Aug First reports of the potato blight came in from the Isle of Wight and Kent. The blight spread across England and reached Scotland, Belgium and Holland. One observer on the Isle of Wight, published in The Gardener’s Chronical and Horticultural Gazette, reported that “a blight of unusual character, which almost universally affects the potatoes in this island, have been the last few days, repeatedly, brought to the notice by several gardeners.”
On the 3rd, Longford Poor Law union reported that it could not procure potatoes.
The governments of Belgium, Turkey, Alexandria and Sweden would eventually move to prohibit exports of food, particularly corn.
Sept The blight was reported in Ireland at the beginning of this month.
On the 16th, Dr Lindley stated that the ‘potato murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland’. He asked ‘where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?’
Oct Around 50% of the crop was estimated destroyed. Robert Peel privately acknowledged that Ireland was on the brink of disaster, and that a report by the Scientific Commissioners was ‘very alarming’. However, he also said that ‘there is a such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting upon them is always desirable.’
By the end of October, the Mansion House Committee had been established with Lord Cloncurry as chairman. In the meantime, public meetings were being held. These demanded the establishment of public works; a temporary halt on the export of corn; opening ports to foreign corn; and the closure of distilleries. Peel had ‘no confidence in such remedies.’ The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, warned the government that prices were beginning to rise.
Nov The question of repealing the Corn Laws began to dominate British political life. Repeal was opposed by the Protectionist lobby, including many successful Irish merchants, who claimed that reports of scarcity had been exaggerated.
Peel and the Irish Executive discussed the use of public works at Dublin Castle. Drainage and navigation were seen as the most favourable alternatives.
At the beginning of the month, workhouse guardians were given permission to depart from a potato diet, supplying inmates with rice, soup and bread.
A Temporary Relief Commission was established to organise food depots and co-ordinate the efforts of local relief committees. Their first meeting took place on the 20th. The Commission’s role was to advise the government on the amount of distress, and to supervise and co-ordinate the activities of local relief committees. These local committees were voluntary bodies comprised of large farmers, landlords, merchants and clergy. Their contribution was to mediate purchasing and re-selling Indian corn imported by the government from America, so that the government wasn’t directly involved; and to oversee employment on small works. They were funded through voluntary subscriptions and a government grant.
Secret arrangements were made to import £100,000 worth of Indian corn to Ireland, to be made available in the spring. This was done clandestinely so that private enterprise and local relief efforts would not be disrupted.
Dec Sir Robert Peel tendered his resignation over the Corn Law. He was forced to stay in office as Lord John Russell was not in a position to form a government.
A decision was made to make an extra grant to the Board of Public Works. The Irish Board of Works became involved in the provision of relief.
The Commissioners reminded all local boards of guardians of their responsibility to provide fever care. There were at this time 38,232 inmates in workhouses.
The Mansion House Committee was reconstituted for the purposes of famine relief.
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Jan Charles Trevelyan, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, told the Relief Commissioners that ‘the landlords and other ratepayers are the parties who are both legally and morally answerable for affording due relief to the destitute poor’.
On the 20th, the chairman of the Relief Commission, Edward Lucas, said he believed that current and contemplated measures could not ‘provide an effectual remedy’. 1400 out of 2049 electoral divisions in Ireland had reported the appearance of the blight.
Medical officers recorded a rise in cases of influenza, jaundice, and small pox, but particularly of diarrhoeaand dysentery, caused by eating rotten potatoes.
Feb Charles Trevelyan commented that ‘indirect permanent advantages will accrue to Ireland from the scarcity, and the measures taken for its relief[...] Besides, the greatest improvement of all that could take place in Ireland would be to teach the people to depend upon themselves for developing the resources of the country, instead of having recourse to the assistance of the government on every occasion’.
The first shipment of Indian corn arrived in Ireland. It was unloaded in Cork where it was to be ground ready for consumption. Indian corn was difficult to prepare and not known in Ireland. It was bulky and filling. Sir Randolph Routh of the Relief Commission believed it kept off fever, but people referred to it as ‘Peel’s brimstone’. The decision to order something so obscure and unpalatable had been taken deliberately by the government, calculated not to interfere with private trade.
On the 20th, Trevelyan informed Routh that government plans should be ‘promulgated’.
On the 28th, instructions were issued to advise on the duties of relief committees. The Lieutenant of each county should oversee the formation of local relief committees. In the spring and summer of 1846, almost 700 relief committees would be set up, most of them in the south and west.
By this time distress was being reported on the western seaboard, including Clare, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, West Cork, Tipperary and Roscommon.
March Constabulary reports stated that Antrim, Clare, Kilkenny, Louth, Monaghan and Waterford were the worst affected areas. This can only give a general impression, as some areas, such as Mayo, were not so well recorded.
Legislation was introduced to confirm the role of the Irish Board of Works in relief measures. Four separate Acts were passed to promote the development of fisheries, harbours, drainage, road repair and other public works. The most important of these acts provided for the construction and alteration of roads. Funding was to be shared equally through local tax and the government.
On the 24th, the Fever Act was introduced. This established a temporary Board of Health in Dublin.
By this time, there were 47,403 inmates in Irish workhouses. They were still less than half full. Many were beginning to feel the effect of the potato shortages. The cumulative credit balances of all unions was £52,115.
April Sir Randolph Routh described the country as being like a chequer-board, black and white.
May The government was still convinced that it was ‘applying merely a temporary remedy to a temporary, though widespread, calamity’.
On the 3rd, a report by the Treasury condemned the payment of people on public works regardless of their results. It recommended that food should be given instead of wages, and if money wages were paid, they should only be sufficient to prevent starvation. This report had been written personally by Trevelyan and had not been reviewed before publication.
On the 15th, food depots were officially opened so that grain could be sold. A few had been open unofficially since March.
By the end of the month, applications for the half-grant scheme had been received from eighteen different counties.
June The Treasury decreed that the price of corn would no longer be sold at cost price, but the local market price. Some local relief committees ignored this.
By the end of the month, corn supplies were already low. The government purchased another 3000 tons of corn. This was not intended to feed all the starving, but to discourage private traders from hoarding supplies and then overcharging. It was also designed to encourage the import of grain, which did in fact increase.
On the 26th, a Treasury Minute stated that ‘numerous’ people who did not require relief were employed on the public works.
The average number of people employed on public works in this month was 21,000 daily.
Signs of a new potato blight were noted, and it became obvious that the crop was affected throughout Ireland.
July On the 21st, a Treasury Minute announced that all public measures for combatting the famine would be brought to a close. Trevelyan believed that relief operations should be ended despite the reappearance of the blight ‘or you run the risk of paralysing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years’.
The Corn Laws were repealed. Lord John Russell became Prime Minister.
The average number of people employed on public works in this month was 71,000 daily. The Treasury had privately ordered the Board of Works to lower wages to force people off the works. This led to some protests, including 10,000 people assembling at Castlebar in a ‘show of physical force’.
Aug By the 10th, relief committees had raised a total of £98,003 1s 2 1/2 d since the 26th of March. The Lord Lieutenant added a further £65,914 10s. The largest donations had been added between April and June.
On the 15th, grain depots were closed.
The average number of people employed on public works on the second week of this month was 98,000 daily. This was the peak of public work employment. 1.2% of the Irish population was engaged on them. Only five counties were not involved – Armagh, Down, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone. The largest public works employer was County Clare and the smallest Dublin; this reflected the availability of other employment in the local economy.
The Labour Rate Act was passed. Local Grand Juries would still initiate the introduction of public works to an area, but the Board of Works would manage the project and issue tickets for employment for lists of candidates drawn up by local relief committees. The Board of Works staff were increased. Now local tax would bear all the cost, although treasury loans were available. A system of task work (meaning payment by results) was introduced. The wages were inflexible, failing to reflect rising food prices. Delays also meant that people were weaker when they began to work. Entire families were employed together.
Mr Erichsen took on responsibility for importing Indian corn to Ireland, and between the 26th of August 1846 and the 15th of January 1847, he made 72 separate purchases of food, mostly Indian corn. He bought first in Europe, and then in America. Egyptian wheat, barley and barley meal were also purchased. The Relief Commission was no longer responsible for grinding this corn; it was left to private enterprise. Scotland was to be provided with imported food before any of it could be sent to Ireland.
At the end of this month, a mob of up to 4000 people in Westport forced labourers on the public works to leave them and listen to ‘inciting addresses’. The local priest defused the situation. Over the next six months, 140 instances of violence or threats of violence were reported, and works were sometimes suspended in response to violence.
Sept The Irish Executive warned the government that they must ‘save the people from starvation’.
Poor Law Commissioners advised each board of guardians to review their stocks, contracts and finances with a view to workhouses being used to full capacity over the next year.
At the end of this month, the Cork guardians introduced a system of outdoor relief. Breakfast was given to 1440 people daily who were not inmates. The guardians refused to stop until the public works began.
The Irish Relief Association reformed and raised £42,000.
Oct The Lord Lieutenant, Lord Bessborough, told the Prime Minister he ‘verily believed that by Christmas there will not be a sound potato in the country’.
Russell commented in a letter that ‘the Irish have been taught many bad lessons [including] the common delusion that government can convert a period of scarcity into a period of abundance’. He stressed that ‘we cannot feed the people’.
On the 5th, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Mr Labouchere, wrote a Letter providing for drainage and sub-soiling to be added to public works. These became known as the Labouchere works. They were intended to let landlords improve their estates; the cost was a charge on the electoral division. Ulster was to be the biggest employer on drainage work, and Connacht least. At its height only 5% of everyone on relief would be engaged on drainage work.
No new depots were to be established and only central ones were to operate. On the 8th, revised instructions on donations were sent out by the Lord Lieutenant; the creation of new committees would ensure that a wider geographical area was covered than in the previous year, while individual committees would cover a narrower area.
At the end of the month, prices of wheat, flour and oatmeal in Cork shot up by 50% in one week alone.
The number of workhouse inmates began to rise sharply. The funds of the Westport union were already exhausted.
Nov Demand for food relief rocketed and panic spread. Skibbereen became internationally notorious for its death rate. The government refused to open the food depots.
An average of 286,000 people were employed every week on the public works.
Quakers in Dublin established a Central Relief Committee. They would provide approximately £200,000 worth of relief before winding down in the summer of 1847. The government would try to persuade them to continue, but by then they believed immediate relief should come from the government. In 1848 they would distribute seed given to them by the government.
Dec On the 2nd, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Wood blamed the famine on [the Irish people's] ‘habit of depending on government. [The solution is] to force them upon their own resources’. He was worried about ‘having the whole population of Ireland upon us’.
Poor Law Commissioners recommended that each board of guardians should provide additional accommodation, such as sheds and additional sleeping galleries. They would have to raise the money themselves. The government however believed that Irish rate payers were placing their money in Saving Banks and cutting costs by refusing to employ labourers.
By Christmas, over 50% of the 130 workhouses in Ireland were full. One of these was Galway, where mortality was high. The Galway guardians faced a crisis in that their funds were almost exhausted and food prices were exorbitant. They asked the government for Indian corn and a loan, but this was rejected.
On the 26th, the Chief Poor Law Commissioner in Ireland, Edward Twistleton, objected to anti-Irish sentiments in the press and its impact on government policy and private charity. However, the General Central Relief Committee was established this month in Dublin. Its President was the Marques of Kildare, and it went on to raise £63,000.
Depots re-opened on the 28th. Trevelyan insisted that grain should be sold at market prices, or ‘the whole country will come upon us’.
Routh accused the Treasury of not having made enough effort to obtain food. Trevelyan maintained that food shortages were general in the United Kingdom, and supplies had to be controlled. ‘The whole world was ransacked for supplies.’ He also said that ‘the ordinary mercantile interests of even the greatest trading nation in the world is unequal to such a novel emergency’.
The Cork Examiner reported a ‘terrible apathy’ in Skibbereen, where ‘they sullenly await their doom with indifference and without fear… Death is in every hovel; disease and famine, its dread precursors, have fastened on the young and old, the strong and feeble, the mother and the infant’. A visiting midshipman in Schull reported children he had ‘mistaken for decrepit old women, their faces wrinkled, their bodies bent and distorted with pain, their eyes looking like those of a corpse’.
Mr James H. Tuke of the Society of Friends toured Donegal where he described the suffering of the people and said ‘their patience is beyond belief’. He and William Forster were severely critical of absentee landlords.
Unions varied in the level of care offered to inmates. While the Quakers found the Gweedore workhouse ‘in excellent order’ as a result of the active interest taken by Sir George Hill, neighbouring Glenties was in a ‘dreadful state’ with ‘not sufficient food in the house for the day’s supply’. ‘The rooms are hardly bearable for filth. The living and dying were stretched side by side beneath the same miserable covering’.
The Times complained that ‘what is given to the Irish is so much filched from English distress’.
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Lord John Russell suggested removing the remaining duties on corn to bring prices down.
The chairman of the relief committee in Donegal said that the poor ‘are now living on sea-weed’.
The weekly average of people on public works was now 615,000.
The government announced a major policy change. Soup kitchens would be opened. In the long term, public works would no longer be used to provide relief. Instead, the Poor Law would be extended, putting more responsibility on localities. However, several Poor Law unions were without funds, especially in the south and west. Some hadn’t had time to collect enough rates after opening; others had loans to repay after their construction. Leading members of the Irish Executive informed Sir George Grey that the workhouse situation was in crisis.
The government was receiving more than 100 reports per day of starvation deaths. Deaths in workhouses had reached 2700 a week.
The British Relief Association was established in London by a group of English businessmen. Their representative Count Strzelecki travelled to Ireland.
Queen Victoria wrote the ‘Queen’s Letter’, an appeal for money to relieve distress. The Queen, Trevelyan and Thackeray were among those who contributed. A total of £171, 533 was raised.
On the 25th, government officer Captain Pole remarked that ‘outside Dublin, the country is uncivilised’.
On the 10th, a Treasury note to the Relief Commissioners said that the only way to shape Ireland into a ‘self-supporting… condition’ was through the ‘personal exertions’ of the upper and middle classes.
Even before the Temporary Relief Act was on the status books, a new Board of Temporary Relief Commissioners was established. The new relief committees were to be subject to heavy bureaucracy and tighter central control. Every Poor Law union would have an associated finance committee, except for Antrim, Belfast and Newtownards which exempted themselves from the scheme. Each electoral division would have a relief committee to oversee the distribution of food.
On the 22nd, the Board of Works issued a circular stating that relief by labour would soon cease and be replaced by relief by food.
Almost all of Ireland’s workhouses were full. Subsequently numbers began to decline, in part because of the introduction of soup kitchens. Some full workhouses continued to provide additional relief, including free meals on the premises, temporary accommodation given to families, and people being given food to take home. This was condemned by the Poor Law Commissioners, who felt that the poor rates could not take the burden. In their view, the relief committees should pay the costs.
The Lord Lieutenant began issuing small sums of money to the most distressed unions for bedding and clothing. Indian meal was also given.
Many Irish newspapers published a letter from Philadelphia saying the people there wanted to contribute to famine relief. America had made substantial contributions to the relief effort, totalling $395,150.
March The peak of people employed on public works was reached at 714,000. Cork, Galway, Clare and Mayo made up the highest figures on public works, while Antrim was the lowest. After this, the wind-down of public works began. The Treasury directed that employment on the works should be reduced by 20%. The first to be dismissed would be those who occupied more than ten acres of land.
A report in The Sligo Champion accused ‘the sons of a broken down gentry’ of ‘deriving the chief advantage’ from public works.
The Times described the Irish as ‘a people born and bred from time immemorial, in inveterate indolence, improvidence, disorder, and consequent destitution’. It accused them of ‘astounding apathy [...] to the most horrible scenes under their eyes’. Punch magazine was also carrying articles and caricatures of this type. This media pressure, fed by Trevelyan and Charles Wood, had an impact on British public opinion.
At the Galway workhouse union, liabilities had risen to £1000 and the guardians were threatening to resign. Belfast workhouse unions, facing high mortality from disease, applied for a loan but had it turned down because ‘the town of Belfast is so wealthy and its inhabitants so enterprising… if assistance were given… it would be impossible to refuse a similar application from any union in Ireland’. At the same time, the linen industry in Belfast was suffering due to a general economic slump in western Europe, resulting in some mills going on to half time. Many weavers took a drop in wages but were still not eligible for relief.
Legislation was passed so that soup kitchens would provide the principal relief during the summer of 1847. This was known as the Temporary Relief Act or Soup Kitchen Act. Three categories of people were eligible for this kind of relief: ‘destitute, helpless or impotent persons’, ‘destitute, able-bodied persons not holding land’ and ‘able-bodied persons who held small portions of land’.
The leader of the Tory opposition in parliament, Lord George Bentinck, stated that he believed the number of deaths had been concealed by the government. ‘They know the people have been dying by their thousands and I dare them to enquire what has been the number of those who have died through their mismanagement, by their principles of free trade. Yes, free trade in the lives of the Irish people.’
April Having opened a number of ‘model’ kitchens in Dublin, French society chef Alexis Soyer was given a snuff box as a gift for making cheap soup ‘palatable’. Within months, half the population would be reliant on soup.
The Provincial Bank announced it would no longer advance loans to the thirty unions it represented.
At the beginning of the month, men dismissed from public works in Youghall staged a riot.
On the 23rd, the Inspector of the Granard Union attacked the local people as ‘idle, reckless, lazy and improvident… They appear to depend on some future contingency like the public works or a temporary relief measure, to feed themselves and their families’.
On the 24th, it was announced that the numbers employed on public works was to be reduced by a further 10%. A week later, all were to close. If a soup kitchen was open in the vicinity then the soup kitchen should close at once. However, in some cases the public works were closed before a soup kitchen was opened. Disturbances sometimes occurred between the closing of the public works and the opening of the soup kitchen.
That same day, the Northern Whig reported on how ‘many respectable women and girls are rapidly sinking into destitution’ because of the trade depression. Also, the Governor of Nova Scotia, Sir John Harvey, wrote to the Colonial Secretary Earl Grey warning that employment prospects were poor in Canada. The letter was published in Ireland to discourage emigration.
In Liverpool, the authorities estimated that 90,000 Irish immigrants had arrived since January, of whom two thirds remained in Liverpool. Doctors there were fearful of an epidemic.
May On the 1st, the Roman Catholic clergy of Derry placed a list of deaths from starvation in the diocesan archive, inscribed:
‘The Records of the Murders of the Irish Peasantry, perpetrated in A.D. 1846-47, in the 9. and 10. Vic., under the name of economy under the administration of a professedly Liberal, Whig government, of which Lord John Russell was Premier.’
Enniskillen workhouse was at full capacity, and had a high death rate caused by the diet (stirabout and buttermilk) and unsanitary conditions. The guardians had a debt of £5000 and asked the government for a loan; they were given £100 and told to rely on rates. The guardians responded that this was ‘mischievous in its commercial consequences’.
By the middle of the month, the Relief Commissioners said they were ‘disappointed’ at delays – only 1248 out of 2000 electoral divisions had opened soup kitchens.
A local mob in Castlemartyr, County Cork, threatened to ‘smash all the soup boilers in the country’ because they wanted no more ‘greasy kitchen stuff but should have either money or bread’. The Relief Commissioners knew that the cooked food was ‘extremely unpopular with all classes’. A mob in Limerick smashed a soup kitchen and the meeting room of the relief committee. When the ringleader was arrested, a crowd stoned the local barracks.
Cork was at that time hosting an estimated 20,000 paupers from the countryside.
On the 15th, Saunder’s Newsletter reported that the ‘whole country is swarming with armed parties’. The number of violent incidents and the sale of firearms was increasing.
On the 29th, a report of the Relief Commissioners claimed that some men had been selling their rations of uncooked food and were getting ‘drunk upon the proceedings, leaving their children to starve’. It also said that ‘the peasantry are turbulent, and having had their own way for so long, the gentlemen of the country anticipate great violence if they attempt any reform in the issue of food’.
On the 31st, commissioners said that support for unions should be withheld until loans had been repaid via rents.
Private donations from Britain reached £200,000. The Church of England had been collecting funds and sending them to the Church of Ireland. This month, bishops published a letter of thanks but added that distress was still urgent.
Lord Bessborough, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, died and was replaced by Lord Clarendon, who supported non-intervention.
Emigration was in full flood, and many emigrants were suffering from fever by the time they reached their destination. Ships began to arrive at Grosse Isle in Canada, where the Dr George Douglas, who had charge of the quarantine station there, said he had ‘not a bed to lay[the invalids] on… I never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now’.
June The debts of the Galway union were now £3711 0s 8d. The government agreed to give the union a small advance.
On the 12th, Relief Commissioners reported that landowners had complained that soup kitchens were contributing to crime by giving people too much free time.
On the 21st, the Central Board of Health reported disease similar to ‘sea scurvy’ caused by the ‘defective nutrition’ of soup kitchen food.
On the 28th, Russell worried that the new poor laws would result in a fight between ‘Landlord, Tenant and Co. versus Priest, Labourer, Burgoyne and Co.’ once the ratepayers realised they would be paying for all relief.
Reports of cases of dysentery and fever peaked.
July By the 3rd, the Temporary Relief Act was at its peak: 2,342,900 people were receiving gratuitous rations. The government decided to let the supplies in food depots run out.
Drainage works began to be phased out.
All ‘relief employment’ officially ended, despite the absence of alternative relief measures in some areas. Many roads were unfinished and some were in a worse state than when relief had begun.
In his The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship, Robert Whyte recorded the condition of ships in quarantine at Grosse Isle: ‘In the holds of some of them they said that they were up to their ankles in filth. The wretched emigrants crowded together like cattle and corpses remaining long unburied – the sailors being ill and the passengers unwilling to touch them. They also told us of the vast numbers of sick in the hospitals and in tents upon the island and that many nuns, clergymen and doctors were lying in typhus fever, taken from the patients.’
Aug The Whig Party under John Russell won a general election on the 9th. The election returned an increased number of Repeal candidates, but also more middle-class radicals such as Cobden and Bright who supported non-intervention.
From the 15th, an extended Poor Law permitting outdoor relief was implemented. It was to be financed through the poor rates, despite the fact that some Poor Law unions were already facing bankruptcy. This was to force landowners to take responsibility. Those entitled to outdoor relief included the infirm, the old, orphans and widows with more than two legitimate children. Able-bodied destitute people could still receive outdoor relief as a last resort, if the workhouse was full. Outdoor relief was to be provided for no more than two months and should take the form of cooked food. The Gregory/Quarter Acre Clause stated that any occupier of more than a quarter acre of land was not deemed destitute. At the same time, another Act was passed to punish vagrants and men who neglected their wives and children. Begging was to be punished by up to thirty days hard labour. However, this Act was rarely enforced, and many resorted to begging. Some people begged and stole in order to be sent to prison.
The new Act also provided Relieving Officers who could put together lists of applications for relief and provide emergency relief where necessary. Some boards refused to appoint Relieving Officers, as they did not intend to supply outdoor relief. The Commissioners took legal action to compel them.
R. Hamilton of the Relief Commission Office wrote that ‘the Temporary Relief Act was passed… solely to replace, for one season, the food of which the people were deprived by the failure of the potato crop’.
A separate Poor Law Commission was set up in Ireland. The Treasury, e.g. Trevelyan, was to be more prominent in administering poor relief.
The Poor Law was also amended during 1847 to increase the powers of guardians to assist the poor, particularly smallholders, to emigrate. If a person who occupied land valued at less than £5 turned it over to their landlord, the landlord was obliged to pay two thirds of their emigration costs, and the guardians would pay the rest. The emigrant no longer had to be a workhouse inmate. However, it was not until the 1849 Mansell Act that guardians would be allowed to borrow the cost of emigration from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners. As a result, Poor Law emigration rose sharply, but always made up a small proportion of all emigrants.
Soup kitchens were closed in 55 unions on the 15th, mainly in the east and the midlands. The rest were scheduled to be closed on the 29th. This was later adjusted so that the ‘impotent’ sick and poor could receive relief until the 30th of September. Twenty-two unions were listed as ‘distressed’, meaning that they would require external assistance.
Sept At the beginning of the month, the Board of Health warned that diseases such as dysentery and scurvy were likely to increase over winter. They felt that financial assistance was still required.
On the 9th, the Chief Secretary Sir William Somerville warned against making poor rates responsible for medical relief.
On the 14th, the Lowtherstown Board of Guardians became the first to be dissolved because they had not gathered enough poor rates. Their campaign for reinstatement would lead to a parliamentary enquiry and their eventual reinstatement on 25th March 1848.
A short, severe financial crisis took hold of Britain caused by bad harvests, an industrial depression and a run on the Bank of England.
Evictions began to increase. The number of people asking for relief also went up; people were in a worse physical state than in the previous year. Unions attempted to send out the infirm to make way for the able-bodied destitute, but they often refused to go, having no property or possessions. The purpose of this was to test whether the able-bodied were desperate enough to accept indoor relief. Many were afraid to enter because of disease, and most did not want to give up their remaining possessions.
Oct Queen Victoria wrote the second ‘Queen’s Letter’, but this raised hardly anything, as public opinion had changed. The Times newspaper came out against further relief for Ireland, and said that any money raised by the Queen’s Letter should go to the English poor. The international press had also begun to criticise the Irish: the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described them as idle, ungrateful and lawless.
Trevelyan himself wrote to the Times that financial assistance to Ireland should be limited, because ‘the change from an idle, barbarous isolated potato cultivation, to corn cultivation, which frees industry, and binds together employer and employee in mutually beneficial relations… requires capital and a new class of men’.
When a group of Catholic bishops and archbishops appealed to the government for more aid, they were told that this was unreasonable when ‘English trade and credit are disastrously low’.
Nov The first outdoor relief orders were issued by Poor Law Commissioners, at Oldcastle and Newcastle. Within two months, half of all unions had permission to give outdoor relief.
Dec A Report of the Relief Commissioners included the only fraud known, at the Bantry union in County Cork.
In the twelve months up to December 1847, over £1m had been collected in poor rates. Poor Law expenditure for 1847 totalled £1,700,000. £890,639 of rates remained uncollected, compared with £243,384 the previous year.
Lord Clarendon, referring to protests, said he ‘felt as if I was at the head of a Provisional government of a half-conquered country’. Clarendon was soon to believe that there would be a rebellion in Ireland, and the Irish gentry and landlords could no longer be relied upon.
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Jan Of 120,172 workhouse inmates, 7007 had fever.
On the 4th, Twistleton admitted he wished more elected boards had been dissolved and replaced by paid officials.
On the 29th, Trevelyan intervened in a scheme to send female Irish orphans aged between 14 and 18 to Australia. He recommended that Protestant rather than Catholic girls should be sent because of their better ‘moral education’. Only girls trained in needlework and washing should be sent, which effectively ruled out any from the poverty-struck western unions. The guardians were also supposed to provide emigrants with an outfit.
This year saw the introduction of the Encumbered Estates Act, which was intended to help impoverished landlords transfer their estates to men of capital. It was intended to bring in British investors, but in fact almost all of the purchasers were Irish.
Feb By the first week of this month, 445,456 people were receiving outdoor relief.
March Commissioners suspended outdoor relief to the able-bodied in 24 unions to encourage labourers to return to the soil and produce a bigger harvest. By this time, 200,000 children were receiving relief from their schools via the British Relief Association. The British Relief Association agreed to make this relief contingent on parents working on the land.
On the 30th, Clarendon wrote to Russell that discontent could be removed by ‘relieving distress which causes much of the bad feeling now’.
On the 31st, Lord Palmerston said that ‘it is useless to disguise the truth, that any great improvement in the social system of Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that this change necessarily implies a long, continued and systematic ejectment of smallholders and of squatting cottiers’.
A Poor Law Boundary Commission was appointed to look at the problems caused by over-large unions. It was also hoped that if electoral divisions were made smaller, rate payers would take more responsibility for the poor.
April By the beginning of the month, 638,141 people were receiving outdoor relief. The number of hours to be worked by able-bodied people increased from eight to ten a day. The work was designed to be ‘repulsive’ and not to put paupers in competition with independent labourers; stone-breaking was often the chosen work.
The Treason Felony Act was passed.
May Despite the fact that 92% of rates had been collected since the Poor Law began, the Treasury continued to criticise guardians and vice-guardians.
One million people were now daily relieved by the Poor Law. The Inspector at Kilrush, Captain Kennedy, informed the Poor Law Commissioners that between thirty and forty cabins were being demolished daily and that 300 people were being evicted in his area. He believed that the landlords were pushing tenants off properties valued under £4, for which the landlord had to pay the rent himself.
Two legal experts ruled that the family of a man owning more than a quarter acre were entitled to relief if he could not support them. However, if he could support them and refused, he could be prosecuted.
June It was made legal for paupers who died on outdoor relief to be given a coffin paid for out of poor rates, the same as the inmates.
On the 13th, Trevelyan asserted that assistance should be given only if absolutely essential, because otherwise ‘the demands upon us would become infinite’. He criticised the Poor Law Unions for the way they had handled the resources available to them.
By this time the north east was beginning to recovery, due to an improvement in the linen trade, the import of breadstuffs and corn, and a large yield of other crops. Workhouse accommodation had risen by a third there.
The first orphan ship went out to Australia. The ‘Earl Grey’ carried 219 orphans, of whom only two died during the passage – this was considered a success. Many were from the Belfast union. The ship’s surgeon, Dr Douglass, caused a scandal by saying may of the women had acted badly and 56 had a ‘disreputable’ character. In spite of this, all but one of the girls managed to find a job.
July The number of people on outdoor relief peaked.
The British Relief Association’s funds were now almost completely spent, and they began to wind down their activities.
At the beginning of the month, the first signs of blight were seen on the west coast.
The Young Ireland rebellion took place from the 23rd to the 29th.
Aug The 15th of this month was the final day for outdoor relief, although the deadline was ultimately extended until the 29th.
An Act was introduced to regularise the process of eviction in order to protect the evictees.
The blight appeared in many areas and was as virulent as in 1846.
Sept Only 45 out of the 130 Poor Law unions had balances in hand.
1433,042 people had received outdoor relief by this time.
Most of Ireland beyond the north east was afflicted by problems. Evicted families were homeless; those who had surrendered property to get into a workhouse had left their small-holdings uncultivated; there had been widespread immigration, and some men had deserted their families; the crops were failing, and the population was weakened by three years of sickness.
Trevelyan wrote to Twistleton that he wanted small farmers to emigrate. ‘If small farmers go, and their landlords are reduced to selling portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country.’ Russell also commented that ‘it is better that some should sink, than that they should drag others down to sink with them’.
The second meeting of the Irish Orphan Emigration Committee took place. It recommended that a larger proportion of English and Scottish orphans should be sent.
The North Dublin union moved to prosecute the English Poor Law Board for negligence after two paupers died while being returned under the Law of Settlement. The prosecution was never carried through.
At the end of the month, the government announced that it had less than £3000 to grant.
Nov Between 1000 and 3000 new applicants were applying for poor relief every day. The Poor Law Commissioners warned the Treasury that most distressed unions required external help. Twenty definitely required assistance.
Dec Cholera appeared in Ireland. It was first seen in sea ports, having been brought over from Britain. Belfast was badly effected, including the Belfast workhouse.
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Jan On the 21st, Twistleton commented that ‘others might say that we are slowly murdering the peasantry by the scantiness of relief’ [in workhouses].
The Central Board of Health warned all boards of guardians that a cholera epidemic was imminent. They were to promote cleanliness and provide medical relief. Under the Nuisance Removal and Disease Prevention Act, they were responsible for the cleanliness of their unions.
The Boundary Commissioners recommended fifty new unions, most urgently for the west. Nobody should be more than eight miles from a workhouse. Ultimately, 33 new unions were created, reluctantly funded by the Treasury.
Feb On the 12th, £50,000 was made available by the government. Parliament was keen that this should be the final grant. Three days later, the Times complained that the proposed government grant of £50,000 was ‘breaking the back’ of England.
A Rate-in-Aid national tax was proposed. The Treasury was once again in total control of providing relief. Commissioners were to send in a detailed financial statement and an estimate of how much was required each month. Russell suggested that income tax could be introduced to Ireland (it had been specifically omitted from the Act of Union), but Irish MPs protested. The alternative was the temporary Rate-in-Aid. It would be a tax of 6d in the pound levied on all rateable property in Ireland. This was expected to raise £332,552. The government would provide a short-term loan of £50,000, which should be repaid by December 1849. The fundamental idea was that financial responsibility for relieving distress in Ireland would be a national rather than a local charge, but not an imperial one. This had the advantage that the poorest unions would not have to depend on themselves, and that checks for fraud could be done locally. There was also the hope that by making Irish property responsible, it would aid the transition to large-scale farming, as Rate-in-Aid would make it difficult for small farms to survive.
The Northern Whig ran articles warning that people in Ulster would resist the Bill, which it claimed was ‘simply and avowedly an attempt to make the industrious, peaceable, hard-working portion of Ireland pay towards the support of the idle and turbulent’. The Morning Chronicle argued that Rate-in-Aid would increase poverty by channelling the country’s wealth into poor rates. Many boards of guardians condemned the Bill, arguing that they were part of the Union and had no special responsibility for other parts of Ireland. A large meeting of unions took place to oppose the Rate-in-Aid Bill; the counter-suggestion was a tax on goods imported from England.
On the 19th, Twistleton commented that the situation was not ‘fully understood’ in England.
On the 24th, Russell said to Clarendon that ‘the great difficulty concerning Ireland this year is one that does not spring from Trevelyan and Charles Wood but lies deep in the breasts of the British people. It is this – we have granted, lent, subscribed, worked, visited, clothed the Irish; millions of pounds worth of money, years of debate, etc. etc. – the only return is calumny and rebellion – let us not grant, clothe etc. etc. any more and see what they will do… Now, without borrowing and lending we could have no great plan for Ireland – and much as I wish it, I have got to see that it is impracticable’.
March A large meeting took place against the Rate-in-Aid Bill in Lurgan on the 2nd. Despite this, four days later the Rate-in-Aid bill passed in the House of Commons with 206 votes to 34. It was to have a more difficult passage through the House of Lords, many of whose members had landed interests in Ireland.
The majority of MPs who had a vested interest in Ireland spoke out against the Rate-in-Aid bill. The members from Ulster were the most critical, arguing that they were being forced to pay for the poor of Connacht, although Leinster and Munster would be more heavily taxed than Ulster. None of the 22 distressed unions that would benefit were in Leinster. Despite this the Ulster MPs continued to contrast the loyalty and industry of their own ratepayers against the ‘fecklessness’ of ratepayers in the west. Others, such as William Sharman Crawford and the Chief Poor Law Commissioner Edward Twistleton, argued that other parts of the Union should be responsible for Ireland. Twistleton also believed that the rates would prevent farmers from investing capital in their properties, and he eventually resigned in protest, to be replaced by the pro-Rate-in-Aid Alfred Power. George Nicholls, the first Poor Law Commissioner in Ireland, described the Bill as an ‘alarmist response’ to what was ‘an imperial calamity’. However, some of the press spoke out in favour of the Bill, which the Dublin Post argued was ‘a national tax to prevent a national loss’.
On the 7th, the Commissioners, having tried to get more money from the Treasury, said they felt ‘absolved of any responsibility’. Trevelyan was unsympathetic, but admitted that the government was obliged to provide a minimal form of relief, or ‘the deaths’ would be ‘an eternal blot on the nation’. He called paupers ‘prodigal sons’ who should not be given ‘the fatted calf’ but only ‘the workhouse and one pound of meal per day’.
The British Relief Association gave a final grant of £1000 to the Poor Law Commissioners.
Cholera was now present in each of the distressed unions.
Some of the dissolved boards of elected guardians were restored, but other boards continued to be run by the unelected vice-guardians who had been appointed in place of the elected guardians.
April On the 2nd, the Poor Law Commissioners appealed to Trevelyan to apply some of the government’s grant to defray the expense of treating cholera. The Treasury said this could be done ‘with caution’. It was not long before the Treasury was accusing the Poor Law Commissioners of being too liberal with the money.
On the 26th, the Poor Law Commissioners ran out of money completely.
The £50,000 granted by the government was exhausted. Parliament permitted another £6000 to be granted from the Civil Contingencies fund. This was not enough, and the Commissioners continued to pressure the Treasury for more money. The Treasury criticised the Commissioners for advancing money ‘too liberally’, and told them to collect rates, as May was generally a good month for this.
May During the first two weeks of this month, 1,200 people were evicted in the union of Kilrush.
On the 17th, the Treasury agreed to allow a supply of biscuits for the Commissariat Stores, but refused to grant more money.
On the 24th, the Rate-in-Aid bill passed. Opponents of the Bill had held further meetings in Belfast, but their movement was by now running out of momentum. When the Act came into force, no unions actually refused to pay the rate, although some of the Ulster unions were uncharacteristically late in paying.
A subscription was started by parliament. Each Member of Parliament contributed £100, and the Queen £500 towards relieving distress. A total of £10,000 was raised. Count Strzelecki of the British Relief Association was given the task of distributing the subscription. The Treasury had the role of distributing all money raised via Rate-in-Aid.
June Trevelyan suggested that all children should be put out of workhouses to make room for able-bodied men. Twistleton refused to do this. The number of people receiving relief in Irish workhouses had reached its peak at 227,329 a day.
By now the cholera epidemic had faded out.
July The number of people receiving outdoor relief peaked at 784,370.
The Poor Law Commissioners recommended that emigrants should arrive at their destinations in the summer when most jobs were available. However, the orphan emigration scheme was closed due to the lack of further employment opportunities. By this time, 2000 had been sent.
On the 8th, Thomas Carlyle visited Kildare:
‘Kildare, as I entered it looked worse and worse: one of the wretchedest wild villages I ever saw; and full of ragged beggars this day (Sunday), – exotic altogether, “like a village in Dahomey,” man and Church both. Knots of worshipping people hung about the streets, and every-where round them hovered a harpy-swarm of clamorous mendicants, men, women, children: – a village winged, as if a flight of harpies had alighted on it!’
Three days later, he viewed the workhouse at Kilkenny:
‘Workhouse; huge chaos, ordered [...]; but his establishment, the first I had ever seen, quite shocked me. Huge arrangements for eating, baking, stacks of Indian meal stirabout; 1000 or 2000 great bulks of men lying piled up within brick walls, in such a country, in such a day! Did a greater violence to the law of nature ever before present itself to sight, if one had an eye to see it? Schools, for girls, rather goodish; for boys, clearly bad; forward, impudent routine – scholar, one boy, with strong Irish physiognomy, – getting bred to be an impudent superficial pretender. So; or else sit altogether stagnant, and so far as you can, rot. Hospital: haggard ghastliness of some looks, – literally, their eyes grown “colorless” (as Mahomet describes the horror of the Day of Judgment); “take me home!” one half-mad was urging; a deaf-man; ghastly flatteryof us by another, (his were the eyes): ah me! Boys drilling, men still piled within their walls: no hope but of stirabout; swine’s meat, swine’s destiny (I gradually saw): right glad to get away.’
Aug Queen Victoria visited Ireland. In a private letter, she wrote that ‘the entrance at seven o’clock into KingstonHarbour was splendid; we came in with ten steamers, and the whole harbour, wharf, and every surrounding place was covered with thousands and thousands of people, who received us with the greatest enthusiasm. We disembarked yesterday morning at ten o’clock, and took two hours to come here. The most perfect order was maintained in spite of the immense mass of people assembled, and a more good-humoured crowd I never saw, but noisy and excitable beyond belief, talking, jumping, and shrieking instead of cheering.’
The harvest this year was good in most places, although some signs of blight were seen, particularly in County Clare. The good harvest prompted the Treasury to demand back the Rate-in-Aid, the Temporary Relief Advances and the loans made for building workhouses.
Nov Eleven of the sixteen remaining dissolved boards of guardians were reinstated. A new office, that of assistant guardian, was created; the assistant guardians were to go to the poorest unions. They were expected to work for free and so there was little up-take on the role, except in Kenmare.
Dec The orphan emigration scheme began again, mainly taking orphans from the south-west unions.
The total cost of Poor Law Expenditure during the year was calculated at £2,177,651, in contrast to £1,732,597 the previous year. The combined liabilities for all unions was £2,525,315, with the poorer unions taking the biggest burden.
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Jan The Westport Guardians took back their union from the unelected vice-guardians and complained it had become ‘a hotbed of laziness and vice’. Many others also complained. The vice-guardians were often accused of squandering union funds or levying rates unfairly. The restored boards were often confronted by large debts. A select committee was appointed to investigate these complain, which criticised the Poor Law Commissioners and vice-guardians. Not all restored boards criticised their predecessors; four asked for the predecessor to remain in place, but this was not allowed.
Feb The Scariff union had become so overwhelmed with debt that their meal contractor refused to supply them, and the sheriff seized their assets to pay the contractor.
The Children’s Apprenticeship Board investigated allegations made against emigrant workhouse girls, and found that some were ‘extremely filthy’ and ‘unimaginably indelicate’. The following month they recommended that no more orphans should be sent abroad, and the scheme was closed.
March By now, income from poor rates was exceeding expenditure by £426,470.
April The Waterford union was forced to repay their debts. They had been refusing, as paying the debts would have meant they could not meet current expenditure.
Conditions at the Castlebar union were said to be severe enough to endanger life.
The Northern Whig described the treatment of Irish emigrants arriving in Liverpool:
‘As soon as a party of emigrants arrive in Liverpool they are beset by a tribe of people, both male and female, who are known by the name of ‘mancatcher’ and ‘runner’. The business of these people is, in common parlance, to ‘fleece’ the emigrant, and to draw from his pocket, by fair means or foul, as much of his cash as he can be persuaded, inveigled or bullied into parting with… The man-catchers keep lodging houses for emigrants – wretched cellars and rooms, destitute of comfort and convenience, in which they cram them as thickly as the places can hold.’
May The Consolidated Annuities Act empowered the Treasury to issue the poorest unions with advances of up to £300,000 in total. Money given out in loans could be used to pay debts. Unions in Munster received £176,487. Ulster received only £334. The Act also allowed the Treasury to consolidate the debts of each union and have them transformed into annuities paid directly from the Treasurer of the union to the Treasury. The Treasurer would have up to forty years to do this.
Aug A healthy harvest was raised with isolated instances of blight.
Sept The number of people who had received indoor poor relief in the last twelve months was 805,702. A further 363,565 had received outdoor relief. Ten percent of those receiving poor relief were concentrated in the Kanturk, Kilrush and Newcastle unions.
The chairmen of various western unions including Kilrush met to discuss the administration of the Poor Law. A futile appeal for more funds was made to the government.
Nov The guardians at Kenmare warned that if they did not raise higher rates, the union would be dissolved – despite the fact that a quarter of the population were receiving relief.
Dec A second Rate-in-Aid was introduced, imposing an addition 2d to the pound on all rateable property. Ulster unions again objected to what they saw as subsidising the west. The Limerick guardians queried whether it was legal, as the first Rate-in-Aid had been temporary and had expired. Other boards consulted lawyers, who included Isaac Butt.
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A census showed that the Irish population had fallen from 8,175,124 people to 6,552,385 from 1841 as a result of mortality and emigration. It was estimated that if the famine had not occurred, the number of people living in Ireland would have been more than nine million. The census takers commented that ‘the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country’.