In his foreword to Professor Roy Goode’s magisterial Commercial Law (1982), Professor Harry Street described the immense difficulties in writing a book on commercial law. He expressed the sentiment that has proved a worthy augury for this book. He stated that any reasonably competent scholar can mug up the statutes and reported decisions in the field and present an acceptable account of their import but ‘the essence of commercial law is in commercial transactions’. The accident of litigation does not indicate fully how these transactions are carried out. He called for a synthesis of the theory underlying commercial relationships and the practice which governs their operation.

He might also have added that no student of commercial law should consider their education complete without an understanding of its development. That is to be found not in the decisions of the Commercial Court alone (only formally instituted in 1895) but rather in the British (more accurately, Imperial) history of commerce, trade and finance over the last two centuries because, as Ross Cranston very convincingly demonstrates in this book, in the main, law and lawyers were not the driving force; state regulation was largely absent; and judges tended to accommodate commercial needs rather than dictate to the commercial community. The conclusion he draws is that markets were left to shape the law through their practices as they evolved. The needs of markets to organise transactions in commodities, or to create instruments for trade financing, provided the framework for commerce to adopt its own practices and to form commercial institutions. In this sense, commercial practice was the source of commercial law.

The author has drawn on an impressive range of source material – the detailed footnotes to the text refer to contemporary accounts of commercial practice, economic and historical studies, business and banking archives, law reports of the period, and a number of Victorian literary extracts whose characters convey the sentiments of the time. This ties in to the choice of title for the book: 1830 – 1970 may leave readers wondering why the journey comes to an end in 1970. The author explains that by that time not only had Britain’s role as a leader in manufacturing declined very substantially, but also because, portentously, the archives themselves gradually petered out at this time.

The book is split into several chapters examining a selection of commercial law topics, namely, commodity markets, agency, the sale, hire and distribution of goods, international commodity sales and bank finance. There are sub-headings within each chapter which keep the material digestible. The author has an easy, narrative writing style.

The subject matter stretches wide although there are familiar names mentioned, instantly recognisable to lawyers from the headnotes in the law reports, such as Czarnikow & Co, which grew to become the largest sugar broker in the world by the 1930s. Then there is Jardine Matheson & Co, formed in 1832 to trade with China, including the trade of opium. Reflecting for a moment on the nature and risks of import and export trade in those times makes it readily understandable why the law of agency needed to come of age very quickly. By all accounts, it succeeded: in 1874, the Law Times described the law of principal and agent as ‘one of the greatest importance in a mercantile country’. In a nod to the banking crisis of 2008, the collapse of Overend Gurney in 1866 is described. This firm stood ‘next to the Bank of England in importance’ and its collapse affected many, including Marx’s landlord. It spawned a series of cases including a criminal prosecution against its directors and a prospectus misrepresentation case by a disgruntled investor, Sir William Peek MP. That case went to the House of Lords (Peek v Gurney (1873)) and so too did Sir William’s more notorious case concerning another of his unsuccessful investments (Derry v Peek (1889)).

This is undoubtedly an important work. Modestly, the author, an academic of considerable standing, describes having the idea of the book for some time but ‘its gestation being interrupted by an errant career’, a reference to his years at the commercial Bar and on the Bench, which make his perspective the more insightful.