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Chapter XXX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2


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In consequence of the difficulty of getting impartiality combined with local information, the commissioners determined to unite in the inquiry "a native of Great Britain with a resident native of Ireland." They were very slow in their investigations, and complaints were made in parliament and by the public of the time and money consumed in the inquiry. In the early part of 1836 they made a second report, in which they gave an account of the various institutions that had been established for the relief of the poor, such as infirmaries, dispensaries, fever hospitals, lunatic asylums, foundling hospitals, houses of industry, the total charge of which amounted to about £205,000, of which £50,000 consisted of parliamentary grants, the remainder being derived from grand jury presentments, voluntary contributions, and other local sources. This second report, which added little or nothing to the knowledge of the public on the subject, and suggested no general plan for the relief of the poor, was by no means satisfactory to the public. Mr. Nicholls was then a member of the English poor law commission; and the state of the Irish poor being pressed upon his attention, he prepared for the consideration of government a series of suggestions, founded upon a general view of social requirements and upon his experience of the English poor law, coupled with the evidence appended to the Irish commissioners' first report. These suggestions were presented to lord John Russell, in January, 1836, about the same time as the commissioners' second report. In due time that body published their third report, containing the general results of their inquiry upon the condition of the people, which may be summed up as follows: - There is not the same division of labour which exists in Great Britain. The labouring class look to agriculture alone for support, whence the supply of agricultural labour greatly exceeds the demand for it, and small earnings and wide-spread misery are the consequences. It appeared that in Great Britain the agricultural families constituted little more than a fourth, whilst in Ireland they constituted about two-thirds of the whole - population y that there-were in Great Britain, in 1831, 1,055,982 agricultural labourers?-in Ireland, 1,131,715, although the cultivated land of Great Britain amounted to about M,250,000 acres, and that of Ireland only to about 14,600,000. So. that there were in Ireland about five agricultural labourers for every two that there were for the same quantity of land in Great Britain. It further appeared that the agricultural progress of Great Britain was more than four times that of Ireland; that agricultural wages varied from sixpence to one shilling a- day; that the average of the country is about eightpence-halfpenny; and that the earnings of the labourers come, on an average of the whole class, to from two shillings to two and sixpence a-week or thereabouts for the year round. Thus circumstanced, the commissioners observed," It is impossible for the able-bodied in general to provide against sickness or the temporary absence of employment or against old age, or the destitution of their widows and children in the contingent event of their own premature decease. A great portion of them are, it is said, insufficiently provided with the commonest necessaries of life. Their habitations are wretched, hovels, several of a family sleep together on straw, or upon the bare ground, sometimes with a blanket, sometimes even without so much to cover them; their food commonly consists of dry potatoes, and with these they are at times so scantily supplied, as to be obliged to stint themselves to one spare meal in the day. There are even instances of persons being driven by hunger to seek sustenance in wild herbs. They sometimes get a herring or a little milk, but they never get meat except at Christmas, Easter, and Shrovetide. Some go in search of employment to Great Britain during the harvest, others wander through Ireland with the same view. The wives and children of many are occasionally obliged to beg; but they do so reluctantly and with shame, and in general go to a distance from home, that they may not be known. Mendicity, too, is the sole resource of the aged and impotent of the poorer classes in general, when children or relatives are unable to support them. To it, therefore, crowds are driven for the means of existence, and the knowledge that such is the fact leads to an indiscriminate giving of alms, Tyhich encourages idleness, imposture, and general crime." Such is described as being the condition of the great body of the labouring classes in Ireland; "and with these facts before us," the commissioners say, "we cannot hesitate to state that we consider remedial measures requisite to ameliorate the condition of the Irish poor. What those measures should be is a question complicated, and involving considerations of the deepest importance to the whole body of the people, both in Ireland and Great Britain." The commissioners state that they "cannot estimate the number of persons out of work and in distress during thirty weeks of the year at less than 585,000, nor the number of persons dependent upon them at less than 1,800,000, making in the whole 2,385,000. This, therefore," it is added," is about the number for which it would be necessary to provide accommodation in workhouses, if all who required relief were there to be relieved; " and they consider it impossible to provide for such a multitude, or even to attempt it with safety. The expense of erecting and fitting up the necessary buildings would, they say, come to about £4,000,000; and, allowing for the maintenance of each person twopence-half- penny only a-day (that being the expense at the mendicity establishment of Dublin), the cost of supporting the whole 2,385,000 for thirty weeks would be something more than £5,000,000 a-year; whereas the gross rental of Ireland (exclusive of towns) is estimated at less than £10,000,000 a-year, the net income of the landlords at less than £6,000,000, and the public revenue is only about £4,000,000. They could not, therefore, recommend the present workhouse system of England as at all suited to Ireland. " With such feelings," the commissioners observe, " and considering the redundancy of labour which now exists in Ireland, how earnings are kept down by it, what misery is thus produced, and what insecurity of liberty, property, and life ensues, we are satisfied that enactments calculated to promote the improvement of the country, and so to extend the demand for free and profitable labour, should make essential parts of any law for ameliorating the condition of the poor. And for the same reasons, while we feel that relief should be provided for the impotent, we consider it due to the whole community, and to the labouring class in particular, that such of the able-bodied as may still be unable to find free and profitable employment in Ireland should be secured support only through emigration, or as preliminary to it. Those who desire to emigrate should be furnished with the means of doing so in safety, and with intermediate support, when they stand in need of it, at emigrants' depots. It is thus and thus only that the market of labour in Ireland can be relieved from the weight that is now upon it, or the labourer be raised from his present prostrate state."

Long quotations are then given from the several reports of the assistant commissioners, showing that the feelings of the suffering labourers in Ireland are also decidedly in favour of emigration. They do not desire workhouses, it is said, but they do desire a free passage to a colony, where they may have the means of living by their own industry. The commissioners then declared that, upon the best consideration they have been able to give to the whole subject, they think that a legal provision should be made and rates levied for the relief and support of curable as well as incurable lunatics, of idiots, epileptic persons, cripples, deaf and dumb, and blind poor, and all who labour under permanent bodily infirmities; such relief and support to be afforded within the walls of public institutions; also for the relief of the sick poor in hospitals and infirmaries, and convalescent establishments; or by extern attendance, and a supply of food as well as medicine, where the persons to be relieved are not in a state to be removed from home; also for the purpose of emigration, for the support of penitentiaries - to which vagrants may be sent - and for the maintenance of deserted children; also towards the relief of aged and infirm persons, of orphans, of helpless widows, and young children, of the families of sick persons, and of casual destitution.

This report was not signed by all the commissioners. Three of them set forth their reasons, in thirteen propositions, for dissenting from the principle of the voluntary system, as recommended by the report. These were Dr. Vignoles, Mr. Napier, and lord Killeen. There was, besides, a document published by another commissioner, Mr. Bicheno, expressing his peculiar views, the concluding paragraph of which indicates the spirit of his remarks; it is as follows: - "After all the assistance that can be extended to Ireland by good laws, and every encouragement afforded to the poor by temporary employment of a public nature, and every assistance that emigration and other modes of relief can yield, her real improvement must spring from herself, her own inhabitants, and her own indigenous institutions, irrespective of legislation and English interference. It must be of a moral nature: the improvement of the high and the low, the rich and the poor. Without this, her tenantry will be still wretched, and her landlords will command no respect; with it, a new face will be given to the whole people." Another paper, entitled " Remarks on the Third Report of the Irish Poor Inquiry Commissioners," was submitted to government shortly after the delivery of that report. It was dated in July, 1836, and was drawn up by George Cornewall Lewis, Esq., who had been one of the assistant commissioners for prosecuting the inquiry in Ireland. The objections to the system, or rather the several systems of relief, recommended by the commissioners, are stated by Mr. Lewis with great force and clearness; and he comes to conclusions on the whole question very similar to those contained in the " Suggestions " which had been submitted by Mr. Nicholls, in the month of January preceding. He proposed to apply the principle of the amended English poor law to Ireland, including the workhouse,' with regard to the rejection of which by the commissioners he remarks, "As the danger of introducing a poor law into Ireland is confessedly great, I can conceive no reason for not taking every possible security against its abuse. Now, if anything has been proved more decisively than another, by any operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act in England, it is that the workhouse is an all-sufficient test of destitution, and that it is the only test; that it succeeds as a mode of relief, and that all other modes fail. Why, therefore, this tried guarantee against poor law abuses is not to be employed, when abuses are, under the best system, almost inevitable, it seems difficult to understand. If such a safeguard were to be dispensed with anywhere, it would be far less dangerous to dispense with it in England than in Ireland."

At the opening of the session of 1836, as we have seen, the king stated in his speech that a further report of the commission of inquiry into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland would be speedily laid before parliament. " You will approach this subject," he said, " with the caution due to its importance and difficulty; and the experience of the salutary effect produced by the act for the amendment of the laws relating to the poor in England and Wales may in many respects assist your deliberations." On the 9th of February Sir Richard Musgrave moved for leave to bring in a bill for the relief of the poor in Ireland in certain cases, stating that he himself lived in an atmosphere of misery, and being compelled to witness it daily, he was determined to pursue the subject, to see whether any and what relief could be procured from parliament. A few days later another motion was made by the member for Stroud for leave to introduce a bill for the relief and employment of the poor of Ireland; and on the 3rd of March a bill was submitted by Mr. Smith O'Brien, framed upon the principles of local administration by bodies representing the ratepayers, and a general central supervision and control on the part of a body named by the government, and responsible to parliament. On the 4th of May Mr. Poulett Scrope, a gentleman who had given great attention to questions connected with the poor and the working classes, moved a series of resolutions affirming the necessity for some provision for the relief of the Irish poor. The seventh earl of Carlisle, who was afterwards lord-lieutenant of Ireland, was then chief secretary; and in commenting upon those resolutions in the house of commons, he admitted "that the hideous nature of the evils which prevailed amongst the poorer classes in Ireland called earnestly for redress, and he thought no duty more urgent on the government and on parliament than to devise a remedy for them." On the 9th of June following, on the motion for postponing the consideration of Sir Richard Musgrave's bill, lord Morpeth again assured the house that the subject was under the immediate consideration of government, and that he was not without hope of their being enabled to introduce some preparatory measure in the present session; but, at all events, they would take the first opportunity in the next session of introducing what he hoped to be a complete and satisfactory measure. Nothing, however, was done during the session, the government seeming to be puzzled to know what to do, with such conflicting testimony on a subject of enormous difficulty.

In order to get, if possible, more reliable information and a clue out of the labyrinth, they gave directions to Mr. Nicholls to proceed to Ireland, taking with him the reports of the commissioners of inquiry, and there to examine how far it might be judicious or practicable to offer relief to whole classes of the poor; whether of the sick, the infirm, or orphan children; whether such relief might not have the effect of promoting imposture without destroying mendicity; whether the condition of the great bulk of the poorer classes would be improved by such a measure whether any kind of workhouse could be established which should not give its inmates a superior degree of comfort to the common lot of the independent labourer; whether the restraint of a workhouse would be an effectual check to applicants for admission; and whether, if the system were once established, the inmates would not resist by force the restraints which would be necessary. He was further to inquire by what machinery the funds necessary for carrying out a poor-law system could be best raised and expended. ' He was dispensed from inquiring as to the extent and the occasional severity of the destitution, though he properly questioned the estimate of 2,385,000 as being excessive, and it was no doubt a great exaggeration. On this point, Mr. Nicholls thought it enough to state at the end of his mission that the misery prevalent among the labouring classes in Ireland appeared to be " of a nature and intensity calculated to produce great demoralisation and danger." His first report was delivered on the 15th of November, the same year. His attention had been particularly directed to the south and west, "everywhere examining and inquiring as to the condition of the people, their character and wants; and endeavouring to ascertain whether, and how far, the system of relief established in England was applicable to the present state of Ireland." The route from Cork round by the western coast, and ending at Armagh, was deemed most eligible, because the inhabitants of the manufacturing and commercial districts of the north and east more nearly resembled the English than those of the southern and western parts of Ireland; and if the English system should be found applicable to the latter, there could be no doubt of its applicability to the others. There could scarcely be selected a more competent person to conduct this inquiry, and it is satisfactory to remark that his testimony fully bears out the statements made in former parts of this history as to the growing Improvement of Ireland. His investigations and inquiries led him to this conviction. It was impossible, he said, to pass through the country without being struck with the evidence of increasing wealth everywhere apparent. Great as had been the improvement in England during the same period, he believed that in Ireland it had been equal. The! increase of capital was steadily progressive. The great obstacles to its more general application to the improvement of the country were the excessive subdivision of land, and the dependence of the people for subsistence upon the possession of a plot of potato-ground. One of the most striking circumstances resulting from the want of employment was the prevalence of mendicancy, with the falsehood and fraud which formed part of the profession, and which spread its contagion among the lower orders. " A mass of filth, nakedness, and squalor was thus kept» moving about the country, entering every house, addressing itself to every eye, and soliciting from every hand; and much of the filth and indolence observable in the cabins, clothing, and general conduct of the peasantry may, I think, be traced to this source, and I doubt even if those above the class of labourers altogether escape the taint. Mendicancy and filth have become too common to be disgraceful."

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Pictures for Chapter XXX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

Mr. Brotherton
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Cottages of the peasantry
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View of Armagh
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