Neglected Gems: Wrigley’s ‘Simple Model’

By Richard Harris

Edward A. Wrigley. 1967. A simple model of London’s importance in changing English society and economy 1650-1750. Past and Present 37,1: 44-70.

We all get bogged down in the weeds, figuring out who did what and when, and with what effect. Solidly grounded but wonderfully ambitious in scope, Tony Wrigley’s ‘simple model’ reminds us that sometimes we all need the inspiration of a larger vision.

I suppose it is rather cheeky to describe as ‘neglected’ an article that has been cited 162 times (according to Web of Science), and most recently in February 2020. (I am writing this, self-isolated, on April 1. No kidding.) But only six of those citations were in the field of urban history, and only one of these has appeared since 2001. The fact is that, today, few urban historians, even in Britain, are much interested in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. And so Wrigley’s masterful synthesis sits largely unread. What a shame!

In the space of 27 pages, including references, Wrigley offered a new interpretation of the role of London in Britain’s economy and society over the course of a century. He brings together many issues: changes in family structures, literacy, innovations in manufacturing and sales, consumerism, transportation, commercial credit, incomes, and attitudes towards innovation. These are marshaled in support of an argument that London’s “critical mass” exerted an influence on the industrial revolution that gathered pace later in the eighteenth century. The capital provided the market that drove agricultural innovation. More generally, its economic and cultural influence was felt almost everywhere. Concisely, persuasively, Wrigley shows us how cities can matter, and in this case on a grand scale.

I wouldn’t suggest that we urban historians should all shift our research interests back to the seventeenth century. Certainly, Canadians like myself would find meager pickings. But reading Wrigley can inspire us to step back, to place particular research interests more firmly within wider processes of economic and cultural change. Best of all, it takes less than an hour to enjoy.

harrisPast president of the UHA (2017-18), Richard Harris teaches urban geography at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He has written several accounts of Toronto’s suburban development, notably Unplanned Suburbs. Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900-1950. (Baltimore, 1996).

Featured Image: Thomas Bowles, “A General View of the City of London and the River Thames,” plate 2 from “Views of London,” 1794. Wikimedia.

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