chapter  6
13 Pages

Problems and Prospects

Poor law ideals formed part of the mentality of the middle classes. The principles of 1834 with their distinctive social imagery and assumptions about the nature and purpose of public action rapidly became part of the intellectual baggage of Victorian Britain. The New Poor Law in this perspective was more than a matter of administrative reform. W. N. Molesworth (1816-1890), author of the bestselling History of England from 1830-1874, wrote of it as an act of deliverance from insolvency and insurrection and a defining moment in the formation of the age of progress. Poor law reform, in his account, was identified with the movement from darkness and disorder towards virtue and enlightenment. The Old Poor Law was associated with national ruin; the New Poor Law with national improvement. Under the Old Poor Law the poor were out of control; under the New they were properly regulated. Chadwick thus deserved well of his countrymen. Extravagance had been checked and order restored. Fears of a descent into the chaos and confusion of the unreformed era, which revived whenever the economy faltered or unforeseen emergency put pressure on local expenditure, underscored the seminal and uplifting character of the legislation of 1834.