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Accession of Queen Victoria page 4

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The visitors found that the condition of the peasantry and small farmers in Belgium presented a striking contrast to those of Ireland. In his report, Mr. Nicholls said: - "Small farms of from five to ten acres abound in many parts of Belgium, closely resembling the small holdings in Ireland; but the Irish cultivator is without the comforts and conveniences of civilised life, whilst the Belgian peasant-farmer enjoys a large portion of both. The houses of the small cultivators in Belgium are generally substantial, with a sleeping-room in the attic, and closets for beds connected with the lower apartment, a dairy, a store for the grain, an oven, a cattle-stall, piggery, and poultry-loft. There are generally decent furniture and sufficient bedding, and, although the scrupulous cleanliness of the Dutch may not be everywhere observable, an air of comfort and propriety pervades the whole establishment. In the cow-house, the dung and urine are preserved in the tank, the ditches are scoured, the dry leaves, potato- tops, and offal of every kind are collected for manure, and heaps of compost are in course of preparation. The premises are kept in compact order, and a careful attention to economy is everywhere apparent. The family are decently clad, none are ragged or slovenly, although their dress may be of the coarsest material. The men universally wear the blouse, and wooden shoes are in common use by both sexes. Their diet consists chiefly of rye bread, milk, and potatoes. The contrast of what is here described with the state of the same class of persons in Ireland is very marked. Yet the productive powers of the soil in Belgium are certainly inferior to the general soil of Ireland, and the climate does not appear to be superior. To the soil and the climate, therefore, the Belgian does not owe his superiority in comfort and position over the Irish cultivator. The difference is rather owing to the greater industry, economy, and forethought of the people."

The bill was read a first time in the Lords on the 1st of May. Many of the peers, whose estates were heavily encumbered, were alarmed at the threatened imposition of a poor-rate, which might swallow up a large portion of their incomes. Those who were opposed to a poor law on economic principles, appealed to their lordships' fears, and excited a determined opposition against the measure. On the 21st of May there was a stormy debate of nine hours' duration. Lord Melbourne moved the second reading in a judicious speech, in which he skilfully employed the best arguments in favour of a legal provision for the poor, stating that this measure was, in fact, but the extension to Ireland of the English Act of 1834, with such alterations as were adopted to the peculiar circumstances of that country. It would suppress mendicancy, and would abate agrarian violence, while relieving the destitute in a way that would not paralyse the feeling of energy and self- reliance. Among the. most violent opponents of the measure was Lord Lyndhurst, who declared that it would lead to a dissolution of the union. The Duke of Wellington, on the contrary, contended that the bill, if amended in committee, would improve the social relations of the people of Ireland, and would induce the gentry to pay some attention to their properties, and to the occupiers and labourers on their estates. He objected, however, to a law of settlement as leading to unbounded litigation and expense. Owing chiefly to the support of the Duke, the second reading was carried by a majority of 149 to 20. On the motion that the bill be committed, on the 28th of May, a scene of confusion and violence was presented, surpassing anything that could have been expected in such a dignified assembly. The Irish peers especially were in a state of extreme excitement. The discussion was adjourned to the 31st, and, after a debate of eight hours, the clause embodying the principle of the bill was adopted by a majority of 107 to 41. The bill was considered in committee on the 7th, 21st, 22nd, and 26th of June, and was read a third time on the 6th of July. It had now passed the Lords, altered, and in some respects improved; although, in the opinion of its author, the charge upon electoral divisions approximated too nearly to settlement to be quite satisfactory. It was not, however, till the 27th of July that the bill was ready for the royal assent, which was given on the 31st, and thus a law was at length established making provision for the systematic and efficient relief of destitution in Ireland.

Armed with their Act of Parliament, the Poor Law Commissioners who had been appointed to carry it out, hastened to Ireland for the purpose of forming unions, providing workhouses, and making all the necessary arrangements. Mr. Nicholls was accompanied by four Assistant Commissioners, Mr. Gulson, Mr. Earle, Mr. Hawley, and Mr. Voules. They assembled in Dublin on the 9th of October, where they were joined by four Irish Commissioners, namely, Mr. Clements, Mr. Hancock, Mr. O'Donoghue, and Dr. Phelan. The erection of workhouses was proceeded with without loss of time. Reports of the progress made were annually published, and in May, 1842, the whole of Ireland had been formed into 130 unions; all the workhouses were either built or in progress of building, and eighty-one had been declared fit for the reception of the destitute poor. Mr. Nicholls left Ireland in 1842, his functions being delegated to a board consisting of Mr. Gulson and Mr. Power. It was a most providential circumstance that the system had been brought into working order before the potato failure of 1846, as it contributed materially to mitigate the horrors of the famine.

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