Starting in 2002, Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo acted as host to a series of workshops, generously funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Ministry of Education, on the Cambridge School of Economics. One of the themes that emerged was welfare economics, and in 2005 and 2006, workshops were held on the theme of ‘welfare economics and the welfare state’. We soon realised that if Cambridge welfare economics was to be placed in its proper context, the discussion needed to be broadened to permit a comparison of developments at Cambridge with those at Oxford and the London School of Economics. Our starting point, partly symbolic as elements of the story go further back, is the 1880s, when Alfred Marshall was writing his Principles of Economics, first published in 1890. This was the decade when the demonstrations in the East End of London brought the problem of poverty to the fore. Though Bismarck's Germany, an example with which Marshall would have been very familiar, had introduced welfare reforms earlier, the moves towards the British welfare state took place only over the ensuing decades, the heyday of Cambridge welfare economics. Though historians are well aware of Marshall’s concern with the problem of poverty, the development of Cambridge welfare economics has generally been considered not against this background but against that of theoretical developments internal to the discipline of economics.