Photo of Dr Tawny Paul

Dr Tawny Paul

Senior Lecturer in British Economic and Social History, 1700-1900


01392 726388

Office hours: Please book an appointment HERE

I am interested broadly in the economic and social history of eighteenth-century Britain. My research focuses on the social history of debt, living standards, and labour. My first book, The Poverty of Disaster: Debt and Insecurity in Eighteenth Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2019), investigates themes of downward social mobility, failure and identity throught the lens of Britain's debtors' prisons.

I am an advocate for public history and I enjoy collaborating with colleagues in museums and radio. I have consulted for museum exhibitions throughout the UK. My public history research is concerned with the intersections between historical and artistic practice. In collaboration with Rebecca Bush, I published an edited collection of essays on this topic: Art and Public History Approaches, Opportunities, and Challenges (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).



Research interests

The Poverty of Disaster: Debt and Insecurity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, October 2019)

The eighteenth century in Britain is often understood as a time of commercial success, economic growth and improving living standards. Yet during this period, tens of thousands of men and women were imprisoned for failing to pay their debts. The Poverty of Disaster tells their stories, focusing on the experiences of the middle classes who enjoyed opportunities for success on one hand, but who also faced the prospect of downward social mobility on the other. I examine the role that debt insecurity played within society and the fragility of the credit relations that underpinned commercial activity, livelihood and social status. I demonstrates how, for the middle classes, insecurity took economic, social and embodied forms. It shaped the work people did, their soial status, their sense of self, their bodily autonomy and their relationships with others. In an era of growing debt and the squeeze of the middle class, The Poverty of Disaster offers a new history of capitalism and takes a long view of the financial insecurities that plague our own uncertain times.

Research contributing to the Poverty of Disaster was supported by fellowships from the Huntington Library, the Clark Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


I have two ongoing research projects:

The first, in collaboration with Prof. Jeremy Boulton at Newcastle University, is a pilot project which investigates the research potential of  British Debtors' Schedules. These documents provide quantititative data about the wealth and networks of those who were imprisoned for debt. Using a sample of schedules from London, research focuses on themes of wealth, work and credit in eighteenth-century Britain. The project is supported by the Economic History Society.

My second project focuses on incomplete forms human commodification  in the Atlantic world. I am interested in forms of commodification that were partial, temporary, and voluntary, and in which individuals could use their bodies' concrete value as a form of agency. The project investigates the experiences of debt bondage including that of sailors and indentured servants. 

Research supervision

I am happy to discuss research proposals from students in all areas of eighteenth-century economic and social history.  I am particularly interested in supervising research on themes related to economic culture and economic life, gender, material culture, poverty, social identity, work, and business history.

Research students

Current PhD Students:

Robert Nantes working on bankrupts and bankruptcy in England from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.

John Clews working on private and public patients in England’s County and Borough Lunatic Asylums, c. 1885-1914.

Diane Mulkeirins working on maternity and mental healthcare in the nineteenth-century workhouse.

External impact and engagement

Before becoming an academic, I worked for several years as an interpretive planner, meaning that I helped to plan and write up the content of museum exhibitions and visitor centres. Some of the projects that I was involved with (with Campbell and Co Design Consultants) include:



  • BBC Radio 4 Making History. The history of the 'gig economy'. Aired 25 July, 2017.
  • BBC Radio Scotland 'The Secret Tax Life of Robert Burns', aired 20 January, 2016.
  • BBC Radio Scotland 'Disposable Brides'. Aired 2 January, 2012.


  • 'The gig economy is nothing new- it was standard practice in the 18th century'. The Conversation, 18 July, 2017.


I studied history as an undergraduate student at Vassar College in the United States. From 2005-6 I held a St Andrews Society of the State of New York Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, where I completed my MSc in History. I was awarded my PhD in Economic and Social History at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. Before joining the department at Exeter, I held a position in Public History with the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies (2012), a Lectureship in Economic History at the University of Edinburgh (2013) and Lectureship in Early Modern History at Northumbria University Newcastle (2014-16).