Edwin Chadwick

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Edwin Chadwick




Crusader. Edwin Chadwick’s contemporaries called him boring, unreasonable, and overbearing, but he was, in fact, an effective crusader for social change. He devoted his considerable talents to solving publichealth problems engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and he had the satisfaction of seeing steps taken to address most of the wrongs he sought to correct.

Early Years Chadwick was born on 24 January 1800 at Longsight, near the city of Manchester. When he was ten, he and his family moved to London, where he was initially trained in the legal profession. He became acquainted with the great utilitarian philosophers of his time, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and for a time served as Bentham’s personal secretary. Medical reformer Neil Arnott, Chadwick’s personal physician, introduced him to the social implications of public hygiene. In 1834, Chadwick was appointed to the Poor Law Commission, which the government established to reform the distribution of relief to the poor. In particular, the commission was appointed to discourage the poor from taking advantage of charity. Maintaining that people without work were just lazy, Parliament had decreed that government relief would be distributed only to people so destitute that their sole option was living in unpleasant workhouses, where they were given onerous and distasteful tasks designed to motivate them to seek other employment. After epidemics of cholera and typhoid broke out in 1837 and 1838, the government turned its attention to the health and hygiene of the workingclasses, assigning t465he Poor Law Commission to investi-gate hygienic conditions in the manufacturing towns of the country.

Chadwick’s Report Because he was unable to get along with the three other members of the Poor Law Commission, Chadwick, who was its secretary, basically researched and wrote Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) by himself, taking several years to complete it. He sent detailed questionnaires to poor-law guardians throughout the country, and he buttressed the data he collected from them with many eyewitness accounts from doctors who treated the poor. Chadwick also participated personally in inspecting workers’ housing in parts of London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, and Macclesfield. His conclusions represented significant disagreement with the government policy, as well as a departure from his own earlier thinking about the dimensions of poverty, the necessity of poor relief, and how it should be distributed. In fact, his fellow commissioners considered his conclusions too radical and refused to be associated with the report. In particular, Chadwick’s approach to sanitary reform called for the greatly increased involvement of local and national governments.

Changing Public Opinion The main purpose of Chadwick’s report was to influence public attitudes toward the poor. Because of his controversial conclusions, however, the government would not sponsor its publication, and to take his case to the public Chadwick had to arrange for private publication. As many as 20,000 copies were subsequently sold or given away. The Times and The Morning Chronicle also published features on Chadwick’s report. His first aim was to establish irrefutable evidence of how poor drainage, inadequate water supplies, and overcrowded housing were linked to disease, high mortality rates, and low life expectancy. Chadwick then turned to the economic costs of ill health among the poor before addressing what he felt to be the most damaging effect of poor hygienic conditions: the connection of inadequate housing to gambling, drunkenness, and immorality. Such thinking was profoundly different from his attitudes in the mid 1830s. Like the other Poor Law Commissioners, he had then considered poverty and the resort to charity a result of moral failings, rather than their cause. By the 1840s he had concluded that moral reform could not be accomplished by making work-houses inhospitable, but rather by government programs to improve the housing of the working class.

Impact. Chadwick’s report instigated a struggle in Parliament that lasted nearly ten years, and it was a model for later investigations of housing in France and the United States. The most important legislation resulting from Chadwick’s report was the Public Health Act of 1848. Although this law only partially addressed the concerns raised by Chadwick’s report, it was a step toward reforming the living conditions of the laboring poor. For historians Chadwick’s enormous report has provided valuable information about working-class living conditions during the early period of industrialization.


Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, edited, with an introduction, by M. W. Flinn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965).

John Nelson Tarn, Five Per Cent Philanthropy: An Account of Housing in Urban Areas between 1840 and 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).