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in County Clare 1534 - 1911
George Poulett Scrope, Visit to West Clare, 1849
George Scrope, geologist and politician, was the son of John Poulett Thomson, head of a company of Russia Merchants. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, he graduated a B.A. in 1821. A keen geologist from youth, he witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 1817, which inspired in him a lifelong interest in volcanic studies. He assumed the surname Scrope on his marriage to the heiress Emma Phibbs Scrope in 1821. Elected M.P. in 1833, he represented the borough of Stroud until his retirement in 1868. He was a strong advocate of free trade and of social reform, especially of the poor laws. All his causes were promoted by his pen only as he never spoke in parliament. He was a silent member and was given the nickname 'Pamphlet Scrope’. It is estimated that he published some seventy pamphlets during his political career. The harrowing accounts of famine in Ireland brought him to County Clare in 1849. Scrope was convinced that, with responsible landlords and improved agricultural methods, the land of Ireland could be made to yield sufficient food for the starving people. He had a good understanding of Irish social realities and his proposed reforms were based on sound economic argument. On his retirement from politics Scrope returned to geological research. He published thirty four major papers on the subject and in 1867 was awarded a medal of merit by the Geological Society. In later years, despite a demanding work schedule, he showed no sign of mental decline and died in 1876 at the age of seventy nine.
While steaming down the noble estuary of the Shannon from Limerick to Kilrush, I admired, of course, as all must do, the splendid example of river scenery, the rich land sloping on either hand to the river, the handsome mansions, picturesque old towers and abbeys and thick tufted woods. But it was impossible, at the same time, not to remember the intense sufferings that had been endured for years, and were, even at the moment, borne by the population on both banks - in Limerick county scarcely less than in Clare - the extent to which destitution, disease and death were still at their foul work amidst those smiling and happy looking scenes. And this while the land is, by general admission and avowal, not made to produce one third of what it is capable of producing, nor affords employment to one half the amount of labour which is required to develop its natural fertility. I saw much doing, however, on the estates of Lord Clare, and one or two others. Their hills were scored with drainage works, executed under the Land Improvement Act. But I was assured, upon authority fully to be depended on, that every acre of the extensive tracts stretching around for miles wanted, and would repay the cost of, similar improvements to the full, as much as the comparatively small surface on which they are as yet in operation. Is it not then a sin and a shame that able-bodied men should be starving on all sides for want of work - some literally starving, as alas! I soon saw them too certainly before my eyes - others maintained by the thousand in idleness - uselessly at all events - at the cost of the industrious community, upon local rates, rates in aid, or the national taxation? . . . These were the reflections with which upon my mind I descended the lovely waters of the Shannon, on my way to Kilrush. . . .
I was assured, on the united authority of the admirable poor law officers who are devoting themselves to the perilous task of endeavouring to relieve the unparalleled destitution of this district, that in the Kilrush union alone, within the last two years, 20,000 human beings at least have been turned out of their homes, and their houses for the most part levelled; the population of the whole union being in 1841 but 82,000. What I saw confirmed me in the belief of this otherwise almost incredible fact. Wherever I went - and I drove in many directions over the union, in the company with Captain Kennedy, the indefatigable and humane inspector, whose fearlessness in exposing the horrors of these evictions is beyond all praise - I passed continually the traces of the ‘levellers’. Sometimes eight or ten broken gables of stone-built houses were seen to rear their blackened and skeleton frames against the sky, betokening what had once been a comfortable hamlet - now a pile of ruins. Sometimes a few mere heaps of dirt, almost choked by the weeds which grew around, announced the wreck of a mud hovel. Some were single some in twos and threes. At times a whole street in a village had been destroyed. I seemed to be tracking the course of an invading army.
It is needless to particularise the properties on which these sights were visible. This seemed to be the general character of the district. If any exception appeared, I learned that there also the preliminary notice of ejectment had been served, and the fate of the inhabitants was only momentarily postponed. I drove through more than one village in which the sheriff and his posse, and the landlords’ bailiffs with their crow-bars, were expected that day or the morrow, and the inhabitants - in the unresisting apathy of despair - were awaiting the execution of the sentence, which would deprive them of home and shelter for ever. On one property alone 600 souls were thus hourly expecting this doom!
And where were those on whom that sentence had already been executed - the 20,000 evicted, destitute poor of the last two years? Where indeed! My informants assured me that, to the best of their knowledge, the greater number of these are dead! And they further expressed their belief, that in spite of all their efforts, notwithstanding the relief afforded through them to some 30,000 recipients at present - a number of which would be largely increased before long, if the present system be continued and no check placed upon the exterminators - one half at least of the remaining population must likewise perish in the ensuing winter and spring. . . .
The general ruin and devastation visible on the face of the country would almost make exaggeration impossible. In each day’s drive I passed the sight of many hundred habitations unroofed or levelled with the ground. In some of these ruins a faint smoke, rising from one corner showed the remnant of a family formerly dwelling there, still crouched under a few sticks and sods propped against the broken wall. But of course even this frail shelter would be soon denied them. These wretched beings. And others who yet occupy their houses, but expected soon to be forced out, were the recipients of outdoor relief. And never shall I forget the crowd of miserable objects that clustered around the depots where the weekly meal was being issued. Remember that no clothing, or means of providing it is permitted by the law to be given to outdoor paupers; and yet many may have been on the relief list for years past. No wonder that they are but half covered by rags, which seem dropping off in fragments as they move. What can become of these poor creatures in winter? but the hollow cheeks and emaciated limbs in many, especially the children, too clearly reply. . . .
Orders have been received from the commissioners, just previous to my visit, for the thinning of the relief list; and many hundreds had been struck off belonging to particular classes of the able-bodied, great efforts were being made to fit up a new auxiliary workhouse for their reception. There appeared to be a great indisposition to enter the workhouse, under the impression it was death to do so. This is caused to a great degree by the numerous deaths that have occurred in the house which, however, are not owing to want of nourishment there, but to the fact the poor wretches, postponing their entrance there to the last, carry the seeds of mortality in their constitutions with them. They go in only to die. Others, who have come out, some of whom I questioned, spread the report that the food is insufficient there. But from what I saw myself, both in the central and auxiliary houses, and from the evident humanity of the vice guardians, and their anxiety for the safety of the poor, I am confident this is a false impression, though I believe not a wilful one. . . .
The general surface of the country is an undulating plane, scarcely anywhere rising to elevations of more than a hundred feet above the sea. The soil is deep and friable, easily worked with the spade or plough, of a very good quality, especially suited to green crops, and capable of bearing excellent crops of oats or barley, of which I saw good samples wherever anything worthy of the name of cultivation had been pursued. In some still rarer instances I observed cabbages, parsnip, turnip and mangle growing luxuriantly, and showing the soil and climate to be admirably suited to them. Although the Atlantic breezes seem to be fatal to all vegetation that rises high above the surface (not a tree or bush being visible through the length and breath of the union), there are, from the mild temperature and moisture favourable to the growth of root crops and artificial grasses, and by no means injurious to cereals. Sea-weed and a very fertilising calcareous sea sand are likewise at hand along the coast - where the population most abounds - for application of manure, beyond what might be made of the land. . . .
There is a considerable surface of unreclaimed bog, composed of black peat, and evidently capable of producing very fair crops of turnips, cabbages, oats and potatoes. Of the latter I saw samples dug out which positively whitened the black soil through their abundance and size. And this upon pure peat, ten feet deep, without other drainage than the furrows between the lazy beds. The crop was equally good where the peat had been cut away for fuel, and on the adjoining surface of the uncut bog. I was told by farmers and others that the potatoes grown upon the black peat had scarcely ever failed; which agrees with what I have before stated as to the potato crops of the Lancashire mosses; and excites astonishment that so little of the surface of these bogs have been planted during the last two or three years, in which a sound crop of potatoes would have made the fortune of its possessor. . . .
Moreover, as I have already said, the clearance system must be checked, either by direct prohibition, or, at least, by making those who pursue it responsible for the pauperism they thereby create. . . .
An example may serve to show the expediency of this last proposal. Close behind the small town of Kilrush is an extensive estate, than which in no part of the Union is there a tract of land more wretchedly treated and desolated by mismanagement. I could see nowhere upon it a drain opened - a field well tilled. Everywhere ruined hovels, and a wilderness of weeds. On this estate alone no fewer than 154 houses have been lately levelled; and as many families, comprising nearly a thousand souls driven from their homes and holdings! Nor has this proprietor, like some others, the excuse of insolvency to plead. He is said to be wealthy. Further than this, when it was proposed to send a ‘practical instructor’ in husbandry down to this wretchedly cultivated district and only £25 was asked for this purpose from the whole body of landowners, not one farthing would this gentleman contribute.
Adjoining to this estate is one belonging to another proprietor, who finding his too crowded for their comfortable maintenance, provided the means of emigration for about 200 of them, and is now employing and assisting the remainder, among whom the vacated farms were divided, to improve and better cultivate their occupations.
Now, as the law stands at present, the latter estate will have to pay an overwhelming poor-rate to support the evicted and pauperised tenantry of the first. Is this just? Is it encouraging to that line of conduct in landowners which alone can save the country and the people?
By the several alterations of the law I have recommended, proprietors would be aided to exert themselves, to employ the people, and to improve their estates; and protected, while fulfilling this duty, from the consequences of their neighbour’s neglect, which would fall, as they ought, upon themselves alone.
Extracts taken from G. Poulett Scrope Esq., M.P., Some
Notes of a Tour in England, Scotland and Ireland, made with a View to
the Enquiry whether our Labouring Population be really Redundant
(London 1849), pp 28-43.