Sir Tony Wrigley, 1931-2022, Professor of Economic History, University of Cambridge, 1994-97.


On 24th February 2022, the world of learning and knowledge lost a gentle giant, Edward Anthony Wrigley, born in Manchester on 17 August 1931. In addition to his knighthood for services to historical demography, recognition of Tony’s importance and achievements was reflected in many honorary doctorates from UK universities, his election to the Presidency of the British Academy, the Presidency of the Economic History Society, the Presidency of the British Society for Population Studies, the Mastership of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Membership of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Laureate of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population. 

I first became aware of Tony as Wrigley (1966) and Wrigley (1967), when studying ‘British economic and social history since c.1750’ in my first term at Cambridge in the autumn of 1976. Though they both related to the earlier ‘pre-industrial’ period, I noticed how these two articles, with their intriguing titles, respectively, about fertility in Colyton, an obscure village in east Devon, and a ‘model’ of London’s importance, were referenced with great respect. Eventually, in my final year I had the opportunity not only to study the articles but also to have some of my essays supervised by the man himself and to receive lectures from him! Four years later he examined my PhD.

Tony Wrigley is a colossus in the field of economic and social history, broadly defined. It can be confidently claimed that in a disciplinary area not short of internationally-recognised scholars, his contribution has been the most fruitful of all in the entire postwar era. His principal original research contribution has been devoted to excavating, exploring and demonstrating the importance of demographic change in England’s history throughout the entire early modern period, c.1530-1870. But, extraordinarily fruitful though this research project has been in unleashing a whole cavalry regiment of scholars to further build on it and its implications, this has not been Wrigley’s only major intellectual contribution. As the title of his first book made clear, Tony was always equally focused on Industrial Growth and Population Change. Tony saw the neglected demographic aspect as the key to taking forward an understanding of the industrial revolution itself. As he put it in his 1961 book, ‘the two chief subjects studied are the relationship between industrial development and the growth of population, and the demographic history which was associated with the population growth.’ (p.ix)

This book was derived from a dissertation that had won the 1958 Ellen McArthur Prize and, as a comparative regional study of coalfields across France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, it also clearly announced Tony’s enthusiastic, multi-lingual embrace of international scholarship. His subsequent writings, though mostly focused on explicating industrial and urban growth in early modern England, were always constructed with a keen comparative eye, particularly on Holland and France, England’s great rivals in this period, rendering his work all the more relevant for scholars abroad.  Indeed, Tony found the key to unlock British demographic history in adapting the techniques of the French scholar, Louis Henry, for in-depth analysis of parish registers by linking together all the named individuals across generations. The Colyton study was the first such ‘family reconstitution’ performed on an English parish population.

It was also through his painstakingly rigorous focus on the interplay between the early modern economy and the demography of English society - which he was able to reconstruct for the first time from the primary sources - that he came to a fuller understanding of the strengths and weakness of the brilliant minds who founded classical political economy, Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, David Ricardo and their contemporaries. Malthus of course was a particular focus of Tony’s attention, resulting in 1986 in a multi-volume definitive edition of his writings co-edited with David Souden. The classical economists’ scarcity models of diminishing returns failed to recognise the significance of coal as a mobile energy bank. They did not see the reverberating significance of the fact that, unlike the mobile sources previously available (horses, pack-animals and oxen), coal did not compete with humans and animals for foodstuffs annually grown from the cultivable surface area available.

It was Tony Wrigley who had both the vision and the methodological capacity and perseverance to appreciate the extraordinary potential which lay largely unused in the parish registers created by Thomas Cromwell in 1538.  The resulting multi-decade project of research, analysis and exposition has not merely expanded the scope of the discipline of economic and social history, as he found it in the 1950s, by adding copious information about population change. It has fundamentally transformed the whole subject in such a way that all historians who study so many proliferating aspects of this country’s economic and social history, both in the two centuries before the parish registers and the nearly five centuries since, are all now post-Wrigley.  

In a field which boasts several well-merited Nobel-prize winners, Tony Wrigley’s work is proving to be of most enduring value and the most widely-stimulating for so many other, active areas of research. This embraces not only demographic and epidemiological history but also economic growth accounting, the history of economic thought, the history of families, agriculture, urban growth, gender relations, energy and the environment. Indeed, he himself was active in several of these fields stimulating and collaborating with a large number of younger scholars right to the end of his long life. That work also continues in today’s Cambridge Group, which has both Geography Department and History Faculty branches. Between them literally scores of affiliated senior and junior researchers, as individuals and in small and large teams, continue to undertake ground-breaking quantitative research on the demographic, epidemiological, economic, social and environmental history of the past, from the mediaeval to the modern eras. 

This wider vision was always there from the start. Tony Wrigley famously allied with his former political theory tutor, Peter Laslett, and together they founded in 1964 The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. This has been the key vehicle facilitating his own productivity, as well as that of multiple generations of scholars who have been members or associates of The Group during the last six decades, including many from around the world who spent formative periods or visits at ‘The Group’. Although Tony had significant periods both as Professor of Demography at the LSE and as Senior Research Fellow at All Souls in Oxford, the Cambridge Group remained his core intellectual base throughout; and his family home with Mieke and their four children remained in Sedley Taylor Road.

The Cambridge Group’s first additional appointment was the young Roger Schofield, who had just completed his PhD under Geoffrey Elton on Tudor taxation and had an excellent facility for quantitative history and the new skill of computer programming. With core ESRC funding of the Cambridge Group from 1974, Tony resigned his lectureship to take on full-time research, though its members also taught a popular Part II paper in the History Tripos, the source of many eager recruits into the subject, including myself, in the days when successful applicants for postgraduate funding went straight into doctoral research, before taught M.Phils arrived in the 1990s. The Cambridge Group became a growing multi-disciplinary team with the addition of database expert Ros Davies and in 1977 statistician Jim Oeppen. Such a team was a unique departure in the annals of the Cambridge History Faculty, more like the kinds of work practices found across the university’s many science laboratories, though it perhaps helped that Tony Wrigley’s first university appointment was a long tenure as Lecturer in the Geography Department, 1958-74, a subject closer to the sciences where such team-work was unexceptional. 

Furthermore, an even more unusual feature of the Cambridge Group and the intellectual project that it was dedicated to pursue, was its direct reliance on the thousands of person-hours of labour contributed by genealogists around the country who went to work on the historic parish registers, which were to form the empirical basis for the Group’s work.  An archivist/librarian and administrative post was soon also necessary to handle the volume of correspondence from this army of researchers, what the French historical demographers enviously came to call ‘le secret weapon anglais’.

The secret weapon was a very carefully cultivated one. Peter Laslett’s best-selling paperback of 1965, The World We Have Lost, was followed up in 1966 by An Introduction to English Historical Demography, edited by Tony. In August 1967, following three years of individual contacts with local historians around the country, Laslett, Wrigley and Schofield held a ‘Campop’ summer school at Madingley Hall, which led to the launch of a Newsletter, Local Population Studies. Published biannually by Nottingham University’s Dept of Adult Education from August 1968, this rapidly became the communication net for hundreds of amateur local historians working in local record offices, a forum for reporting and discussing results and improving techniques. Thus, Campop’s quantitative approach became the centre of a public history movement, focused on local communities, which continues to flourish with two conferences a year to the present day. Wrigley was also very much alive to international stimulus to the new field, publishing Population and History in 1969, a highly readable and interdisciplinary short introductory text in the World University Library series, which ensured simultaneous publication in seven languages.   

It was confirmed that hundreds of parish registers had survived in sufficient condition for centuries of entries of christenings, marriages and burials to be entered onto custom-designed physical forms. These were sent-in to the Group’s offices, first in Silver Street and then in the congenial warren of rooms on the 3rd and 4th floors of 25-27, Trumpington Street, where this raw data began its virtual life, checked and converted into the digital information of the Cambridge Group files. Some of the surviving records even started from 1538, thanks to the subsequent instructions approved by the Crown in 1597, that extant paper copies of each parish register dating back over sixty years should now be copied onto superior parchment. This followed from Cromwell’s original design that they were to act as legal documents, inter alia for proof of ‘title of inheritance’. The discipline of demography and Tony Wrigley’s visionary use of these legal documents was hundreds of years in the future when these records were created.

From these carefully collated, evaluated and analysed parish registers counts, processed through the technique of back projection from the early nineteenth-century national censuses (taking advantage of the almost 100-year age-structure that is imprinted on a census population) came the revolutionary ‘big book’ of 1981 (2nd edition 1989) co-authored with Roger Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871 A reconstruction. This was an aggregative analysis of 404 parishes (comprising about 4% of the 10,000 extant c.1600). Having taken the Part II History Tripos Paper on Population History in 1978-9 and learned all about it (and much more!) from the lectures and supervisions of Wrigley, Schofield, Laslett, and the two Richards (Smith and Wall), as a new doctoral student under Roger Schofield’s supervision, my offer to proof-read the text in early 1980 was accepted, so I had a ring-side seat!   

The second ‘big book’ in 1997, English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837, was co-authored again with Schofield and also with Jim Oeppen and Ros Davies. Their equal expert inputs reflected the much more intensely database and statistical research manipulations that could be undertaken when analysing the linked relationships between named individuals in each parish that was possible with the extremely high quality of information that was available for a selection of 26 of the 404 parish registers used for the aggregative analysis in 1981.

To the relief of those of us lecturing undergraduates on demographic history, the different data and methods in the second volume, which now deployed generalised inverse projection, as Jim Oeppen’s superior technique to back projection, substantially confirmed (while much elaborating upon) the main outline of the revolutionary findings in 1981. This work had been revolutionary because it showed that population had grown so fast in the period c.1730-1870, mainly because of fertility increasing, rather than mortality falling, as had previously been presumed. This was due to a rising propensity to marry and to marry younger in a population of strangely ‘modern’-looking nuclear family households, which Peter Laslett’s work had first uncovered. The parishes comprised communities which had for centuries before the 1730s been practising careful reproductive restraint - the prudential ‘late marriage’ which Malthus advocated and whose abandonment he believed to be in danger of causing the disaster of overpopulation signalled by extremely high food prices during the Napoleonic Wars. When the economy began to offer ever-increasing employment opportunities the previously constrained reproductive capacity of the population unfurled, like a coiled spring relieved of its tension, driving the extraordinary rate of population growth.

Already, the year after the publication of this second foundation stone in demographic history, in 1998 Continuity Chance and Change appeared, based on Wrigley’s 1987 Ellen McArthur lectures. With three decades of pioneering demographic research behind him, this was a return to a book-length explicit consideration of the nature of the industrial revolution. It laid out Tony’s key distinction between the advanced organic economy, whose nature and limitations were so thoroughly expounded by Smith, Malthus and Ricardo, and the new ‘inorganic’ (ie mineral) economy emerging under their feet, but apparently invisible to them. This was driven by the millennia of stored sunlight banked in Britain’s rich endowment of accessible coal seams and by its technological fusion with iron, in the form of the rotary steam engine. As Tony put it in his final book publication of 2016, The Path to Sustained Growth, ‘In organic economies negative feedback between different factors of production was common…[but] …the rising importance of a fossil fuel as an energy source meant that…positive feedback became more common.’  

In his last decade Tony devoted much time to caring at home for his invalid wife, Mieke. While observing Covid restrictions, his family were able to come together with some of his colleagues to celebrate with him his 90th birthday last summer in Grantchester tea-rooms, an event which gave Tony great pleasure. Throughout he had continued to be a regular participant in weekly Group seminars, and to be engaged in ongoing research activities with Richard Smith, Leigh Shaw-Taylor and others; and I can attest he was always happy to respond rapidly, graciously and most helpfully to any requests for his expert advice.  He was a mild-mannered, warm and down-to-earth presence, an utterly exceptional scholar of global significance who was always, simply, an absolute pleasure to talk with on any subject.  

Professor Simon Szreter. March 2022