George Unwin was born in Stockport on 7 May 1870, and was the eldest of six children. His parents Edward and Priscilla Unwin were inn-keepers in Stockport, Cheshire. Unwin attended Edgeley Wesleyan day school until the age of thirteen, when he left to work in the office of Carrington’s hat firm.
At the age of 20 his uncle advised him to apply for a scholarship at the University College Wales, Cardiff. His uncle also offered Unwin a room at his home if he was successful. Unwin won the scholarship which was only £20, leaving him in near poverty. Whilst at Cardiff he did not study history or economics but instead focused his studies on literature, philosophy and religion.
In 1893 he received a classical scholarship at Lincoln College, Oxford. He obtained a first in classics and was awarded a bursary from Oriel College, which allowed him to study in Germany for 6 months. Germany at his time was far ahead of England in the study of economic history. Unwin studied under some of the leading economic historians, including Gustav Schmoller who influenced him greatly.
After Unwin’s time in Germany, he moved to the newly formed London School of Economics to research the felt hat industry within the City of London. However Unwin once again found himself living in poverty and was forced to take up employment. In 1899 he became secretary to Leonard Henry Courtney, the Liberal politician. Whilst in the employment of Courtney, Unwin became interested in politics. He became a critic of the imperialist system as a destructive force on society and argued instead for the socially cohesive role of local and voluntary groups and associations. Unwin saw the foundations of society not in the state but in the small voluntary organisations such as the family, schools, trade unions, guilds and the universities. There was some similarity in these ideas with those promoted by contemporary theorists of pluralism such as J N Figgis, though there was much less emphasis in Unwin's work on the religious underpinnings of such ideas.
Unwin married Frances Mabelle Pearse in 1902 but they had no children. By now, Unwin had decided on an academic career in economic history. Unwin was to take a new approach to the study of economics and economic history. He challenged the traditional view that the state and the macro economy should be main fields of study. Although following his German influences, Unwin gave an important role to the economic function of the state, he also explored the explanatory potential of micro economics, emphasising the role of gilds, unions and firms as economic actors. His first book Industrial organisation in the sixteenth and seventeenth century (1904) explored these corporate bodies in England. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1906.
In 1908 Unwin published his second book The gilds and companies of London (1908) and in the same year he took up a lecturing position at the University of Edinburgh. Unwin enjoyed his time at Edinburgh, but the harsh climate took its toll on his already weak health. In 1910 Unwin became professor of economic history at the University of Manchester, the first chair of its kind in the British Empire. He also taught in the Faculty of Commerce, and following the example of another economic historian W J Ashley at Birmingham University.
During his time at Manchester, Unwin left an everlasting mark on the subject of economic history. The mark he left however was not in a mountain of publications like many scholars but in the legacy he instilled in some of his students and colleagues. Unwin heavily influenced R. H. Tawney, T. S. Ashton and Alfred Powell Wadsworth who would later become leading figures in the field.
Unwin was known for giving complex lectures, which even the best of students struggled to follow. Unwin never gave the same lecture twice, and would re-write his lecture notes and paste them over the old ones. Unwin researched much, but published little, and he probably influenced more by example than by his writings. Many planned works remained incomplete at his death.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 Unwin joined the Union of Democratic Control and other peace organisations. He also did his part at the University, taking on absent lecturers' work and getting involved in the general administration work of the University. However his poor health was not helped by this work load. To combat his ill health he often took long trips to continental cities, where he would spend his time studying the early gilds and companies and comparing them to ones in England. After the war Unwin continued to teach at the University and wrote two more books, Finance and trade under Edward III (1918), and Samuel Oldknow and Arkwrights (1924), a pioneering study of the local textile industry. In many ways, Unwin could be said to have been one of the first business historians - he emphasised the importance of using archival sources in writing these histories. He had intended to write further works, one provisionally entitled The Roots of the City , as well as a study of the English economy between 1558 -1660, but these were never completed.
In late 1924 Unwin visited Italy but bad weather conditions took their toll on his already poor health. Still mentally fit but physically exhausted, Unwin died in Manchester on 30 January 1925 at the age of 55. Many historians including his former colleague T S Ashton believe that Unwin took to his grave the best of his contributions to field of economic history.