Obituary: Professor Sir Tony Wrigley (August 1931 – 24 February 2022)

March 14, 2022 | Society news
Home > Obituary: Professor Sir Tony Wrigley (August 1931 – 24 February 2022)

Tony Wrigley made an outstanding contribution to the study of economic and social history through his own research and through the leadership and inspiration that he provided to generations of historians.

Tony’s long association with the University of Cambridge began with his undergraduate and postgraduate study at Peterhouse in the 1950s before he became a Fellow and then a Lecturer in the Department of Geography in 1958. His keen interest in demographic change and industrial growth over time soon led him towards the historical social sciences and was apparent in his first book, Industrial growth and population change: a regional study of the coalfield areas of north-west Europe in the later nineteenth century (1961).  From there he wrote and edited  key texts on population change from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including:  An Introduction to English historical geography from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century (1966);  Population and History (1969);  Nineteenth-Century Society: essays in the use of quantitative methods for the study of social data (1972);  Identifying People in the Past (1973);  Towns and Societies (1978);  and the pathbreaking, classic The Population History of England 1541-1871: a reconstruction (1981) (with Roger Schofield, Ros Davies and Jim Oeppen).  These books made population history and its implications accessible, introduced new approaches, sources and methods, transformed interpretations and inspired generations of students.

During the 1980s and 1990s Tony made a particularly important contribution to debates about the nature of the industrial revolution in England, where his research findings are still very influential. He spent most of the 1980s at the London School of Economics as Professor of Population Studies (1979-88), moving to All Souls College Oxford as Senior Research Fellow 1988-94 before returning to Cambridge as Professor of Economic History and Master of Corpus Christi College.  While at the LSE he published two foundational texts. His 1987 collection of essays People, Cities and Wealth demonstrated the breadth of his historical expertise and interests, ranging from theoretical and conceptual essays on the nature of modernism and growth itself to the specifics of English population dynamics in international comparison.  Continuity, Chance and Change (1988) challenged prevailing narratives about the industrial revolution by emphasising the contingent nature of economic growth and the views of contemporaries (notably Malthus, as in Tony’s 8-volume edition, with David Souden, of the Works [1986]). His contribution to the new history of the industrial revolution is evident in the collection of essays in his 2004 book Poverty, Progress and Population. Responding to new evidence about incomes before 1750, he emphasised the importance of the nature of growth, rural/urban shifts, changing occupational structures and demographics to understanding economic and social change from the 17th to the 19th centuries. As he wrote in the introduction to this volume:

Since my days as a research student, I have always been ultimately more preoccupied with the wish to achieve a better understanding of the industrial revolution than with any other issue, with gaining a clearer insight into the circumstances in which the world learned how to produce goods and services on a scale which would have astonished and bemused anyone born before the nineteenth century.

A key aspect of this enduring theme of Tony’s research was his integration of energy, and environmental and social factors, into the understanding of industrialisation, notably in Energy and the Industrial Revolution (2010) and in The Path to Sustained Growth:  England’s Transition from an Organic Economy to an Industrial Revolution (2016).  While much of Tony’s work was focused on England, he was fond of quoting Kipling’s ‘What do they know of England who only England know?’ and was always comparative.

Among Tony’s most lasting institutional contributions is the creation of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure at Cambridge in 1964, jointly with Peter Laslett. ‘Campop’ has been a hugely significant base for population history in Britain and around the world, generating comprehensive research resources on the history of English population as well as creating and supporting careers for generations of social science historians. The accomplishments of the Group owe much to Tony’s inspiration and dedication to his colleagues as well as to his discipline.  In 1996 he was knighted for services to historical demography. Throughout his multi-faceted career and his official retirement he was actively involved with the research and life of the Group, a regular presence at coffee and (during the recent pandemic) at its online informal seminars.

Tony was an eminently good citizen, taking on leadership roles in a range of academic societies including as Treasurer and later President of the British Academy and as President of the British Society for Population Studies. We remember him especially for his service to the Economic History Society where he was President from 1995 to 1998 during a period of considerable challenge in departments across the country for economic and social historians. This followed a full term as editor of the Economic History Review from 1986 to 1992. In both cases his careful stewardship of the discipline and breadth of academic interest across pre-modern and modern periods was particularly valued.  It was characteristic of Tony that he remained, until his final years, a regular active participant in the annual conferences of the Society.  In those meetings, as more generally, Tony demonstrated his warm concern for others, young and old.