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History of Chambers of Commerce

This research by Professor Robert Bennett aims to give definitive historical analysis of chambers of commerce and other local business associations. It links with projects on the historical role of business associations and how the geography of membership of associations has adapted over time related to economic evolution. This develops the role of 'associational governance' as a means, between state and market, to involve businesses, not-for-profit organisations, and public agents more effectively in policy exchanges to overcome information asymmetry to develop more effective policy supports.

There are business associations and chambers of commerce in all countries of the world. They fall into two types: those governed by public law (as in much of continental Europe), and those governed by private law as voluntary organisations. Although the earliest private law chamber was in France at Marseilles, founded in 1599, this was incorporated into the French public law system in 1779.

The main recent outputs from this stream has been on the system of private law chambers that began in cities across the Atlantic economy from the 1760s and 1770s. The earliest were in New York, Jersey, Guernsey, Liverpool, Manchester, Charleston, Boston, Jamaica, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow and other port cities in the UK and Ireland. Their origin was related to the protests that led to the American Revolution, and arose from anger with: government policies, business taxes, inadequate trade treaties, odious government officials, and other government 'bads' especially the war with America. From this origin private law chambers then diffused to cover most cities, towns and smaller places.

This topic interrelates with research on services to SMEs and public policy.

These developments are covered in the following two books, and a series of papers:

Books

Local Business Voice

Bennett, R. J. (2011) Local Business Voice: The history of Chambers of Commerce in Britain, Ireland and Revolutionary America, 1760-2011, Oxford University Press. [USA weblink]

Read an extended chapter summary and the index of chambers contained in the book.

Read practitioner reviews at:

Read academic reviews at:

One of the earliest chambers showing the blending of anger with new modes of lobbying government was Liverpool, 1774-1796.

Chamber of commerce history

A major presentation and seminar podcast based on the 'Local Business Voice book' is available, from a seminar at the British Academy.

A report of the seminar [PDF] is available.

The Chair's remarks (Sir Peter Hall, UCL) are at the beginning (point 0.00), end, and in between each presentation. The presentations run as follows:

  • 2.00 - 25.00 - Bob Bennett (Cambridge University)
  • 27.38 - 40.00 - Martin Daunton (Cambridge University)
  • 42.00 – 51.00 - Wyn Grant (Warwick University)
  • 52.46 – 1.09.00 - Martyn Pellew (President, BCC)
  • 1.12.01 - 1.24.36 - Andrew Lansley MP (Former BCC Deputy Director General) [Transcript of Andrew Lansley's remarks]

A presentation 'Webinar' to US audiences through the US Association of Chamber of Commerce Chief Executives (ACCE) on 7 March 2012 based on 'Local Business Voice':

More about chamber of commerce history:

The modern chamber of commerce: Modern private law chambers are leading voluntary organizations for their localities and often act as partners with government in regional and local economic initiatives. They are democratically elected from the business community, have transparent governance that offers legitimacy, and are locally-rooted. They offer advantages over ad hoc and government-appointed bodies that often carry no weight with businesses and usually cost a lot to maintain.

Read some recent commentary and blogs at:

Using chambers as partners allows governments to draw on networks of traded and un-traded dependencies between businesses, offering business commitment, a means for engagement, and helping dissemination of information. As existing networks chambers are low cost: they have no set-up costs and are self-maintaining. They cover 'natural' areas meshing closely with local geographical clusters. Associations are also usually far more effective than government-led policy interventions with SMEs, contributing to 'hard' bottom-line benefits, as well as 'soft' management skills.

Read more on chamber services to SMEs and public policy.

Other main publications:

  • Bennett, R. J. (2014) Alignments, interests and tensions over 'Reform' in 18th Century Britain: The Manchester Committee of Trade 1774-86, Northern History, 51. doi:10.1179/0078172X13Z.00000000061
  • Bennett, R. J. (2013) Network interlocks: The connected emergence of chambers of commerce and provincial banks in the British Isles, 1767–1823, Business History, 55, 8, 1288-1317. doi:10.1080/00076791.2012.725163 [Download data table] Bennett, R. J. and Robson, P.J.A. (2004) The role of trust and contract in the supply of business advice, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 28, 471-488.
  • Bratton, W., Bennett, R.J. and P.J.A. Robson, (2003) Critical mass and economies of scale in the supply of services by business support organisations, Journal of Services Marketing, 17(7), 730-752.
  • Bennett, R.J. (1999) 'Explaining the membership of sectoral business associations.' Environment and Planning A 31: 877-898.
  • Bennett, R.J. and Robson, P.J.A. (1999) 'Intensity of interaction in supply of business advice and client impact: a comparison of consultancy, business associations and government support initiatives for SMEs.' British Journal of Management: 10: 351-369 [another version as working paper 142 Cambridge: ESRC Centre for Business Research, 47pp]
  • Bennett, R.J. (1997) 'The relations between government and business associations in Britain: an evaluation of recent developments. Policy Studies 18: 5-33.
  • Bennett, R.J. (ed). (1996) Trade Associations in Britain and Germany and the Single European Market (Anglo-German Foundation, London and Bonn)
  • Bennett, R.J., Krebs, G. and Zimmermann, H (1993) Chambers of Commerce in Britain and Germany (Anglo-German Foundation, London and Bonn)