HC Deb 27 July 1835 vol 29 cc1107-15
Viscount Morpeth

having moved the Order of the Day for the House to go into Committee on the Tithes and Church of Ireland Bill,

Mr. Sharman Crawford

rose, pursuant to the notice he had given, to call the attention of the House to the great distress which existed at the present moment, and which had continued for some time, in the county of Mayo. He had, so far back as the 6th of this month, mentioned the subject in a notice of Motion which he then gave for the 8th, for copies of certain communications made to the Government as to the great distress which existed amongst the peasantry in some districts of the county of Mayo; but since then, he had not had an opportunity of bringing the subject forward, owing to the state of other business in the House. Since his first notice of it, the distress had not abated; on the contrary, the communications which he had since received on the subject showed that it had increased in a frightful degree. He therefore felt it his duty not to delay any longer, but to take the first opportunity which presented itself of again urging the case on the House. He regretted that the task had not been undertaken by some individual locally connected with that county; for he had no connexion with it, but knowing as he did the extent of the distress, he felt it as a duty of common humanity to bring the matter under the notice of the House. In the former statements which he had made on this subject, he had relied on the communications made by the Catholic clergy, who had ample opportunities of witnessing the distress which they described. He would on the present occasion refer to other authorities; and first, to the reports of the Distress Committee, of which the Earl of Caledon was at the head. The Committee stated the distress to have existed to an immense extent since the early part of April. One of the communications which he had received was from Mr. Meredith, a chief constable of police, who said it would be a great charity to bring on the case of the starving peasantry of this district. The distress which existed amongst them was intense, and if they were not immediately relieved, many of them must perish. It was useless to talk of their purchasing food sold out at a cheap rate. They had not a penny to purchase potatoes, if they could be sold as low as 6d. per cwt., and one-third of the whole population of the district was in this dreadfully distressed condition. This statement was corroborated by the evidence of Mr. Ireland, the chief magistrate. He had further the Report of the Central Committee of Relief sitting at Castlebar, dated the 20th of July, which showed that their funds were all exhausted on that day. The Committee had come to a resolution to the effect, that they could not adjourn without expressing the deep and poignant sorrow they felt at not being able to extend relief commensurate with the extent of the prevailing distress; and further, they feel themselves called upon to express their conviction, that unless the Government interfered and came forward in aid of the starving population, recourse would be had by them to the premature use of the growing crops, from which would arise all the evils of epidemic disease. He could further state, that the utmost wages those even in employment could earn was 8d. per day, that twelve families out of twenty were without the means of purchasing a single pennyworth of bread. In further proof, if such were needed, he had also the letter of Mr. Yorke, the Secretary of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, in which he stated that the Government was disposed to do all that was required at their hands, so far as it could be done by the Board of Public Works, but that it was impossible at present to provide to a sufficient extent to relieve the distress of so large a body. Surely, then, it was the duty of his Majesty's Ministers to interfere, and to afford relief to the starving population of Ireland. And in what manner was this to be effected? He should, with the leave of the House, refer to the proceedings which it had taken on former occasions under similar circumstances. In the year 1822, when the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, came down to Parliament for assistance, and the Legislature placed at the disposal of the Crown 250,000l., to be disposed of in affording relief to the distressed, and in giving labour to the unemployed, the right hon. Baronet, in submitting that application to the House, said it was not a mere pecuniary question, and supported the proposition in terms which did him honour both as a senator and a man. Again, when in the year 1826 great distress prevailed amongst the manufacturing population of England, the Government, though they did not come to Parliament for assistance as in 1822, yet did all in its power to promote subscriptions, and in that manner 290,000l. was raised, of which 250,000l. was advanced by the Government. In 1831 there again prevailed distress, and though no application was made to Parliament, yet under the patronage of the Government no less than 50,000l. was raised as a relief fund by private subscription. It was proper that he should here remark, that the present distress in the county of Mayo was of that character and nature as to be calculated to lay the foundation of increased distress in the ensuing year, and if means were not speedily adopted to relieve the existing distress, as the people, having no means of providing for the failure of their own crops of potatoes by purchasing elsewhere, would be obliged to have recourse to the growing crops, as he had already stated, the result would inevitably be the increase of the distress year after year. He had adverted to the means of relief which in former times had been resorted to; but why should this be? Why should not the landlords of Ireland be made by the Legislature to contribute to the relief of the distressed occupants of their soil? It had been, he would say, the fault of Parliament to allow Session after Session to pass without attempting to enforce from the rapacious landlords of Ireland a contribution to the means of relieving the aged, the feeble, and the distressed. It might be said that the people of Ireland were an improvident race. In reply he begged to state, that the distress now prevailing in the county of Mayo was not the result of improvidence; on the contrary, its immediate cause was the entire and total failure of the potato crops in that district. Though that was the immediate cause, the distress had several causes, some of which, from operating at all times, might be said to be more influential than the failure of one crop. The first of these was the enormous rents which were demanded and promised in Ireland. That excess might be imagined, when he stated, that in many parts of Ireland the rents reserved exceeded the whole amount of the produce of the land. Next came the evils of an absentee landed proprietary. Again, another cause of distress was to be found in the expulsion of the small tenantry from the lands heretofore in their occupation. There were many grounds for this system of expulsion. He would take for one of those grounds the repeal of the franchise formerly possessed by the 40s. freeholders in Ireland; the effect of which had been that the landed proprietary, in order to secure their political influence, had expelled the smaller tenants, in order to be enabled to consolidate the farms to an amount equal in value to the sum at which the elective franchise was now fixed in Ireland. Expulsion had even been practised in the cases of the tenants of these enlarged and increased farms, merely as a punishment upon the holder for having voted and acted according to the dictates of his own conscience. An instance of another cause of expulsion was afforded to him by a transaction which had occurred on the next estate to his own, and the case was that of an unfortunate man, who had been expelled from his holding, because he persisted in sending his children to the National School. Now, all these causes of distress were likely to increase, unless the Legislature and the Government adopted some measure calculated to compel the landed interest of Ireland to raise a fund for the relief of the poor. At present the people subsisted chiefly upon potatoes, and of that vegetable the crops in some seasons were short, and hence the population was liable to periodical privation and distress whenever it happened that those crops failed. Such was now the condition of the people of the district to which he had alluded. He submitted this matter to the House, not merely claiming its compassion, but demanding its justice, That justice would consist in returning to the population a part of that which was their own, and to compel the contributions of those who drew the revenue out of the country to resources which would afford relief to the distressed, and the means of employment to the industrious. However the House might be induced to procrastinate such legislation, it was bound to take care that the people of Ireland should not starve. For the present he should, therefore, ask the Legislature to grant a loan, and to institute a principle of taxation by which that loan should be repaid. As yet he had heard from his Majesty's Government nothing that was satisfactory upon this subject, or as to their intentions with respect to legislation upon it. It was but right that the people of this country should know what was the situation of the people of Ireland; and the only reason for secrecy in the matter was, that if the real state and circumstances of that country were known, they would impress upon the House and the nation generally the necessity of legislation for the relief of the poor of Ireland. Where could be the necessity of appointing a Commission of Inquiry into the subject, when it was known that the people were in a state of starvation, and that the landlords did not contribute to their relief? These were ample grounds for legislation; and a measure to remedy these evils would be more satisfactory to Ireland than either the Church of Ireland Bill, or the promised measure of Municipal Reform. The hon. Member concluded by moving, as an Amendment on the Order of the Day, "That an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, praying that he will be graciously pleased to take the distress existing in the county of Mayo into his gracious consideration."

Viscount Morpeth

had before risen, on several occasions, after the hon. Gentleman who had just sat clown, to address the House on this subject, and he was much pained again to be called upon to admit, that great distress still continued in the districts in question, and would, he feared, continue until the new crops of potatoes came in. The distress he flattered himself, however, was not general, but was, he believed, confined to the districts mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. There distress unquestionably did prevail, and under such circumstances, the Irish Government had taken every step which to them seemed available to meet it. They had sent down to Mayo a chief inspector of police to superintend the arrangements which had since been carried into effect; they had shipped, by a great number of vessels, large quantities of meal and potatoes, commodities which had been sold at a cheap rate to parties who had some means, and which had been distributed in districts where the inhabitants possessed no means whatever. The landing and distribution of these provisions had been superintended by an intelligent officer of the coast-guard; but undoubtedly he feared that he had not been able to overtake the distress, and still further, he must corroborate the statement made by the hon. Gentleman who had brought forward the present Motion, to the effect that the local subscriptions had not been at all equal to meet the extensive evil of distress. It should be remembered, too, that many of the local proprietors were far from opulent themselves, and were unable to contribute. When the hon. Member, however, spoke of a Poor-law Bill as a remedy for existing evils, it should be remembered, that if the House, at this period of the Session, was to entertain such a measure, the Bill could not meet the exigencies of the existing state of things. He did not wish, on this occasion, to say one word on the subject of Poor-laws; he would only say, that the Government would continue to use and apply such means of remedy and relief as were now open to them, and in which he had received, he was bound to say, every support and assistance from his right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. At the same time, if the House should propose a grant of its own, he should be the last person to complain of thereby being relieved from a responsibility which had pressed heavily upon him—the responsibility of affording relief to such vast distress.

Sir Richard Musgrave

said, the present distress was anticipated at the time he submitted his Motion to the House for the introduction of a system of Poor-laws. That Motion, however, was opposed by the Government. There was one provision in his Bill which would apply to this case. Some landlords might have contributed to relieve the distress; but, in place of such partial relief, falling upon a few, his Bill went to levy equally a sum upon the whole parish, and thus there would be no loss to the Consolidated Fund. Any money to be advanced would be on the security of a Grand Jury presentment. He trusted his Bill might yet be allowed to go into Committee.

Mr. Dominick Browne

had called the attention of the Government, three or four years ago, to the distresses which then prevailed in the same parts of the country. He admitted that distress now existed, but it was a little exaggerated, and certainly the landlords of the western coast did not come forward to contribute their share of relief as they ought to have done. It was but fair, at the same time, to say that they were not in very good circumstances themselves. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last talked of a Poor-law. There were parts of the country to which it could not possibly be applied. He would mention, for instance, one island along the coast, the island of Achil. There were 7,000 inhabitants, and the whole rental was but 900l. a year. This would give no more than 2s. 4d. to each inhabitant. No one would say that a Poor-law could be applied under such circumstances. The potatoes, in these distressed districts, were manured with sea-weed, and the produce was rank in consequence. This part of the coast was subject to the westerly and north-westerly winds, which frequently destroyed the flower, and the consequence was a failure of the crop. The only way to better the condition of the people, was to provide labour for them. Though scarcity prevailed in these districts, arising in a great measure from the length and expense of carriage, potatoes were comparatively cheap in the interior of the county of Mayo. There was some distress also in the mountainous districts, where Lord Mountcharles possessed considerable estates, and had generously contributed to the relief of the poor.

Mr. James Grattan

said, that as it was clear the people in those districts were in a state of starvation, relief ought to be afforded. He would suggest to the noble Lord (Morpeth), that the best mode of relief would be, for the Irish Government to make the advance necessary, and then to apply to the Legislature for means to compel the repayment through a Grand Jury assessment.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

assured the House, that from the very first moment that the attention of the Government had been called to the existing state of things in the county of Mayo, they had been unremitting in their exertions to meet the distress. He hoped the hon. Member for Dundalk would consent to withdraw his Motion, for he could assure the hon. Member that the less such a subject was talked of, the better it would be for the country, and the sooner would matters readjust themselves. Nothing was more calculated to interfere with the good object the hon. Gentleman had in view than a discussion like the present. When the case of the distress of the county of Kerry had come under the attention of the Government, if the matter had been publicly discussed, the state of the markets for the supply of food would not so speedily have readjusted itself. The Government in that case had offered small bounties, not apparently made by the Government but by other persons, for supplies, and in the course of a fortnight after the first application, the markets were supplied, and thanks were given to the Government for not having had recourse to the Legislature for assistance. He fully admitted the present state of Mayo demanded the attention of the Government, and he could assure the hon. Member that there was no unwillingness or indifference, but, on the contrary, there was every disposition on the part of the Government to meet the case. Under all these circumstances, he hoped the hon. Member would consent to withdraw his Amendment, involving as it did a subject which ought at all times to be approached with the greatest possible caution.

Mr. William O'Brien

thought the case of the county of Mayo afforded the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, an excellent opportunity of having recourse to his favourite remedy for the want of employment among the labouring population. He (Mr. O'Brien) meant the erection of public works. By this means, employment would not only enable the population to meet the present scarcity of food, but a great benefit would arise from the improvements of which this county in particular stood so much in need.

Major Beauclerk

hoped that early next Session the Government would give to Ireland the only remedy for these series of distresses, viz., poor laws. Though he might be a loser on the property he possessed in that country by such a measure, yet he should be glad to hear from the noble Lord at the head of the Home Department that it was his intention to bring forward such a measure. If so, he would give it his humble but strenuous support.

Lord John Russell

said, that with respect to the Motion now before the House he must say, that though he was quite ready to concur in the kind of relief which had been in this instance afforded by his noble Friend near him (Lord Morpeth), yet he thought it unadvisable that the House should be called on to interfere in cases of local, partial, and temporary distress. With respect to the question put to him by the hon. and gallant Member who had spoken last, he would say (without in any way thereby pledging either the Government or himself), that the inquiries which were now going on, as to what would be the effect of Poor-laws in Ireland, were such as he thought would empower the Government, by next Session, to investigate and discuss the Question with a view to a permanent decision upon it.

Dr. Baldwin

hoped that his hon. Friend the Member for Dundalk would not press the House to a division, as such a step would induce the people of Ireland to suppose that the House was divided on a question of mere charity towards them. Though he honoured the intentions of his hon. Friend, which he admitted to be of the purest and most beneficial character, he still could not feel him self jstified in voting against the Government on the present occasion.

Motion withdrawn.