Proposal preview

Defining and measuring entrepreneurship in business history from big data: The England and Wales business population 1851-1911

This session has a brief overall introduction, and then 3 papers that seek to stimulate discussion of how entrepreneurs are defined and identified among the population. The papers each use the full population data from the England and Wales censuses for 1851-1911 derived from I-CeM database at UK Data Archive. This allows ‘big data’ analysis of 140 million records for individuals. The discussion focuses on the attributes of individuals that are identifiable as ‘in business’ at census years: as employers with their employees (recorded in the censuses 1851-81), those self-identified as employers or own account sole traders (recorded in censuses 1891-1911), as company directors (identified in the census from cross related databases), and those with other entrepreneurial attributes. This is a big data session that seeks to identify and extract the whole population of entrepreneurs and examine how definitions from the census offer new opportunities, constraints and challenges for measuring the total business population and its changes over time. Discussion of the correspondence between definitions of entrepreneurs and business proprietors will allow a wide debate on different focuses of economic and business history. The papers then explore specifics of 1. individual entrepreneurism, 2. gender and family, and 3. geographical clustering through endogenous development or migration.

The introduction to the session by Bob Bennett explores definitions of entrepreneurship, and the potential and limitations of the big data available. The first paper by Bennett et al. on ‘Entrepreneur characteristics and choices’ presents an econometric model of entrepreneur choice to operate a business using logit and other estimators. This is used to examine the role of age, gender, marital status, household structure, business sector, locational and other variables. Sub-categories of the model are used to understand the choices of operating portfolios of multiple businesses, and other specialist business activities. Although there are data constraints on interpretation, the paper indicates the role of business sector, urban opportunity, age, gender, and marital status as the main influences on entrepreneurship choices.

The second paper by Carry van Lieshout on ‘Gender and the family firm’ develops a detailed examination of gender, marital status and household structure in order to interpret the changing role of the family and family firm relationships, single business proprietors, widow and widower-headed businesses, and the people they employed. The paper present the first large-scale analysis for those family-owned businesses identifiable in the censuses using the data on all employers and the self-employed in England and Wales between 1851 and 1911. Within these the role family and gender plays are examined, resulting in a large sample of family firms. The paper considers three main issues: first, the incidence of family firms by sector; second, the family structure of those engaged in family businesses, particularly the importance of gender and life cycle in shaping the kinds of businesses in which families engaged; and third, the distinctiveness of businesses run by married, single people, widows and widowers.

The third paper by Harry Smith on ‘Location, clusters and migration‘ focuses on the role of locational concentrations of different types of business proprietor, the balance between employers and own account businesses, their sector distinctions between places, and the influence of this on overall rates of entrepreneurship and clustering. The locational patterns are also assessed for the extent of endogenous or external sources of development using the information on birthplace contained in the census. The birthplace information allows comparison of local-born, those from other parts of the UK, and foreign-born individuals. The paper offers the first whole population study of these effects for 1851-1911, and their interrelation with age, gender, occupational sector, and family structure. It considers the chance that a member of a migrant group will be a business proprietor; whether location of origin affects this probability; and whether migrant entrepreneurs are different in their socio-economic characteristics from others.


  • Robert R J Bennett, Univerity of Cambridge,, UK

Session members

  • Robert R J Bennett, Uinversity of Cambridge,
  • Carry C van Lieshout, University of Cambridge,
  • Harry H Smith, University of Cambridge,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Leslie L Hannah, London School of Economics, UK, and University of Tokyo, Japan,
  • Andrea A Colli, Bocconi University Milan, Italy,