Edwin Chadwick is most associated with public health improvements during the era of Queen Victoria. Edwin Chadwick used his position to persuade the government to invest in public health ventures and Chadwick must be credited with being Britain’s premier pioneer in public health reform.


Edwin Chadwick was born in Manchester on 24th January 1800. His father encouraged him to read books by radicals such as Tom Paine. Chadwick went to London to study Law but his personal finances were limited. He made money by writing essays for publications such as the ‘Westminster Review’. Despite his training in Law, his essays were usually on scientific principles and how they could be applied in democratic government. His essays attracted the attention of Jeremy Bentham who employed Chadwick as his literary assistant and left him a large sum of money in his will.


In 1832, the Prime Minister Earl Grey established a Royal Commission of Enquiry on the Poor Laws. Chadwick’s reputation had grown sufficiently for him to be appointed an assistant commissioner with the responsibility of collecting data and information for the Commission. His writing skills served him well as he was asked to write up a large chunk of the final report – about one-third of it – and it was finally published in 1834.


The final report was critical of the old Poor Law system and it recommended major changes. The new Poor Law Amendment Act did not go as far as Chadwick would have liked but it did set up a Central Poor Law Commission, which Chadwick felt would underpin the new reforms. One of the reports major criticisms was that the old Poor Law had been left to be organised at a local level and that there was no central authority over the whole system. The 1834 law changed this. Chadwick was not appointed as one of the three men on the Poor Law Commission but he was appointed its secretary and had the power to push for further recommendations to reform the Poor Law. However, he wanted the Act to be carried out in his way and he failed to get on with the three Commissioners. This driven approach by Chadwick – effectively that it had to be all or nothing – made him difficult to work with as there seemed to be little flexibility in his approach. It was a problem that was to manifest itself again on the issue of public health.

One of the great fears in Britain’s crowded cities was cholera. A cholera or typhus epidemic could be rampant in such a dirty and crowded environment. Not for nothing was cholera nicknamed ‘King Cholera’.

In 1837 and 1838 there were typhoid epidemics in the major cities. Chadwick was appointed by the government to start an enquiry into the sanitation of the UK’s major cities. In 1842 Chadwick, assisted by Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, published his landmark report, ‘The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population’. The report stated that there was an urgent need to improve the living conditions of the poor and that the lack of public health was directly related to the lifestyles endured by the poor. Chadwick also noted that the labouring class could not labour as well as it could in an expanding industrial economy because of their poverty and poor health. Therefore it was argued that the improved health of the poor would directly benefit the nation as a whole. When his findings in the report were read out in the House of Commons, it is said that MP’s listened in “astonishment, dismay, horror and even incredulity”.


However, the improvements suggested by the report had one major weakness – their cost and this brought Chadwick into conflict with many highly influential people who were not keen to pay out money to help the poor. Chadwick’s report targeted the UK’s industrial cities and the number of people this involved ran into the hundreds of thousands. The Conservative government of 1842 effectively rejected Chadwick’s report and this remained the case until 1847 when a Liberal government under Lord John Russell took power. Russell was a lot more sympathetic to the report and in 1848 a Public Health Act was passed.

Chadwick was appointed Sanitation Commissioner and a new Central Board of Health was created with the powers to clean the streets and improve both the water and sanitation systems. Chadwick had many ideas on how he could improve the lifestyle of the poor but his priorities were a constant supply of fresh and clean water, toilets in homes and a sewage system that would carry sewage from the cities out to rural areas where it could be treated. One of his innovations was the use of glazed earthenware pipes for sewage, which reduced the possibility of contamination of drinking water. Shallow drinking wells were abolished and replaced by a mains water supply.


But the key issue was always the same – who would pay for such reforms? Landlords who would have been responsible for improvements to the homes they owned were against the reforms. Many of them had influence over MP’s who sat in the House of Commons. Many members in the House of Lords (who then could override any decision made by the Commons) were landlords themselves or had family members who were. Chadwick found that he had little support in Parliament and while on paper his reforms were good for the country as a whole, he found that Parliament did not agree. However, it may simply be the case that Chadwick was the problem and not his projected reforms. Chadwick had his own way of making his case and it was this that seemed to put people off him and therefore his reforms. Chadwick wanted things done as he wanted them done leaving little room for manoeuvre.


Chadwick was seen as the problem and not the Central Board of Health. The House of Commons only renewed the Board’s powers when Chadwick agreed to resign from it. He was given a pension of £1000 a year. He continued to give voluntary advice on issues concerning sanitation and health and in January 1884 in recognition of the work he had done Chadwick was appointed the first president of the Association of Public Sanitary Inspectors. In the following year he received a knighthood. While he may have been a difficult man to work with, many recognised that he had the well-being of the very many at heart and that the country, as a whole, had benefited from his work. Edwin Chadwick died in Surrey on 16th July 1890.