Sir Edwin Chadwick

The English utilitarian reformer Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) sponsored legislation in the areas of public health, factory reform, and poverty relief. He was one of the founders of the modern British administrative state.

Edwin Chadwick was born at Longsight, Lancashire, on Jan. 24, 1800. Largely self-educated, he entered an attorney's office and was called to the bar. He was also a journalist and was influenced by the writings of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of English utilitarianism. Bentham in turn admired Chadwick's articles (especially those on preventive police) and took him on as his assistant.

When Bentham died in 1832, Chadwick carried on his work through membership on several royal commissions. Chadwick and the political economist Nassau Senior drafted the Poor Law Commission's report which led to the adoption of the New Poor Law of 1834. This legislation, however, was bureaucratic and harsh. It was popular with the propertied classes because poor rates dropped, but it was unpopular with the working classes since relief was not easily available.

Chadwick was also in the forefront of the movement to improve conditions of public health. He worked closely with Southwood Smith in publishing a series of reports which pointed up unsanitary conditions. In his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) Chadwick compiled a grim record of slum housing, unclean water, and undrained streets, all of which he concluded formed the basis of crime, disease, and immorality. The Public Health Act of 1848, passed by Parliament in the wake of a threat of a cholera epidemic, fell far short of Chadwick's proposals, but a board of health was created which Chadwick headed from 1848 to 1854. Factory reform also attracted the attention of Chadwick and the Benthamite reformers. The acts of 1833 and 1847 were to a great extent a result of their work.

Chadwick was the most famous British civil servant of his time and the chief proponent of government intervention in the solution of social problems. His obsession with organization, centralization, and efficiency led a critic to charge that Chadwick planned to abolish the counties and cut up the map of England into "Benthamite rectangles." Local objections to government interference led to Chadwick's dismissal from the board of health in 1854. Although he never again held a government post, he continued to testify before royal commissions and, like Bentham before him, continued to draw up reform plans and programs until his death in 1890. He was knighted in 1889. Chadwick was a tactless man, but his passion for administrative efficiency brought the national state to a position of social responsibility.


Further Reading on Sir Edwin Chadwick

The major study dealing with Chadwick and the social reforms he was associated with is Samuel Edward Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (1952). Richard Albert Lewis, Edwin Chadwick and the Public Health Movement, 1832-1854 (1952), concentrates on one of these reforms.

Additional Biography Sources

Brundage, Anthony, England's "Prussian minister": Edwin Chadwick and the politics of government growth, 1832-1854, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.