Skip to main content
Sean Bottomley  BA, MPhil, PhD (Cambridge), FRHS

Dr Sean Bottomley

BA, MPhil, PhD (Cambridge), FRHS

Academic and research staff

Cardiff Business School


I am an economic historian of Britain, working between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have had a peripatetic career since finishing my PhD, working in Toulouse, Frankfurt and Newcastle, before finally settling at Cardiff.

I am especially interested in the role of institutions in fostering economic development and have published in Economic History Review, Explorations in Economic History, The Journal of Economic History as well as two books with Cambridge University Press.


I am currently working on three research projects:

1) Wardship in Britain, 1485-1660. Secure property rights are usually considered to be an essential prerequisite for sustained economic development, and it has been argued by institutional economists that this was augured in England by the Glorious Revolution, leading in turn to the Industrial Revolution. This account is not without controversy and it is now commonly supposed that property rights had been secure since the medieval period, the implication being that the Glorious Revolution cannot have been so significant. The project contributes to this debate, examining wardship in Britain. Wardship denoted the Crown's right to manage landed estates which had descended to a legal minor (the ward) until they attained their majority. The Crown also acquired custody of the child from their surviving family. The project has shown that wardship was a common occurrence, affecting around one quarter of all inheritances of freehold land, that the child and their property were exploited without scruple and that the Crown contorted the land law to its own interests. Although wardship was abolished as part of the Restoration Settlement, Britain's experience of wardship is still broadly consistent with the arguments proposed by institutionalists. This long-term project has been funded by the Economic History Society (£4,000) and is now nearing completion. A paper has been published in The Journal of Economic History and a book is due to be published with Cambridge University Press in 2024.

2) Power adoption in Britain, 1800-1870. This project looks to quantify power adoption in the British economy during the nineteenth-century. Conventionally, it has been supposed that the industrial revolution, and with it the global transition to modern economic growth, was premised on the widespread burning of coal to yield an essentially inexhaustible source of heat energy and, via the steam engine, mechanical energy. However, despite the conceptual clarity of this account, recent econometric work indicates that steam's direct contribution to economic growth was negligible until at least 1870. This is purportedly because water and wind-power remained viable and cost-competitive substitutes; if the transition to modern economic growth was achieved without relying on fossil fuels, then a reversion to renewable energy sources might be achieved at only a modest economic cost. Unfortunately, using evidence from a newly compiled 'census' of stationary steam power installations in Suffolk, the project demonstrates that the adoption of steam power was quantitatively far greater than previously thought. Moreover, the assumption that environmental forces were ready alternatives to steam is untenable. In particular, whereas water and wind are only available at particular sites, and then power generation must be spatially dispersed, neither condition applies to steam, thereby enabling an essentially limitless density of power generation and therefore industrial concentration and urbanisation.

3) The electric telegraph and international trade, 1850-1890. Working with Brian Varian (Newcastle) this project examines the economic consequences of international telegraphy. In particular, we are currently compiling the first database of international telegraphic connections for the period between 1850-90. We hypothesise that the telegraph contributed to the formation of global markets during this period, as measured by trade flows and price convergence.


State, Business and the British Economy in the twentieth century (2nd year BSc)

International Economic History (3rd year BSc)


Before joining Cardiff, I worked at Northumbria University (2019-22), the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History (2018-19) and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Toulouse (2013-17).

Honours and awards

2016: Economic History Society's biennial First Monograph prize

2012: Economic History Society's annual Thirsk-Feinstein prize, awarded for "the best doctoral dissertation in Economic and/or Social History"

Professional memberships

2020: Fellow of the Royal Historical Society

2014: Member of the Economic History Society

Research themes


  • Economic history