Historian Sir Tony Wrigley, who died at the age of 90, transformed our understanding of the Industrial Revolution. He did this by mining British history for a rich ore no one had previously thought usable: the English parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, created by Thomas Cromwell in 1538.
Prior to Wrigley, our knowledge of population trends throughout the period leading up to the first decennial census in 1801 was patchy. The population increased sharply from 1801, but it is unclear when this began, or how exactly the demographic change might have been linked to the first phases of growth in cities and in the iron, coal and iron industries. cotton, or the controversial methods of closing.
The direct claims of the early economist Thomas Malthus, whose theories so influenced the formation of the modern discipline of demography – the statistical study of populations – were unverifiable.
Wrigley’s first book, Industrial Growth and Population Change (1961), was a multilingual comparative study of the coalfield from the Ruhr to the Pas de Calais. Through his appreciation of the work of French demographer Louis Henry, Wrigley realized that some English church records could reveal their secrets about demographic change if they were subjected to Henry’s arduous process of family reconstruction. This involved reconstructing the multiple interacting genealogies of all resident families in a parish over generations spanning centuries.
It began in Colyton, East Devon, where the Devon and Cornwall Record Society had published the records, which were exceptionally comprehensive and had begun almost immediately after Cromwell’s initiative. Wrigley’s first and famous publication using the Colyton family reconstruction study was Family Limitation in Pre-Industrial England, which appeared in the Economic History Review in 1966.
After demonstrating the proof of concept, Wrigley teamed up with Cambridge historian Peter Laslett (his ex-tutor in political theory), who had also been intensely interested in family forms in pre-industrial England.
In 1964 they founded the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and, through a far-sighted commitment to engaging with the public, recruited UK historians and genealogists into the Local Population Studies Society. This army of volunteers transcribed hundreds of thousands of entries from church records, enthused by Laslett’s The World We Have Lost (1965) and Wrigley’s very accessible Population and History (1969).
With funding from the Social Science Research Council, they then set out to recruit experts in programming, statistics and databases. Two gigantic books, mainly produced by Wrigley and Roger Schofield, with Jim Oeppen and Ros Davies, changed our understanding of economic growth in Britain before and during the Industrial Revolution: The Population History of England 1541-1871 (1981) and English Population History of Family Reconstruction 1580-1837 (1997).
The key new finding was that early and more widespread marriage – and therefore higher fertility – was by far the most important driver of population growth, especially in the century of industrialization around the 1730s-1830s, and not, as previously assumed, a change in death rates. This has had massive implications for understanding the relationship between society and economy, which are still the subject of further research.
Wrigley was born in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. Her father, Ted, was a Unitarian minister, and her mother, Jessie (née Holloway), had been a schoolteacher until her marriage. Evacuated to North Wales during the Second World War, Tony then attended King’s School, Macclesfield, and gained a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1949. He graduated first in History Triposes and geography, followed by a one-year fellowship at the University of Chicago. .
He then learned demography from the dean of this field, David Glass, of the London School of Economics. In 1958 he was appointed as a senior lecturer in the Geography Department at Cambridge, only giving up this teaching position in 1974 when SSRC funding was granted for full-time support of its demographic research programme.
The Cambridge Group has proven to be enduring and, following the leadership of Richard Smith, is currently in the hands of a third generation of young scholars who continue to build on Wrigley’s innovative work. It has also functioned for 60 years as an international magnet for academic exchanges and visits from colleagues in many disciplines.
In addition to Wrigley’s central and pioneering achievement in demographic history, there was a five-volume definitive edition of Malthus’s writings, The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus (1986); a careful reworking of information from the first six censuses, The Early English Censuses (2011); two volumes of thought-provoking essays published in leading peer-reviewed journals; and the three volumes that began with her lectures by Ellen McArthur in 1987, published as Continuity, Chance and Change (1988), on the energy transformation that has been at the center of world economic history for the past three centuries.
Tony’s international distinction has earned him numerous accolades around the world; while his warm, friendly and conscientious personality earned him many academic responsibilities, which he willingly assumed, including Professor of Population Studies at LSE (1979-88), Professor of Economic History at the University of Cambridge (1994-97) and Master of Corpus Christi College (1994-2000), President of the British Society for Population Studies (1977-79) and President of the British Academy (1997-2001). He was knighted in 1996.
Throughout this extraordinarily productive career of research and professional service, his family has always been at the heart of Wrigley’s life. In 1960 he married Mieke Spelberg, whom he cared for daily for the past decade after being diagnosed with dementia.
He is survived by her and their four children, Marieke, Ave, Tamsin and Rebecca.