The New Poor Law

From the 1790s onwards, Britain was to see its most prominent writers and commentators put forwards their own schemes and opinions on the relief for the poor. There is little doubt that these intellectuals gave the commissioners involved in reviewing the Old Poor Law as well as the Whig government the confidence and influence they needed to push forth the repeal of the Old Poor Law. Jeremy Bentham was perhaps the most influential of Britain's intellects in the change of attitudes towards the poor and the unreformed system.

Bentham, was the most famous creator of the doctrine of 'utilitarianism' which was the idea that institutes should be tested to see whether they produced the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' and should be reformed if they failed to pass this test of utility. Utilitarian ideas were greatly followed in the 1830s and are credited as key influences on the reforms of the Whig government in that decade. Bentham also came up with a very popular and later practised solution to the failing Old Poor Law.

He proposed the centralized administration the National Charity Organisation which would set up 250 workhouses to accommodate 1/2 million people. Poor relief would then be given to those who entered the strict and disciplined workhouse and outdoor relief would be abolished. With the knowledge that the Whig government eventually pursued Bentham's advised course of action, his impact upon the whole situation is clearly substantial.

Other intellects who had an impact upon raising awareness of the flaws of the existing poor law and contributed to the change in politicians attitudes were Malthus and Ricardo. Malthus, a parson and economic writer, was most famous for developing the theory that the expansion of population would inevitably outstrip the available food supply. He also blamed the Poor Laws for the population increase as it gave incentive to have more children in order to get more relief. Ricardo supported Malthus' theory and combined it with an economist named Adam Smith, to produce his 'iron law of wages'.

This stated that any attempt to raise the pay of labourers through parish doles, must necessarily impoverish the population because it would simply encourage dependency, idleness and fecklessness. Malthus and Ricardo thus emphasised the flaws of the current system and raised awareness of what impending troubles may arise. Therefore, the popular theories and solutions produced by Britain's elite intellects did not really have a huge impact on political movements before the 1830s as no-one with power took their views seriously.

However, when they were ruled under politicians such as the Whigs, who were ready to take their views seriously they had a significant impact. Bentham especially, influenced the government's political actions towards the repeal of the Old Poor Law and helped direct Britain towards the solution of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. In conclusion, the Old Poor Law could only be replaced as in 1834 changes within Britain's economic, political and intellectual circles had come together to ensure that there was no one left in power who was ready to support the Old Poor Law.

Prior to the 1830s, government did not have sufficient support to back up their decision to repeal the unreformed Poor Law. This however changed by the 1830s as economic problems such as the rise of the Poor rate triggered the middle-class to take drastic political measures when they got the vote in 1832 and Britain's leading intellects were giving the Whig government the confidence they needed to assure them that replacing the Old Poor Law was the only way forth for Britain.