Article re: George Livesey

PUBLISHED IN Business History

In a digest of recent articles with a business history interest Philip Ollerenshaw, ‘British Business History: A Review of Recent Periodical Literature’, ”Business History• Vol 32 (1990) p76., attention has been given to an article on profit sharing in the gas industry by Derek Matthews, (‘Profit-sharing in the gas industry, 1889-1949’. ”Business History• Vol 30 (1988) p.306). This outlines the progress and effectiveness of the profit sharing scheme set up at the South Metropolitan Gas Company in 1889. It is a valuable contribution to the under-researched field of workplace management in the last century; it attempts to analyse the success or failure of the scheme through a detailed examination of its progress from its inception in 1889 until its termination at nationalisation, and puts into a framework of current debate, research which has appeared in unpublished theses (Derek Matthews. ‘The London Gasworks: A Technical, Commercial and Labour History to 1914’ (unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. University of Hull 1983) Ch.6. Mary Mills. ‘Profit Sharing in the South Metropolitan Gas Company’ (unpublished M.Phil. Thesis. Thames Polytechnic, 1983).

However the two paragraph summary by Philip Ollerenshaw has highlighted some points which, while accurately carrying forward Derek Matthew’s main argument, may also have distorted some details. One of these is on the nature of paternalism, the other concerns George Livesey the originator of the scheme at South Met. The review has highlighted the phrase ‘the scheme was an example of unvarnished paternalism’. In this is implicit the central point which Derek Matthews is making: ‘attempts to control the workforce’. It is a phrase which he has used on several occasions and a question should be asked about what is meant by ‘paternalism’.

The concept of ‘Paternalism’ as a concept was something which had been considered by George Livesey. Matthews quotes an extract from Livesey’s paper following an attack on the South Metropolitan scheme by W.H.Lever in the course of correspondence on the subject in ”Economic Review• ( W.H.Lever, ‘A Criticism of Profit Sharing in Relation to Workplace Management’. ”Economic Review • Jan 1901 & June 1901 G.T.Livesey, ‘Profit-Sharing a Vindication’, ”Economic Review• Oct.1901 p410 [which also included propagandists for the Labour Co-partnership Association and other interested parties]. These papers need to be read against the background of a considerable body of contemporaneous literature which discusses the merits and otherwise of, for example; ‘profit-sharing’, ‘co-partnership’, ‘prosperity sharing’ and attempts to analyse the reasoning for and results of various schemes. The paper by Livesey, quoted by Derek Matthews, is primarily a discussion about the difference between his scheme and Lever’s, which he describes following a more generalised attack on ‘profit sharing’ by Lever. He cites N.P.Gilman’s ( ‘”A Dividend to Labour. A study of employers welfare institutions’. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Boston & New York. 1899) distinction of French and German ‘patronal’ institutions, as corresponding with Lever’s ‘prosperity sharing’. He thus distinguishes very sharply between this and his own scheme at South Met. which,he says, was designed to enable the workforce to ‘take a higher position in life and therefore become better citizens’ corresponding to the French definition of ‘participation’.

Although he did not use the actual word ‘paternalism’ here Livesey can be seen as being acutely aware that a variety of meanings and motivations can be encompassed within idea. As currently used it may not cover the sharp gradations of meaning of which those who were supposed to have practiced it were aware. This is not the place to refer these ideas to current discussions on ‘paternalism’ ( see for instance: Albert Weale. ‘Paternalism and
Social Policy’ ”Journal of Social Policy Vol.7, Bo.1.(1978) , but it should be said that the concept is more complicated than it appears. Simply stated, it could be taken to mean that the effect is to inhibit freedom of action.

It must therefore be noted that, whatever the actual result, that Livesey’s stated intention was the opposite ‘Our working population have no share in its vast accumulated property … the right to own property is the foundation of liberty’ (G.T.Livesey ”Industrial Partnership and the Relief of Distress. in C.Loch (ed) ”Methods of Social Advance. ” p.107. ” He described the Lever schemes as ‘libraries, recreation rooms’ and said ‘it may be questioned whether it is really to the advantage of employees to have so much done for them. In short, does it tend to make men of them?’(Livesey, ‘Industrial partnership’ p.107)

It can of course be argued that attempts to ‘make men of them’ are themselves paternalistic and that Livesey’s definition of ‘liberty’ amounted to, ‘a delusive snare’, to quote John Burns. (”Labour Co-partnership• February 1899 p.5). The point nevertheless needs to be made that ‘paternalism’ as a concept can have many variations and ought to be used more exactly. If Livesey recognised their complexity then we should at least acknowledge that too and continue the discussion in the light of his comments; albeit critically.

It should also follow that a useful look might be taken at the background to some of Livesey’s ideas. He spoke at some length about the influence of Mazzini on him and some others, for example Maurice. Mazzini had a considerable following in England and some influential support; it is possible that some of this circle were also involved in employee welfare work. (cf E.F.Richards ‘”Mazzini’s Letters to an English Family’  London 1898.) A serious discussion of the background to any such scheme as that set up in South Met. must include an investigation of these influences.
My second point concerns the brief description of Livesey himself. Philip Ollerenshaw has gone on to describe Livesey as ‘an activist in the Free Labour Movement’. There is a body of evidence for this: much of it gained from William Collinson’s chapter on Livesey (William Collinson ‘”The Apostle of Free Labour ”The Life Story of William Collinson. Told by Himself’• Hurst and Blackett. 1913) There is also evidence from a number of pamphlet sources For example: Labour Protection Association. ‘”The Law relating to picketing as laid down by recent judgments’ (London 1899) and ”Free Labour Gazette shows some employee participation. (for example. Biographical article on C.Z.Burrows ”Free Labour Gazette• June 1895 ”p.4).

However, it must also be said that evidence of Livesey’s involvement can be found in a whole range of organisations. For instance the Labour Co-partnership Association, which described him in 1906 as ‘the one man who could not be left out’ (Editorial ”Labour Co-partnership• Nov.1906 p.5). Even more evidence can be produced for his life-long involvement with the Band of Hope and with numerous church bodies and professional organisations – like the Institution of Civil Engineers. Livesey was involved in a lot of different organisations many with conflicting interests and ideologies. This is one of the things that makes him so interesting and a bare comment on his association with free labour organisations does him a grave disservice and makes his involvement in profit sharing one-dimensional.

Livesey’s years as a working engineer and manager in a initially relatively insignificant gas company should be remembered together with his contribution to the industry as a whole. Gas industry historians would never describe Livesey in such a dismissive way and have given recognition to this clever, busy, difficult and unconventional man ‘the acknowledged leader of the gas industry .. founded on his technical grasp … commercial vision … tactical ability (Matthews, Thesis p.93)’

This gas industry background should always be remembered in discussions on the profit sharing scheme because so much of it is rooted in ideas about gas company financing and ownership put forward during the last century. Again it is crucial to look at this background in order to put the profit sharing scheme into context.

If Livesey had only been a gas engineer his ideas on technology would have made him notable; if he only been a gas company manager his ideas on adminstration and the political organisation of the industry would have made him even more outstanding. The fact that he also formulated a series of very original ideas about workplace management and the way society itself should be organised make him worthy of very serious notice indeed. He wrote and spoke very largely about these ideas – it is a pity that most of what has been published recently has listed bare achievements without understanding them or the intellectual force and energy behind them.

”Mary Mills, BA, M.Phil (CNAA). Open University (Dept. History of Science and

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