Abstract: Language, Family, Diversions, and Socially Constructed Reality in the Merchant-Shipowning Community: The Bates of Liverpool, 1870–1945

Gordon Boyce


Since the 1960s, historians have debated how social mobility, generational succession, and culture affected Britain's business performance. Aldcroft, Chandler, and others argued that social aspirations deflected attention away from entrepreneurial pursuits and absorbed resources that could have been put to productive use. A related phenomenon, the so-called Buddenbrooks syndrome, wherein later generations dissipate fortunes and enterprises built up by their forebears, is believed to have undermined the performance of British business, particularly in the late nineteenth century. These interpretations have been contested by other scholars who suggested that the pursuit of social mobility was rational in the British context, for it provided access to higher-level network contacts. Other critics challenged the idea of generational decline, citing examples of continued dynamism shown by family firms. This paper develops deeper insights into the relationship between social structures and communication. It pursues Casson's insight of an economy of structured information flows by investigating the content of communication in relation to its social setting. This study also elaborates upon Miller's consideration of an international maritime culture, which reflected distinctive behavioural codes and persisted until the 1960s, longer than others had suggested. Our analysis is designed to assess the durability of the British component of this wider culture. Finally, the paper considers developments in business correspondence observed by Yates, who found that in the United States the form and tone of letters changed as management became more professional at the beginning of the twentieth century. The present study explores how traditional forms of correspondence sustained a different, but durable, socially constructed reality and complementary cognitive processes that were well suited to sustaining business activities. To these ends, I investigate the links between language and business culture found in letters exchanged among members of a long-lived family-owned business, examining three sets of correspondence (written in the 1880s, 1900s, and 1920/30s) between three different generations of the Bates, who were merchants, ship owners, and private bankers based in Liverpool. My aim is to develop a different perspective from which to consider communicating processes, business culture, social mobility, and enterprise performance.