Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick, the son of a journalist, John Chadwick, was born in Manchester on 24th January, 1800. His mother died when he was a child. Chadwick's father had progressive political views and encouraged his son to read books by radicals such as Tom Paine and Joseph Priestley. (1)

While studying in London to become a lawyer, Chadwick joined the Unilitarian Society where he met Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Francis Place, Thomas Southwood Smith and Neil Arnott.

In 1830 Chadwick became Bentham's private secretary and held this post until the philosopher's death in June 1832. Earl Charles Grey, the Prime Minister, set up a Poor Law Commission to examine the working of the poor Law system in Britain. Chadwick was appointed as one of the assistant commissioners responsible for collecting information on the subject. He 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. However, he had problems with his colleagues for being "impatient, judgemental and infamously rude". (2)

Edwin Chadwick & the Poor Law

In 1833 Chadwick was seconded to another inquiry, the royal commission on factories. "In a matter of a few months (April to July 1833) he drew up the terms of inquiry, directed the taking of evidence (in camera, to the disgust of the ten-hours lobby), and drew up a report which ingeniously recommended an eight-hour day for children under thirteen, complemented by three hours' education, appealing to humanitarian concerns for the young while avoiding the restrictions on adult labour that so horrified employers." As a result of the inquiry Parliament passed the 1833 Factory Act. (3)

The Poor Law report published in 1834, the Commission made several recommendations to Parliament. As a result of the report, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The act stated that: (a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse; (b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help; (c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes; (d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission; (e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country. (4)

Thomas Attwood argued that workhouses would become "prisons from the purpose of terrifying applicants from seeking relief". Daniel O'Connell, said that as an Irishman, he would not say much, but he objected to the bill on the grounds that it "did away with personal feelings and connections." William Cobbett warned the legislators in the House of Commons that "they were about to dissolve the bonds of society" and to pass the law would be "a violation of the contract upon which all the real property of the kingdom was held". Cobbett particularly objected to the separation of families, and to workhouse inmates being forced to wear badges or distinctive clothing. (5) Chadwick was blamed for proposing the workhouse system and his biographer Samuel Finer claims he was "the most unpopular single individual in the whole kingdom". (6)

One of the suggestions accepted by the 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. (7) It has been argued that the government was unwilling to appoint Chadwick as a Commissioner as his "station in society was not as would have made it fit that he should be made one of the Commissioners" and would have upset the "jittery landed élite". (8)

Lord John Russell, the home secretary, developed a good relationship with Chadwick and valued his abilities and in October 1836, he appointed Chadwick with two others to a royal commission on rural police with a view to extending the experiment in professional policing initiated in London. Chadwick compiled a report that suggested a national system of police centrally controlled but locally funded. (9)

Public Health in the 19th Century

In 1837, Parliament passed a Registration Act ordering the registration of all births, marriages and deaths that took place in Britain. Parliament also appointed William Farr to collect and publish these statistics. In his first report for the General Register Office, Farr argued that the evidence indicated that unhealthy living conditions were killing thousands of people every year. (10)

Water consumption in towns per head of population remained very low. In most towns the local river, streams or springs, provided people with water to drink. These sources were often contaminated by human waste. The bacteria of certain very lethal infectious diseases, for example, typhoid and cholera, are transmitted through water, it was not only unpleasant to taste but damaging to people's health. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out: "The fetid, muddy waters, stained with a thousand colours by the factories they pass, of one of the streams... wander slowly round this refuge of poverty." (11)

In 1839 Edwin Chadwick married Rachel Dawson Kennedy, fifth daughter of John Kennedy, a prominent textile manufacturer in Manchester. It is believed that she brought a substantial dowry, thus relieving slightly Chadwick's recurrent financial worries. The couple moved to Stanhope Street in London, and within the next few years produced Osbert Chadwick (1842–1913), a civil engineer, and Marion Chadwick (1844–1928), who was active in the women's movement. His daughter noted that Chadwick "had a high opinion of animals, children, and women (whose enfranchisement he supported), but did not enjoy close relations with any of them". (12)

The Poor Law Commission became concerned that a high proportion of all poverty had its origins in disease and premature death. Men were unable to work as a result of long-term health problems. A significant proportion of these men died and the Poor Law Guardians were faced with the expense of maintaining the widow and the orphans. The Commission decided to ask three experienced doctors, James P. Kay-Shuttleworth, Thomas Southwood Smith and Neil Arnott, to investigate and report on the sanitary condition of some districts in London. (13)

On receiving details of the doctor's investigation, the Poor Law Commission sent a letter to Lord John Russell, suggesting that if the government spent money on improving sanitation it would reduce the cost of looking after the poor: "In general, all epidemics and all infectious diseases are attended with charges immediate and ultimate on the poor-rates. Labourers are suddenly thrown by infectious disease into a state of destitution for which immediate relief must be given: in the case of death the widow and the children are thrown as paupers on the parish. The amount of burdens thus produced is frequently so great, as to render it good economy on the part of the administrators of the poor laws to incur the charges for preventing the evils, where they are ascribable to physical causes, which there are no other means of removing." (14)

These reports were debated in the House of Lords but it was not until twelve months later that Charles Blomfield, the Bishop of London, suggested that the London surveys should be followed up by a full-scale enquiry into the sanitary condition of the whole nation. Edwin Chadwick was asked to head the investigation. Questionnaires were circulated to all Poor Law guardians, union relieving officers and medical officers. A number of doctors in England and Scotland were asked to prepare special reports on the sanitary conditions in their own towns or countries. (15)

Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population

Chadwick's report, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, was published in 1842. He argued that slum housing, inefficient sewerage and impure water supplies in industrial towns were causing the unnecessary deaths of about 60,000 people every year: "Of the 43,000 cases of widowhood, and 112,000 cases of orphanage relieved from the poor rates in England and Wales, it appears that the greatest proportion of the deaths of heads of families occurred from... removable causes... The expense of public drainage, of supplies of water laid on in houses, and the removal of all refuse... would be a financial gain.. as it would reduce the cast of sickness and premature death." (16)

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Edwin Chadwick

Chadwick was a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher who questioned the value of all institutions and customs by the test of whether they contributed to "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". (17) Edwin Chadwick claimed that middle-class people lived longer and healthier lives because they could afford to pay to have their sewage removed and to have fresh water piped into their homes. For example, he showed the average age of death for the professional class in Liverpool was 35, whereas it was only 15 for the working-classes. (18)

Chadwick criticised the private companies that removed sewage and supplied fresh water, arguing that these services should be supplied by public organisations. He pointed out that private companies were only willing to supply these services to those people who could afford them, whereas public organisations could make sure everybody received these services. He argued that the "cost of removing sewage would be reduced to a fraction by carrying it away by suspension in water". The government therefore needed to provide a "supply of piped water, and an entirely new system of sewers, using circular, glazed clay pipes of relatively small bore instead of the old, square, brick tunnels". (19)

However, there were some influential and powerful people who were opposed to Edwin Chadwick's ideas. These included the owners of private companies who in the past had made very large profits from supplying fresh water to middle-class districts in Britain's towns and cities. Opposition also came from prosperous householders who were already paying for these services and were worried that Chadwick's proposals would mean them paying higher taxes. The historian, A. L. Morton, claims that his proposed reforms made him "the most detested man in England." (20)

A Court for King Cholera, Punch Magazine (October, 1852)
A Court for King Cholera, Punch Magazine (October, 1852)

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.

When the government refused to take action, Chadwick set up his own company to provide sewage disposal and fresh water to the people of Britain. He planned to introduce the "arterial-venous system". The system involved one pipe taking the sewage from the towns to the countryside where it would be sold to farmers as manure. At the same time, another pipe would take fresh water from the countryside to the large populations living in the towns. (21)

Chadwick calculated that it would be possible for people to have their sewage taken away and receive clean piped water for less than 2d. a week. However, Chadwick launched the Towns Improvement Company during the railway boom. Most people preferred to invest their money in railway companies. Without the necessary start-up capital, Chadwick was forced to abandon his plan. (22)

Some local authorities did find Chadwick's ideas interesting and Nottingham became one of the first towns in Britain to pipe fresh water into all homes. Thomas Hawksley was appointed as chief enginner and in 1844 he was interviewed by a Parliamentary Committee about his work: "Before the supply was laid on in the houses water was sold chiefly to the labouring-classes by carriers at the rate of one farthing a bucket; and if the water had to be carried any distance up a court a halfpenny a bucket was, in some instances, charged. In general it was sold at about three gallons for a farthing. But the Company now delivers to all the town 76,000 gallons for £1; in other words, carries into every house 79 gallons for a farthing, and delivers water night and day, at every instant of time that it is wanted, at a charge 26 times less than the old delivery by hand." (23)

1848 Public Health Bill

After the 1847 General Election, Lord John Russell became leader of a new Liberal government. The government proposed a Public Health Bill that was based on some of Edwin Chadwick's recommendations. There were still a large number of MPs who were strong supporters of what was known as laissez-faire. This was a belief that government should not interfere in the free market. They argued that it was up to individuals to decide on what goods or services they wanted to buy. These included spending on such things as sewage removal and water supplies. George Hudson, the Conservative Party MP, stated in the House of Commons: "The people want to be left to manage their own affairs; they do not want Parliament... interfering in everybody's business." (24)

Supporters of Chadwick argued that many people were not well-informed enough to make good decisions on these matters. Other MPs pointed out that many people could not afford the cost of these services and therefore needed the help of the government. The Health of Towns Association, an organisation formed by doctors, began a propaganda campaign in favour of reform and encouraged people to sign a petition in favour of the Public Health Bill. In June 1847, the association sent Parliament a petition that contained over 32,000 signatures. However, this was not enough to persuade Parliament, and in July the bill was defeated. (25)

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Gustave Dore, London (1872)

A few weeks later news reached Britain of an outbreak of cholera in Egypt. The disease gradually spread west, and by early 1848 it had arrived in Europe. The previous outbreak of cholera in Britain in 1831, had resulted in the deaths of over 16,000 people. In his report, published in 1842, Chadwick had pointed out that nearly all these deaths had occurred in those areas with impure water supplies and inefficient sewage removal systems. Faced with the possibility of a cholera epidemic, the government decided to try again. This new bill involved the setting up of a Board of Health Act, that had the power to advise and assist towns which wanted to improve public sanitation. (26)

In an attempt to persuade the supporters of laissez-faire to agree to a Public Health Act, the government made several changes to the bill introduced in 1847. For example, local boards of health could only be established when more than one-tenth of the ratepayers agreed to it or if the death-rate was higher than 23 per 1000. Chadwick was disappointed by the changes that had taken place, but he agreed to become one of the three members of the central Board of Health when the act was passed in the summer of 1848. (27)

The new central Board of Health was to have three members, Edwin Chadwick, George Howard, Lord Morpeth and Anthony Ashley Cooper. Some people thought it was a good choice as "there would be no lack of enthusiasm, knowledge and energy at the core." However, The Lancet, the leading medical journal in the country described them "a benighted triumvirate" who should be ostracised and "left to the vacillations of their acknowledged ignorance". (28)

Thomas Southwood Smith was later appointed to remedy the initial lack of a medical member. The Public Health Act was passed too late to stop the outbreak of cholera that arrived in Britain that September. The board took emergency action to ensure the regular cleansing of streets and waste removal. In the next few months, cholera killed 80,000 people. Once again, it was mainly the people living in the industrial slums who caught the disease. As Henry Mayhew pointed out: "The history of the late epidemic, which now seems to have almost spent its fatal fury upon us, has taught us that the masses of filth and corruption round the metropolis are, as it were, the nauseous nests of plague and pestilence."(29)

As Peter Mandler has pointed out Edwin Chadwick tended to upset the government with his proposals: "Chadwick pressed upon them, and upon the new unitary commission for London, the replacement of the traditional brick sewers by his favoured comprehensive system of self-flushing, narrow diameter, glazed earthenware pipes, preferably conveying the sewage to farmers for use as manure. This dogma antagonized many engineers, as his earlier administrative dogmas had antagonized doctors. In autumn 1849, after a brief collapse brought on by overwork and possibly over-combativeness, Morpeth had to remove him from the metropolitan sewers commission." (30)

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.

Gustave Dore, London (1872)
Edwin Chadwick

Michael Flinn has argued that there were a variety of different reasons why Chadwick had difficulty getting the full support from the government: "Personal dislike of a man in whose make-up arrogance and self-righteousness had a slighty disproportionate share can only partly explain it; the machinations of interested parties - representatives of the old, closed vestries, shareholders of private water companies, or slum landlords - may explain another part of it: probably resentment at the intrusion of meddling reformers in the business of the traditional governing classes led to some of the most destructive opposition." (31)

By 1853 over 160 towns and cities had set up local boards of health. Some of these boards did extremely good work and were able to introduce important reforms. Thomas Hawksley, for example, after his success in Nottingham, was appointed to many major water supply projects across England, including schemes for Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester, Leeds, Derby, Oxford, Cambridge, Sunderland, Lincoln, Darlington, Wakefield and Northampton. (32)

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 and was granted a £1000 per annum pension. (33)

Edwin Chadwick died on 6th July, 1890. He was buried three days later in Mortlake Cemetery. In his will he left £47,000 to a trust "for the advancement of sanitary science and the physical training of the population". (34)

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)

Average Age of Death in 1842





Bethnal Green
































Student Activities

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)

Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites (Answer Commentary)

Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)


(1) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Sandra Hempel, The Medical Detective (2006) page 115

(3) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 551

(5) Daniel Green, The Great Cobbett: The Noble Agitator (1983) page 458

(6) Samuel Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (1952) page 187

(7) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Samuel Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (1952) page 109

(9) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) John M. Eyler, William Farr : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Alexis de Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland (1835) page 104

(12) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 27

(14) Poor Law Commission, letter to Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary (14th May, 1838)

(15) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 29

(16) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842)

(17) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 236

(18) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842)

(19) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 30

(20) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 341

(21) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 30

(22) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(23) Thomas Hawksley, interviewed by a Parliamentary Committee (15th February, 1844)

(24) George Hudson, speech in the House of Commons (3rd July 1847)

(25) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 31

(26) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997) page 411

(27) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 32

(28) Sandra Hempel, The Medical Detective (2006) page 112

(29) Henry Mayhew, Morning Chronicle (24th September 1849)

(30) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(31) Michael Flinn, Public Health Reform in Britain (1968) page 32

(32) Obituary of Thomas Hawksley, The Times (25th September 1893)

(33) Peter Mandler, Edwin Chadwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(34) Samuel Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (1952) page 512