Rozene Smith, a second year history student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on how historians can use The Chadwick Report (1843) to understand 19th century social reform for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Jessica Moody, Lecturer in Modern History and Heritage at Portsmouth.
The nineteenth century witnessed an obsessive fixation on empirical and factual data, culminating in a fetishisation of valuable official documents. Consecutive parliamentary acts passed in this period secured centralised funding for official state record-keeping and began the process of establishing a governmentally-sanctioned Public Record Office. Between 1832 and 1846, over one hundred Royal and Parliamentary commissions were introduced; ushering in an age of investigation and analysis. This blog entry considers a document that was penned by Edwin Chadwick—a sanitary reformer, lawyer, economist, statistician, and a force of change in nineteenth century Britain. Over the course of his career he backed the Poor Law revisions of 1834, Health Reforms of the 1840s-50s and railroad regulations of the 1860s. The extract examines mortality rates across the spectrum of social class, with the intention of investigating the extent to which they were impacted by disease epidemics throughout this period. These efforts were directed with particular intensity to the unsanitary living conditions in Marylebone, Stepney, and Newington. Many historians, however, encounter obstacles in consideration of the value of official sources, specifically in assessing the validity and subjectivity of their claims. The purpose of this blog is to determine the extract’s historical value: firstly, by appraising its value to closely-related major historical events of the period, such as the Public Health Act of 1848; and secondly, by evaluating the extent of potential bias within the extract. Ultimately, the sense of doubt surrounding official sources, particularly in this extract, pales in comparison to the new perspectives and understandings it offers to modern historians of the methodology of nineteenth century social reform.
The most profound and lasting liaisons between medicine and state were forged in the Industrial Revolution and the dynamic social changes it wrought, such as rapid urbanisation and its associated health and sanitation concerns. Such symmetry between medicine and politics is perhaps most succinctly summarised by social reformer Jeremy Bentham, who argued that “the art of legislation is but the art of healing practised upon a large scale”. With his famed 1842 ‘Sanitary Report’, Chadwick had somewhat roused the political arena from its laissez-faire attitude with regards to sanitation of the poor and their interment, with Lord Howick in particular learning in “astonishment and despair” the state of British towns. Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary of the time, was reluctant to act upon Chadwick’s findings, but even so organised the Health of Towns Commission to examine how best to finance and legislate Chadwick’s proposals. Meanwhile, he requested that Chadwick concern himself with reporting on burial practices within the capital, an endeavour that produced the Interment Report which, consisting of a powerful exposure of social injustice and revolutionary administrative proposal, proved extremely unpopular amongst Dissenters, undertakers, and cemetery companies who faced great financial losses. The enormous rise in population and mortality, along with the overcrowding of graveyards, had begun to weigh heavily on administrators, as did the poor standards of sanitation that followed closely behind. The insufficiency of residential areas in London to support the growing living population mirrored the overcrowding of the ground for the dead, drawing parallels with Chadwick’s original report and thus bolstering its credibility. Its reception was far from warm, and soon after its publication Graham, refusing to take such drastic steps without public opinion behind him, silenced the report before it could have any significant impact on nineteenth century British society, much less the instatement of the Public Health Act in 1848.
The report’s supplementary nature indicates its intent to compensate for shortcomings in the ‘Sanitary Report’. In addition to its overt function of analysing mortality rates among different social classes, the Interment Report boldly illustrates the effect of disease and poor standards of sanitation on these figures with emphasis on several notably unsanitary districts of London. In doing so, the extract exemplifies the harsh dichotomy of mortality rates amongst the gentry opposed to those of lower classes: to demonstrate, the total number of deaths resulting from epidemic among the poorest citizens rose as high as twenty-eight, eclipsing the nobility’s mere three. In tallying figures of mortality within these districts, neatly divided by class and cause of death, Chadwick supplies the audience with a wealth of easily measurable quantitative data. Quantitative research, such as statistics, affords the historian a broader scope of examination, and in contrast to qualitative research, enables them to apply precise analyses and evaluation over a wide range of issues—in this case, deaths in different classes throughout various districts of London. This is not to say that this source should be taken entirely at face value; Raphael Samuel indicates that as it is a “still life picture”, some aspects of the inquiry may have been exaggerated for increased political impact, or subtly obscured. Additionally, while the royally commissioned status of this report suggests its historical value equates that of any document of the ‘official mind’, Lawrence Goldwin argues that the ‘sanitary idea’ did not begin to pervade the ‘official mind’ until the 1860s. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher also assert of many issues with the ‘official mind’, that many documents omit important information through unconscious assumptions and shared understandings between peers that obviate written documentation. While the data itself had been retrieved from registrars, we must not forget that Chadwick himself had an agenda, one he had been lobbying for over a decade. Regardless of the existence of the ‘sanitary idea’ within the ‘official mind’ at the time of the Interment Report’s publication, it is entirely possible that Chadwick may have subtly exaggerated or obscured data in his bid for social reform.
Fundamentally, the efficacy of official sources of this nature lies with the historian themselves. Although not particularly prominent at the time, as evidenced by its meagre influential success, the ‘Internment Report’ can instead provide a font of valuable information about the period. In particular, the Interment Report enables the examination of birth and mortality rates, and its use of quantitative research to depict these figures allows the historian to view research on a wider scale and apply much more precise analyses to their data. As is ever the case with sources, one must remain sceptical: Chadwick’s agenda and the experiences of his previous affiliations in social reform are clear throughout his Interment Report, and so it cannot truthfully be deemed objective in spite of its distance from the ‘official mind’ of the British government. Elton argues, however, that the historian may circumvent bias through a critical approach to their sources, including a thorough examination of its authenticity, applicability, and any related material and literature. The nineteenth century gave rise to a nation of widespread health reform, pioneered by the unforeseen hero of industrial society, the medical man.” With this idea in mind—despite its obvious flaws—it may yet promise modern historians a new perspective and a deeper understanding of the methodology of the great social reformers of the Industrial Revolution.
Rozene Smith is a second-year History student at the University of Portsmouth who aims to specialise in historical international relations and their present-day applications to global politics.
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