HC Deb 25 May 1849 vol 105 cc978-90

said, that he wished to ask a question of the noble Lord at the head of the Government with regard to a horrible occurrence that was reported to have taken place in the western part of Ireland. It was stated that a corpse having been washed on shore by the waves, a portion of it had been actually' carried away and eaten by some of the starving people who lived on the coast of the bay. He wished to know if the Government had received any authentic information with regard to this frightful transaction?


said, that before the noble Lord answered the question, he could not refrain from saying one word expressive of the strong conviction which pressed upon his mind with regard to the enormous responsibility which lay with that House, the Legislature, and, above all, with the Government, to prevent, as far as possible, the frightful destruction and waste of human life now going on in Ireland. The poor-law had been passed with the view of preventing such loss of life from taking place; but as at present administered it failed to do so. It was notorious to the world that at this moment hundreds were dying, and thousands were in daily expectation of death, in Ireland. The papers were filled with reports such as that to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kerry alluded. In one place twenty persons were found dead; in another, Westport, twenty-eight died in one week alone by famine. Mr. Ward, of Ballinrobe, stated that more than 700 families were wandering about the neighbourhood without a house to cover them, seeking shelter in the ditches at night, and dying there, and then buried without coffins, after being perhaps disfigured by rats and dogs. He would not harrow the House by going through the list of similar cases which he held in his hand; but he would ask, who was responsible for this frightful destruction of life, such as no country in the world professing to be civilised ever before exhibited, much less a country possessing the vast capital and wealth of this empire? Here people were enjoying themselves in luxury and plenty, spending night and day in amusement and recreation, while their fellow-subjects were thus perishing by wholesale of famine. But were not the people of England able and willing to provide at least the relief which the commissioners stated to be sufficient to maintain life in those wretched people—namely, three farthings a day per bead, until next harvest? He believed that the Government would experience no want of sympathy in this country, and no want of willingness on the part of that House, to pass any measures that they might consider necessary. He begged to ask the noble Lord whether, seeing that the commissioners had in vain endeavoured to procure aid, and that the boards of guardians had no funds or means of procuring them, he did not think the responsibility attached to the Government to bring forward such measures as may be necessary to meet the existing destitution?


said, in answer to the question of the hon. Member for the county of Kerry, that he had not received any official statement with regard to the horrible occurrence which that hon. Member had mentioned; nor had he any reason to know that the fact had actually taken place. He should, however, feel it his duty to make immediate inquiry into the matter. With regard to the observations of the hon. Member for Stroud, as to the degree of responsibility that attached to the Government for the melancholy events that were occurring in Ireland, he could only say, that the hon. Gentleman must be aware of what had passed in the House at the beginning of the Session, when the Government asked for 50,000l. for the relief of those who would otherwise have perished from destitution. The hon. Gentleman must likewise be aware of what had taken place with respect to the rate in aid. The sums which had been issued by the Government in anticipation of those rates was 30,000l. He (Lord J. Russell), therefore, thought Her Majesty's Government had done all that it was in their power to do. He did not think that any efforts that House could make, would, in the present unfortunate state of Ireland, be capable of preventing the dreadful scenes of suffering and of death that were now occurring in Ireland. He distinctly repeated that he did not believe it was in the power of that House to do so. Certainly, with the very strong objections that had been made even to those limited measures which the Government had proposed, he did not feel that he was justified in asking the House for an additional advance of 100,000l., which at least would be necessary if the House should say that there should be no possible case of starvation in Ireland.


was happy to hear from the noble Lord that inquiries were to be made to ascertain the truth or exaggeration of the statement in the papers as to what had occurred in the neighbourhood of Ballinrobe. He (Mr. J. O'Connell) confessed he was particularly anxious on the subject, because on a recent occasion, when he had made a statement to the House, he had been accused of misrepresentation. What he stated was that 860 deaths had occurred in Ballinasloe, whereas he should have stated that 860 human beings were suffering under fever and cholera. But he implored the House not to suppose that the cholera was a mere ordinary visitation. It was introduced, aggravated, and extended by famine. He had received statements from the west of Ireland, representing that all the accounts hitherto known had fallen short of the reality, and that the scenes of misery and destitution were utterly inconceivable. The Poor Law Committee was at the present moment sitting, and he thought the attention of that Committee might be very properly directed, during the recess, should it then sit, to ascertain the facts. He would warn the Government against deluding themselves by the belief that everything had been done which the Government could do to prevent the loss of human life in Ireland. The truth was that the scale of relief was much too low—it did not save life; it merely prolonged the agony of the dying; it prolonged life in death. The scale of expenditure for the relief of the poor in the three kingdoms established the truth of this proposition. The rate per head for the support of a pauper in England (for a certain period) was 3l. 5s. 10d., in Scotland for the same period it was 2l. 7s. 9½d., and in Ireland for the same period it was only 16s. 8½d.


said, that the Poor Law Committee had that day been engaged in the examination of a witness from West-port, and certainly a more dreadful account was never given of human suffering in any civilised portion of the globe. He agreed with the noble Lord at the head of the Government, that it was utterly impossible, by any human means, to stay the march of destitution in Ireland. He was quite sure that whatever was done must be comparatively trifling; but still more might have been accomplished. From the returns it appeared that in the week ending the 28th of April, 1849, there were in the several workhouses of Connaught and Munster no less than 122,369 inmates, and that the deaths in the course of one week were not less than 1,703, giving nearly an average of fourteen in every 1,000; whereas in this great metropolis, where there was a population approaching to two millions and a half of souls, according to the statement made by the Poor Law Commissioners, in the very worst week of the year, that which ended on the 29th of January, 1849, the proportion of deaths was only five in a thousand. That and similar facts must show that death was proceeding in a more rapid ratio in Ireland than it had ever yet done, and that it was the bounden duty of the Government to prevent the dreadful loss of life which was taking place in that country by some greater efforts than had hitherto been attempted.


could not help adverting to what he considered to be a misapprehension on the part of the noble Lord the First Minister of the Crown as to the disposition of the House on the subject of Irish distress. The noble Lord appeared to think that there would be an unwillingness on the part of the House to make any further advances for the relief of that distress; but he (Mr. Horsman) considered this to be a subject concerning which, for the sake of their own character, they ought at once to be clearly understood. When Government asked for the 50,000l. grant, it was evident that it was only the commencement of a series of similar demands. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ripon on that occasion agreed to the advance of the 50,000l., but stated that he would not agree to any further advances—not because he objected to the advances themselves for the saving of life in Ireland, but because they stood in the way of other measures of a more comprehensive and permanent character. Well, the 50,000l. was voted, the House always saying that the first duty of the Government was to save life. Then came the Motion for the advance of 100,000l, on the security of the rate in aid. Many objected to that loan—he (Mr. Horsman) did among the number. He objected to the money being advanced by way of loan on a security which was not good, though he agreed that the Government ought to make a grant to Ireland for the preservation of life. It was notorious that there were thousands perishing in Ireland for the want of a few thousands of pounds, which the House ought to grant. Without wishing to create pain or excite irritation in any quarter, he must declare that, in his opinion, no such spectacle had ever been witnessed before in any portion of the civilised world as that which now existed in Ireland, where thousands upon thousands were being permitted to perish from sheer starvation for want of a very small additional advance beyond that which had already been given. The Poor Law Commissioners had said that the whole responsibility was east upon the Government. In nineteen of the distressed unions there was 160,000l. owing to the contractors for the supply of food; and, although money had been recently sent out by the Government, it was notorious that it was not sufficient. The three worst months of the year were yet to come. The money in the hands of the commissioners would not suffice; and he was sure that if the Government would appeal to Parliament the House would respond to that appeal by making a further grant, recognising, as it ever had done, the principle that the first duty of Government was the preservation of life, and, above all, that the horrible spectacle of thousands dying daily of sheer destitution ought not to be allowed.


did not wish to interrupt this discussion with respect to the lamentable question of Irish distress; but he should like to ask hon. Members who were conversant with the stale of Ireland, how far they thought free-trade measures had been the cause of distress in that country? He could feel for Ireland, but he could also feel for England; and he had every reason to apprehend, if they proceeded as they had hitherto done with the free-trade policy, that England would by and by suffer as much as Ireland.


did not think it expedient, on the present question, to enter upon a discussion on free trade. But he must say, that so far as Ireland was concerned, he was convinced that the free-trade principle had contributed very largely to the preservation of life in that country by cheapening the food which was imported. It had been said, that three halfpence or a penny a day would sustain life in that country. Let it be remembered that it was by the importation of Indian corn—the introduction of which was the result of free-trade measures—that life could be thus preserved in Ireland, and which could not otherwise have been done except at a very large additional expense. He wished, while bearing in mind what had fallen from the hon. Member for Cocker-mouth, to warn the House against being led into error by receiving as true the full extent of the statements that were sometimes made respecting the misery and destitution prevailing in Ireland. If he wanted an example to justify such a warning, he thought the statement made the other evening by the hon. Member for Limerick, would be a sufficient justification. A few nights ago that hon. Gentleman stated that no less than 860 deaths had taken place in the Ballinasloe union; but the hon. Gentleman had now corrected himself, and stated to-night, instead of 860 people having died in Ballinasloe union, there were 860 laid up with fever and cholera: that was to say, 860 people were sick, instead of 860 being dead, [Sir J. YOUNG: They were receiving relief.] The difference was very material, and he took the opportunity of warning Gentlemen not to believe all the statements that were made of the distress and misery in Ireland to their full extent. The hon. Member for Cockermouth had not fairly represented what fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ripen on the occasion of the grant of 50,000l. for the relief of destitution in Ireland. What the right hon. Gentleman said was, that he would vote for that sum as the last of a series of grants, in the hope that some other measures might be devised for the purpose of making the property of Ireland contribute its proper share towards the relief of the poverty of Ireland. It was an opinion which had been expressed by several Irish Members, that the property of Ireland should support the poverty of Ireland; and he believed it was the universal opinion of the House that it was unreasonable to expect any further grants should be made from the Treasury for the purposes of relief. Advances might indeed be made, but it was indispensable that they should look to Ireland for the repayment of them. A measure for that purpose was brought forward, and so far from any charge being made against him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) of hardheartedness and cruelty, he was accused of making sentimental speeches and impassioned appeals to the sympathies of the House to induce them to relieve the distresses of Ireland. The opposition to granting relief came not from him, but from many of the Irish Members. Why, the hon. Member for Limerick himself voted against the imposition of the income tax and the rate in aid—both of which measures were intended to relieve the distress of the people in Ireland—and now he turned round and complained of the Government and of their hardhearted conduct towards that country. But a change had taken place in the opinions of men in respect to these measures since those debates. It had been said in that House, that it would be bettor to let the Irish people perish, than to dole out to them such insufficient relief as was then proposed. [Mr. J. O'CONNELL denied having made any such observation.] He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did not say that the hon. Member had made any such remark; but it certainly was made by an hon. Member, and he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) commented upon the expression at the time. If hon. Members from Ireland had during the discussion of the Rate in Aid Bill felt as they now professed to feel, the progress of that measure might have been much accelerated. The hon. Member for Cockermouth had said, that some further advances of a few thousand pounds might be made by the Government. Surely he must know that the Government were making those advances. But when his noble Friend at the head of the Government proposed some little time since to make occasional weekly advances, the House limited him down to a very small sum. And what was the fact? His noble friend departed from that limited amount, and declared that he would go beyond the 5,000l. or 6,000l. which had been prescribed to him as the sum to he advanced. The Government had, in fact, made advances week by week, till no less a sum than 30,000l. had already been advanced before the Rate in Aid Bill received the Royal assent. He thought that, under these circumstances, it was not true, either that Parliament had withheld the means of relief, or that Government had not used those means; and, therefore, he was of opinion that it was not necessary at prevent, to make any further appeal to Parliament for the purpose of mitigating the distress which he was sorry to admit did prevail in the west of Ireland. It was true that the worst period for the people of Ireland was approaching; but the time was also coming when the Poor Law Commissioners would feel it their duty to enforce the payment of the rates due from the several unions. Government had already given directions that this should be done; and at the same time the House might depend upon it that Her Majesty's Ministers would not shrink from asking for power to make further advances on the credit of the rate in aid, when the necessity should arise for adopting that course.


said, it was of great importance there should be no mistake as to the real facts respecting the Ballinasloe workhouse case. His hon. Friend the Member for Limerick had inadvertently said that 860 had died in that workhouse in one week. That was certainly wrong; but what was the fact? 490 had died in one week, and it was stated upon authority, that the cholera and fever arose solely from utter destitution and starvation. Whatever had been done up to the present moment towards relieving distress in Ireland, had been an entire failure. His hon. Friend might make mistakes—Her Majesty's Ministers might take advantage of those mistakes, and the hon. Gentleman opposite, the Member for Cavan (the chairman of the Poor Law Committee), might try to represent the extent of the distress existing in Ireland to be much less than it really was; but the facts were too palpable to be gainsaid. It could not be denied that the Government had not done its duty. The opportunity was now open to the noble Lord to bring forward some of those comprehensive measures which had been suggested by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth.


denied having attempted to diminish the amount of evil that existed in Ireland, or to represent the distress prevailing in that country to be less than it really was. With respect to the Ballinasloe union, the fact was, that great distress existed there, and in order to meet that distress, fourteen or fifteen additional houses were taken to receive the paupers. The cholera and dysentery occurred in the union, and some of those auxiliary houses were converted into hospitals, where the people afflicted with cholera were taken, and in a few days after died—not for want of sufficient relief, but from the disease with which they were afflicted before they entered the workhouse. The hon. Member for Limerick, however, and others, were certainly guilty of exaggeration, and he believed that, in the cases mentioned, the mortality had chiefly arisen from cholera, and that no efforts on the part of the Government could have arrested it.


said, the hon. Gentleman had misunderstood him. He did not mean to imply anything against his conduct as chairman of the Poor Law Committee, for in fact he knew nothing about it. What he alluded to was, a remark which the hon. Gentleman had made, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking, to the effect, that 860 persons, instead of being dead, were receiving relief in the Ballinasloe workhouse.


said, it was very easy to say that a few thousand pounds would relieve the distress in Ireland; it was easy to say that the responsibility of every death rested upon the shoulders of the Government; but those were very unfair and unjust statements to make in that House. He believed the noble Lord at the head of the Government had undertaken what no individual or Government could execute—viz., to maintain the lives of all the distressed people in Ireland. It was utterly impossible that a whole people could be fed, except from the ground which they themselves occupied; it was hopeless to expect that the great mass of any population could be fed by extraneous assistance, and by food brought from a distance. He had long been anxious that an effort should be made to induce the ablebodied poor to cultivate the ground, so that food might be raised for them upon the spot where they lived; but he thought it was quite unjust to say that Government had been behind Parliament, or the people of this country, in the measures which they had taken with regard to Ireland. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Cockermouth had pointed to an individual Member of that House—a right hon. Gentleman opposite—as one great cause of the opposition to further grants in that House. He (Mr. Denison) believed that the House and the country, seeing what had been the effect of the enormous advances that had been made, seeing the comparatively small benefit which they had produced, were unwilling that any further grants should be given for the same purpose.


did not blame the Government, but it could not be denied that thousands were dying daily, and that within twelve hours' journey of the metropolis of the British empire—a metropolis famed for its great wealth. He was bound to say that it was quite unnecessary for the hon. Gentleman the chairman of the Poor Law Committee to enter into any defence of himself, for he (Mr. Reynolds) had never found any man display more humanity than the hon. Gentleman in conducting an inquiry into such a painful subject. He (Mr. Reynolds) would wish to know if any instructions had been given to put an end to the frightful state of things at present existing. The total number of deaths in the Ballinasloe union had been 1,150. It appeared that the population of the town, which was a small one, was 4,000; and that 4,700 of the population of the union were in the workhouse. Since a statement he had made on a former night had been denied, he must be permitted to say that the guardians, whom he charged with the grossest inhumanity, passed a resolution by which they concentrated the whole of the diseased and famished poor within the walls of the workhouse. They said, in effect, to a destitute person, twenty miles from the house, "Now, you are afflicted with typhus, you shall obtain no relief except you go into the house at a distance of twenty miles," for the union contained an area of 250 square miles. He asked the representatives of the British people whether they were prepared to sit quietly on the benches of the House of Commons while these awful slaughters of the people of Ireland were taking place. If one life in England was lost in a similar manner, the whole press teemed with it, while in Ireland thousands were dying every week without any notice being taken of it. What had the Rev. Mr. Anderson, the minister of Ballinarobe, stated to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, in a letter he had written to him? He had stated that no language he could use could describe the misery that was existing in that union. He had heard a good deal in that House of comprehensive measures for Ireland—comprehensive measures for what, he would ask? Why, for skeletons who could not walk. It had been said, what had Ireland done for herself? He would answer that question by stating that she had paid two millions and a half in eighteen months for the relief of her destitute poor. In his opinion the first duty of the Government was to save the lives of the people, and he trusted that they would not allow the people of Ireland to say this, which in fact they were saying, that if you cannot govern Ireland, let Ireland govern herself.


wished to correct an error into which several hon. Members appeared to have fallen, with reference to the statement which he had made, upon the authority of the Earl of Clancarty, with respect to the mortality in the Ballinasloe workhouse. The noble Lord had not informed him that the mortality in that workhouse had, in the week succeeding that during which it amounted to 490, fallen to an average of six per day. What he said was, that the highest degree of mortality was attained during the period at which the cholera was raging; that it then amounted to 490 a week; but so far from having increased from that amount to 860, it had very materially diminished. He (Sir G. Grey) had only further to add, that when a disposition was shown to reproach the people of this country with being unwilling to continue the system of grants from the public purse for the relief of Irish distress, it must be recollected how severe was the pressure of local taxation, occasioned by the relief afforded from the poor-rates to Irish paupers. He was in the daily receipt of communications from all parts of the country, complaining of the heavy burdens thrown upon unions, by the number of Irish who were receiving relief as casual paupers. To the sum, then, of 86,000l, advanced since the 31st of January by the Imperial Treasury, must be added the great amount contributed for the relief of Irish necessities from the poor-rates, paid by the people of this country.


wished to know the ultimatum of Her Majesty's Government upon this point—whether they were determined that no further amount of money was to be granted—under any circumstances which might occur—from the imperial treasury for the relief of Irish distress? The people of Ireland had a right to have a definite answer to this question, in order that they might know exactly on what tenure the union between the two countries was to rest.


The noble Lord has heard other hon. Members ask whether I was prepared to say that no further grants would be asked for, for the relief of Irish distress. The hon. Gentleman who put that question to me did it with the view of protecting the public purse from any such grants; but on all the occasions on which I have been thus interrogated, I have uniformly refused to give any pledge whatever as to our intentions on the subject. Her Majesty's Government must act upon their own views of the circumstances occurring in Ireland.


explained: He had opposed the rate in aid because it would aggravate Irish distress.


again rose, and was met by loud cries of "Order!" and "Spoke!" He presumed that he would be perfectly in order if he moved the adjournment of the House.


trusted that the hon. Gentleman would confine himself to the question of adjournment.


then proceeded to state that it was quite clear that there was no disposition on the part of the House to consider the question of Irish distress.


wished to know whether the hon. Member for Limerick had moved the adjournment of the House, with a view to the speedy discussion of Irish distress?


continued: The scale of relief administered in Ireland was too low—lower in fact than it was either in England or Scotland. The hon. Gentleman proceeded to charge the Government with a design of starving out the Irish people—a charge which he had already made, but which had never been answered.


inquired who seconded the Motion of the hon. Gentleman? No one replied, and the subject and the Motion dropped together.