), J.E.C. Munro, John Shield Nicholson (Edinburgh), R.H. Inglis Palgrave (journalist), L.R. Phelps (Oxford's CSU), L.L. Price (Oxford), Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge), Llewellyn Smith (Oxford Extension) and Philip Wicksteed (London Extension). (The Drummond professor at Oxford, J.E. Thorold Rogers had only recently died, otherwise he would have probably also been included.)
As the Economic Journal announced in its inaugural issue, "journal should represent all shades of economic opinion an be the organ not of one school of economists, but all schools." (1891: p.2). This seems only partly evident. The initial council of the BEA was a relatively eclectic bunch including old Classical economists like Bastable, Nicholson, Price and Sidgwick, moderate Neoclassicals like Marshall, Neville Keynes and Foxwell, radical Jevonians like Edgeworth and Wicksteed , Historicists such as Cunningham and Ingram, and Christian economists like Phelps. But the absence of confirmed socialists was conspicuous (Shaw would later go on to mumble that the BEA was not nearly as open as Wicksteed's old "Hempstead Circle" had been).
The first issue of the Economic Journal came out in March 1891, and would remain a quarterly. A subscription price of 1 guinea (=21 shillings) was decided upon (10 guineas for a lifetime subscription). Edgeworth would remain at the editorship helm for many years (although editing duties were shared by younger assistants like Henry Higgs and, later on, John Maynard Keynes). Membership climbed quickly in its early years, reaching 750 by 1894, but it dropped off soon after.
A decade later, King Edward VII granted a charter (dated December 2, 1902) sponsoring the British Economic Association, and as a result it was subsequently renamed the "Royal Economic Society" (EJ, March, 1903, p.1)
Presidents of the BEA/RES
Resources on the Royal Economic Society
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