Why was the Old Poor Law replaced in 1834 and not before?

In 1834, Britain saw the Old Poor Law replaced by the Poor Law Amendment Act which was a turning point in the way the state and society viewed and treated the poor. However, there had been much discontent surrounding the Old Poor Law ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, so why was the Old Poor Law not replaced earlier?

To determine the answer to this question, one must understand the changes within Britain's political, economic, and intellectual circles and how the combination of these factors themselves left no-one with power or desire to champion the wishes of the poor and reform was thus made more palatable than previous continuity. Economically, Britain was to undergo many changes which would provoke increasing hostility towards the Old Poor Law and which would highlight the flaws in the old system.

Britain's economy took a hard knock due to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. During the war there had been a general acceptance of the need to pay high rates to protect the poor in a time of crisis. Despite this, rate payers did expected that after the wars poor rate would decrease and they would no longer have the burden of the cost of relief. However, due to poor harvests and high unemployment rate due to the flood of soldiers returning from the war, this decline in the high poor rate did not occur.

In fact, poor relief rose from i?? 5. 7 million in 1815 to i?? 7. 1 million in 1817 and continued to rest at significantly high rates until it was abolished in the mid-1830s. This rise in expenditure aggravated the rich who were getting progressively more tired of paying high rates to maintain the poor. Furthermore many Britain's felt that the system was not working and was encouraging fecklessness amongst the poor rather than encouraging work.

On top of the growing bitterness of the rate payers, it emerged that the Old Poor Law was exacerbating Britain's issue of its rapidly expanding population. As the Speenhamland system detailed that the more children a poor family had the greater the relief they received, larger families were encouraged and thus added to the population expansion; trapping Britain in a perpetual cycle of poverty. The Poor law had also been created for a rural society set around a parish system and therefore this system was inadequate for the world's leading industrial power.

Economists and those suffering under the Speenhamland system started calling for reform and a new system which would suit Britain's new nature. Therefore, the Old Poor Law was abolished in 1834 as prior to this period, Britons had generally accepted it as their duty to look after the poor. However, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and poor agricultural seasons, poor rate increased rather than decreased and the rich became increasingly aggravated with the system.

The growing population and level of idleness amongst the poor grew simultaneously and emphasised the need for a new system to suit the new industrial economy. It was only in 1834 however that rate payers, thanks to political advances would have the power to transform their discontent due to economic changes into change in the actual system. Politically, Britain was to encounter many crucial changes which would give power to those who, frustrated with economic turmoil, would contribute greatly to the repeal of the unreformed Poor Law.

The general elections of 1831 resulted in the Whigs replacing the Tories. The Whigs brought with them the proposal of 'change the system to save the system' and determined to provide the solution to pressing issue of the Old Poor Law, they launched a Commission of Enquiry into the operation if the Poor Laws. The Commission was a pivotal tool in the abolition of the unreformed Poor Law, as it gave the Whigs the justification they needed to replace their Paternalistic attitude with a hard line against poverty and introduce the New Poor Law.

The reason past government had failed to take action against the weak system was not because they did not know the system was flawed. In 1817, a time of Tory ruling, a Report of the Select Committee on the poor laws was produced. This report revealed that the 'evils' of the poor laws were actually the creators of poverty. The government did not act however, as society was unstable and the Tories felt it the abolition of the Old Poor Law would lead to a French-style revolution.

The difference with the Whigs however, was that due to economic failings, they realised that they had greater power and support and that the time was right for reform. Perhaps the most significant political reform before 1834 however, was that the under the Area and Reform Act of 1832, the middle-class got the vote. As the middle-class were rate payers and were the ones most troubled with the economic failings, they were able to shit the view of the government to represent their interests. Subsequently there was more demand for the New Poor Law.

Therefore Governments prior to the Whigs government of the 1830s, did not attempt to alter the Old Poor Law even though there was significant hostility surrounding it as they felt abolition risked social unrest and there was not enough support for the cause. However, political advances in the 1830s such as the middle-class getting the vote and the establishment of the Commission of Enquiry gave the Whig party the support they needed to make reforms to the Old Poor Law. Furthermore, a fresh flow of ideas from intellectual circles would give the Whigs more confidence to pursue change.