Letters to Lord John Russell on the Further Measures for the Social Amelioration of Ireland/Letter 3

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Bill proposed in 1846 for Appropriation and Reclamation of Waste Lands—Its Effects now had it been then passed—Stopped hy Irish Landlords—Are they always to prevail?—Waste land should be the Domain of the State—Objection to "Government turning Farmer" considered—Work must be found—Where better than on Wastes?—Authorities in favour—Mr. Brownlow's Bill 1828—Poor Commission of 1834-6—Land Commission 1846-7—Digest of Evidence 1847.

My Lord,

I trust I have established (though treating the argument with unavoidable brevity) these two propositions: 1. That the waste lands of Ireland offer a readily available and almost inexhaustible field for the immediate productive employment of the able-bodied poor of the distressed districts of Ireland. 2. That this resource will not be brought into play to anything like the extent or with the promptitude required by the urgency of the case, "without legislative interference," in the words of the Monaminey relief committee.

I proceed to consider the mode in which the Legislature may most effectually interfere. And, believing that the bill which I introduced for this purpose in 1846 was well adapted to the end in view, I will give here a short abstract of its provisions. It authorised the appointment of a Waste Lands Commission, consisting of the Chairman of the Board of Works, together with two other commissioners, having power to purchase (compulsorily) tracts of waste land, after due notice to the owners, who might appeal to a court of arbitration, appointed by the Lord-Lieutenant, upon the questions of value, &c. Demesne lands were excepted. The usual provisions followed for authorizing the sale by incapacitated parties, and for appropriation of the purchase money. The commissioners were empowered to make such roads, drainages, fences, buildings, and generally to reclaim these lands, as they might think fit; and after laying them out in farms of any size, from five to one hundred acres, to sell or lease these farms publicly for long terms, giving the tenant the power to purchase the fee by instalments, on terms fixed from the firsts Strict provisions were introduced against excessive subdivision or sub-letting, at any time, and to ensure the amplest improvement of the land.

Such, avoiding details, was the general character of the measure; and had your Lordship, as at one time I had reason to hope, taken up and passed that or some similar measure, as an accompaniment to your Labour Rate Act of August, 1846, so as to have enabled the officers of the Board of Works in the past winter and spring to employ some of the 500,000 labourers they had upon their hands in the reclamation of bog and mountain land; nay, had your government, even so late as the appearance of Mr. Laboucbere's celebrated letter, only assumed the responsibility of construing the phrase "public works" in the Labour Rate Act to mean the drainage and reclamation of waste, as well as the cutting up^of good land by useless roads, what a different state of things would now be found to exist! Instead of those same much- abused roads, on which millions have been expended, almost to no purpose of future utility, and which still, it is said, require further millions to complete them, you would have reclaimed from the waste very many thousands of acres, which would even this season have borne crops, and would afford for the future permanent employment to thousands of labourers. The whole of this expenditure would have been not only productive, but remunerative. The entire sum. would either have been already replaced by immediate sale of the farms reclaimed, or would be paying a fair rate of interest. On these farms would have already settled, either by purchase or lease, thousands of those industrious men who last year fled from their country in despair of being able to make a living in it—carrying with them to Upper Canada or Illinois the capital they would have greatly preferred to expend at home, had any chance been opened to them of doing so with advantage.

But this was not to be. However favourably your Lordship might individually have been disposed towards such a measure, the Irish landlords, it must be presumed, were too decidedly opposed to the compulsory appropriation of any portion of their wastes. I presume this to have been the case on no light rumours, but because, even last session, after you had publicly proclaimed your intention of bringing forward a measure of the kind, you were compelled by their opposition to renounce it. It seems that the Poor-law alone was as much as that interest could be brought to swallow on compulsion in one year. Thus the favourable opportunity for commencing on a large scale the reclamation of the Irish wastes, which was afforded by the necessity of expending several millions of public money in the employment of Irish labour, has been lost! In lieu of this the people were demoralized by a kind of employment of doubtful utility, to say the least, which they knew to be adopted only as a sort of roll-call, not for its promise of future advantage. And the extent of cultivated land, instead of being increased to meet the necessity of a larger production of grain to supply the deficiency of the potato, was considerably reduced by the quantity spoiled by the new roads! English capital has been sunk on works of so little value to Ireland, that the very landed proprietors who selected them refuse, on the ground of their utter worthlessness, to repay any portion of the expenditure I And the Irish capital, that would have been so eagerly drawn from its hiding-places to cultivate the reclaimed lands, has been driven across the Atlantic.

And, now I ask you if this year likewise a similar course is to be pursued? Is the infatuated resistance of the legal owners of millions of acres of reclaimable land, which they either cannot or will not make use of themselves, nor permit others to improve or cultivate on fair terms, to be still all-powerful? Are they still to be permitted to lock up one-third of the area of the entire island in a state of barrenness, at a time when they are themselves complaining that it is over-peopled, and asking for public money to transfer their tenantry to America, and to feed their able-bodied poor?

Surely these are not times, and Ireland, in its actual state, is not the country in which the conventional rights of property can be so strained with safety I Waste land ought to be considered the domain of the State (as in all new countries and throughout the eastern hemisphere it is, and has been considered from time immemorial— as in our own colonies we ourselves treat it)—to be appropriated by individuals only on condition of reclamation and productive occupancy. Where multitudes starve for want of the land which lies waste around them, the law which keeps the labour and the land asunder is not in accordance with, but is directlv opposed to the principle on which alone property in land can be justified, and is admitted by jurisconsults to rest; namely, the expediency of encouraging its improvement and cultivation. But, independently of this argument, it is sufficient to ask what peculiar sanctity can there be in waste lands, that is to protect them from that appropriation to public uses, when required, which is daily practised, in every ordinary railway, or canal, or road bill, in the case of lands highly cultivated, improved and adorned—nay, even of buildings and residences on which vast capital has been perhaps laid out, or which are consecrated in the affections of their owners by a thousand cherished associations?

It is clear that no special immunity can be for a moment pleaded for the Irish wastes. And the opposition, if any is publicly made, will, no doubt, be rested on other grounds.

It has, indeed, already been vaguely objected that this is a proposal for "the government to turn farmer on a vast scale, and set about cultivating the Irish bogs." And by a stupid cry of this kind, a prejudice is raised perhaps against the recommendation. Nothing, however, of the sort is suggested. The farms might, and perhaps should be disposed of even in their wholly wild state, so soon as the first steps in the process of reclamation, such as the cutting of the main drains, has been effected. Their occupants would themselves generally be able to carry forward the improvement by thorough drainage and coating with earth, as well as the actual cultivation of their land. Whatever is done by the public authorities beyond the initiatory steps of arterial drainage and the division of farms, should only be to the extent required by the necessity of finding work for able-bodied poor, who would otherwise be destitute and a burden on the public. That there will be many such in all, or nearly all of the western unions (which are for half or more of their area composed of bog or mountain) through the coming winter and spring, and probably for several succeeding seasons, is certain. That these multitudes should be still for another year or two maintained in idleness at the public expense, either in or out of the workhouse, eating up the resources of the country without adding to them, and learning indolence and vicious dependence, and that in districts where waste land lies at their doors on which they might be profitably employed, if the law permitted its appropriation to the purpose, would amount to a pitch of barbarian folly, that the common sense of the three kingdoms would hardly tolerate. There has been more than enough of this already.

Employment must be found for them. And where so usefully, and in every other respect, moral and political, as well as economical, so advantageously, as in adding to the cultivated area of the country, preparing the present abode of the snipe and curlew to afford subsistence, industrial occupation, and a happy residence in their native land, to civilized men and loyal subjects. At this moment there are hundreds of thousands of able-bodied Irishmen, anxious to perform all their duties to society, asking only for leave to toil, and by their labour to increase its wealth and prosperity, but to whom the suicidal law imposed by that society has denied a spot of land on. which to exercise their industrial propensities—has refused them the right even of a resting place for the sole of their foot—whilst this same law empowers a few other individuals to retain millions of acres of reclaimable Irish land in unproductive barrenness, useless to themselves or to any human being. This is not merely a barbarous absurdity; it is a crying grievance—a giant wrong—which cannot be too soon redressed, if it be desired that the people of Ireland should respect the law or attach themselves to the Imperial Legislature.

Is it supposed by any one that the quick-witted peasantry of Ireland cannot reason from these simple premises? Does not their religion teach them that God gave the earth to man to inhabit and cultivate, giving to man at the same time that instinctive desire, which they so strongly feel and exhibit, to obtain his living by its cultivation? Then what must be their sense of the justice, or accordance with the Divine will, of a law which shuts up vast tracts of untouched land from their use, and leaves them to starve, or at best to lounge idly upon it, forbidden to plant a spade in it for the purpose of fulfilling the Divine commandment of gaining their bread from the earth by the sweat of their brow? They must be dull indeed (and Irishmen are proverbially the reverse) who can under such circumstances look on such a law with any other feeling than indignation and hatred! Feelings of this nature in other countries of Europe within very recent periods have generated, you are aware, successful revolutions, by which dynasties have been overthrown, whole races of landowners summarily dispossessed, not of their wastes only, but of their entire estates; and the many made proprietors—happy and comfortable proprietors—of the soil, instead of the few. Will you wait for some similar convulsion in Ireland before you appropriate the waste lands of the island—the people's farm— to the use of the people?

The measure I advise is no new and startling proposal. It is nearly the same which Mr. Brownlow recommended to Parliament in 1828, and your own Poor Inquiry Commissioners in 1836, The latter expressly recommended "a Commission empowered to make a survey, valuation, and partition of the waste lands of Ireland." I cannot conclude better than in their own words, embodying the very same arguments I have been urging upon you:—

"When the immense importance of bringing into a productive state five millions of acres, now lying waste, is considered, it cannot but be a subject of regret and surprise that no greater progress in this undertaking has as yet been made. If this work can be accomplished, not only would it afford a transitory, but a permanent demand for productive labour, accompanied by a corresponding rise of wages and improvement in the condition of the poor; opportunities would also be afforded for the settlement of the peasantry, now superabundant in particular districts on waste lands which at present scarcely produce the means of sustenance, or are suited for human habitations. This change would be alike advantageous to the lands from whence the settlers are taken, and to those on which they may hereafter be fixed, and may facilitate the means of introducing a comfortable yeomanry and an improved agriculture in the more fertile districts. The severe pressure of the system of clearing farms and ejecting sub-tenants may thus be mitigated and the general state of the peasantry improved."

If considered by the Commissioners so expedient in 1836, how far more necessary must such a measure be now, when the potato failure, by destroying the "con-acre" system, has multiplied in a vast degree the number of labourers vainly seeking employment, and the Poor-law of last session, with its quarter-acre-clause, promises to put an end also to cottier holdings, and add further myriads to the same ranks.

It is vain to hope that these vast numbers can be absorbed at once by "private enterprise," however encouraged by loans, or stimulated by poor-rates. Railways and colonization will be equally inadequate to dispose of the surplus of labour in the market, even if they for a moment could be compared with the reclamation of the wastes, in point of productiveness, facilities of direct application, or general benefit.

But I appeal to yet stronger and more recent authority. Within the last few days I have been gratified by finding the views I am endeavouring to press upon you of the paramount importance of a large reclamation of the waste lands of Ireland, in preference to any other remedial measure, not merely supported, but strongly insisted on by the able and experienced compilers of the "Digest of Evidence taken by the Commission of Inquiry into the Occupation of Land in Ireland," just published by authority of the Earl of Devon.

They shew, from detailed evidence (p. 565), that "by a proper selection of waste land settlers," "a total number of half a million of labourers and cottier tenants may be abstracted from competition in the [now] over-stocked labour [and land] markets;" "and that this result can be obtained not only without any permanent loss, but with a very large permanent gain, increasing the value of the yearly gross produce of the 3,755,000 acres of waste land, which we know to be improvable, from £751,000 to £22,530,000!" while "the first three or four years' crops would return the cost requisite to bring about this change."

They present in a tabular form a comparative estimate of the cost and returns respectively of this and the two other alternative measures, which are most generally advocated for the improvement of the social and economical condition of Ireland—namely, emigration, and employment on draining and subsoiling the lands already under culture. And the result is, supposing each process to occupy a space of ten years, that the last would consume a capital of 84 millions, which might pay 15 per cent., but would produce little permanent relief, the labourers employed during that term being all thrown on the market again after its expiry; that the second scheme (that of colonization) would cost £20,000,000, paying only 3 per cent., to effect the same object of relieving the labour and land markets of 500,000 competitors; which might be attained by means of reclamation of the waste lands at' a cost of only ten millions^ with a certain net return of fen per cent!

So striking an exposition of the immense superiority of the measure I have long urged upon your Lordship over every other available resource, and proceeding from such high authority—being, in fact, the concentrated result of the labours of the Devon Commission for the last five years, extended through every comer of Ireland, and after an examination of hundreds of the most intelligent and experienced persons to be found in the island—must carry a weight with it which would render it the most unpardonable presumption in me to do more now than refer your Lordship to the able reasoning and details of evidence by which this important conclusion is worked out in the volume just issued. The authority from which it proceeds is such as must silence all the vulgar incredulity I have before alluded to, as to the benefits derivable from the reclamation of the Irish wastes, and bear down all opposition to the vigorous character of the measures that are necessary for realizing to Ireland (and indeed to the empire at large) those immense advantages.

I end by repeating the simple statement with which I commenced. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of the people of Ireland are asking for food in return for their labour. On the other, millions of Irish acres only require labour to produce food. Can there be a question that the first and most urgent of all measures demanding the attention of the Government and Legislature, must be one to apply the unemployed labour to the unemployed land?

I remain, my Lord,
Your very obedient servant,
G. Poulett Scrope.

Castle Combe, September 28, 1847.