Unwin was born in Stockport on 7 May 1870, the eldest of six children of Edward and Priscilla Unwin (née Whittaker). Always frail in health, he died in Manchester in 1925. His father was a railway clerk before becoming a public house keeper and a grocer. His mother, a daughter of a local tradesman, was described in old age as ‘a dauntless old lady, with a passion for music and a streak of Calvinist iron in her character’. Unwin was educated at the Wesleyan Day School until the age of thirteen. He then worked for Messrs Carrington, hat-makers (a long-established business in Stockport), while continuing a process of self-education through the Mechanics Institute, the Stockport Literary Society, the Unitarian Church and avid reading of volumes in Cassell's National Library of Classical Literature. He entered University College, Cardiff in 1890 on a scholarship of £20. After three years he won a classical scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1897 he graduated with a first in literae humaniores (greats).
From The Biographical Dictionary of British Economists in Oxford Reference.