1846 -The First Real Pangs of Hunger
Sir Robert Peel was reinstated as Prime Minister of England for a third time. He now went to Parliament on the 22nd January 1846 with a Queen’s speech, in which her Majesty’s first words with regard to Ireland were words of deep regret at the deliberate assassinations that had become so frequent in that country. The speech then went on to deplore the failure of the potato crop in the United Kingdom, the failure being greatest in Ireland. At the same time, the speech assured Parliament that “all precautions that could be adopted were adopted, for the purpose of alleviating the calamity.”
Naturally, Peel was keen to explain, at the very earliest opportunity, the reasons behind the end of his Ministry and the swiftness of his return to office. He had previously stated to Parliament that he wanted to take advantage of this current calamity in Ireland to introduce, among the people there, a taste for a better food item to support them … and thereby lower the possibilities that they will be left vulnerable to a recurrence of the great disaster they were currently suffering.
Sadly, at this time, the relief of suffering was never the sole concern of many politicians and administrators. In Parliament the members were divided over where the line should be drawn, and over what changes were desirable, s well as how they should be introduced. But, the prevalent belief that the famine had been ordained for some providential purpose underlined British thinking on the subject.
Peel put the potato blight in the foreground of his political strategy, believing that this was the object upon which he could best float his Free Trade policy, popularise his Government and himself. And, indeed, from the first night of the session until the resolutions on the Corn Laws were carried, the members of the Government showed the greatest anxiety to keep the terrible consequences of the potato failure before Parliament.
They took great pains not to exaggerate the crop failure, or its probable effects, while ensuring they gave a sense of importance to both areas. The Protectionist faction, however, declared all these things to be an exaggeration, even against the most clear evidence that had been given from every part of the country, by persons from every social rank and holding every shade of political opinion. One leading protectionist, Mr. Calhoun, declared – “We have famine in the newspapers, we have famine in the speeches of Cabinet Ministers, but we find abundance in the markets; the cry of famine is a pretext, but it is not the reason for the changes.” The latter part of this declaration was not at all a pretext, but it was used by ministers to strengthen their ‘Corn Law policy’.
Regaining office as Prime Minister in January 1846, Sir Robert Peel reminded parliament that hey now had two very important before them i.e.
1) the measures that must be adopted immediately in the face of the potato blight.
2) and the ultimate course to be pursued in relation to the importation of grain.
He said that the personal opinions he had held on the subject of Protectionism had undergone a dramatic change, which had been brought about because the claims made by protectionists, when the tariff was altered in 1842, were shown to be false. ‘The Free Traders in the face of this had their own watchword, which they used more frequently than any other, i.e. “cheap bread.“ The Premier, in the face of all this spoke, “I want, at the same time, to show that concurrently with the increase of importation, there has been an increase in the prices of the articles.” He went on to quote several of the Government contracts to prove this assertion, which was quite correct.
Despite all the criticism he had faced, thus far, Sir Robert Peel was happy that so few had died of starvation or disease since the potato blight had been identified. In a speech, made on the 22nd January 1846, he tried to allay the suspicions of his critics by telling them, that “nothing could be more base or dishonest” than to use the potato blight as a means of repealing the Corn Laws. Nevertheless, five days after this speech was made the great debate on the repeal of these laws began.
Peel’s party, The Conservatives, were totally opposed to any interference in market forces, which had led to his resignation in December. But, unknown to them, Peel had secretly arranged to purchase £100,000 of Indian Corn (Maize) from America in November 1845. He had hoped to relieve some of the distress being suffered by the people in Ireland, but Indian Corn is not the most efficient substitute for the potato because it was hard to mill and in Ireland there were few mills to grind the corn into meal. But, because there was no existing British trade in India Corn, it was not affected by the existing ‘Corn Laws’. Unfortunately maize was hard to digest, and people dependent on the potato could get no satisfaction from their hunger through this substitute, which was very unpopular at first. As the famine got worse, however, the popularity of Indian Corn rose, especially when the imports were of corn meal rather than a grain. It was a very generous gesture on Peel’s behalf and caused some indignation among his Party colleagues.
Now, in January 1846, Peel, at great length and very ably, repeated the arguments he had been putting forward since the previous November, in favour of taking the duty off everything that could be called human food. He even went as far as to propose the repeal of the duty on the importation of potatoes, in the hope that he could obtain sound seed from abroad. Speaking to Mr. Greene, the chairman of the Committee, he said, “Sir, I wish it were possible to take advantage of this calamity, for introducing among the people of Ireland the taste for a better and more certain provision for their support than that which they have heretofore cultivated.”
On the fifth night of the debate, Sir Robert rose again, and, in his speech, applied himself almost exclusively to the famine part of the question. He read many letters from persons in high position in Ireland, to prove to the House what was unfortunately but too well known in that country for many months, that the greater portion of the only food of four million people was destroyed. The old Tory party had, in the beginning, admitted, to a great extent, the failure of the potato crop in Ireland; but seeing the use the Peel Government were making of it, they seem to have agreed to maintain that the reports received were greatly and deliberately exaggerated. Lord George Bentinck, the coming leader of the Protectionists, said, that “in my opinion, which every day’s experience confirmed, the potato famine in Ireland was a gross delusion — a more gross delusion had never been practised upon the country by any Government.”
Mr. Stafford O’Brien, the member for North Northamptonshire, but connected by marriage with the county Clare, said he had just returned from Ireland and that he wanted to assure the House that there was no exaggeration about the failure of the potato crop there, but that it had nothing to do with the question of the Corn Laws. He accused the Government of introducing a new principle for a disaster which he hoped would be short lived, and of announcing that new principle without tracing out how the Corn Laws had contributed to the famine in Ireland. He also wanted to be shown how the total removal of those laws was likely to alleviate Ireland’s distress.
Meanwhile the government had acted to alleviate some of the distress, caused by the coming of the potato blight, through invoking traditional relief measures. In fact, a national state system of poor relief had been introduced into Ireland in 1838, after years of debate. Ireland’s poverty was seen by many in Britain as a threat to the nation’s prosperity unless a solution could be found. The solution would have to look at how Ireland’s widespread poverty was inextricably linked with that country’s over-population. The debate on Irish poverty had raised concern in England regarding the mounting costs and demoralising effects of the so called ‘Old poor Law.’
Initially, it was suggested that an extensive schedule of improvement schemes and emigration programmes should be introduced. But, any proposal to extend the amended ‘English Poor Law’ to Ireland were rejected because it was based on the ‘workhouse’ system. The government of the day sent George Nicholls, an ‘English Poor Law Commissioner’, to Ireland and advised him to limit his investigation into the relief of ‘destitution’ and not the relief of poverty, giving a report on the suitability of extending the workhouse system to Ireland. Nicholls supported the extension of the ‘Poor Law’ to Ireland and a bill, based on his report, was passed for Ireland in 1838. As a result, a system of poor relief was transposed from the wealthiest and most industrially advanced economy of Europe to one of the least industrially developed parts, with little attention being given to the local characteristics prevailing in the country.
In addition to the relief of destitution, the ‘Poor Law’ was regarded as playing a vital role in the transition of the Irish economy from one based on subsistence potato-growing and small holdings, to one based on wage labour and a more capitalised system of agriculture. It was the conviction of the Whig government in England that the workhouse system could play an important role in the transition period. At the same time, they hoped the system might also improve the character, habits, and social condition of the people.
Although the Irish Poor Law was closely modelled on the ‘new’ English Poor Law it differed in a number of key areas. Firstly, relief could only be administered within the confines of a workhouse, outdoor relief being expressly forbidden. Secondly, no ‘right’ to relief existed. Finally, a Law of Settlement, which had been an integral part of the English Poor Law since the seventeenth century, was not introduced in Ireland. From the outset, then, it was clear that Irish paupers were to be treated differently and, in fact, more harshly, than their counterparts in England. But, the new Poor Law, did not include any provision for periods of extraordinary distress, limiting relief, at all times, to that which could be provided within the confines of the workhouses. All in all, the Poor Law introduced only in 1838 was ill-prepared to meet the challenges which confronted it after 1845.
Peel’s strategy when introducing relief measures in 1845 was to co-operate with the Irish landowners, whom he hoped would take local responsibility for relief. Around 650 local committees were established by early 1846, which were largely dominated by the local gentry. These bodies were expected to supply the poor with affordable food and received state donations equal to the charitable subscriptions they raised. It was recognised that in some isolated areas such committees could not function, and sub-depots were authorised to distribute food to those in extreme want. The Central Commission in Dublin questioned the government’s reliance on the goodwill of landowners and complained that neither the public spirit nor their spending was adequate. The administrators preferred a compulsory and permanent mechanism for dealing with extreme destitution based on the Poor Law. This suggestion was vetoed by ministers. Peel insisted that relief measures remain temporary, that landowners retain considerable freedom in action, and that the state should provide only transitional aid.
When it came to providing relief the government placed the greatest burden on the ‘Board of Works.’ But, confusion existed from the very beginning, as it was intended that the Board organise not only permanent improvements such as land drainage and harbour construction, but also a system of relief works designed primarily to give employment and wages to the destitute.
Local landowners were expected to take the initiative and contribute to the expense. In practice very few took advantage of loans made available for the first category of works, and a concerted effort was made for the Board to take full responsibility. It was policy to grant 50% of the cost of road works and inadvertently encouraged this attitude, and even where landowners dominated the procedures they hoped the ban would never have to be repaid.
Ministers intended British Treasury control over relief finances would curb abuse, but they often relaxed the rules and accelerated distribution of food from the depots, and supply of employment on the public works, in response to civil disturbances. The relief measure of 1845-46, however, received considerable criticism in Britain, most of which was ideologically motivated and condemned the ‘indolent Irish’. Nonetheless, despite the criticism, Peel was very pleased that few people had died of starvation or disease. Furthermore, Maize was being widely consumed and the future looked quite bright for Ireland due, in part, to an exception being made to the principle of maintaining separation between the permanent and temporary relief regarding the treatment of fever victims.
Increasingly, the Poor Law played a significant role in providing a medical safety net in some of the poorest parts of the country. Each workhouse possessed its own infirmary and, since 1843, the ‘Poor Law Guardians’ had been given the authority to treat victims of fever who were poor but not necessarily destitute. Following the 1845 blight, boards of guardians were empowered either to acquire or to erect a separate building for the treatment of fever victims.
The impact of the blight on the numbers of workhouse inmates was gradual. In December 1845, the workhouse had contained just over 38,000 paupers, and by June 1846 had reached in excess of 51,000. Despite this increase the workhouses were still less than half-full. Overall, therefore, the Poor Law emerged from the first year of potato blight relatively unscathed although as the summer of 1846 progressed and as the system of temporary relief was being wound down, reports of even more widespread blight made a second year of extraordinary distress inevitable.
Early in 1846 the relief commissioners once again began to discuss ideas for relief works, employing men to do such jobs as building public roads or drainage schemes, or improving harbours. There was plenty of need for such improvements, but in the end the money provided went almost entirely to road building, which was easiest to organise.
Some landlords provided work on their estates, such as building towers or follies or enlarging their boundary walls. Other landlords were holding on to their resources for the future, because they feared that worse distress was on the way.
As we have seen, some relief schemes were run by the ‘Board of Works’. A County granted Board of Works aid would have to repay only half the grant over twenty years. This was called the ‘Half-Grant’ Scheme, but it did not work as it should have done, because of local greed. The landowners and ratepayers saw a chance to attract money to their counties, at no immediate cost to themselves, and applications for the Relief Schemes poured into the Board of Works. Many of these were from places which did not yet need help. By the end of May 1846, the exhausted and understaffed Board of Works had received applications of up £800,000 worth of works, and long delays were caused while they tried to sort them out.
The ordinary population had to wait for the relief works, which could not start without the Board’s permission. People saw their only hope of food being delayed and some rioting did take place. Even when the works began there were complaints of irregularities, because some committees gave work to people who didn’t really need it and ignored those who were in desperate need. Some people who were given tickets, which gave them a place on the works, sold them for profit to whoever could pay them most.
In the beginning wages were paid to the labourers by the day rather than by the amount of work done. Farmers who still needed work done on their farms complained that this made workers lazy because they would try to make the job last as long as possible. Rates of pay were higher than the usual labourer’s wage, and the 9 to 10 pence a day tempted farm workers to go to relief work instead. Farmers were worried for future crops if there was no one willing to plough and sow.
A shortage of currency brought delays in relief payments. Some died of starvation waiting on their pay. Some traders sold food on credit at exorbitant prices, to men waiting for their pay. Not surprisingly these profiteers, ‘Gombeen Men’, or money lenders, and shopkeepers becoming figures of hatred among the peasantry. The relief schemes were often not organised efficiently, but no one had ever had experience of an aid operation of this size before. If matters had improved, the schemes would have begun to function more effectively, as a useful stop gap before the new crop came in. But, in August 1846, all hope for a short-lived famine disappeared. The infected tubers from the previous year had been left in the fields and had re-infected the new crop, because the mild winter had allowed the spores to survive. The total yield of potatoes on this occasion was only enough to feed the population for just one month.