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Wilson, Charles Henry (1914–1991), historian, was born at 4 Kilnwell Road, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire on 16 April 1914, the son of Joseph Edwin Wilson and his wife, Louisa Maria, née Berridge. His family were modest in means: his father was a master tailor and his mother, the youngest of eleven children in a farming family near Peterborough, had spent twelve years at an orphanage in London. Charles Wilson owed much to his mother—in particular his interest in music.

Education and early career

Wilson went first to the local Methodist elementary school, then to De Aston Grammar School, leaving Market Rasen for Jesus College, Cambridge, as an undergraduate in 1933, having won an open exhibition. It was a hard route to Cambridge, where he took first-class honours in both parts of the historical tripos, and then subsequently in the English tripos (1937). He also became president of the university music club and an accomplished viola player. Staying on for a fourth year at Cambridge was originally designed to improve Wilson's chances in the civil service examination but this ambition was quickly overtaken by longer-term academic plans. In these he was encouraged particularly by Edward Welbourne, senior tutor of Emmanuel College (later master), an economic historian of inspired (or maverick) views, who came from Market Rasen, having been a friend of the Wilson family and also a pupil at the grammar school. Welbourne's lectures and deep interest in the historic presence of the Dutch in East Anglia induced Charles Wilson to learn Dutch and commit himself to Dutch economic history. He spent his two initial postgraduate years in the Netherlands laying the basis for his first major research project (nominally supervised by J. H. Clapham). A research fellowship at Jesus in 1938 enabled him hastily to complete the manuscript of Anglo Dutch Commerce and Finance in the Eighteenth Century before the outbreak of war (it was published in 1941). He married, on 21 October 1939, Angela Marshman, a solicitor's secretary, the daughter of John Opie Marshman, engineer. They had one daughter.

Wilson served for a short time in the navy before Whitehall claimed him for the Admiralty, where he learned much about the relations between bureaucracy, policy making, and government. He wrote much of the charming vignette Holland and Britain (1946) in the intervals of work. In 1945 he returned to Cambridge as bursar of Jesus and he was appointed university lecturer in modern history.

Business history

In 1947 G. N. Clark, regius professor of modern history in Cambridge, was asked by Geoffrey Heyworth, chairman of Unilever, for advice about a possible history of this major Anglo-Dutch business. Clark declined Heyworth's invitation for himself but brought Charles Wilson, now with established status in Anglo-Dutch history, into the discussions. Wilson was then invited to write the history of Unilever, conceived as a large-scale, professional, independent, academic study with appropriate research assistance—the first of its kind in Britain for a major industrial company and multinational business. The result was a highly successful and influential pioneer work in modern British business history. A consistent historical philosophy lay behind the study, which was to characterize all Wilson's subsequent works. As he observed:
Historians have often written as if growth and material progress were a natural and inevitable process needing no propulsion from human enterprise … In economic history, as elsewhere, a man is limited by circumstances, yet at the heart of the economic progress there is human intelligence, human character, ingenuity and enterprise … but of the men who organised the great industries, who studied the application of invention on a large scale, raised the capital, followed on, created the markets and—above all—shouldered the risk, we heard little.
In the early 1950s this carried with it a strong political message. He concluded: ‘It is my hope that this study … will do something to redress the balance of our history and focus attention on the process by which wealth was created as well as on those by which it was shared out’ (C. H. Wilson, History of Unilever, 1954, preface, 1.vi). When the two volumes were published (at publisher's risk) by Cassell in 1954, their reception immediately demonstrated that Wilson had set new levels of expectation in business history, the implications of which remained for long after. No other book did more to legitimize business history in Britain as a subspecies of main-line history—and economic history. The first print run (of 10,000 copies) sold out and the edition was reprinted. A Dutch translation was also published. Commitments in business history continued with the history of Robert Napier, the Scottish engineering business, published as Men and Machines (1959), written jointly with W. J. Reader, his principal research assistant for the history of Unilever, followed by a study of the multiple stationers, W. H. Smith, 1792–1972, First with the News (1985).

In his History of Unilever, Wilson effectively identified business history with entrepreneurial history. Firmly based narratives of growth and change, strategies, products, and markets, analysed with great perception and intelligence, were the hallmarks of his work in this field. He did not deploy specific analytical frameworks, or specific economic theory (explicit or implicit). He was a sympathetic visitor to the Research Center in Entrepreneurial History at Harvard in 1954 where the heritage of J. A. Schumpeter was being actively developed. From this visit came his article ‘The entrepreneur in the Industrial Revolution’ (History, 42, 1957), much reprinted subsequently, which opened up the debate in the more empirical terms of exploring actual business roles. His insight there retained its importance, linking issues of production to those of markets: one of the basic skills of the entrepreneur, he considered to be the possession of ‘a sense of market opportunity combined with the capacity needed to exploit it’ (p. 103). As a historian he had an appreciation for those—whether politicians, administrators, or businessmen in history—who wrestled with practical endeavour. Another source of such awareness was Wilson's own experience (which gave him great satisfaction) as bursar of Jesus from 1945 to 1955—a critical decade in the evolution of his views and values—because as bursar he was responsible for the varied financial commitments of a relatively wealthy Cambridge college.

Economic history

Wilson came to prominence internationally in 1949 with an important reinterpretation of established views on mercantilism (an orthodoxy centred on the work of the eminent Swedish economic historian Eli Heckscher): ‘Treasure and trade balances: the mercantilist problem’ (Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 2, 1949). His concern with the political issues which underlay mercantilist policies made him distrust the historical reality of the disembodied, conceptualized entity dubbed mercantilism. More directly, he was aware of the contemporary economic crisis from 1947, following the temporary commitment to the convertibility of sterling, the dollar gap, and the intractable problem of the sterling area needing to offset regional deficits in hard-currency trading areas. His argument was that British policy makers in the seventeenth century were not so stupid, given the intractable deficits they faced in the Baltic trade, in their concern with precious-metal flows, whatever classical economists might assume about the self-adjusting mechanisms of a multilateral trading system. This new idea about mercantilism set off lively controversies and re-energized even the aged Heckscher, who asserted once more the misapprehensions of the mercantilists.

Wilson's deep knowledge of the interplay of economic and political forces in Anglo-Dutch affairs in the seventeenth century was next illuminated in Profit and Power (1957), which surveyed the complex web of relations which brought about the first two wars between England and the Netherlands. In both Profit and Power and Mercantilism, as well as in his textbook England's Apprenticeship, 1603–1763 (1965), he presented the reign of mercantilism as belonging primarily to the century from 1660 to 1760, but in the much more wide-ranging study of European mercantilism, ‘Trade, society and the state’, for the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, he pushed its beginnings back into the sixteenth century, if not to medieval times.

Some years later a similar insight to that about mercantilism produced an influential countervailing view about late Victorian England. Historical debate about the ‘great depression’ of 1873–96 had concentrated on the economic ills of falling profits, sagging export values, higher unemployment, and evidence of failures to compete and innovate in certain industries. But Wilson knew a significantly different story about the same decades. On the basis of a resilient home market enhanced by falling prices, great expansion, much innovation, and economies of scale came to sectors of the economy such as brewing, distilling, mass-production confectionery, biscuits, bakery, and other food-processing industries such as margarine; newspapers and printing, soap, cheap drugs and pharmaceuticals—the newly commercialized pleasures of the urban masses. All these showed another face of Britain. This article, ‘Economy and society in late Victorian Britain’ (Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 18, 1965), stimulated much reassessment of the complex trends of that period.

Wilson often did not capitalize upon these insights by following up his original articles with more substantial research. His style was to make bridgeheads of great originality into such themes: a characteristic of the sort of stimulus he could give at other levels in discussion, whether to colleagues or to students. The paradox of his eminence as an economic and business historian was that he did not regard himself as identified with such specific—or limited—historical roles. Queen Elizabeth and the Revolt of the Netherlands (1970), which originated in the Ford lectures in Oxford (1968–9), showed him at once relaxed and self-confident in judgement, writing political history with great vigour. The theme was clear and consistent. ‘As so often in history what looks like economic interests powerful enough to swing politics in their wake turn out in reality to be a puny thing, politically vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous politics’ (p. 17).

The wider vision of history also characterized Wilson's textbooks: England's Apprenticeship, 1603–1763 (1965, 1988); The Age of Expansion: Europe and the World, 1559–1660 (ed. H. Trevor Roper, 1968); The Dutch Republic and the Civilisation of the Seventeenth Century (1968); The Transformation of Europe, 1558–1648 (1976); and Introduction to the Sources of European Economic History, 1500–1800 (with G. Parker, 1977). At the same time he had been an editor (with E. E. Rich) and contributor for the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vols. 4 and 5 (1967, 1977) and the New Cambridge Modern History, vols. 7 and 11 (1957, 1962), and co-editor (with R. M. Hartwell) of the Economic History Review (1960–67).

Cambridge chair

Within Cambridge and beyond Charles Wilson had a distinctive, robust intellectual style which put him out of sympathy with certain dominant trends, both local and international, at least until the latter years of his career. His chief mentors as a young man, the Jesus College tutors Bernard Manning and Kenneth Pickthorn, and Edward Welbourne (none of them main-line Cambridge historians) set his course, but his own local roots in the conservative and comparatively impoverished society of rural Lincolnshire remained strong in his consciousness. Jesus College was, in his generation, a conservative institution in the Cambridge kaleidoscope, in general as well as in historiographical terms: it was neither high church, ideological tory nor professed liberal and whig—least of all radical, as some other parts of the town, but a traditional, Anglican, rather rural conservatism prevailed.

During the post-war years, as bursar of Jesus, Wilson became a political Conservative, although he never moved in professional party circles. He reacted against prevailing liberal trends in the 1930s, agreeing with Edward Welbourne that the historical tripos at Cambridge was an exercise to keep the whigs of Trinity College in the true faith, although he had a personal admiration for G. M. Trevelyan. He had no sympathy with the Fabian left-wing orthodoxies of economic and social history in the ascendant before and immediately after the war and was also sceptical of the Manchester free-trade school represented by George Unwin, almost as much as he distrusted the Christian socialism of Toynbee or Tawney, although he became a supporter of the Institute of Economic Affairs and the University of Buckingham, both institutions in their different ways embodying the principles of the free market. He became independent, empirical, traditionalist, increasingly sceptical of the efficiencies of the state, and doubtful about the formulation of policies in accordance with grand conceptual (and usually soi-disant Marxist) interpretations of the historical process.

Wilson's two main credos for history are to be found in his inaugural lecture in Cambridge as professor of modern history, to which he was appointed in 1964 in succession to Herbert Butterfield (History in Special and in General, 1964), and in an even less restrained coda which he offered a decade later in Brussels, after he had left Cambridge on secondment to the European University Institute in Florence (‘The relevance of history’, Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, 36, 1975). He showed a strong preference for large books rather than short articles. He inveighed against the fate of social and economic history being taken over to guard the historical flank of the eternal truths of Fabian socialism. He saw social history's attempt to rescue history from its ‘sterile preoccupation with mere politics’ through invoking the lives of real people as being threatened by the advance of theory (as with economic history). He could never accept a monolithic conceptual schema nor a methodology which sought explanation in one type of variable, least of all the economic.

Wilson's own work always saw interconnections and counterpoints between religion and business, politics and economics, men and circumstances. Having written so much about seventeenth-century European conflicts he was always conscious of how present-day assumptions downgraded the importance of religion, whether in present reality or historical conflict, despite his own lack of any religious conviction. He reacted—too strongly—against what he saw as the progressive takeover of economic history by such quantitative techniques and a conceptual apparatus which hid the simplified assumption of neo-classical economics behind obscurantist econometric expertise. The interplay between men and their context was of the essence, and increasingly he found it more congenial to concentrate on the human actors in the story. For this reason, among others, he welcomed his appointment to the modern history chair in Cambridge, whereas he was seen by his colleagues as the natural successor to M. M. Postan (who was to retire in 1966) in the chair of economic history.

With such resonant views of what he saw as false gods, Wilson's affirmations as well as his scepticism became more specific with time. His eclectic vision of history was research based, dependent on primary sources, and certainly not without analytical vigour. Historical research could not produce definitive, value-free, objective, non-timebound, scientific certainties. Nor was history a cumulative revelation of progress. Material progress he undoubtedly affirmed—in this sense he reversed accusations of progressive immizeration with the evolution of capitalism, whether commercial or industrial. Rather it was the intellectual and cultural trends of the ‘political nation’ which gave him doubts about progress, more specifically for the twentieth century. This was an age of ‘instant news and instant amnesia’. Far from being an era of disbelief it was, on the contrary, doubtful whether there had ever been an age when there was wider or looser propensity to believe. Hence the importance he attributed to an awareness of history: it could provide a particular and sceptical perspective that comes from studying social phenomena in relation to time.

Wilson's views on university teaching remained firmly élitist and traditional. At the centre of undergraduate intellectual development he saw the tutorial / supervision, with its twin and complementary disciplines of writing in relatively short compass about a major historical topic every week of term and then defending the essay in dialogue with one's college supervisor. For lectures he had greater doubts, seeing the imparting of information as a fundamentally uncritical process. This was his dark response to university expansion (where more, for him, meant worse) and the radical interlude of 1968–73. His views grew more extreme with age in these respects.

Florence and Australia

After eleven years in the Cambridge chair, moving increasingly away from economic history, Charles Wilson was appointed to the European University Institute in Florence from 1975 to 1981. As the first professor of history and civilization, and the first head of the department, he played an initiating role. He was always a committed European, in the English political sense. His appointment in the institute coincided with a certain disenchantment with Cambridge; he felt (perhaps exaggeratedly) that he had become rather marginalized in the faculty, and he twice failed to be elected master of Jesus. Cambridge had become socially a rather claustrophobic village in the aftermath of divorce from his first wife, Angela, and his second marriage. On 23 March 1972 he married Alena Emilie Horesovska, a school teacher and translator from Czechoslovakia, whose previous marriage had been dissolved. She was the daughter of Vladimir Kouril, a barrister. Wilson eagerly took the opportunity of a fresh commitment in a different country to a new institution of which he greatly approved. His position at the institute endorsed his standing as a historian of Europe in the widest sense. He had been for many years a governor of the British Institute of Florence and an enthusiastic member of the comitato scientifico of the Istituto Internazionale ‘F. Datini’ at Prato (1971–84, then a member of the comitato d'onore) almost from its inception.

Many honours came to Wilson: a fellowship of the British Academy in 1966; LittD at Cambridge; CBE in 1981. The Festschrift presented to him in 1984 included contributions from England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, and the United States. He was elected a corresponding fellow of the Royal Danish Academy (1970) and the Royal Academy of Belgium (1973), and he was a vice-president of the Royal Historical Society (1981–6); he received honorary degrees at the University of Groningen (1964) and at Louvain (1977). His services to Dutch history were recognized in his appointment as commander, order of Orange Nassau (1974). He also served on many advisory committees, nationally and internationally.

Wilson was the most approachable and informal of persons, never standing on his dignity; genial, gregarious, and congenial as a companion, with a gift of mimicry which much enhanced his skill as a raconteur. The diversity of his interests and talents—he was chairman of the board of the Carl Rosa Opera Company in the 1960s—was one of the secrets of his personal charm.

Wilson's final years were not tranquil. To pessimism about trends in academic life and his chosen discipline was added an accumulation of personal difficulties. In the early 1980s he began to visit Australia to work on Australian history and renewed his links with Marion Raymond, whom he had known well in Cambridge before the war. He found happiness in Sydney and retained his zest for writing, despite failing health. The early settlements in Australia formed the initial focus of his interest; he contributed an article on this to a Festschrift in 1986, before the last book Australia, 1788–1988: the Creation of a Nation (1987). His life came full circle: at his death in Sydney on 1 August 1991 he left instructions that his ashes should be scattered on the shore near Sydney, where settlers from Market Rasen had arrived in 1788.

Peter Mathias


M. Cowling, printed text of address at memorial service, Jesus College, Cambridge, 2 Nov 1991 · private information (2004) [A. Wilson, widow; E. Wilson, daughter; S. Salsbury; M. Raymond; A. Schenk] · P. Mathias, ‘Charles Wilson, 1914–1991: retrospect for an historian’, Journal of European Economic History, 22/1 (1993), 43–54 · P. Mathias, ‘Memoir of C. H. Wilson’, PBA, 105 (2000), 555–74 · The Times (8 Aug 1991) · Daily Telegraph (5 Aug 1991) · The Independent (3 Aug 1991) · b. cert. · m. certs.


Jesus College, Cambridge, MSS






B. E. Supple, photograph, repro. in D. C. Coleman and P. Mathias, eds., Enterprise and history (1984), frontispiece · drawing, Jesus College, Cambridge · photograph, repro. in Mathias, ‘Memoir of C. H. Wilson’