Edwin Chadwick was born on 24 January 1800 at Longsight near Manchester. He was the son of James Chadwick and grandson of Andrew Chadwick, a friend of John Wesley. James Chadwick was a man of many talents — he taught botany and music to John Dalton, the chemist; was an associate of the advanced liberal politicians of his time; edited the Statesman newspaper during the imprisonment of its editor; became editor of the Western Times and finally settled as a journalist in New York, where he died at the age of eighty-four.

Edwin Chadwick received his early education at Longsight and Stockport, and when his family moved to London in 1810 his education was continued by private tutors. He then trained as a lawyer and subsequently entered the Inner Temple, where he was called to the Bar on 26 November 1830. While pursuing his legal studies he 'made ends meet' by working as a journalist, writing for the Morning Herald and other papers. This developed his techniques of enquiry, precise thought and his flair for writing.

His first article in the Westminster Review (1828) dealt with 'The Means of Insurance against Accidents'. In the course of preparing it he developed what he called the ‘sanitary idea’, which influenced the rest of his life. An article on ‘Preventive Police,’ in the London Review (1829) gained him the admiration and friendship of Jeremy Bentham. He lived with Bentham for a time, becoming his literary secretary and friend, assisting him in completing his administration code and was with him at his death in 1832. Bentham wanted Chadwick to become the systematic and permanent expounder of the Benthamite philosophy, and on that condition offered him an income for life. Chadwick declined but accepted a legacy; he was regarded for many years as one of Bentham's most distinguished disciples. Chadwick was also a friend of John Stuart Mill and Doctors Southwood-Smith, Kay-Shuttleworth and Neil Arnott. Chadwick had a utilitarian attitude and was a professional civil servant. He was a social reformer who devoted his life to sanitary reform in Britain. His character has been described as that of 'the bore, the fanatic and the prig':

He was a member of the London Debating Society — a 'club' for Utilitarians.

In 1832 Chadwick accepted the post of Assistant Commissioner on the Poor Law Commission which was about to start its work. In the following year he was appointed a Chief Commissioner: he was promoted because of his zealousness in collecting a vast quantity of facts about the existing system of Poor Law management and because of his ability to suggest remedies for its 'evils'. His improved methods at first met with opposition from his colleagues but eventually his ideas were carried out.

In 1833 he was involved with the Royal Commission appointed to investigate the condition of factory children; he was the chief author of the report which recommended the appointment of government inspectors under a central authority and the limitation of children's work to six hours daily. Eventually the report led to the passing of the Ten Hours Act (1847) and the establishment of the half-time system of education. Among other proposals in the report was one that employers should be held responsible for accidents to their workpeople, a suggestion that was implemented by the Employers' Liability Act (1898). In his evidence to a committee of the House of Commons in 1833 he spoke in favour of restricting the sale of hard liquor and for the provision of healthy recreations for the people. He also advocated the payment of pensions to discharged soldiers and sailors and the desirability of teaching the men a trade while they were on service.

In 1834 Chadwick became secretary to the new Poor Law Commission. based at Somerset House, which oversaw the operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act between 1834 and 1846. Chadwick was largely responsible for devising the system under which the country was divided into groups of parishes administered by elected boards of guardians, each board with its own medical officer. His work at the Poor Law Commission brought him savage criticism as being 'utilitarianism in action'. Chadwick's character made him not only an exemplar but also a caricature of utilitarian reform. He was hard working, rigorous and determined but also tactless, humourless, impatient, dogmatic and over-confident. At first he had only half-hearted support from the commissioners, Sir Thomas Frankland Lewis and John G. Shaw-Lefevre; when they resigned and George Nicholls went to Ireland, Chadwick met with strong opposition from their successors, George Cornewall Lewis and Sir Francis Head.

As a member of the commission appointed in 1838 to inquire into the best means of establishing an efficient constabulary force he, along with Sir Charles Rowan, prepared a report which embodied the principle expounded in his original paper on ‘Preventive Police’, which was ‘to get at the removable antecedents of crime.’

The first sanitary commission was appointed at Chadwick's instigation in 1839 because of a request for his help by the Whitechapel authorities who were trying to deal with a local epidemic disease. The commissioners' report attracted wide attention, and it became a text-book of sanitation throughout the country. Chadwick may be credited with the beginning of public sanitary reform. Chadwick was appalled at the number of people admitted to the workhouses and became convinced that if the health of the working population could be improved then there would be a drop in the numbers of people on relief. Consequently he embarked on a nation-wide investigation of public health which culminated in the historic Report . . . on an Enquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain which he published privately and at his own expense in 1842.

Chadwick also persuaded Lord Lyndhurst to introduce in the new Registration Act (1836), by which the registrar's office was established, the important clause providing for the registration of the causes as well as the number of deaths. The training of pauper children was a subject which occupied part of his attention in 1840; and his Report on the Result of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns [the 'Burials Report'] was published in 1843. His recommendations in both these matters resulted in important legislative measures. Another sanitary commission suggested by Chadwick was appointed and reported in 1844 but progress was delayed by the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws.

In 1846 the Poor Law Commission came to an end because of the disagreements between Chadwick and the two commissioners. Chadwick's zeal and impatience contributed largely to the break up of the board. In 1847 he headed a commission to inquire into the health of London; the report advocated the separation of sewage and drainage systems. Chadwick conducted a campaign that culminated in passage of the Public Health Act of 1848. This legislation embodied his belief that public health should be administered locally, to encourage the people to participate in their own protection. On the recommendation of Prince Albert, Chadwick was created a Companion of the Order of the Bath [CB] in 1848, the same year that the first Board of Health was formed: he was a commissioner of the Board of Health between 1848 and 1854 when it was merged in the local government board. Chadwick was extremely unpopular and in 1854 he was rather pointedly pensioned off on £1,000 a year. His public career closed although he continued to campaign, particularly for competitive examinations in the civil service.

In 1854, Chadwick advocated entry to the Civil Service by examination and quoted the French example as a model. Nothing immediately resulted from this but Gladstone implemented the recommendations in the 1871 Civil Service Reform Act: entry to all departments except the Foreign Office was by examination thereafter. Chadwick's work was again a blue-print, but it was opposed at the time because it was felt that

Chadwick's proposals were therefore shelved for almost 20 years. However, the Crimean War proved Chadwick's case.

During the Crimean War (1854-6) he persuaded Lord Palmerston to send out a commission to inquire into and relieve the sufferings of the troops. In 1855 the Administrative Reform Association was founded in London. This was a public pressure group formed after the Sevastopol disaster. Dickens was a regular speaker and attender at the Association. Demands were made for civil service reform. Chadwick, however, was a bad pamphleteer — his arrogant style merely increased opposition. In 1858 he brought raised the subject of defective sanitation in the Indian army: the support which his views gained afterwards led to the appointment of the Indian army sanitary commission.

In his enforced retirement, Chadwick became involved in schemes for the improvement of sanitary engineering, open spaces, agricultural drainage and sanitation in the tropics. He also urged the maintenance of railways as public highways by a responsible public service.

In 1867 Chadwick stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for London University. Subsequently and at the request of Gladstone, Chadwick looked into the possibility of a cheap postal telegraph and in 1871 inquired into a plan for the drainage of Cawnpore, submitted to him by the Duke of Argyll. He advocated a ‘separate system’ plan which involved the removal of storm water in separate storm drains and the removal of sewage by separate house drains and sewers. The plan was approved by the government and was carried out by the army sanitary commission.

His public services eventually were recognised in 1889 when he was given a knighthood. Chadwick was elected a corresponding member of the Institutes of France and Belgium, and of the Societies of Medicine and Hygiene of France, Belgium, and Italy. He died on 6 July 1890 at Park Cottage, East Sheen, Surrey.

Created 2000

Last modified 12 January 2020