Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

The chimneys of the furnaces which darken the atmospheres, and pour out volumes of smoke and soot upon the inhabitants of populous towns, afford most frequent examples of the inefficiency of the local administration, and the contempt of the law for the protection of the public against nuisances which are specially provided for. As smoke in Manchester and other towns becomes more dense, the vegetation declines.

(2) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

The various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom.

That such disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connection with the physical circumstances above specified, and that where those circumstances are removed by drainage, proper cleansing, better ventilation, and other means of diminishing atmospheric impurity, the frequency and intensity of such disease is abated; and where the removal of the noxious agencies appears to be complete, such disease almost entirely disappears.

(3) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

The annual loss of life from filth and bad ventilation are greater than the loss from death or wounds in which the country has been engaged in modern times.

The primary and most important measures, and at the same time the most practicable, and within the recognized province of public administration, are drainage, the removal of all refuse of habitations, streets, and roads, and the improvements of the supplies of water.

That by the combinations of all these arrangements it is probable that an increase of 13 years at least, may be extended to the whole of the labouring classes.

(4) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

Average Age of Death





Bethnal Green