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Edwin Chadwick

 Edwin Chadwick was born on 24 January 1800 at Longsight near Manchester. He had a private education in London, then trained as a lawyer and worked as a journalist: these developed his techniques of enquiry, precise thought and his flair for writing. His family moved to London in 1810 and in 1829 Chadwick met Jeremy Bentham, becoming his literary secretary and friend. He was also a friend of John Stuart Mill, Doctors Southwood-Smith, Kay-Shuttleworth and Neil Arnott. Chadwick had a utilitarian attitude, and was a professional civil servant and 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' - 'bore' because he took up causes which became obsessions (he was very single-minded); 'fanatic' because he was a relentless utilitarian - more so than Bentham (Chadwick was an advocate of powerful state intervention) and 'prig' because he was full of self-conviction which at times made him arrogant and intolerant. He was a member of the London Debating Society - a 'club' for Utilitarians.

In 1828 Chadwick wrote an article, "The Means of Insurance against Accidents" in the Westminster Review. This marked the birth of his ideas on sanitation. In 1832 he was appointed to the Poor Law Commission which was responsible for the investigation into the operation of the poor laws and for suggesting legislation to improve poor relief. In 1833 he was appointed to the commission of children in factories. His influence in both reports was very great. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. Chadwick's work as a civil servant produced the required information for legislation. The inhumanity of the Act was not Chadwick's fault because he was not responsible for its interpretation and implementation. He became secretary to the Commissioners at Somerset House. Because of the weaknesses of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the rest of Chadwick's career was devoted to providing improved sanitary measures.

As secretary of the Poor Law Commission, which was responsible for 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. 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. In 1843, Chadwick's Burials Report was published.

In 1848, Chadwick moved from Somerset House to become one of the Board of Health Directors. As the commissioner of the Board of Health (1848-54), he 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 so as to encourage the people to participate in their own protection. Chadwick was extremely unpopular and in 1854 he was rather pointedly pensioned off. His public career closed although he continued to campaign, particularly for competitive examinations in the civil service. He was made to wait for his knighthood until 1889. Chadwick died on 6 July 1890 at East Sheen, Surrey.

Chadwick and Administration

He believed that a reform of the civil service was needed because of the administrative limitations of the 1833 Factory Act, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the 1848 Public Health Act. These Acts created a demand for professional government activity beyond mere policing. Chadwick's approach to this need was pig-headed and served only to rouse opposition. As R.A Lewis says, in Chadwick's opinion "anyone who opposed him was running counter to the dictates of reason and ethics; in short he was either a rogue or a fool, and was likely to be both".

Chadwick's Civil Service Reform, 1854

He 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 because it was felt that

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

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 the Central Board of Health was terminated and Chadwick was pensioned off on £1,000 p.a. This was the end of his public career, because he had upset too many vested interests. 

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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