Tuesday, 10 April 2018

170th Anniversary of Kennington Common meeting 10 April 1848

The National Charter Association (NCA) Executive, its funds depleted, had little control over the events in early March and found itself having to improvise to keep up with the popular mood. On 18 March, it announced that the National Petition would be presented to Parliament on 10 April, a month earlier than it originally intended. This left the Convention, already called for 4 April, less than a week to arrange for its submission. This was very different from 1839 when there was four months between the opening of the Convention and submitting the Petition and three weeks in 1842 when the NCA had an effective regional and national structure. O’Connor’s focus had already changed with his responsibilities as an MP and the Land Plan now taking up the bulk of his time resulting in his notable absence from all but one meeting outside London—at Oldham Edge and then he arrived late and left early.[1] Chartist rhetoric of varying hues proliferated during March and early April and talk of violence took on a greater resonance in the wake of the events in Paris but both were froth and melodrama lacking the insurrectionary substance of similar talk in 1839 and 1842. They did, however, provide justification for the massive retaliatory over-reaction of government on 10 April and after.

The Convention now became the key to success. Could it provide central co-ordination and leadership? In short, no. The NEC Executive may have seen it as the high point of constitutional protest but it was unclear whether they hoped to trigger a disturbance that would lead Chartists in the provinces to rise in support. [2] Forty-nine delegates met in London on 4 April. [3] Much of 4 April and the morning of 5 April were given over to hearing reports from the delegates on the state of Chartism in their localities. The two sessions on 6 April were concerned with how the movement should react if the Petition was rejected. Some delegates like G. W. M. Reynolds and William Cuffay[4] were bellicose at least in their rhetoric proposing on 6 April that the Convention, in the event of the rejection of the Petition, ‘should declare its sitting permanent and declare the Charter the law of the land.’ This, they suggested, would provide clear direction for extra-parliamentary pressure and allow the Convention to retain the initiative as the agitation intensified. Most delegates were more moderate in tone and after a heated debate, the relatively moderate programme agreed by the NCA Executive was passed unanimously. If the Petition were rejected, on 5 April the Convention would address a memorial to the Queen. In the interim, the Convention was to be dissolved. This was to be followed by widespread agitation throughout the country leading to the formation of a more fully representative Convention or, taking their lead from events in France, a National Assembly.

‘1st – That in the event of the National Petition being rejected by the House of Commons, this Convention prepare a National Memorial to the Queen to dissolve the present Parliament, and call to her council such ministers only as will make the People’s Charter a cabinet measure.

‘2nd – That this Convention agree to the convocation of a National Assembly, to consist of delegates appointed at public meetings, to present the National Memorial to the Queen, and to continue permanently sitting until the Charter is the law of the land.

‘3rd – That this Convention call upon the country to hold simultaneous meetings on Good Friday, April 21st, for the purpose of adopting the National Memorial, and electing delegates to the National Assembly.

‘4th – That the National Assembly meet in London on April 24th.

‘5th – That the present Convention shall continue its sittings until the meeting of the National Assembly.’ [5]

Parallel to the Convention, there were a series of meetings, at which some delegates spoke, that took a more radical stance. The Fraternal Democrats, for instance, met the evening of 4 April with Ernest Jones in the chair and Harney proposing a resolution calling for the ‘people of Great Britain and Ireland to take other and efficient means to enforce compliance with their just demands.’ [6]

kennington 1

The authorities were undoubtedly nervous, concerned to prevent London sliding into revolution as had already occurred in Paris. There were heightened expectations on both sides throughout the country with reports of Chartists arming and drilling on the moors in anticipation of the Petition’s rejection. The Convention arranged to present the Petition, which O’Connor hoped would contain five million signatures, to Parliament on 10 April. The plan, largely a decision by Reynolds with the outcomes of the meeting of 6 March in mind, was to hold a large demonstration at Kennington Commons south of the river after which the Petition would be taken in procession across Westminster Bridge to the House of Commons, something Lord John Russell was initially prepared to allow. [7] He was, however, persuaded by ‘a friend of mine, of great experience and acknowledged sagacity’ to prevent the ‘expected crowd from crossing the bridges’. [8] The Chartist decision to move south of the river made the authorities’ task on 10 April far easier for as long as they could hold the bridges, they could contain the demonstration.

Public opinion was firmly behind the Whigs and they exploited this to the full. The Crown and Government Security Bill was rushed through Parliament introducing a new charge of felonious sedition, a charge that extended to ‘open and advised speaking’. [9] Seventeenth century legislation against ‘tumultuous petitioning’ was revived to prevent any mass procession through the streets. Strong precautionary measures were taken by the authorities for whom the Chartist threat was very real and on 8 April, the Queen travelled with the Court to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The government considered banning the meeting but recognised that this would probably be counter-productive—the banning of the reform banquet in Paris had provoked revolution. On 3 April, magistrates were told to swear in special constables and Sir Charles Rowan and Sir Richard Mayne, the Commissioners of Police, asked to draw up a plan for dealing with the meeting and demonstration. On 6 April, the government banned the procession and took massive precautions to prevent Chartists crossing the river.[10] The Convention, however, was in no mood to back down and when it debated the proclamation the following day a motion that it should go ahead with its public meeting ‘notwithstanding the foolish proclamation of the Government’ was carried unanimously. The plans for the meeting and for escorting the Petition to the House of Commons was finalised by the Convention on Saturday 8 April and then adjourned until 8.00 am on 10 April.

Kennington 2

Government preparations were extensive, preparations for a full-scale insurrection that was never the Chartists’ intention. Over 4,000 police were positioned on the London bridges and in Kennington and Westminster. Over 3,000 troops were moved to the capital and its garrison was effectively doubled though they were deliberately kept in reserve so not to antagonise protestors. Twelve guns were brought from Woolwich. On the morning of 10 April, an additional 450 troops and two additional guns were dispatched from Gosport. 85,000 special constables, including William Gladstone and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, were sworn in--some were workmen enrolled to defend their places of work and possibly to prevent them attending the meeting—and 1,231 pensioners were mobilised. [11] Public buildings, especially the Bank of England, were barricaded and protected by armed employees. A letter cited by Alexander Bain, a civil servant, explained the preparations:

In our office and all the other offices of Government, the windows of the ground floors were fitted with iron bars running up and down, like a lunatic asylum; there were, besides, barricades of deal boxes full of papers built up at each window to be a protection to the people within while firing out at the mob through narrow openings between the sides of the boxes. Each man in the office mustered between eight and nine in the morning, and had a musket given to him with twenty rounds of ball cartridge in a belt going round the middle...On the Friday after, all the officials of all the offices mustered in the Treasury Room and Lord John Russell gave us a speech of thanks for our readiness to take up arms on the occasion.[12]

The authorities may have been prepared, temporarily, to abdicate control of the streets to the Chartists but, learning from what had happened in Paris, they were unwilling to allow Chartists to occupy any buildings that might act as a centre for prolonged insurrection.[13] What was important about this extensive mobilisation was that the middle-classes allied itself to the ruling classes against the threat to property posed by a potential working-class rebellion. The Nonconformist correctly saw this as ‘a counter-demonstration on the part of the middle classes.’ [14]

Initially the Convention was not bowed by this massive response informing Grey that they were still resolved that the Petition would be carried to Parliament by a procession from Kennington Common. The issue was whether the meeting should proceed. Bronterre O’Brien had grave doubts recognising the determination of the government but also the likely effect on public opinion if the meeting went ahead and resigned as a delegate on 9 April. [15] Harney called for the meeting and procession to be abandoned at secret gatherings with delegates on 8 and 9 April. McGrath, as chairman of the Convention, sought a compromise with the Commissioners of Police suggesting that the procession could cross Blackfriars Bridge and move along Holborn and Oxford Street to Edgware Road while the Petition would be sent to Westminster, unaccompanied by the crowd, from Regent’s Circus. McGrath and Doyle, the Secretary, was informed by Mayne at 8.30 am on 10 April that his proposal had been rejected. The movement had reached an impasse.[16]

Kennington 3

The Convention finally met at 9.00 am when O’Connor ‘labouring’ he said, ‘under severe illness’ and concerned that ’preparations had been made for shooting…on the leaders of the movement’, urged the quiet dispersal of the meeting at Kennington and abandoning the procession but other delegates disputed this. [17] The government may have banned the procession but it was prepared to accept the right of public assembly; in fact, it had little option with crowds already streaming across the river from Russell Square, Clerkenwell Green and Finsbury Square and Stepney Green. There are various estimates of the numbers present. O’Connor optimistically said three quarters of a million people, Gammage[18] more accurately put the number between 150,000 and 170,000 while Russell thought between 12,000 and 15,000. Shortly after arriving at Kennington, O’Connor and McGrath agreed with Sir Richard Mayne that the Petition would be taken to Parliament in a fleet of hansom cabs. O’Connor was at the Home Office at 1 pm where he informed Grey that the Kennington Common meeting had unanimously agreed to give up the procession and disperse quietly though this was unpopular with large sections of the crowd and many blamed O’Connor personally for the decision:

You will not walk in procession. You must go peacefully to your homes and to show that I am careful of the lives of all here, as these horses will not be allowed to cross the bridges, I will give them a gala day and ley them sleep to-night at Greenwich (Cheers and laughter) [19]

This was largely achieved without violence although there was confrontation with the police near Blackfriars Bridge, what the Northern Star called ‘treacherous conduct’, and this spilled over into skirmishes in the streets leading off Blackfriars Road. More significant in dispersing the crowds, many contemporaries believed, was the weather: by 3.00 pm, it was raining heavily. Three hours later, Grey had stood down those magistrates allocated to the detachments of troops and those in attendance at the Police Courts. The crisis had passed without serious incident. [20] The resolve of government, the authorities argued, was sufficient to ‘frighten’ O’Connor into asking his supporters not to confront the authorities and to disperse peacefully but this neglects that his intention was always that the meeting and the procession should be peaceful. The Petition was carried by O’Connor, Doyle, McGrath, Jones, Wheeler and Harney in three cabs, first to Kennington Common and then on to Westminster.

The meeting was immediately mocked by many as a ‘fiasco’ and two days later O’Connor faced further criticism when the five ton Petition was found to weight barely a quarter of a ton and contain less than two million genuine signatures. [21] This was ‘the real ‘fiasco’ of 1848’. In fact, O’Connor saw the meeting as a decisive moral victory. He had insisted that the meeting went ahead and had ensured that it was peaceful and had been able to call off the procession without any dissent. As Belchem rightly concludes that he was able to ‘extricate the movement from the difficulty posed by the intractability of the government’. The constitutional right of assembly was maintained and violence largely avoided. [22]

‘Fiasco’ or not?

Contemporaries interpreted the events of 10 April in two different ways. The establishment declared that it was a ‘fiasco’ and that Britain had been saved by popular support from those who were loyal to the Crown. The other interpretation, held largely by Chartists saw a proper moral force demonstration facing an overwhelming counter demonstration of the government’s physical powers. Of these two views, the first was the orthodox position until the 1960s. In recent decades, historians have revived the Chartist interpretation and helped demolish some of the myths of 10 April.

Not all Chartists shared the contemporary Chartist views and anti-O’Connorite feeling spewed out in the aftermath of 10 April. Lovett blamed O’Connor and his ‘boasting physical force followers’ for allowing the Whigs to have their ‘triumph’. April 10 was a ‘blundering demonstration’.[23] Gammage complained of the ‘boasting’ and how O’Connor had encouraged the ‘empty braggarts’ to think that the procession to the House of Commons would take place. However, he did think that O’Connor was right to abandon the procession but that his tactics caused disunion in the movement.[24] Lovett and Gammage proved very influential for many writers and their denunciation of O’Connor on 10 April helped reinforce the establishment’s interpretation as the orthodox account.

George Jacob Holyoake initially set out the Chartist interpretation in Bygones Worth Remembering, in which he denounced the establishment position as a ‘myth’ and ‘had become historic, and passes as authentic’ showing ‘the wild way’ in which history could be written. There had been no revolutionary plans, no disorder was threatened and ‘no a man was armed’ on 10 April. [25] He was furious about the ‘utterly groundless and incredible representations’ of 10 April in Charles Kingsley’s novel Alton Locke:

I have promised to say little about the Tenth of April, for indeed I have no heart to do so…We had arrayed against us, by our own dread folly, the very physical force to which we had appealed. The dread of general plunder and outrage by the savages of London, the national hatred of that French and Irish interference of which we had boasted, armed against us thousands of special constables, who had in the abstract little or no objection to our political opinions…Above all, the people would not rise…they did not care to show themselves. And the futility after futility exposed itself. The meeting which was to have been counted by hundreds of thousands, numbered hardly in tens of thousands…O’Connor’s courage failed him, after all. He contrived to be called away, at the critical moment, by some problematic superintendent of police. Poor Cuffy, the honestest, if not the wisest speaker there, leapt off the waggon, exclaiming that we were all ‘humbugged and betrayed’’ and the meeting broke up pitiably, piecemeal, drenched and cowed, body and soul, by pouring rain all the way home – for the very heavens mercifully helped to quench our folly -- while the monster petition crawled ludicrously away in a back cab, to be dragged to the floor of the House of Commons amid roars of laughter.[26]

Holyoake was convinced that the government knew the truth about the confrontations because it had been engaged in ‘political imposture’ in order to gain advantage from posing as ‘the deliverers of England’. This view was widespread among Chartists and appeared in whole or in part in numerous speeches and Northern Star editorials. The Chartist interpretation also had more extreme explanations. One of these was that a great victory had been gained on 10 April because the Chartists held their meeting and showed their resolute moral power. Writing in 1850, Ernest Jones thought the great display of government power was a

...homage paid to our power, and a tactic admission…that the bulk of the popular feeling was against the government. [27]

Another extreme explanation was that a victory had been won because the people were heroically resolute in their restraint, depriving the government of its opportunity to use its powers of coercion. According to Reynolds’ Political Instructor on 10 April:

...the people were goaded by insults and injury to expose themselves…unarmed and unprepared [to] murder…by the bayonets, sabres and muskets’ amassed by the government.[28]

The orthodox interpretation was created in the euphoric atmosphere immediately after 10 April. The cartoon in Punch lampooning a physical force Chartist was published a few days after the Kennington meeting; it may have reflected attitudes after 10 April with comical relief but it was certainly not how the metropolitan elite saw the Chartists in the days leading up to the demonstration. It was enshrined in the popular histories of the nineteenth century and has been so pervasive that even historians of aspects of the British working-class movement have incorporated it uncritically into their accounts. Hovell described the event as a ‘tragic fiasco’, the day ‘the government finally laid the Chartist spectre’ low. [29] More recently, Rowe has written of the ‘farcical official conclusion of the movement in the Kennington Common meeting’[30] while Leventhal called the meeting ‘pathetic’.[31] An alternative interpretation can be found in the writings of the Communist historian Reg Groves who saw the ‘ignominious surrender’ of 10 April as a disaster stemming from the ‘centrism’ of O’Connor who appeared to ‘advocate mass action, leads the workers almost to the point of struggle and then falls back into confusion and defeat’. [32]

Other historians have reasserted the fundamental Chartist interpretation beginning in the 1950s with the seminal article by John Saville.[33] He vigorously attacked the ‘commonplace’ account of the fiasco of 10 April that he found ‘almost always the same’. He reiterated the view that the demonstration of was ‘never intended to be anything more than a demonstration’ and that the press and the government exaggerated it into something else. Building on Saville’s views, Stevenson,[34] Large[35] and Goodway[36] emphasised the peaceful nature of the mass demonstration. Royle points out that the attempt to portray 10 April as a fiasco is ‘as much ideological as historical’ [37] while for Goodway if ‘there was a ‘fiasco’…it lay not with the Chartists’ holding their meeting…but in the massive over-reaction of their opponents.’ [38]

Quinault argues that the peaceful outcome of the Kennington Common meeting ‘soon induced a public mood of cautious reformism rather than complacent conservatism.’ [39] This was clearly evident in the press with The Times arguing:

...upon the Government and the metropolis the wisdom of an over powering and conclusive display against the threaters of the brand and the sword, we were careful to observe…that every point of ‘the Charter’ was a fair subject of discussion…England will always be a reforming nation. [40]

The discrediting of the Chartist leadership in April enabled parliamentary radicals to reassert their own popular authority. Just as in 1842 when Joseph Hume founded the NCSU on the wreck of the Second Petition, radicals quickly stepped into the void left by the failure of the Third. [41] Less than a week after the Kennington meetings, middle-class radicals launched their own campaign for parliamentary reform when, on 13 April, a group of fifty Liberal MPs led by Joseph Hume signed a requisition in favour of extending the franchise. It achieved its objective of a debate on the constitution on 20 June with a motion calling for household suffrage, secret ballot, more equal electoral districts and triennial parliaments. [42]

The mythology of Kennington Common as a ‘fiasco’ was largely created in retrospect. This view needs revision in three important respects. Most people were not laughing until it was all over and this is clear from diaries kept at the time by prominent figures. The build up to 10 April had been government policy partly to overawe and discredit the Chartists and partly to impress foreign governments that had shown themselves unable to cope with their own revolutionary crowds. The ‘fiasco’ effect was in part planned by the government to discredit the Chartists.

The result is a caricature of the whole affair into self-congratulatory farce in which an elephant of order crushes a mouse of rebellion. [43]

From the point of view of revolutionary threat, worse was still to come.

[1] Northern Star, 25 March 1848.

[2] Chase, Chartism, p. 299.

[3] ‘The National Convention’, Northern Star, 8 April 1848, pp, 1, 8, 33, reports the sessions from Tuesday 4 April to Friday 7 April.

[4] Hoyles, Martin, William Cuffay: The Life & Times of a Chartist Leader, (Hansib Publications Ltd.), 2013, Gossman, N., ‘William Cuffay: London's Black Chartist’, Phylon, Vol. 44, (1), 1983, pp. 56-65, and DLB, Vol. 6, pp. 77-80, are useful biographies. See also, Gregory, M., ‘William Cuffay in Tasmania’, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 58, (1), 2011, pp. 61-77.

[5] Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, p. 309.

[6] ‘The National Petition’, Northern Star, 8 April 1848, p. 5.

[7] John, Earl Russell, Recollections and Suggestions, 1815-1873, (Longman, Green and Co.), 1875, pp. 252-253.

[8] Russell, nonetheless made it clear that ‘a petition so numerously signed as the hon. Gentleman has declared the petition he has to present will be, should not be received, and meet with every consideration from the House’: Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 7 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc4-5.

[9] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 7 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc20-59.

[10] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 6 April 1848, Vol. 97, cc1353-1355. Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, ‘directed a notice to be issued, which, I trust, will be published in half an hour throughout the streets of London, and circulated over the country, pointing out that by the statute and common law of these realms this intended procession is illegal, and warning all loyal and peaceable subjects of Her Majesty to abstain from taking part in such procession..’ For the second reading of the Crown and Government Security Bill, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 10 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc73-135; it went into committee, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 12 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc223-259, 14 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc340-379; and then to the Lords, Hansard, House of Lords, Debates, 19 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc485-507, 20 April 1848, Vol. 98, cc534-537.

[11] The problematic nature of using workers as special constables is illustrated by a meeting of workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company on 23 March: ‘The Working Class as Special Constable’, Northern Star, 25 March 1848, p. 3. The meeting passed three resolutions: the first, objected to the ‘abrupt manner’ in which the authorities called on them to act as special constables; the second, accepted that it was the duty of ‘all classes to protect life and property’ pledging to do so if ‘the middle class pledges themselves to protect our capital, namely our labour’; and finally, that existing distress was caused by ‘class legislation’ and that this would not be resolved ‘until the working classes are fully and fairly represented in the Commons’ House of Parliament…’

[12] Bain, Alexander, Autobiography, (Longmans, Green, and Co.), 1904, p. 206.

[13] Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, pp. 76-77, provides a lucid account of the sequence of events on 10 April.

[14] Nonconformist, 12 April 1848.

[15] ‘Meeting at Lambeth. Resignation of Bronterre O’Brien’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 6.

[16] Presentation of the National Petition. Great Chartist Demonstration’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 7, includes the proceedings of the Convention on 10 April, ‘The Chartist Demonstration’, Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1848, p. 5, ‘Preservation of the Peace of the Metropolis’, Morning Chronicle, 11 April 1848, p. 6.

[17] ‘Presentation of the National Petition. Great Chartist Demonstration’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, pp. 7-8, provides a detailed account of preparations for the meeting and the meeting itself. Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, pp. 69-70.

[18] Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, p. 314.

[19] Presentation of the National Petition. Great Chartist Demonstration’, Northern Star, 15 April 1848, p. 8.

[20] This should be compared with the similar way in which the Provisional Government in France dealt with the workers’ demonstration in Paris on 16 April and the demonstration on 15 May when a radical procession invaded the National Assembly in an attempt to overthrow the government. Traugott, Mark, Armies of the Poor: Determinants of Working-Class Participation in the Parisian Insurrection of June 1848, (Princeton University Press), 1985, pp. 21-22, Lignereux, AurĂ©lien, La France rĂ©bellionnaire: Les rĂ©sistances a la gendarmerie, (1800-1859), (Presses Universitaires de Rennes), 2008, pp. 187-196.

[21] ‘The Prostitute Press’, Northern Star, 22 April 1848, p. 2, printed extracts from the ‘infamous press’ of the ‘lies and calumnies directed against the Chartists’.

[22] Ibid, Belchem, John, ‘1848: Feargus O’Connor and the Collapse of the Mass Platform’, in Epstein, and Thompson, (eds.), The Chartist Experience, p. 282.

[23] Lovett, Life and Struggles, 1876, p. 285.

[24] Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, pp. 331-332.

[25] Holyoake, G. J., Bygones Worth Remembering, 2 Vols. (E. P. Dutton and Company)., 1905, Vol. 1, pp. 73-81.

[26] Ibid, Kingsley, Charles, Alton Locke, pp. 309-310.

[27] Saville, John, Ernest Jones, (Lawrence & Wishart), 1952, pp. 109-111, where he cites an open letter in the Northern Star, 9 July 1850.

[28] Reynolds’ Political Instructor, 23 March 1850.

[29] Hovell, The Chartist Movement, pp. 292, 343.

[30] Rowe, D. J., ‘The Failure of London Chartism’, Historical Journal, Vol. xi, (1968), p. 482.

[31] Leventhal, F. M., Respectable Radical: Howell, George, and Victorian Working Class Politics, London, 1971, p. 22.

[32] Groves, Reg, ‘The Class Leadership of Chartism’, The Labour Monthly, Vol. 2, (April 1929), p. 128.

[33] Saville, John, ‘Chartism in the Year of Revolution, The Modern Quarterly, (Winter 1952-1953), later extended into his 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement.

[34] Stevenson, John, Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1870, (Longman), 1979, p. 268.

[35] Large, David, ‘London in the Year of Revolution’, in Stevenson, John, (ed.), London in the Age of Reform, (Basil Blackwell), 1977, pp. 177-203.

[36] Ibid, Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, p. 74.

[37] Royle, Edward, Chartism, (Longman), 1980, p. 43.

[38] Ibid, Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, p. 77.

[39] Quinault, Roland, ‘1848 and Parliamentary Reform’, Historical Journal, Vol. 31, (4), (1988), pp. 836-837.

[40] The Times, 17 April 1848.

[41] Ibid, Saunders, Robert, ‘Chartism from above: British elites and the interpretation of Chartism’, p. 480.

[42] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 20 June 1848, Vol. 99, cc879-966.

[43] Ibid, Goodway, David, London Chartism 1838-1848, p. 78.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

What were the social and economic effects of the Famine?

The ‘Great Famine’ began unexpectedly in the late summer of 1845. By September, potatoes were rotting in the ground and within a month blight was spreading rapidly. Three-quarters of the country’s crop, the chief food for some three million people was wiped out. The following year blight caused a total crop failure. In 1847, the blight was less virulent but in 1848 a poor grain harvest aggravated the situation further. 1848 proved to be the worst year in terms of distress and death during the whole history of the Great Famine. Both 1849 and 1850 saw blight, substantial in some counties, sporadic in others.

Why was there famine?

Famine caused by potato blight was nothing new to Ireland. There had been failures in 1739, 1741, 1801, 1817 and 1821. In 1741, perhaps 400,000 people died because of famine. The Great Famine in the 1840s was only one demographic crisis among many but most historians regard it as a real turning point in Irish history. It was simply a disaster beyond all expectations and imagination.

Chap 1 Famine2

Contemporaries and historians have considerable difficulty in explaining why the Famine took place. It is, however, generally agreed that the structure of the Irish economy and especially its system of land tenure played a significant part. Most of the cultivated land in Ireland in the 1840s was in the hands of Protestant landowners. Estates were regarded as sources of income for these landowners, many of them absentees in England rather than long-term investments. This led to a failure to invest in Irish farming. Tenants were unable to invest in their land because of high rents. Where improvement in farming did occur in Ireland, it proved very profitable. Irish agriculture promised returns of between 15 and 20 per cent compared to 5 to 10 per cent yields in England. There was insufficient land available to satisfy demand, despite the conclusion of the Devon Commission that over 1.5 million acres of land suitable for tillage was uncultivated. This led to the division and sub-division of land. By 1845, a quarter of all holdings were between one and five acres, 40 per cent were between five and fifteen acres and only seven per cent over thirty acres. This created under-employment and forced many of the labourers to become migrant workers in England for part of the year. They became navvies for road building, canal digging and railway construction. Many turned seasonal migration into permanent settlement and were largely involved in work English people found dirty, disreputable or otherwise disagreeable--jobs like petty trading, keeping lodging-houses and beer-houses. Inadequate investment meant that Irish industrialisation could not provide the employment necessary to absorb its growing population.

Chap 1 Famine1

The potato made the division and sub-division of land possible. It was easy to grow even in poor soil and produced high yields. Two acres of land could provide enough potatoes for a family of five or six to live on for a year. Potatoes could also be used to feed pigs and poultry. Subsistence on the potato allowed tenants to grow wheat and oats to pay their rent. The precise relationship between the potato and population growth in Ireland is difficult to establish. It is clear that there was a dramatic rise in Irish population in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The high birth rate and the early age of marriage were largely responsible for dramatic growth. Between 1780 and 1841, Ireland’s population increased from about five million to over eight million people, despite the emigration of one and a half million people in the decades after Union. This placed even greater pressure on land and greater reliance on the potato.

How did the British government react?

Peel’s response was rapid and, within limits, imaginative. The crisis convinced him finally of the necessity for dismantling the Corn Laws but he realised that this would, because of its contentious nature, take time. Immediate solutions were needed. In November 1845, a Special Commission was established to co-ordinate relief efforts. It did two things. First, work was needed so that labourers could afford to buy food. The government established public work schemes but on a much larger scale than before. These were the boom years of Irish railway construction. Food had also to be kept at a level that prevented profiteering. £185,000 was spent on supplies, chiefly Indian meal. These measures, however, only met the immediate crisis. Lord John Russell succeeded Peel in mid-1846 but he lacked Peel’s Irish experience. Economy and efficiency replaced Peel’s more humane policy. The full extent of the Famine was seriously under­estimated in official circles. The problem, however, was not the shortage of food in Ireland--between September 1846 and July 1847 five times as much grain was imported as was exported--but of ensuring that those in need had access to that food. The failure was one of awareness, not compassion.

What were the consequences of the Famine?

Between 1841 and 1851, the population of Ireland fell from over 8 million to some 6.5 million. Emigration accounted for perhaps 1.5 million and became an accepted part of Irish life. This leaves about a million deaths as a result of the Famine. Actual starvation rarely caused death but weakened people sufficiently for dis­eases like typhus and fever to take their toll. In early 1849, a serious outbreak of cholera added to the problem. The impact of famine was felt differently in both regional and social terms. Western and south-western counties were hardest hit. Counties on the east coast, where food could be more easily imported, were least affected. The north-east did not suffer a crisis, despite its high density of population, because of the more industrial nature of its economy. But it was not unaffected. Many disease-ridden migrants crowded into Belfast, where poor living conditions helped spread disease, but this was a public health not an economic problem.

Chap 1 Deverall_The_Irish_Vagrants_1853

Labourers and small farmers were the chief victims of the Famine. In 1841, 71.5 per cent of holdings were less than 15 acres but by 1851 the figure was 49.1 per cent. There was a consequent increase in the number of holdings over 15 acres from 18.5 to 50.9 per cent. Livestock farming expanded encouraged by attractive prices in Britain and by reductions in transport costs. In 1851, the agricultural economy was apparently still in a state of crisis: the potato had lost its potency, low agricultural prices gave little promise of recovery to those who had survived, and slightly larger holdings hardly made up for increased Poor Law rates. But from the 1850s change was rapid. Livestock increased in value and numbers, arable farming declined slowly and tenant farmers, whose numbers remained relatively stable for the next fifty years, enjoyed some prosperity.

The Famine marked a watershed in the political history of modern Ireland. The Repeal Association of O’Connell was dead. Young Ireland made their separatist gesture in the abortive rising of 1848. A sense of desolation, growing sectarian divisions, the rhetoric of genocide and the re-emergence of some form of national consciousness eventually led to the emergence of a movement dedicated to the independence of Ireland from English rule.