Gregory King (1648-1712)

In the rich history of distinguished personalities associated with Lichfield, Gregory King is less well known than many but worthy of further attention.

Gregory King was born in Stowe Street on 19th December 1648. His father was a mathematician, surveyor and garden designer. Gregory attended Lichfield's Free Grammar School from the age of five until he was fourteen although his father participated in his education, particularly in mathematics. During his last two years at school he assisted with his father's surveying work. There was a prospect of a university education but, instead, he accepted a job as a clerk to William Dugdale, an antiquarian and herald (an officer of the College of Arms). King retained a lifelong interest in heraldry and, in 1690, was appointed Lancaster Herald of Arms, a senior officer of the College of Arms.

However, Gregory King's enduring claim to fame is as a pioneer economic statistician. Richard Stone (1913-1991), a Nobel Prize winning economist, regarded Gregory King as "the first great economic statistician". From the perspective of modern economics he was a pioneer in the field of National Income Accounting (which is used to measure the national income, output and expenditure of an economy) and Econometrics (a fusion of statistical method, economic analysis and data collection).

Economics as we know it today (that is as a field of systematic enquiry and knowledge) did not exist in Gregory King's day. It only really began to take on its modern form with the publication, in 1776, of Adam Smith's paper "The Wealth of Nations". In his time Gregory King was described as a Political Arithmetrician; political arithmetic being "the art of reasoning by figures upon things relating to government".

In 1695, Gregory King was appointed Commissioner in charge of a new tax on marriages, births and burials; and later to other official appointments. In these roles he practised the arts of political arithmetic, collecting and analysing data for the government. His most notable published work is his "Natural and Political Observations upon the State and Condition of England" (1696). This contains a "Scheme of the Income & Expense for the several Families of England" setting out in tabular form the income, expenditure and savings of the population of England in 1688 in order to identify the contribution to the wealth of the nation by various socio-economic groups in society. This scheme was a precursor to National Income accounting.

The spirit of enquiry in 17th century England was influenced by the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who advocated the use of what would later be called the scientific method. This was, and is, applied to the natural world through the process of systematic observation, measurement and experiment. From the time of Adam Smith economics has aspired to achieve the status of a natural science through the use and application of the scientific method. In more recent times this ambition has been persued with the use of econometrics. Gregory King is, however, attributed with the first attempt at the application of the scientific method to the world of economic phenomena. This resulted in 'Gregory King's Law' or the 'King-Davenant Law'.

The law relates to how much a deficiency in the supply of corn would raise the price of corn. It was formulated on the basis of the collection of data on the supply and price of corn and then used to estimate how much a deficiency in the supply of corn would raise its price. Interest in the price of corn and its supply was not merely academic. In 17th century England the term 'corn' included wheat which was used in the making of bread. As bread was a staple food its price or cost was a major item in household expenditure. As such its price reflected the cost of living and could be seen as what would now be called a measure of the cost of living. The work of political arithmetricians like Gregory King is considered by Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) in his "History of Economic Analysis" (1954) to "illustrate to perfection what Econometrics is and what Econometricians are trying to do".

Gregory King's talents were not limited to political arithmetic and heraldry. He was a cartographer, producing books on roads and maps of London and Westminster, and an urban designer responsible for the layout of the streets and squares of Soho. He was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Benet Paul's Wharf, London (the official church of the College of Heralds). His epitaph proclaims him as "a skilful herald, a good accomptant (sic), surveyor and mathematician, a curious penman and well versed in political arithmetic".

Frank Horsfall
February, 2017