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The Small Family Firm in Victorian Britain

Family firms occupy a unique position in the historiography of British business, and, more than at any other time, the Victorian age is commonly represented as the age of the family firm. In the nineteenth century the phenomenon was lauded; such firms were the models of desirable business organisation and were represented as being at the heart of British economic success, 1 but in the twentieth century the family firm, especially the second or third generation firm, has often been denounced as a backward-looking influence, a drag on innovation and one of the culprits responsible for undermining the British economy.z There is a common assumption built into both of these positions that family firms were significant in numbers; yet the reality is otherwise, for family firms, that is firms in which ownership was formally vested in partners drawn from a single family and the life of the firm crossed two or more generations, were very rare indeed.3