Eden, Sir Frederick Morton

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Sir Frederick Morton EDEN

b. 18 June 1766 - d. 14 November 1809

Summary. At the end of the eighteenth century, Eden's concern with poverty, and with policies and insurance against it, was expressed in pioneeringly extensive analyses and synthesis of carefully assembled data.

The published works of Sir Frederick Morton Eden on the pressing social issues of his day are arguably without precedent in their combination of scope, volume, and quality.

In 1797 came The State of the Poor - a massive history of the Poor Laws, capped by over 900 pages of colourful and sorrowfull documentation of widespread poverty, based on Eden's own statistical survey of 181 parishes in England and Wales. The next year, he brought out a slim yet innovative pamphlet, Portobello: or a Plan for the Improvement of the Port and City of London, in which he made good use of frequency distributions of ship tonnages.

In 1800 the curious public was given An Estimate of the Number of Inhabitants in Great Britain and Ireland, well in advance of the publication of the first population census. In 1801 Eden returned to his concern with poverty, in his Observations on Friendly Societies, and again, in 1806, with his second major work, the "charter pamphlet" "On the Policy and Expediency of Granting Insurance Charters. In these two publications, Eden promoted the provision of insurance by Friendly Societies, backed by the resources of joint-stock companies, as superior to any State-administered schemes for helping the "labouring classes" to surmount the natural calamities of life. Only one of the titles of Eden's publications reveals the empirical statistical character of his work, a feature which Eden has in common with Florence Nightingale (q.v.), the ``Passionate Statistician". The striking difference between the two lies in what is known about the influences that moved them to achieve what they did.

Nightingale was manifestly fired with analytical zeal from adolescence, and she built up a huge reservoir of motivation from her experiences in the Crimean War. By contrast, biographical details about Eden are so lacking that, until more is revealed and written about the man, it would be futile to try to locate the firing of his investigative genius, which shone brightly even against a family background of public service. Was his thoughtful, analytical bent moulded by his life in America between the ages of three and perhaps six, as the eldest son of the last British Governor of Maryland? - by the return with his mother alone to be educated in England? - by the sudden early death of his father? Was it triggered into action by knowledge that children were being sent to work down the early coalmines of County Durham, where the family had their ``seat"? - or more reflectively, by wide reading about the Poor?

What is known for sure is that when, in 1795, he initiated his survey for "The State of the Poor, he had a library with almost 300 books and pamphlets dealing with problems of the Poor and the ironically rich philosophy associated with them, but no more than 40 items under the heads of Cooking, Games and Sports, interests traditionally associated with the landed gentry. In the preface to The State of the Poor, Eden identified, with a liberal supply of commas, the immediate stimulus to his inquiry;

The difficulties, which the labouring classes experienced, from the high price of grain, and of provisions in general, as well as of cloathing (sic!) and fuel, during the years 1794 and 1795, induced me, from motives both of benevolence and personal curiosity, to investigate their conditions in various parts of the kingdom."

The statistical findings reported in The State of the Poor, about population. housing, rent, taxes, prices, wages, food consumption, and much more, have been of considerable value to later economists. Even Karl Marx, not wont to praise others, hailed Eden as the only disciple of Adam Smith throughout the eighteenth century to produce work of any importance.

Eden set out his statistical stall quite openly: he criticixed ``writers on the Poor" for ``making bricks without straw" and raising ``specious systems without well authenticated facts to support them". But Eden would not have been in the party of those founders of the Statistical Section of the British Association (the Royal Statistical Society in embryo) who wanted ``to exclude all Opinions" and ``confine...attention rigorously to facts...which can be stated numerically and arranged in tables". For Eden, as for Nightingale, figures had to be collected so that the calculations based on them would answer some perssing question and advance some desired reform - all of which needs ``opinions".

Eden had doubts about the 21 questions in his survey...``I will not assert that my Queries are the best calculated to acquire the information I wanted". He quoted with approval Rousseau's discouraging maxim that one needs to know a lot before knowing how to find out what one does not know.

Eden was even a rational sceptic about his own efforts to estimate population, for which the issue was the current fear,during the war with France, of a declining population:...``He who looks for more than probabilities will be disappointed." His statistical method for England and Wales was a sophisticated early example of ratio estimation; its details can easily be misrepresented. Eden's estimate of 16 millions for the British Isles came to within 1\% of the 1801 census, but only by a fortuitous cancellation of an error od more than 1 1/2 millions in the ratio estimate with an error in his guesswork for Scotland and Ireland!

Perhaps Eden's boldest ``casting" stemmed from his role as founder and chairman of the Globe Insurance Company. In 1803 he asked himself ``What is the total insurable value of property in the whole of the United Kingdom, and how much of it is actually insured?" The calculation is set out over 20 pages of the charter pamphlet. It involved listing 23 property categories, estimating their insurance values, making the usual guess for Ireland, adding the lot, and estimating the total actually insured from records of stamp duty.

Eden may have erred in occasional detail, but he never lacked vision or appeared to doubt that statistical analyses could add grace and light to political debate on issues of social reform. This was not the view of Disreali, born in the same year as Eden. Statisticians nowadays might wish that Eden had lived long enough to roast Disraeli's chesnut - before it had taken root - about lies, damned lies, and worse. Eden would have been well qualified to do so. But he died, on the 14th of November 1809 at the Chairman's desk of the Globe Insurance Company.


[1] Deming, W.E. (1969). Sample surveys. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 13, edited by David L. Sills, McMillan Co. & The Free Press. (Page 595 manages both to underestimate and overestimate Eden's skills in statistical analysis.)
[2] Eden, The Lord (1999). The Eden family. ISI Voorburg Conference Proceedings, IOS Press, pp. 11-15.
[3] Kenessey, Z.E. (1999). Sir Frederick Morton Eden's The State of the Poor (1797-1997). ISI Voorburg Conference Proceedings, IOS Press, pp. 3-10.
[4] Stone, M. (1999). Policies for poverty from an analytical aristocrat. ISI Voorburg Conference Proceedings, IOS Press, pp. 85-105.
[5] Stone, Sir Richard (1998). Some British Empiricists in the Social Sciences 1650-1900. Cambridge University Press.

Reprinted with permission from Christopher Charles Heyde and Eugene William Seneta (Editors), Statisticians of the Centuries, Springer-Verlag Inc., New York, USA.

How to Cite This Entry:
Eden, Sir Frederick Morton. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:,_Sir_Frederick_Morton&oldid=39194