Manchester Statistical Society's History

Manchester Statistical Society was a pioneering organisation: It was the first organisation in Britain to study social problems systematically and to collect statistics for social purposes. In 1834 it was the first organisation to carry out a house-to-house social survey.

The Society was formed in September 1833 at a time of severe social problems. Few of the founders were statisticians in the modern, technical sense. But, they were interested in improving the state of the people and believed that establishing the facts regarding social problems was a necessary first step. The founders were no doubt partly driven by deep-seated alarm over the acute social conditions of the time. Manchester was then a Victorian boom town. Population had grown by 45 per cent between the census of 1821 and 1831. While this reflected rapid industrialisation and expansion of employment, it brought acute housing problems and disease in its wake.

The Society’s objects were, and still are: The collection of facts illustrative of the condition of Society and the discussion of subjects of Social and Political Economy, totally excluding party politics. Early papers to the Society reflect these principles. They included a survey of the families of 4,102 working men in Manchester; numerous surveys of the state of education in Manchester and the surrounding boroughs; investigation of the use of steam power in Manchester and Salford and a discussion of meat consumption.

Members of the Society were initially few in number, just 28 in the first year. The founders were a group of friends, all under 40 in age, drawn from local industry and commerce. The driving force was William Langton, a widely travelled man who had just taken up the post of cashier in Heywood’s Bank in Manchester. His friend and collaborator was Dr James Phillips Kay, (better known as Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth) - secretary to the Manchester Board of Health and also Physician to the Knott Mill Hospital, a post he held during the cholera epidemic of 1832. In turn, Dr Kay persuaded the two Greg brothers, Samuel and William Rathbone Greg to join the venture. (On the Greg family and Quarry Bank Mill see the Quarry Bank Mill website). William Rathbone was also a supporter of the Anti-corn law league and an advocate of the abolition of slavery.

The Society first met in the house of Benjamin Heywood, a local banker and Whig member of parliament. He became the Society’s founder president at the age of 39. Benjamin Heywood helped fund the early social surveys, and he recruited his brother-in-law, Samuel Robinson, a cotton-spinner of Dukinfield as another founder member.

So few of the initial members were statisticians. Men from the cotton industry and banking predominated. Richard Cobden was to join on November 25th, 1835. Early meetings took place in the home of a member. The first paper was delivered by W.R. Greg on criminal statistics and, at the same meeting, Dr Kay proposed plans for public swimming baths.

The Society continues in the vein of its founders, attracting influential speakers to its regular meetings. It certainly attracts the lively minds of Manchester. Past Presidents include two Nobel Laureates in economics, Sir John Hicks and W. Arthur Lewis. Although the cotton industry has waned in Lancashire, there is still a high proportion of the membership drawn from banking and other financial sectors such as insurance as well as the local Universities, industries and professions.

For a list of the Presidents of the Society fom 1833 onwards, click here

The archives of the Society are kept in Manchester Central Reference Library. The Society is fortunate that the Librarian of the Central Reference Library acts as the Society’s Librarian. For further details, go to the Central Reference Library website.


The early history of the Society has been well documented in:

Thomas S. Ashton, Economic and Social Investigations in Manchester, 1833-1933, London: P.S. King & Son, 1934 and reprinted by Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1977, ISBN 0 85527 025 X

Chris O’Brien – a current member of the Society – has systematically analysed the early membership of Manchester Statistical Society and compared these founding members to those of later Statistical Societies set up in Liverpool and London. The paper provides insights into the social networks of Manchester and Liverpool in the 19th Century and shows how business leaders linked up with other social groups such as doctors and ministers of religion. The paper was presented to the Society in June 2008 and reproduced in the Transactions for 2008-09.