Lionel Robbins - the economist and the wider world

This exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of the LSE Annual Fund.

1. Early Life

Lionel Robbins (1898 - 1984) was an economist who taught at LSE. He was also many other things as well and this exhibition intends to give an overview of some of the main areas of his life and work.

Although too young at the outbreak of war in 1914 Lionel was keen to do active service. In 1915 he started an Arts degree at University College London and signed up with the University Officers Training Corps. By 1916 he had left university and started his artillery training. His first experience of active service was in 1917. The young Lionel Robbins used poetry to express his feelings about his war experiences. The collection contains a number of examples of his early poems including H Beresford about his closest friend during the war. This poem is accompanied by a note 'Died May 1918 occupying a post I should have held had I not been wounded six weeks previously'. Lionel Robbins was wounded in spring 1918 and sent home.

Upon his return Lionel began going to the ballet and to art exhibitions - fuelling his life-long passion for the arts. In 1920 he returned to study and switched to Economics at LSE, beginning his long association with the school. At LSE he wrote for the Clare Market Review and after finishing his degree in 1924 he wrote for The Economist and Outlook while working as a researcher for William Beveridge. The collection contains examples of Lionel's published work as well as correspondence with publishers regarding his books. In 1924 he accepted a teaching position in Economics at New College, Oxford. It was through one of his closest friends, Clive Gardiner, that he met his wife Iris, Clive's sister, in 1923.

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2. LSE

After one year at New College, Oxford, Lionel returned to LSE as a professor first, then lecturer before accepting a fellowship at New College. After two years as a Fellow at New College he returned to LSE in 1929 as Professor of Economics, where he then stayed for over 60 years. He lectured on 'Elements of economics', 'Schools of economic theory' and 'General principles of economic analysis' as well as starting his 'Robbins seminar' which continued right through to his retirement. The collection contains correspondence between Lionel Robbins and his students at LSE spanning his whole career and he often continued to correspond and meet with former students long after they had left LSE. The workings of the Economics Department, and LSE in general, are well covered in correspondence and in minutes and reports from meetings. His most famous books An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1932) and The Great Depression (1934) are also well covered in the correspondence, and the Papers include proofs, drafts and reviews of these. Lionel also gave guest lectures elsewhere, attended conferences, gave speeches, and met with economists from all over the world. Correspondence, notes and reports from many of these conferences, lectures and speeches including a World Commerce Week in Berlin in 1932, meetings of the Mt Pelerin Society, and lectures at Claremont Graduate School, are covered in the collection.

A visit to Vienna in 1933 led to him and William Beveridge creating an Academic Freedom Committee at LSE to provide assistance for academics being persecuted by the Nazis, helping them to continue their research in a safer environment. After the Second World War Lionel returned to LSE and continued his teaching, as well as sitting on the Court of Governors and the General Purposes Committee.

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3. LSE

The period known as the Troubles at LSE started in 1966 with controversy over the appointment of Walter Adams as Director. This was due to Adams' previous post as Principal of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The protests escalated with the governing body of LSE and students continuing to clash and events becoming front page news. Lionel Robbins was at the centre of the controversy following his appointment as Chair of the Court of Governors in 1967. The collection includes minutes and papers from Court meetings, along with correspondence, and examples of student publications. The crisis came to a head with direct action from the students in January 1969. Walter Adams made the decision to close the school and it remained closed for weeks. Disciplinary action was taken against a number of staff and students and it was not until the end of 1969 that the Troubles were over.

At the same time discussions started about the possible purchase of Strand House, 10 Portugal Street, as the new home for LSE Library. A special committee was set up to raise funds to purchase the site and, with Lionel Robbins leading, a worldwide appeal was launched in 1971. The appeal was well-supported despite worries the 'Troubles' would have tainted the reputation of LSE, and the target was reached. Lionel's fundraising efforts were recognised when the building was named after him.

Lionel's decision to accept an appointment as Chairman of the Financial Times in 1960 was to have significant consequences on his career at LSE. His assumption that he would also be able to continue as Chair of the Economics Department was not supported by the Standing Committee and in 1961 Lionel retired as Chair. He continued to teach, though not full-time, until 1981-1982 and was Chair of the Court of Governors until 1973.

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4. War Cabinet and Bretton Woods

With the outbreak of war LSE was evacuated to Cambridge in 1939. Robbins continued teaching and lecturing in Cambridge but he wanted to actively contribute to the war effort.

In June 1940 he accepted a post as a chief economic assistant in the office of the War Cabinet. In October 1939 the Government had created the Central Economic Information Service (CEIS); after Robbins joined it he was given responsibility for work on prices and wages. He had published The Economic Causes of War in 1939 and after the war his experiences working for the War Cabinet resulted in another publication, The Economic Problem in Peace and War.

At the beginning of 1941 the CEIS was split into the Economic Section and the Central Statistical Office. From September 1941 Lionel Robbins was head of the Economic Section. He became involved in the planning of post-war economic recovery and in 1943 was part of the British delegation to the United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture, known as the Hot Springs conference. This was seen as the tester for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, better known as Bretton Woods, in 1944. Lionel Robbins was part of both these British delegations and of two more government missions to the USA and his Papers include his diaries from these trips to America. These diaries functioned as a confidential way of sending reports back to Economic Section colleagues in the UK; they contain detailed information on how talks were developing and discuss international relations. It was at Bretton Woods that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) were established. As a result of his contributions to the conference Lionel Robbins was invited to be part of an Advisory Council for the IBRD. There are diaries covering his attendance at meetings of this council in 1948 and 1949.

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5. The Arts

Lionel Robbins was passionate about the arts from an early age. His enjoyment of painting and sculpture, his love of the ballet and opera, his years of service on committees - all these are documented in the Papers. His first official post in the arts was on the Committee of Management of the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1936.

However it was in the 1950s that the arts really began to play a central role. This started with his appointment to the Committee on the Export of Works of Art in 1950. In 1952 Lionel received an invitation to join the Board of the Trustees of the National Gallery. This appointment was to last for 21 years and was very important in his life, he was chairman of the Trustees for 14 of these 21 years. He was involved in the 'Tate Affair' of 1954 - a dispute involving the director of the Tate and the trustees. He spent time convincing the government to acquire a vacant site adjacent to the gallery for future expansion; what would be the Sainsbury Wing, opened in 1991. In the early 1960s the theft of a Goya painting from the National Gallery placed Lionel firmly in the public eye when he received one of the ransom letters. The painting was subsequently recovered and returned in 1965. Lionel played an important role in the National Gallery's acquisition of Cezanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses. In 1966 he stepped down as Chairman of the Trustees but remained a member of the Board until 1974.

In addition to his National Gallery work he became a director of the Royal Opera House (ROH) in 1956. From the 1960s right through to the 1980s Lionel was involved in the ROH redevelopment project and this is well covered in correspondence, minutes and papers from meetings.

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6. The Robbins Report

In 1960 Lionel Robbins received an invitation to head up a Committee on Higher Education

The report states that a basic aim of courses of higher education was that it 'should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.' This became known as 'The Robbins Principle'. The aim was to show that higher education could benefit all and should be expanded to give everyone access. The report received a generally favourable reception from the press and the government.

The committee was comprised of:

  • Professor Lord Robbins, C.B. (Chairman)
  • Sir David Anderson
  • Dame Kitty Anderson, D.B.E.
  • Mr A Chenevix-Trench
  • Professor J. Drever
  • Mr H L Elvin
  • Miss H L Gardner
  • Sir Edward Herbert, O.B.E.
  • Sir Patrick Linstead, C.B.E., F.R.S.
  • Sir Philip Morris, KC.M.G., C.B.E.
  • Mr H C Shearman
  • Mr R B Southall, C.B.E.
  • With Mr P S Ross of the Treasury as Secretary
  • Claus Moser, (later Professor of Social Statistics at LSE) was appointed by Lionel as head of research.

The Committee met from 1961 - 1963 and the final report was submitted in October 1963. The official papers regarding the report are at the National Archives. The Lionel Robbins Papers contain correspondence between committee members, correspondence between Lionel and friends and colleagues about the report, and drafts and correspondence regarding Lionel's 1981 publication Higher Education Revisited where he looks back at the work of the committee and discusses its legacy.

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