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Edwin Chadwick

Written by Kathleen Artman

Edwin Chadwick was born on January 24, 1800 in Manchester. In 1810 he moved to London with his father who subsequently abandoned him in his young adult years, moving to the United States with his second wife and children. Little else is known about Chadwick’s early years.

Chadwick was a clerk in London until the age of 23 when he began to pursue law and enrolled in the Inner Temple. He wrote for newspapers to make a living during his law studies, this combination of law and the press opened his eyes to the various social problems of London—specifically of the prisons, hospitals and the slums. This interest placed him in the same circles as the Philosophic Radicals of the day, specifically John Stuart Mill, Nassau Senior and Jeremy Bentham. Chadwick was particularly close to Jeremy Bentham and acted as his secretary until the philosopher’s death in 1832. Although he was close to Bentham, he did not believe in the populist aspect of the Benthamite movement. Chadwick was very rational, administrative and centralising and did not see the value of individual rights. These views marginalised him a bit from the Philosophical Radicals, but he was able to secure a job as a freelance civil servant after Bentham’s death. It was this position that put Chadwick on the map as a political reformist.

In 1832 Chadwick began work as a secretary with the Poor Law Commission. He used his knack for investigative research and administration to help frame reforms in the laws aimed at the poor. Chadwick’s work on the poor laws led to a great deal of controversy, specifically his views on the workhouses. He held very strong views that a workhouse system needed to be imposed, but this clashed with many of those in power. Whilst systematically and administratively the workhouses worked, the lack of concern for individual liberties led to controversy. The workhouse system included laws that separated men from their wives and parents from their children. Because of Chadwick’s seeming lack of concern for individual liberties, his outspoken views and his brash personality, he became the brunt of the attack against the poor laws waged by the working class. They saw the laws as “inhumane, authoritarian, and over-centralized.” In light of this controversy and the large amount of animosity against him, Chadwick, who was a miasmatist, turned his attention to sanitation reform.

Chadwick’s reforms in sanitation not only transformed the sanitation infrastructure in London, but also the line of thinking of the time. He began his research on sanitation in 1839, the same year he married Rachel Dawson. His extensive research on the living conditions of the slums of England led him to publish The Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in 1842. In a unique bureaucratic way, this pamphlet highlighted the unreasonable living conditions and the virtually complete lack of sanitary infrastructure in Great Britain. Chadwick’s writing was concerned with state control, shifting all of the blame of poor health on poor sanitary conditions, whilst ignoring other factors such as diet and labouring conditions. Despite this administrative slant in Chadwick’s writing, it led to a total revolution in social thought. It established a link between sanitary conditions and high mortality rates showing that the misery of the poor lay within the government’s control, not in some intrinsic deficiency in the class.

Chadwick’s writings led to the Public Health Act of 1848 in which the government began to acknowledge some responsibility for upholding the health of the population. Following this public health initiative, the Board of Health was created and Chadwick was appointed the Commissioner. During the cholera epidemic of 1848-49, Chadwick ordered the replacement of the traditional brick sewers with his self-flushing, glazed pipes in hopes of conveying the sewage to farmers for use as manure. This antagonised many engineers who thought that he was overstepping his bounds. Furthermore in 1848 in a well-meaning attempt to rid poverty stricken areas of their filth in cesspools, he ordered the sewers of London to be flushed into the Thames. This was a devastating move leading to extreme contamination of the Thames with over 20,000 cubic meters of sewage dumped into the Thames from March to May of 1848 and over 50,000 cubic meters from September to February, 1848.

Chadwick’s very strong and opinionated personality combined with his seemingly anti-democratic views alienated many people and led to his eventual resignation. In 1854 he was attacked publically in the House of Commons by Benjamin Hall, his eventual successor as Commissioner to the Board of Health. Hall attacked both his personality and his career, calling him “an unscrupulous and dangerous man” who had worked in the public service for years but had not provided any positive impact to the community. In light of this massive loss of Parliament’s support, Chadwick was forced to resign in 1854.

Despite the many controversies surrounding Chadwick’s work and life, he was knighted on March 4, 1889 for his accomplishments in the public health sector. Chadwick established the essential principle through his writings that poor sanitary conditions were linked to poor health, thus, putting some of the responsibility for the rampant disease in London on the government. Although he held a miasmist view, believing that disease were spread by foul smells in the air, and made some controversial decisions regarding both the poor laws and the sewage system, overall Chadwick had a positive impact on the public health sector. He died on July 5, 1890 and was buried in Surrey.