Letters to Lord John Russell on the Further Measures for the Social Amelioration of Ireland/Letter 5

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LETTER V.


Encumbered Estates Bill—Prospects of the Winter—In some districts, starvation or relief from the Treasury the only alternatives—Conditions of the latter—Repayment in full, and productiveemployment of able-bodied—Authorities in favour of Waste Land Bill—Devon Commission—Commissary-General Hewitson—The Irish must have leave to cultivate Ireland for themselves—Defects of Poor Law—Conclusion.


My Lord,

I have spoken of a measure for facilitating the sale of entailed and encumbered estates in Ireland as of scarcely less pressing importance than that for the reclamation of the wastes, or an improved law of land tenure. It would he superfluous, however, to suggest arguments in support of this opinion to your Lordship, by whom the task was last year entrusted to the Lord Chancellor of framing a bill for this purpose, and whom necessity alone, I believe, compelled reluctantly to abandon it for the time, to be re-introduced, no doubt, on the earliest opportunity.

It is, indeed, self-evident that the improvement of the productive capacities of her soil, which alone can enable Ireland to emerge from her present difficulties, cannot be generally, or even largely, carried into effect, so long as the bulk of her estates are bound in a condition of hopeless paralysis by the net-work of legal settlements, trusts, and liabilities, which now incapacitate their nominal owners from either undertaking improvements themselves, or offering such terms as may induce other parties to effect them.

Instead, therefore, of dwelling on this thoroughly recognized necessity, I will avail myself of probably the last letter I shall presume to address to you on the wants of Ireland, to say a few words in reference to her prospects for the coming winter.

It has pleased the Almighty (for which we have recently offered up our thanksgivings at your Lordship's instance) to allow the Irish people to gather in an abundant harvest. It remains for you to determine whether that people (for whom, no doubt, the bounty was intended by Providence) are to be preserved thereby from a repetition of the horrible sufferings of last year; or that it shall merely go to save the bankrupt landlords of that country for one year longer from the necessity of compounding with their creditors, while their tenants and poor are left to starve (as so many starved last year), or are rescued from starvation only by a demoralizing mode of relief from the national exchequer.

It is true the Poor-law of last session professes to enact that the destitution of any district shall in future be relieved at the cost of its property. But will you take the necessary precautions to ensure the practical working of that principle? If that be your determination, my Lord (and I do not scruple to say that this country at least expects it of you), then allow me to suggest that not a moment should be lost in providing the means of fulfilling the engagements contracted by you with the people of both Ireland and England in the new Poor-law.

There are many districts in the south and west of Ireland where, if no such precautions are taken, that law will become a dead letter, nay, worse, a delusion and a fraud—long before the winter is over, from the impossibility of collecting rates, perhaps even of finding property to seize for them in the possession of the occupying tenantry, who are alone liable in the first instance for the whole. The crops, at this moment filling their haggards, will have been sold, or seized and removed, for rent or arrears of rent. The tenants will in many cases have barely enough left to live <m and to seed their land with. To take that would only add them to the list of paupers or claimants for relief. What will remain, but the same alternatives which last year presented themselves to your option, namely, either to allow the poor to starve, or to undertake to relieve them by public money?

That any should be allowed to starve, as so many starved last year, in spite of the millions sent over from this country to prevent such a calamity, I hold to be impossible. After the ample warning which the occurrences of the past two years have afforded to your government of the necessity of providing against such a contingency, the actual' starvation of any number of the citizens of a civilused and wealthy community like this—and after a plentiful harvest too—would be a circumstance too disgraceful to our institutions, and the statesmen who administer them, to be contemplated beforehand as possible. Moreover, the executive, over which you preside, is now, by the recent change in the law, rendered directly responsible for preventing any such frightful contingency. If the Board of Guardians of any Union fail to take all the necessary steps for relieving its destitute poor, the Poor-law Commission, now a branch of the Executive, is authorized by the law (and consequently is bound in duty) to dismiss that Board summarily, and appoint its own paid officers to act in its place. If then, hereafter, inquests are held on persons who may have died of starvation through denial of relief, it will no longer be an indecent absurdity, or a mere brutum fulmen should the verdict of the jury declare the Executive guilty of their deaths I The duty which, under the clause I allude to, devolves upon the Poor-law Commission, must extend not merely to doing what can be done on the spur of the moment towards the relief of the poor when obliged to undertake it by the neglect of a Board of Guardians, but also to the exercise of foresight and judgment as to the probability of such an occurrence, and to the making due preparations against it. If, as every one knows to be the fact, there are parts of Ireland where it would be absurd to expect that sufficient rates will or can be collected by the Guardians, in the coarse of the coming winter and spring, to feed the destitute portion of their population, it becomes the imperative duty of the Commission—that is, of the Government—to provide the means for supplementing the deficiency. And should they neglect this duty, they cannot be absolved from responsibility for the awful consequences that must ensue!

I assume then as certain, that provision will be made for this purpose; and that can only be done by large advances from the national treasury. But these, it is equally certain, will not be tolerated by the guardians of the public purse, except on two conditions, both of which were neglected last year, namely:—

1. That the repayment of these advances to Irish Unions should be entire, certain and not too long delayed—an available lien being taken on the land itself, not merely on the rates leviable or proposed to be levied in future years from it.

2. That the expenditure should be as far as possible productive—relief being afforded to the able-bodied only in the shape of useful and remunerative employment.

Now these indispensable postulates cannot, it appears to me, be practically carried out, without new powers conferred by the Legislature on the Government—in the first place to advance the funds required, in the next to take a lien on the property liable to the burden of repayment, and, lastly, to carry forward, either through the Poor-law Commission or Guardians, the Board of Works, or other agency, the productive employment of the able-bodied poor requiring relief.

This consideration brings me to the conclusion that not a day ought to be lost in obtaining from Parliament these necessary powers. Whether they should take the form of such a measure as I have long urged upon you for employing the waste labour of Ireland in reclaiming and rendering marketable and cultivable her waste land, may be a question with some. For myself, I can see no resource at all comparable to this, whether in direct and universal applicability to the objects in view, in certainty of remunerative return, in the moderate amount of outlay required, or in its adaptation to the feelings, wants, and social circumstances of the population; and I am borne out in this favourable view of its superior advantages, by the unanswerable mass of evidence condensed in the Digest of the Devon Commission, and the high authority of the strongly expressed opinions of its authors. I need only refer all who entertain doubts on this question to that valuable volume now in circulation, and which cannot be too generally or deeply studied by those who wish to form a sound judgment as to the means of extricating Ireland from the imminent peril that involves her, and with her the empire at large.

I will appeal to but one more authority before I conclude—that of perhaps the most intelligent of the officers employed by you in superintending the distribution of relief last year throughout Ireland, and whose opportunities of forming correct views on the subject have been superior to those of almost any other individual;— I mean Commissary-General Hewitson.

In one of his letters printed in the Commissariat Correspondence (p. 452) he says,—

"The transition from potatoes to grain requires tillage in the proportion of three to one. It is useless then to talk of emigration, when so much extra labour is indispensable to supply the extra food."

"Let that labour be first applied, and it will be seen whether there is any surplus population. If the waste lands are taken into cultivation, and industrious habits established, it is very doubtful whether there will be any surplus population, or even whether it would be equal to the demand."

"Providence has given everything needful, and nothing is wanted but industry to apply it."

Yes I there are two things more wanted—namely, that Irish industry should have leave to apply itself to the improvement of the Irish soil, and be assured of reaping the undivided fruits of such application!

This is the double object of the two measures I have especially urged upon your Lordship, as of pressing expediency—the compulsory purchase and partition of the waste lands, and a law, establishing a just system of tenant right.

Your Lordship occupies a position of perhaps unexampled power, enabling you to defy the opposition which any body of short-sighted landed proprietors may yet threaten to such proposals. These measures have, indeed, been delayed too long already, out of deference to that opposition; and much have they to answer for, who have so long stood in the gap between a starving people and their natural right to obtain food, if possible, by the cultivation of their native soil. Once announce your resolution to concede this right to the Irish people, and all interested opposition must give way.

The people will be with you in a body. The people, not of Ireland only, but of Britain equally—for we know that unless the Irish are placed in a condition to maintain themselves, upon us will fall the burden of their maintenance.

We know also that to improve the condition of the Irish millions would be to open a market to the products of English industry, such as no other country can furnish.

True it is that Ireland is often reckoned "a bore" on this side the Channel, and some few may be heard to say, "Leave her to herself; we have given her a poor-law; let it work its way, and sooner or later all will come right." Last year's experience, however, should have taught them the danger of acting on such a notion. Britain is wedded for good or ill to Ireland, and must share her fate, and even her afflictions. We cannot escape from this. She is a partner in the firm, whose prosperity or ruin must involve our own.

I am quite as sanguine as any one of the ultimate benefits which Ireland must derive from the new Poor-law (which indeed are already in many parts of the island, developing themselves precisely in the manner anticipated by the advocates of the measure). But I must end as I began, by declaring that to expect from the Poor-law alone, unaccompanied by other vigorous measures of the character I have pointed out in these letters, the cure of such a complicated amount of mischiefs of long-standing as those under which Ireland now groans, and that at a time when the remedy has been delayed until the failure of the staple food of the people has aggravated tenfold the difficulties of her position, would be a kind of moonstruck madness, of which, as one of the earliest and most persevering advocates of that measure, I am anxious to disown the imputation.

The law indeed, as it passed, contains several defects (against which, as your Lordship knows, I strongly, but in vain, remonstrated), and which must seriously interfere with its successful operation. One, the famous quarter-acre clause, which directly aims at making the law of relief an instrument for clearing estates of the smaller landholders, and thus still further complicates the difficulties of the crisis suddenly dissevering from the occupation of the land (their habitual means of existence) thousands and tens of thousands who in an extraordinary time of famine may require assistance, but for whom, as mere labourers in ordinary times there is not, nor is there likely to be, any demand. Another fault is the denial of all power to the Boards of Guardians to employ in useful and reproductive out-door work, whether on Union farms, or waste lands, or other public works, any of the able-bodied poor whom they are nevertheless compelled to maintain out of doors in unproductive and demoralizing idleness. Again, the collection of the entire Poor-rate from the occupiers, however poor themselves, in the first instance, leaving it to them, to recover a portion or the whole of it, if they can, from their immediate landlords, to whom they often owe a hopeless arrear of impossible rent, is a third error in the law which threatens to be fatal to its. success.

These defects I see with pleasure are beginning to be recognized, as they could not fail to be, in the practical working of the measure on the spot[1] And their removal will, I trust, be among the earliest of your Lordship's recommendations to Parliament at its meeting, which it seems to me cannot be much longer postponed.

Oh, that I may have the intense gratification of hearing your Lordship on that occasion announce your determination to open the soil of Ireland to the industry of the Irish people, by a series of such vigorous measures as shall be really equal to the emergency! We have had enough of professions of good will—more than enough of exhortations to all classes to fulfil their reciprocal duties. The day is past for common places of this kind to be of any service. True it is that Parliament cannot enrich or feed a people. But it can pass laws enabling a people to feed and enrich themselves! The law, as it stands, forbids the people of Ireland from doing sol Make the law to accord with the first principles of economical policy and natural right, with that which scripture and reason both proclaim to be the will of God.

I give you two simple receipts for the worst ills of Ireland. Is her population redundant? Spread the surplus over her wastes. Is her cultivation wretched, and are her landholders deficient in industry? Give them the unfailing motive to industry—the right to enjoy what they may produce. Then will you see Ireland arise from her present prostration, and take her place as the right arm of Britain, instead of remaining, as at present, her plague-spot and her opprobrium— a threatening source of deadly peril to the safety and integrity of her Empire. I remain, my Lord,

Your very obedient humble servant,
G. Poulett Scrope.

London, Oct. 26.


  1. As one instance among others I annex the following Resolutions agreed to by the Guardians of the Bantry Union, on the 26th September last:—

    That by the enactment of last session of Parliament, the principle of gratuitous relief being admitted as applicable to the circumstances of Ireland, it is much to be feared that its working may be attended with very demoralizing effects, unless the powers of the Board of Guardians are otherwise extended.

    That no project seems more likely to ward off these consequences than the extension of the 35th section of the Act 1st and 2d of Victoria, chap. 56, which provides, that not more than twelve acres of land, imperial measure, should he attached to each workhouse.

    "That the results to be obtained from such may be thus briefly summed up:—

    The rendering of each workhouse, under the 1st and 2d of Victoria, chap. 56, a reproductive establishment.

    "The advancement of agricultural knowledge in each Union, the Board of Guardians being empowered to employ an intelligent agriculturist to superintend the management of any lands that may thus be attached to each workhouse.

    "The raising up of a class who might eventually prove useful members of society, either as tenants or intelligent labourers, instead of remaining through life a burden on the country.

    "The rendering each workhouse less dependent on the collection of the rates for its maintenance.

    "The increase of the agricultural productions of the country, thus diminishing the excessive ratio of the pauperism to the valuation of Ireland.

    "The power of assisting emigration given by the Poor-law Extension Act may be thus wisely and providentially made use of; as the workhouse could educate a class, so as to fit them to emigrate with advantage to themselves and profit to the country they may locate themselves in.

    "The Legislature might thus extensively reclaim, the waste lands of Ireland through the agency of the Poor-law.

    That the foregoing resolutions be printed, and a copy sent to each Board of Guardians in Ireland, with a hope that, concurring in the views thus laid before them, they may assist in enforcing them on the attention of the Legislature.

    ARTHUR HUTCHINS, Chairman.