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Edward Anthony Wrigley (Sir Tony Wrigley) (deceased)

Edward Anthony Wrigley (Sir Tony Wrigley) (deceased)

The following obituary of Tony Wrigley has been written by Richard Smith, Emeritus Professor of Historical Geography and Demography.

Edward Anthony Wrigley (Sir Tony Wrigley): Economic and Demographic Historian and Historical Geographer.

Born: 17 August 1931, Manchester, England; Fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge 1959-1974;University Lecturer in Geography, University of Cambridge 1958-74; Co-founder, Cambridge Group for the History of Population 1964; Member Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton 1970-71; Hinkley Visiting Professor, Johns Hopkins Univ., 1975; President, British Society for Population Studies, 1977-79; Tinbergen Visiting Professor Erasmus Univ., Rotterdam, 1979; Emeritus Fellow, Peterhouse 1979-2022 Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics 1979-88; Emeritus Fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge 1979-2022; Fellow of The British Academy 1980-2022; Editor Economic History Review, 1986-92; Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1988-94; Treasurer, British Academy 1989-1995; Professor of Economic History, Cambridge 1994-7; President of the British Economic History Society, 1996-8; Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 1994-2000; President of the British Academy 1997-2001; Chair Isaac Newton Trust, Cambridge 1998-2007; Laureate, International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, 1993; Knight Batchelor 1996 (for services to historical demography); Hon. Doctorates: Manchester, 1997, Sheffield 1997; Bristol, 1998, Edinburgh, 1998; Oxford, 1999 Leicester, 2000; Queen Mary, London 2004; Hon. Fellow London School of Economics, 1997; Founders Medal Royal Geographical Society 1997; Member, American Philosophical Society 2001; Foreign Honorary Member America Academy of Arts and Sciences 2001; Leverhulme Medal British Academy 2008; Married 1960 to Mieke Spelberg (three daughters and one son) died Cambridge 25 February 2022.

Sir Tony Wrigley was a leading scholar in a significant number of disciplines spread across a broad spectrum of the historical social sciences. He had distinguished academic careers as a historian, a geographer and a demographer spent at various times in the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics as well as holding visiting professorships in Europe and North America. He was best known for his role as the most pre-eminent historical demographer since the subject acquired a distinctive identity from the 1950s. In that capacity he founded and headed a research team which created a sophisticated and chronologically particularly lengthy demographic data series for England extending from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century which has never been matched in any other national context. These demographic data provided him with a platform on which to make seminal contributions to the understanding of the economy of early modern England and the Industrial Revolution, and explanations of why that revolution occurred first of all in Britain. In addition he held leadership roles in the various institutions of which he was a member although these never obstructed his research and publishing productivity which was sustained at an unusually high level until the age of 90.

He was born in 1931 in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in the southern part of Greater Manchester. His father, like his paternal grandfather, was a Unitarian minister and his mother a school teacher before marriage forced her exclusion from the profession to which she returned in her widowhood at a relatively young age. His maternal grandfather had migrated from his birthplace in Devon where he was an agricultural labourer to Staffordshire where he became a coalminer. His father's geographical mobility as a minister took him to churches across Cheshire and South Lancashire, and severe wartime bombing in Liverpool where his father was based resulted in his and his younger brother's evacuation to North Wales. For much of the remainder of the war he received a relatively rudimentary education alongside many other Liverpudlian children similarly uprooted from their urban neighbourhoods. After the war his father took on a church in Wilmslow. From there he attended Kings School Macclesfield to be inspired by a history teacher, Ron Clark, with whom he retained quite close links for the next half century. His school would not allow him in his Higher Certificate to study mathematics which he enjoyed. This created a missing element in his analytical armoury which he always regretted in later life. In his fourth term in the sixth form he gained a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge where he remained forever grateful for the stimulating teaching he received from Brian Wormald and Dennis Mack Smith. He also enjoyed the close contacts that he made with a galaxy of that college's luminaries, including Herbert Butterfield, David Knowles, Michael (Munia) Postan and Dennis Brogan who were eventually to become his colleagues. He gained firsts in Parts I and II of the History Tripos and then with an additional year, which the Cambridge system allowed, he gained (unusually) a first in Part II of the Geography Tripos. Following that somewhat extended period as undergraduate he was awarded a Volker fellowship to the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago where he was keen to interact with its Director John Nef, then the leading economic historian in the United States with a particular interest in the history of the British Coal Industry. He also worked with Frederich Hayek whose seminar in economic thought and philosophy he found challenging but stimulating. Following this he returned to Peterhouse to work on a PhD initially under Postan's supervision. His undergraduate geographical turn greatly influenced his approach to the subject of his doctoral research which focused upon regional industrial developments and demographic growth across the full extent of the Austrasian coalfield stretching from the Pas de Calais through the Sambre-Meuse valley into the Ruhr. He argued that a regional study which was not hamstrung by the constraints of national political boundaries was particularly enlightening and provided far more weight because an important explanatory framework was offered by the physical character of the coal seams themselves. As an integral part of his dissertation involved a venture into the analysis of demographic sources and the application of demographic methods he had sought the supervisory assistance of David Glass then Britain's leading demographer who was based at the London School of Economics. There may have been considerable affinity between these two men since Glass himself had a pre-war career in Geography and, like Postan, also had a decidedly continental strand to his academic world view. Wrigley would come fully to embrace European scholarship then and throughout his own career enabled by his considerable linguistic skills. His dissertation won the Ellen McArthur Prize in 1958 and in a revised form was subsequently published in 1961 initiating a link with Cambridge University Press that has lasted to the present day.

In 1958 he was appointed to a lectureship in the Cambridge Department of Geography and also elected to a fellowship at Peterhouse where he also served as bursar from 1964 to 1974. His bursarial experience, through dealing with College farmers, he stressed, gave him a very close understanding of the nature of tenant farming which he put to good use when later studying the history of early modern England's historically precocious agricultural productivity. The next decade was to prove particularly important in setting him on an academic course that would be fundamental to his subsequent achievements. His appointment in Geography overlapped with the presence in that department of Peter Haggett and Richard Chorley who were engaged in promoting a conceptual and methodological revolution in the subject. Wrigley's growing interest in geographical philosophy and population models was fully reflected in his own publications that formed part of the paradigm shift which came to the fore in the early 1960s. Perhaps of even greater significance was his growing awareness of methodological innovations in population studies that were occurring in France in the work of Louis Henry and his colleagues at the Institut National d'Études Démographiques (INED). Henry, who had been seeking settings in which good demographic data could be used for an understanding of the character of fertility in societies which had not yet moved to limit their childbearing in marriage, was frustrated by the poor quality or total absence of such data in contemporary populations. As a consequence he had come to exploit French parish registers of the 17th and 18th centuries, using a technique of family reconstitution that enabled the demographic history of married couples and their offspring to be recreated by the adoption of strict rules when applied to nominative linkage of marriages, baptisms and burials. Glass had himself been interested in this approach but concluded that English parish registers lacked the requisite information to make it possible. Wrigley persevered and, as result, completed the first English parish-register-based study adapting the rules created by Henry for use on the parish registers of the east Devon parish of Colyton. He thought he had discovered the presence of a concerted move towards family limitation by married couples for a limited period in the late seventeenth century. Notwithstanding the fact that this particular interpretation was not to hold when far more work of this type had been completed, the results of this pioneering study regarding such matters as marriage ages and infant and child mortality, proved a catalyst for a surge of interest in the parish register as a demographic source.

In the early 1960s Peter Laslett who had taught Wrigley political theory as an undergraduate was beginning to test ideas about early modern English family forms. Laslett had been interested in patriarchy following his own work on Filmer's 1680 Patriarcha using seventeenth-century listings of parish inhabitants. He showed that there was little evidence of large kin-enfolding extended households. He found a predominance of small, nuclear families headed by couples who had married at relatively late ages in their mid- to late- 20s but were also geographical highly mobile. Laslett and Wrigley collaborated in 1964 to found the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. The pair were committed to ensuring that demographic analysis would not be undertaken as it was at INED detached, from a deep understanding of the social and economic historical contexts. A manifesto of what was to be done appeared under Wrigley's oversight as An Introduction to English Historical Demography in 1965. Wrigley and Laslett realised that if parish-level evidence was to be fruitful then systematic large scale collection of data from a great many parish studies would have to be undertaken. Laslett, in particular, with Wrigley's assistance began an appeal through radio broadcasts for assistance from within the amateur parochially- focused communities of local historians. The response was remarkable. From a small office base in Silver Street in Cambridge the gathering of information from many hundreds of English parishes began. The relationship was reciprocal and Wrigley and Laslett conducted a voluminous correspondence with these local enthusiasts, which galvanised their interests and eventually led to the creation of the Local Population Studies Society as a forum for these local volunteers to present their findings and exchange ideas. Local Population Studies was founded in 1966 and continues to thrive to this day. French scholars, far more centralised within Paris, somewhat enviously termed this local enthusiasm 'le secret weapon anglais'. Progress was intensified with the appointment of Roger Schofield, fresh from the completion of a highly important and to be much cited PhD on Tudor taxation under the supervision of Geoffrey Elton (no friend of the kind of history conducted by Wrigley and Laslett) in 1966. Schofield's arrival strengthened the historical foundations of the Cambridge Group and his initial task was to exploit marriage registers to quantify the literacy skills of marriage partners using their signature skills as an index. He soon began to employ his considerable virtuosity as a computer programmer and, like Wrigley with whom he began an intensive academic partnership, became a largely self-taught demographer. They pushed the Group towards automated means of nominative linkage, as well as to aggregative demographic manipulation of the hundreds of thousands of marriages, burials and baptisms that were being assembled by the local volunteers. Schofield had been educated at the Quaker school of Leighton Park and there is considerable irony in the fact that with Laslett the son of a Baptist minister, a non-conformist scholarly trio was then in place that was becoming heavily dependent on records created by the Anglican establishment, many of which were still housed in the vestries of parish churches .

Notwithstanding the considerable efforts that Wrigley was giving to demographic data creation and gathering, he was publishing steadily in the 1960s on matters that attracted the attention of economic and social historians with his wider interests. His earlier focus on coal production was leading him to think carefully about an essential underpinning, indeed a sine qua non, of sustained industrial growth in the form of the substitution of inorganic for organic sources of supply of mineral for vegetable or animal materials. He also revealed a particular fascination with the demographic phenomenon constituting London and its unprecedented growth within a wider European context from just over 200,000 to 700,000 inhabitants in the course of the seventeenth century. The supply of people, raw materials, food stuffs and heating coals necessary to that urban centre he saw as a massive influence on the national economy. The influx of people and materials as well as the outward diffusion of new ideas and attitudes he also saw as part of a two–way relationship between the burgeoning city and the modernisation of England at large. In 1969 Wrigley published a modestly-sized but strikingly perceptive and forward-thinking analysis of the links between Population and History in the World University Library series, which simultaneously appeared in seven different languages and hence gave him world-wide exposure. The book was avowedly interdisciplinary and worked on the frontiers of knowledge in a manner that reveals it not to have dated in any fundamental sense. There are borrowings from anthropology, sociology, statistics, economics, history and geography. As was said of it 'eclecticism is the by-word' and there is never any resort to false dichotomies between qualitative and quantitative evidence.

While the Cambridge Group had secured modest financial support from the Gulbenkian Foundation in its earliest days and a grant from the SSRC, it was in 1974 that the Group became a fully-fledged Unit of the Social Science Research Council and Wrigley was then able to resign his position in the Cambridge Geography department to give himself full-time to historical demographic research. Working then with Schofield, who was also fully supported from the same funding source, efforts were oriented to producing what was perhaps the Group's most fundamental and massive publication, The Population History of England 1541-1871 which appeared in 1981 with a second edition in 1989 to take into account the many symposia and special journal editions devoted towards consideration of its data, methods and principal arguments. One feature of the work was the role played by Jim Oeppen, a quantitative geographer recruited by Wrigley to the research team in 1977. They forged what became a very fruitful collaboration over the following 25 years. They developed a form of inverse projection working backwards from 1871 that enabled the series of baptisms, burials and marriages to be converted into quinquennial estimates of national population sizes, age structures as well as measures of expectation of life at birth and gross reproduction rates. Many features of England's demography were to emerge as novel findings. Perhaps what gave this work its largest purchase on previous debates was the way the data showed that changes in fertility, driven almost entirely by shifts in the age and incidence of marriage energised both phases of demographic decline and stagnation such as occurred in the later seventeenth century and the period of exceptionally rapid demographic growth in the century after 1750. In fact the work offered clear support for the operation of Malthus' notion of the 'preventive check' and revealed the English to have modified their fertility in a way that ensured they avoided the worst effects of runaway population growth on per capita income, and indeed, established a living standard well above bare subsistence. Such a link between demography and economy could ensure a sizeable demand for consumer goods thereby making possible the substantial production for non-agricultural purchases that acted to stimulate urban growth which Wrigley was keen to calibrate. Rising shares of employment in the secondary and tertiary sectors arose long before large-scale factory based employment became the order of the day. There would be various refinements to the arguments but they have remained basically intact in the 40 years that have elapsed since the book's publication. They were given layers of sophisticated demographical detail with the additional data from 26 parish studies, delayed somewhat by the tragic long-term deterioration in Schofield's health after 1989. This set-back left Wrigley to carry the lion's share of the writing for English Population History from Family Reconstitution that appeared in 1997. This had been facilitated by a period he held as senior research fellow at All Souls, Oxford from 1988 to 1994. Again there is no comparable monograph of this scale that has dissected the component parts of mortality, fertility and nuptiality over the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries for any other part of Europe. The revitalisation of interests in the work and ideas of Malthus that emerged as result of the 1981 volume provided Wrigley an opportunity with the assistance of his former post-graduate student David Souden, to publish in 1986 an edition of the complete works of Malthus in which he included important interpretative essays.

In 1979 Wrigley had been recruited by Ralf Dahrendorf to create a new demography department in the LSE following the death of David Glass. This he did with considerable success, bringing together an especially talented group of young teachers and researchers who together produced what was at the time the most important international centre for post-graduate training in population studies in Britain. Wrigley also undertook senior administrative responsibilities for the LSE as a whole while holding his chair. However it is also clear that Wrigley had long wished to move the focus of his research and writing to engage more broadly with the placement of demographic developments within the larger set of changes that might be defined as an Industrial Revolution. An opportunity arose with the invitation to give the Ellen McArthur lectures in economic history in Cambridge in 1987. He did not, as may have been expected, focus on demography per se but gave four lectures on the 'character of the industrial revolution in England'. He reflected on why the economic growth associated with that revolution came as a surprise to contemporaries, the nature of pre-industrial economies having been entirely dependent on organic raw materials, restricted by the limited scale of available heat and mechanical energy and faced with the seeming inevitability of diminishing marginal returns. However he was at pains to stress that he found it difficult to view the Industrial Revolution as a unitary process which in part explained why contemporaries writing in the later eighteenth century remained incapable of accepting the fundamental changes that were then afoot. He wished to draw a distinction between these changes as they affected both the Dutch Republic after 1550 and England after 1600, where advanced organic economies had arisen that were in many respects modern and fully capitalist although certainly not fully industrialised in terms of their use of energy sources. The relative fortunes of these two economies, particularly the slow-down and stagnation of the Dutch Republic after 1700 in contrast to England's undoubted buoyancy, he concluded, had much to do with the comparative extent to which the two countries had access to large and durable supplies of heat and subsequently mechanical energy from locally available fossil fuels.

It has already been noted that Wrigley's energies in the decade following the McArthur lectures were disproportionately directed to completing a major demographic project on behalf of the Cambridge Group. That task was largely completed when he returned to Cambridge in 1994 to take, simultaneously, the chair of Economic History and the Mastership of Corpus Christi College. To those major posts were added the Presidencies of the British Academy and the British Economic History Society. This sizeable array of substantial administrative responsibilities, while not blocking his formidale published output, did not create optimal conditions for his next major task of empirical analysis. His interest in economic and demographic change never inclined him to engage in forms of national income account analysis pursued by many of the leading economic historians of the Industrial Revolution. In fact he remained decidedly sceptical of this style of work and the fragile data that often underpinned it. He preferred to go back to locally grounded evidence which would cast light on the changing occupational patterns of the male labour force because he was confident that gaining accurate estimates of the relative shares of the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors from as early a date as possible would cast further light on his views regarding the development of an advanced organic economy and its transition to one heavily based on fossil fuel. With Leigh Shaw Taylor another postgraduate of the Cambridge Group, and once again exploiting the data gathering and computer-based processing skills of that Group, research funds were successfully secured to assemble information on the occupations of fathers baptising infants from the point when registers begin in the sixteenth century through to the moment when these types of data are available in the 19th century censuses. This work, enhanced by the ingenuity of Sebastian Keibek, another Cambridge Group postgraduate, showed that over the course of the sixteenth century there had been a fall in the size of the primary sector from c. 75 to c. 63 percent. An even more pronounced fall to c. 44 percent by 1700, when the shares of male employment in the secondary sector were almost as high as in the primary sector was indicative of an enormous growth in the productivity of English agriculture which released a surge in demand for non-agricultural goods. In fact the agrarian sector remained relatively constant through the eighteenth century against a background of substantial demographic growth, when an older view of that century's economic changes might have expected it to have fallen sharply. Wrigley gained considerable satisfaction that data assembled in large quantity from the parish registers enhanced by exploitation of testamentary evidence, were fundamentally altering the terms of the debate in economic history in a manner achieved a generation earlier in demographic history.

In the last decade of his long academic career Wrigley published three more monographs with major university presses and wrote an almost-completed manuscript. His last co-authored publication in 2020, interestingly attempted to show that Malthus, whose insights he so often championed, was wrong in claiming that outdoor poor relief in the late 18th and early 19th century encouraged recklessly early marriage. However he focused his efforts principally on charting the nature of the role played by energy sources in the shift away from an organic economy to one much more heavily based on fossil fuel. It is noteworthy that, while he remained convinced about the necessary role to be played by the exploitation of coal in facilitating the changes he discussed and the fundamental growth of living standards and economic opportunities that this revolution enabled, he came to display a decided pessimism about the long-run prospects of the planet, particularly the impact of dependence on fossil fuel on climate. He saw other dangers associated with the opening of 'Pandora's jar' in the form of the Industrial Revolution that are especially germane to us all at the very moment this obituary is being written. He wrote:

Opening Pandora's jar has brought great benefits; but also countervailing dangers in addition to those associated with use of fossil fuels. The new dangers are most acutely felt in relation to warfare. A conflict conducted with nuclear weapons or germ warfare is capable of destroying life on a scale which was not within the capacity of states in the past, however bloodthirsty their leaders may have been.

Tony Wrigley, for all his academic grandeur, his headship of prominent national institutions, the conferment on him of a knighthood and the winning of laureates and medals for his scholarly contributions remained throughout his life a totally unassuming figure. He rarely criticised fellow scholars in print or when lecturing. He retained a delight in attending and engaging in free-flowing conversations at morning coffee with humble student or lofty academic alike in the Cambridge Group until the Covid pandemic brought an end to such socialising. He was always gentle in the manner in which he made comments and posed questions in seminars. Many young scholars will have benefitted from that aspect of his personality when giving their first paper or defending the exceptionally large number of dissertations he examined. He was deeply committed to his family and domestic life, focused for almost 50 years on his home in Cambridge in which he lived even when based at the LSE and Oxford and which he declined to vacate to reside in the Master's lodgings at Corpus Christi. In particular he took great delight in the considerable musical talents which his piano-playing and -teaching Dutch wife Mieke brought to the household, while also deriving great pleasure from the lives and careers of his three daughters, son and grandchildren.

He will be remembered most of all, as Ernest Gellner once commented in reviewing one of his many books, because of his considerable contribution to answering the central question of historical sociology- what is the distinctive nature of the modern world and how did it come about?

Richard Smith

Below is Tony Wrigley's page before he passed away.

Emeritus Professor

My interests lie in the economic and demographic history of England in the period between the reigns of Elizabeth and Victoria. I am currently working, jointly with Leigh Shaw-Taylor, on the reconstruction of the history of the changing occupational structure of England in the period during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. I am also pursuing my interest in the history of energy use in England over the same period and in the writings of the classical economists, Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus, about the necessary limits to economic growth.



  • 1958-74 Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 1974-94 Co-Director, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure
  • 1979-88 Professor of Population Studies, LSE
  • 1988-94 Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford
  • 1994-7 Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
  • 1994-2000 Master, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
  • 1997-2001 President, British Academy

Qualifications and honours

  • Degrees: B.A., M.A., Ph.D. (all Cantab.)
  • Honorary Degrees: Hon.Litt.D.: Bristol, London, Manchester, Sheffield. Hon.D.Litt.: Leicester, Oxford. Hon.D.Sc.: Edinburgh
  • IUSSP Laureate, 1993. Founder's Medal, RGS, 1997. Leverhulme Medal, British Academy, 2005.


I have two principal interests: a range of issues related to achieving a better understanding of the genesis and nature of the profound changes conventionally labelled 'the industrial revolution' in England; and the population history of the country during the period from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century.


Selected publications during the past decade

  • 'English county populations in the later eighteenth century', Economic History Review, 60 (2007), pp. 35-69.
  • 'Population history: recent changes and current prospects', Local Population Studies, 81 (2008), pp.7-8.
  • 'Rickman revisited: the population growth rates of English counties in the early modern period', Economic History Review, 62 (2009), pp. 711-35.
  • Energy and the English industrial revolution (Cambridge, 2010). ISBN 978-0-521-76693-7.
  • The early English censuses, British Academy Records of Social and Economic History (OUP, 2011). ISBN 978-0-19-726479-9.
  • 'Coping with rapid population growth: how England fared in the century preceding the Great Exhibition', in D. Feldman and J. Lawrence, eds., Structures and transformations in modern British history (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 24-53. ISBN 978-0-521-51882-6.
  • 'Economic history and demography', in Where is economic history going? Methods and prospects from the 13th to the `18th centuries, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Prato, Atti delle Settimane di Studi e altri Convegni, 42, ed. F. Ammannati (Firenze University Press, 2011), pp. 473-95. ISBN 978-88-6453-287-7.
  • 'The west European marriage system in early modern Europe', in Liber Amicorum: Frans Poppel: a sort of farewell, ed. E. Beekink and E. Walhout (eds.), Nederlands Interdisciplinair Demografisch Institut (The Hague, 2012), pp. 81-4.
  • 'Energy and the English industrial revolution', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 371 (2013), 2011.0568.
  • 'The region as a unit of study: history and geography in harmony', Romanian Journal of Population Studies, VII (2013), pp.107-19.
  • 'Urban growth in early modern England: food, fuel, and transport', Past and Present, 225 (2014), pp.79-112.
  • & L. Shaw-Taylor, 'Occupational structure and population change', in R. Floud, J. Humphries, and P. Johnson, eds., The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, vol. 1, Industrialisation 1700-1860 (Cambridge, 2014), pp.53-88.
  • 'European marriage pattern and their implications: John Hajnal's essay and historical demography during the last half-century', in C.D. Briggs, P. Kitson, and S. Thompson, (eds.), Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290-1834 (2014), pp.15-41.
  • The path to sustained growth: England's transition from an organic economy to an industrial revolution (Cambridge, 2016). ISBN 98-1-107-13571-0.


  • 'The preventive check and the poor law: the Malthusian model and its implications' in Shannon Stimson, ed., T.R, Malthus, An essay of the principle of population in the series Rethinking the western tradition (Yale University Press).