Edwin Chadwick, the son of a successful businessman, was born in Manchester on 24th January, 1800. Chadwick's father had progressive political views and encouraged his son to read books by radicals such as Tom Paine and Joseph Priestley. While studying in London to become a lawyer, Chadwick joined the Unilitarian Society where he met Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill and Francis Place.
In 1832, the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, initiated a Royal Commission of Enquiry on the Poor Laws. Chadwick was appointed as one of the assistant commissioners responsible for collecting information on the subject. Edwin Chadwick soon emerged as one of the most important members of the investigation and he was eventually responsible for writing nearly a third of the published report.
In the report published in 1834, the Commission made several recommendations to Parliament. As a result of the report, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. One of the suggestions accepted by Grey's government was that there should be a three man Central Poor Law Commission that would be responsible for supervising the working of the legislation. Chadwick was not appointed as a Commissioner but was offered the post as Secretary, with a promise that he would have the power to make further recommendations on administering the Poor Law.
During the economic depression of 1837, many working people were forced to enter the workhouse. Chadwick was identified as the man responsible for abolishing outdoor relief and during the 1837 General Election there were public demonstrations against him.
After the influenza and typhoid epidemics in 1837 and 1838, Edwin Chadwick was asked by the government to carry out a new enquiry into sanitation. His report, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population was published in 1842. In the report Chadwick argued that disease was directly related to living conditions and that there was a desperate need for public health reform.
Over 7,000 copies of the report was published and it helped create awareness of the need for government to take action in order to protect the lives of people living in Britain's towns and cities. Sir Robert Peel and his Conservative administration were unwilling to support Chadwick's recommendations. A pressure group, the Health of Towns Association, was formed in an effort to persuade Peel's government to take action.
However, it was only after the 1847 General Election, when Lord John Russell became leader of a new Liberal government, that new legislation was introduced. In 1848 Parliament passed a Public Health Act that provided for the formation of a Central Board of Health. This new body had powers to create local boards to oversee street cleansing, refuse collection, water supply and sewerage systems.
Chadwick, who was appointed Sanitation Commissioner, had several ideas on how public health could be improved. This included a constant supply of fresh clean water, water closets in every house, and a system of carrying sewage to outlying farms, where it would provide a cheap source of fertilizer. Attempts to introduce public health reforms were resisted successfully by people with vested interests, for example, landlords and water companies, in maintaining the present system.
In 1854 the Earl of Aberdeen appointed Lord Palmerston as his new Home Secretary. Palmerston was a supporter of public health reform. However, he came to the conclusion that Chadwick was so unpopular it would be impossible to persuade the House of Commons to renew the powers of the Board of Health while he remained in charge of the organisation. In order to preserve the reforms that he had achieved, Chadwick agreed to resign.
Although officially retired on a £1,000 a year pension, Chadwick continued to campaign for changes in the law. This included the reform of sanitation, education and transportation.
Edwin Chadwick died on 6th July, 1890.