Chadwick, Edwin

views updated May 11 2018



CHADWICK, EDWIN (1800–1890), English reformer.

Born 24 January 1800, near Manchester, Edwin Chadwick was the son of a radical journalist. Although trained as a barrister, he never practiced law. After two years as secretary to Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), he attempted to put the utilitarian sage's principles into practice as a government reformer. Chadwick's articles on current social problems and proposed administrative solutions brought him to the attention of political economists like Nassau William Senior and reform-minded Whig leaders like Henry Brougham. Through them he was brought in as an expert investigator on two new royal commissions in 1832—on the poor laws and on child labor in the factories. Chadwick proved quite willing to suppress evidence contrary to his opinions, and crafted his reforms partly in terms of the advancement of his own career. Ignoring the call of the followers of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) to abolish the poor laws altogether, Chadwick insisted that a public relief system could be safely maintained if it was rigorously overhauled and infused with deterrent strategies.


The major recommendations of the report of the royal commission on the poor laws, written largely by Chadwick and issued in 1834, were the principle of less eligibility and the use of a workhouse test. The former embodied the concept that the condition of the pauper receiving public relief should be less eligible (less desirable) than that of the lowest paid independent laborer. The workhouse test was designed to put this into practice. The harsh regimen of the new workhouses would act as a test of destitution for the able bodied, since only the truly desperate would subject themselves to the discipline, hard work, and monotonous diet of the new workhouses. These recommendations were embodied in the New Poor Law of 1834. Chadwick had been simultaneously involved in a commission on factory children, and the resulting Factory Act of 1833 abolished all labor for children under nine and limited it to eight hours per day for those aged nine to thirteen.

Chadwick was passed over for one of the three poor law commissionerships under the 1834 act, accepting the lower position of secretary. In this post he was unable to prevent what he considered a gross maladministration of the new law, characterized by a fitful and very partial application of the workhouse test. Nonetheless, he carved out new areas of social inquiry and reform. The most important of these was a sanitary investigation, ostensibly conducted by the Poor Law Commission, but in fact carried out entirely by Chadwick. Published in 1842 as The Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, it is Chad-wick's greatest work. Deploying a formidable array of statistics and expert medical testimony, he made a compelling case for the connection between illness and poverty. He also demonstrated that much, if not most, sickness was due to the appalling overcrowding and lack of sanitation in the towns. Chadwick called for dramatic government action to provide fresh water and create radically new sewer systems using smallbore earthenware pipes so that urban refuse could be efficiently removed before a deadly "miasma" (believed to be the predisposing cause of most illness) could form.

With the passage of the Public Health Act of 1848, Chadwick at last tasted real executive authority. While he considered the statute defective in its coercive powers over recalcitrant local authorities, he set to work vigorously with his colleague on the General Board of Health, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) to reform England's sanitary institutions. Using his limited coercive powers to the full, he compelled many reluctant municipalities to appoint local boards and begin the process of draining, sewering, and providing fresh water. He also made numerous enemies by his dictatorial and dogmatic manner. This proved to be the undoing of both Chadwick and the General Board of Health. In 1854 Chadwick was stripped of his post, and the general board was reorganized and placed under the control of one of his leading critics. It was his last paid government position.


In spite of this repudiation by Parliament, Chadwick continued to be a dynamic force in administrative reform and the public health movements for the remaining thirty-six years of his life and was at last granted a knighthood a year before his death in 1890. While he is rightly viewed as an intrepid early pioneer in the making of the British Welfare State, he has come in for less favorable treatment by historians since the late twentieth century. Two hagiographic biographies of 1952, by R. A. Lewis and S. E. Finer, hail Chadwick as an indefatigable fighter to improve society and its institutions. A less flattering picture was presented in 1988 by Anthony Brundage, who details Chadwick's personal ambition, hostility toward rival reformers, and devious political strategies. A more sweeping indictment came in 1997 with Christopher Hamlin's study, in which Chadwick is depicted as having subverted an older, more humane tradition of public health reform, substituting impersonal bureaucratic structures and dubious engineering nostrums for real engagement in the lives of the poor.

See alsoGreat Britain; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Public Health; Statistics.


Primary Sources

Chadwick, Edwin. Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842). Reprinted with an introduction by M. W. Flinn. Edinburgh, 1965.

Secondary Sources

Brundage, Anthony. England's "Prussian Minister": Edwin Chadwick and the Politics of Government Growth, 1832–1854. University Park, Pa., 1988.

Finer, S. E. The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick. London, 1952.

Hamlin, Christopher. Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854. New York, 1997.

Lewis, R. A. Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, 1832–1854. London, 1952.

Anthony Brundage

Chadwick, Edwin

views updated May 18 2018


Edwin Chadwick (18001890) was the principal architect of the Sanitary Reform movement in Britain in the nineteenth century; his influence on the philosophy of public health and its translation into legislation was profound. Born near Manchester to a family of Wesleyan landowners, Chadwick was raised in London and trained in law. His father, James, had edited a radical journal, the Spectator. Following the appearance of some of his own writings in the Westminster Review, Edwin came to the attention of two of the leading philosophers and social theorists of the early eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Chadwick served as Bentham's literary secretary from 1830 until the latter's death in 1832, the year in which Chadwick was appointed to the new Poor Law Commission. In that role, his industry in investigating the conditions under which the poor lived, as well as his "knowledge of law, infinite capacity for taking pains over details, and his skill in marshalling the facts" (Marston 1925, p. 23) led him to exert a steadily greater influence on British public policy in a variety of areas relating to public health.

His advocacy led to the 1836 act that established a registry for births and deaths, and to the 1848 Public Health Act establishing a central board of health. He also influenced legislation on factories, child labor, and water supplies. He served as secretary to the Poor Law Board, and as a member of the first board of health (18481852). His sanitary philosophy, most fully explicated in his Enquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) viewed the improvement of drainage, housing, and water supply as an essential national economic good, as it prevented the early deaths of working men. Often uncompromising in his belief in the value of government intervention to remedy unsanitary conditions, he was frequently opposed by his business interests, and held no public office after 1852. He did, however, spend the rest of his long life advocating quietly for "The Sanitary Idea," and was knighted by Queen Victoria in the ninetieth and final year of his life.

Nigel Paneth

(see also: Filth Diseases; History of Public Health; Poverty and Health; Sanitation )


Jones, D. (1931). Edwin Chadwick and the Early Public Health Movement in England, Vol. 9: University of Iowa Studies in the Social Sciences. Iowa City: University of Iowa.

Marston, M. (1925). Sir Edwin Chadwick. London: Leonard Parson.

Chadwick, Edwin

views updated May 23 2018

Chadwick, Edwin (1800–90). Reformer. John Stuart Mill called Chadwick ‘one of the organising and contriving minds of the age’, and the great moment in his life came in 1829 when he met the aged Jeremy Bentham and became his literary secretary. Henceforward, Chadwick was utilitarianism in action. He was born in Manchester, his family moved to London when he was 10, and he became a lawyer. In 1832 he was appointed to the Poor Law Commission and the following year to the commission on children in factories. His influence on both reports was very great and he was appointed secretary to the Poor Law Commission in 1834, a post which brought him savage criticism. Another of his abiding interests was sanitary reform and from 1848 to 1854 he served as a commissioner on the new Board of Health. He was then rather pointedly pensioned off and his public career closed, though he continued to campaign, particularly for competitive examinations in the civil service. Chadwick's character made him not only an exemplar but a caricature of utilitarian reform. He was hard-working, rigorous, and determined, but also tactless, unhumorous, impatient, dogmatic, and over-confident. Significantly, he was made to wait for his knighthood until he was 89.

J. A. Cannon