BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Capital and Commodities in Victorian Britain: an Economic and Social History

Unit code HIST31701
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


Victorian Britain was shaped by Empire, Industrialisation and Capitalism. This module explores how the Victorians engaged with the social and economic aspects of industrial, colonial and capitalist life.

Seminars explore how people consumed commodities, lived domestic lives, how they worked, spent leisure time and how their lives increasingly revolved around industrial capitalism. We will study how they accumulated financial capital and debated its influence on social order. By extending our gaze beyond the British Isles, seminars examine the profound influence of Victorian capitalism on colonies such as India.

The module will help students draw distinctions about how people engaged with capitalism depending upon whether someone was an imperialist or nationalist, a gentlemanly or bourgeoise capitalist, a colonial subject or administrator, a consumer of the empire or a greedy industrialist. It will help you make sense of the hodgepodge collection of capitalist practices that coalesced in the minds of Victorians and rethink how modern capitalism emerged in this historical period.



HIST31701 is restricted to History programmes, History and American Studies programmes, and European Studies programmes (please check your programme regulations for further details).

This module is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas. Available to students on an Erasmus programme subject to VSO approval.


  • To uncover the connections between capitalism, colonialism, and globalisation.
  • To introduce the complex connections between global networks of capital, commerce, and empire.
  • To explore how political, economic and social institutions shaped the interplay within these global networks of products and commodities.
  • To challenge traditional understanding of capitalism by broadening the perspective beyond the development of markets, finance and businesses.
  • To facilitate group work and individual research culminating in a group presentations and a poster project on a topic of student’s choice related to the subject matter of the course unit.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:


Indicative list of weekly seminars

  1. Capitalism in history and the history of capitalism
  2. Tea, Opium and Cotton: Imperial Expansion and the politics of consumption
  3. Sugar and Cotton: Slavery, Industrialisation and the Colonial Economy
  4. Bread, and Tea: The political economy of Free Trade
  5. Smoking and Drinking: Class, Consumption and Public Health
  6. A Nation of Shareholders: Money, Finance and the Culture of Investing
  7. Print Culture, Financial Journalism and Writing about Financial Capital
  8. Spaces and Marketplaces: Shops, Coffee Houses and Commodity Exchanges
  9. The Visible Hand: Regulation, Democracy and State Intervention
  10. Trust, Character and the Moral Economy: The Connected Histories of capital, people and commodities


Teaching and learning methods

The course will be taught by a combination of weekly seminar (3 hours ) plus an additional hour for dedicated office consultation or for field visits/ guest speakers.

In seminars/workshops, students will work predominantly in smaller groups, debating, examining source material, discussing, analysing and making structured presentations. Students will also get an opportunity to reflect upon their own practice, become aware of how they develop their understanding of concepts, and generate ideas to refine their study methods.

Where appropriate and when accessible, external resources from around the University as well as in Manchester will be drawn upon including those of the John Rylands Special Collections or of the Museum of Science and Industry. These may include primary source material or expertise of people within these institutions as guest speakers.

The course will be supported by Blackboard. This will be used to provide seminar readings, and where possible extracts from primary sources, and other relevant course materials. All coursework would be submitted and feedback returned via Blackboard.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Articulate and compare key themes related to the emergence of capitalist institutions in modern Britain and elsewhere.
  • Examine the extent of historical changes associated with the ‘emergence’ of capitalistic societies in modern times.
  • Evaluate the complexities underlying the development of ‘capitalism’ as an ordering of social and economic activity.
  • Familiarity with the major historiographical texts related to histories of specific commodities, global history and history of capitalism.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Navigate the relationships between people, institutions, and material objects in their social and economic contexts
  • Use of primary historical sources in historical research to examine these relationships
  • Apply economic and social history methods to specific historical periods and issues
  • formulate lucid presentations in written or oral form of the results of their historical investigations

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • locate, retrieve, assimilate and interpret relevant information and theory from  primary and secondary sources.
  • articulate and develop informed historical argument and criticism in written and or oral form
  • extend and apply oral and group skills by participating in and leading seminars.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Work independently through individual research.
  • Writing reflective, considered, and well-structured pieces of assessed work.
  • Developing written and oral fluency that are crucial for both academic work and career progress.
  • Develop skills in engaging with unfamiliar modes of knowledge and communication, accepting responsibility for meeting deadlines and co-operating with others, developing confidence in their own abilities.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
The intellectual and knowledge skills will prepare students for a range of careers requiring knowledge of historical changes to commercial and industrial institutions, businesses, markets, commodities and products. Such careers could include law, business and management, advertising and communications, politics and administration, charities and voluntary organisations, private sector enterprises, self-employment and entrepreneurship, etc.
Oral communication
The oral work, and the feedback on it, will enable students to improve their communication skills.
Problem solving
The digital poster exercise will require students to engage with social responsibility issues related to capitalism. These will include themes such as gender inequality, social inequality, conspicuousness and sustainability in consumption, speculation in commodity markets, moral economy and protest, trade in contraband products, influence of multinational corporations, etc. The course will raise awareness of such issues, and help students confront them, both in the workplace as well as in the broader social context.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 85%
Oral assessment/presentation 15%

Feedback methods

  • Oral feedback on group presentation and in seminar discussions
  • Written feedback on all coursework and assessments
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

  • Aashish Velkar. Markets and Measurements in Nineteenth Century Britain. (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  • David Higgins and Aashish Velkar. ‘“Spinning a Yarn”: Institutions, Law and Standards c1880-1914’, Enterprise and Society 18 (2017): 591-631.
  • Aashish Velkar, ‘Imagining Economic Space in Colonial India,’ Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 36B (2018): 109-128.
  • Frank Trentmann. Free Trade Nation (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Matthew Hilton. ‘“Tabs”, “Fags” and the “Boy Labour Problem” in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.’ Journal of Social History, 28, (1995): 587-607.
  • Sven Beckert. Empire of Cotton (London: Penguin Books, 2015).
  • Mary Rose. The Gregs of Quarry Bank Mill: the rise and decline of a family firm, 1750-1914. (Cambridge University Press 1986).
  • Richard Huzzey, ‘Free Trade, Free Labour, And Slave Sugar in Victorian Britain’, The Historical Journal, 53 (2010): 359–379.
  • Ian Miller. ‘“A Dangerous Revolutionary Force Amongst Us”: Conceptualizing Working-Class Tea Drinking in the British Isles, c. 1860-1900’, Cultural and Social History, 10 (2013): 419-38.
  • Janet Rutterford, D. R. Green, J. Maltby, and A. Owens. ‘Who comprised the nation of shareholders? Gender and investment in Great Britain, c. 1870—1935,’ The Economic History Review 64 (2011): 157-87.
  • Donna Loftus. ‘Capital and Community: Limited Liability and Attempts to Democratize the Market in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England,’ Victorian Studies, 45 (2002): 93-120.
  • Mary Poovey. ‘Writing about Finance in Victorian England: Disclosure and Secrecy in the Culture of Investment,’ Victorian Studies 45 (2002): 17-41.
  • James Taylor. ‘Company Fraud in Victorian Britain: The Royal British Bank Scandal of 1856,’ English Historical Review, 122 (2007): 700-24.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Fieldwork 11
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 156

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Aashish Velkar Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods:

Group Presentation, 1000 words (equivalent), 10 minute group presentation on social responsibility, 15%

Source Analysis/Book Review, 2000 words, 35%

Research Essay, 3000 words, 50%


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