Research Handbook on the History of Corporate and Company Law
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Research Handbook on the History of Corporate and Company Law

Edited by Harwell Wells

Understanding the corporation means understanding its legal framework, but until recently the origins and evolution of corporate law have received relatively little attention. The topical chapters featured in this Research Handbook, contributed by leading scholars from around the world, examine the historical development of corporation and business organization law in the Americas, Europe, and Asia from the ancient world to modern times, providing an invaluable resource for both further historical research and scholars seeking the origins of present-day issues.
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Chapter 5: The development of English company law before 1900

John D. Turner

Abstract

Chapter 5 charts the growth of English company law from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, showing how company law only slowly came to offer businesses all five of the characteristics generally identified as marking the modern company or corporation: separate legal personality; limited liability; transferable joint stock; delegated management; and investor ownership. In this account, it is particularly notable that England went through its Industrial Revolution without the freedom of incorporation and with a legal framework which actually restricted the development of business corporations. While at times English law and politics were amenable to the corporate form, for much of the eighteenth and even into the nineteenth century statutory and common law were inhospitable to widespread incorporation, only changing in the nineteenth century when the rising political power of the middle classes ultimately pushed Parliament to liberalize incorporation law. Contra some arguments that the common law is inherently flexible and responsive to new business opportunities, this is an account in which the common law did not facilitate growth, and in which easy access to incorporation only followed political agitation and legislative intervention.

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