Remembering Eric Lionel Jones, 1936-2024

18 April 2024

Black and white portrait photograph of Eric Jones. He is looking to camera, in front of bookcase.Professor Eric Jones was an eminent English-born economic historian who pursued an academic career on three continents. In 2001 he retired from formal academic positions and moved to Fairford, Gloucestershire. Thereafter he became a regular participant in the seminar programme of the Department of Economics and International Studies at the University of Buckingham, where his contributions were widely valued and admired. In 2019 he was appointed Senior Fellow at the University’s Max Beloff Institute.

Eric was a graduate of the universities of Nottingham and Oxford, and taught at Oxford and Reading universities. From 1970 to 1975 he was Professor of Economics at Northwestern University in the United States. From 1975 to 1994 he was Professor of Economics and Economics History at La Trobe University in Australia. He was then appointed Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Business School of the University of Melbourne in Australia, and part-time Professor of Economics at the Graduate Centre of International Business of the University of Reading. Throughout his career he held many international visiting positions.

His reputation rests principally on his book The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, whose first edition was published in 1981. It aims to explain how from the fifteenth century Europe rose to world prominence and eventually achieved, for the first time in human history, steady long-term growth in per capita incomes. As the book’s subtitle suggests, many factors were in play, and together they generate a strong contrast between Europe and four Asian empires: the Ottoman, the Indian Mughal, and the Chinese Ming and Manchu. Of central interest is the institutional factor. Europe was not an empire but a set of independent states of moderate size. Competition between the states acted as a restraint on government power and facilitated innovation and the emergence of secure private property rights: factors that came to fruition in the Industrial Revolution. The common cultural heritage of Europe’s states sharpened interstate competition and enhanced its benefits. Meanwhile the Asian empires remained poor and stagnant, a condition Asia began to emerge from only in the twentieth century.

The European Miracle is a ‘Eurocentric’ work by design, and in the twenty-first century Eurocentrism has somewhat fallen out of favour. In an Afterword in the book’s third edition, published in 2003, Eric responds robustly to some of the criticisms it had received from this angle. In 2008 he was invited to give two lectures at universities in Tokyo, Japan: one on ‘Industrial Revolutions and Economic Growth’ at Soka University, the other on ‘Regional Change and Industrialisation in England and Japan’ at Waseda University.

Eric wrote two books that developed themes in The European Miracle. In 1988 Growth Recurring: Economic Change in World History was published, and Barriers to Growth: English Economic Development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation appeared in 2020. By this time the main focus of Eric’s work had moved towards a theme that reflected more his personal and recreational pursuits: the land. Eric loved rural landscapes, and he became an active member of the Richard Jefferies Society, founded in honour of the nineteenth-century Wiltshire-based journalist and writer on natural history and agriculture.

Eric’s later books bring together, in different ways, his deep knowledge of English economic history and his aesthetic appreciation of rural England. In Landed Estates and Rural Inequality in English History: From the Mid-Seventeenth Century to the Present (2018) he describes how the landed classes consolidated their economic dominance and used it in such a way as to deprive rural working populations of much of their customary access to the land and its bounty.

Middle Ridgeway and its Environment (2016) is arguably the most accessible record of the sheer breadth of Eric’s approach to his chosen topic. Its subject is the ancient trackway’s middle section, which runs along the North Wessex Downs in the counties of Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The book draws on economic and natural history and ecology to provide an account of a unique and attractive English landscape. The book’s coauthor, Patrick Dillon, an academic ecologist and environmentalist, had first met Eric in 1972, after which they regularly collaborated in researching southern England.

Landscape History and the Rural Society in Southern England: An Economic and Environmental Perspective (2021) uses a range of case studies to explore the interconnections between the history of landscape and the rural economy. Eric’s final book, A History of Livestock and Wildlife: Animal Wealth and Human Usage (2023), returns to the agricultural economic history with which he began his academic career. It argues that the stress on cereals and industrialisation as sources of growth has overlooked the crucial role played by the marshalling of wild animal resources and the development of livestock husbandry.

As people came to know Eric, they would marvel at his productivity: not just his steady output of academic publications but his pursuit of several personal interests to high levels of achievement, notably bird watching, genealogy, and painting. Eric himself recognised how much his academic success owed to the constant support of his wife Sylvia. At their eightieth birthday celebration in 2016, Eric paid tribute to her: without her research and general assistance, he said, he ‘could have achieved nothing’.