THE IRISH FAMINE
THE potato of the mid-nineteenth century, not yet even partially immunised against disease by scientific breeding, was singularly liable to failure.
MANY POTATO FAILURES
Twenty-four failures of the potato crop were listed by the Census of Ireland Commissioners of 1851.
In 1728 there had been such a scarcity that on the 26th of February there was a great rising of the populace of Cork; in 1739 the crop was 'entirely destroyed'; in 1740. 'entire failure' was reported; in 1770 the crop largely failed owing to curl; 1800 brought another 'general' failure; in 1807 half the crop was lost through frost. In 1821 and 1822 the potato failed completely in Minister and Connaught; distress, 'horrible beyond description', was reported in and near Skibbereen, and subscriptions were raised for relief, £115,000 in London and £18,000 in Dublin. 1830 and 1831 were years of failure in Mayo, Donegal and Galway; in 1832, 1833, 1834 and 1836 a large number of districts suffered serious loss from dry rot and the curl; in 1835 the potato failed in Ulster, and 1836 and 1837 brought 'extensive' failures throughout Ireland.
In 1839 failure was again universal throughout Ireland, from Bantry Bay to Lough Swilly; famine conditions followed, Government relief works were started and a Treasury grant made. In 1841 the potato crop failed in many districts, and in 1844 the early crop was widely lost.
Thus the unreliability of the potato was an accepted fact in Ireland, ranking with the vagaries of the weather, and in 1845 the possibility of yet another failure caused no particular alarm.
However, at the beginning of July of that year, the potato crop promised remarkably well—the weather was then dry and hot. The abrupt change which followed, extraordinary even for the fickle climate of Ireland, brought for upwards of three weeks one continued gloom, with low temperatures and 'a succession of most chilling rains and some fog'. Nevertheless, at the end of July the crop was still exceptionally heavy, and on July 23 the Freeman's Journal reported that 'the poor man's property, the potato crop, was never before so large and at the same time so abundant'. There was every sign of a year of plenty; old potatoes of excellent quality were, 'even at this advanced season', being sent in to market, showing that ample stocks were still in hand, new potatoes were already 'coming in freely', and on July 25, 1845, The Times, printing favourable reports from all four provinces of Ireland, announced that 'an early and productive harvest was everywhere expected'.
The first disquieting news came from an unexpected quarter. At the beginning of August, Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, received a letter from the Isle of Wight, as famous for its market gardens as anywhere in the South of England, reporting that disease had appeared in the potato crop there.
Though the significance of the news was not realized, this was the first recorded evidence that the 'blight' which had recently ravaged the potato crop in North America had crossed the Atlantic.
The British Government was anxious not only for Ireland but for England. During the previous fifty years potatoes had assumed a dangerous importance in the diet of the English labouring classes. Hard times, the blockade during the Napoleonic wars, the unemployment and wage-cutting, which followed the declaration of peace after Waterloo, had been gradually forcing the English labourer to eat potatoes in place of bread, and on September 30, 1845, The Times reported that in England the two main meals of a working man's day now consisted of potatoes. Indeed, but for the intervention of the blight, it is almost certain that the English labourer, however unwillingly, would have been driven to greater and greater dependence on the potato, and in due course suffered the insecurity a potato diet brings.
Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, circulated a letter of inquiry about the crop, and on August 11 Mr. Parker, a large grower and salesman, reported severe blight in Kent. The previous Tuesday he had driven round Sandwich, Ash and Wingham, to find the whole of the crop, early and late, including potatoes in the cottage gardens, 'entirely destroyed'. On Thursday, at Maidstone and Gravesend, he found 'fearful destruction'; that evening he had found blight just appearing at East and West Ham, and next day he had seen it at Leytonstone. It was understood, he added, that the situation was the same in Holland and France. If the failure should become general it would be 'a shocking calamity for the poor'.
A failure would be serious enough for England, but for Ireland it would be disaster, and Ireland loomed in every mind, wretched, rebellious and utterly dependent on the potato. 'Ireland, Ireland that cloud in the West, that coming storm,' wrote Gladstone to his wife that summer. As yet, however, no disease was reported from Ireland, though the weather had again become wet.
The leading horticultural paper in Great Britain was the Gardeners' Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette, which owed its influence and authority to the distinction of its editor, Dr. John Lindley, the first professor of botany to be appointed in the University of London and the man responsible for the establishment of Kew Gardens as the headquarters of botanical science for the British Empire. On August 16 he printed, without undue alarm, a report which described 'a blight of unusual character' in the Isle of Wight, and invited advice from subscribers. Potato disease was familiar in England: it had occurred, for instance, in East Kent in the previous autumn, and the news from the Isle of Wight caused no great apprehension. But a week later, on August 23, Dr. Lindley was telling his readers, in consternation: 'A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop. On all sides we hear of the destruction. In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market ... As for cure for this distemper, there is none ... We are visited by a great calamity which we must bear.'
It was now only a question of time before the blight spread to Ireland, and on September 13 Dr. Lindley held up publication of the Gardeners' Chronicle to make a dramatic announcement. 'We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops about Dublin are suddenly perishing ... where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?'
Nevertheless, through the next few weeks the British Government was optimistic. Very likely the failure would be local, as had often happened in the past; and the Home Secretary, who 'repeatedly' requested information from Ireland, was receiving many favourable reports. These were explained later by the sporadic nature of the failure of 1845—'the country is like a checker-board,' wrote a Government official, 'black and white next door. Hence the 'contradictory reports'. It was, too, the habitual policy of British governments to discount the veracity of news from Ireland: 'there is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable', wrote Sir Robert Peel on October 13, 1845. For the credit of British administration it was perhaps better not to admit that Ireland was as poverty-stricken and wretched as reports persistently affirmed.
Plowever, the potato disease devastating Europe had undeniably appeared in Ireland. Now the question was, how far would it spread ?
For the next week or two it was possible to hope. On September 25, 1845, Mr. Robert Murray, of the Provincial Bank of Ireland, in Dublin, wrote to Mr. Henry Goulburn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the 'alleged failure of the potato crop was very greatly exaggerated'. A week before this a circular had been sent to all officers of the Irish Constabulary, directing that weekly reports be submitted on the state of the crop in their districts, and on the 28th Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, received 'more satisfactory accounts of the potato crop in Ireland' and was 'willing now to hope that the failure, though extensive, is by no means general'. On October 6 he wrote again that the accounts of the potato crops were more favourable than he had ventured to expect, though 'the recent terrible rains' would do harm; and two days later he was still 'sanguine in my belief that the potato crop, tho' damaged, is not so much below the average as some of the exaggerated reports from Ireland have led us to apprehend'.
THE FACTS BECOME KNOWN
A week later it was time for the potatoes to be taken out of the ground. As soon as digging began disastrous reports poured in.
Sir James Graham wrote to Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, in the utmost agitation. He had received information of the most serious nature from the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, and it required the immediate attention of the Government. Alarming reports on the state of the potato crop were being received in Dublin, and Lord Heytesbury had warned the Government to be prepared for the worst. Though, Graham added, he himself was still willing to hope that present fears might be exaggerated, nevertheless, 'our Lord-Lieutenant... does not readily give credit to false alarms'. It was necessary to be prepared for famine in Ireland. And what substitute could be found for the potato, the cheapest of all foods ? Perhaps Indian corn [maize], but that was an acquired taste. Should the ports be opened to free trade in food? Should the duties be lifted on flour and oatmeal ? What should be done ?
On the same day Sir Robert Peel wrote to Graham that he, too, had heard from Lord Heytesbury and that he found 'the accounts very alarming', though he again reminded Graham that there was always a tendency to exaggeration in Irish news. However, at an early period the Cabinet would have 'imposed' on them the necessity for adopting measures for relief. It had been suggested that the export of food from Ireland should be prohibited and that the distillation of spirits from grain be made illegal, but he had no confidence in the efficacy of these measures—'the removal of impediments to import is the only effectual remedy'.
The implications of that phrase were very nearly as alarming to Graham as the prospect of famine in Ireland. Removal of impediments to import meant the removal of the duties on foreign grain, the famous Corn Laws, which protected the price of United Kingdom home-grown grain. No issue was so violently controversial and so dangerous, politically, as the repeal of the Corn Laws.
Graham hastened to procrastinate and to soothe the Prime Minister. No steps need be taken yet, he wrote on October 15, since the truth about the potato crop could not fully be ascertained until digging was completed. He agreed, however, that to prohibit the export of food from Ireland would be an inadequate measure to meet the crisis.
Sir Robert Peel, on whom as Prime Minister the responsibility for Ireland would fall during the coming crisis, was a man of outstanding talents with considerable experience of Ireland—he had been Chief Secretary for six years.
During that period he had shown no liking for the Irish character, no sympathy with Irish aspirations; 'cordially detested' Irish life, and had identified himself with the extreme Protestant party. Year after year he had opposed the motions for Catholic emancipation and for enquiry into the state of Ireland; he had also been largely responsible for a severe Coercion Act and had supported the revival of punishing clauses from the repealed Insurrection Act. The Duke of Leinster, premier nobleman of Ireland and head of the great Norman-Irish family of FitzGerald (called the 'good family' in Ireland), recalled that Peel, when Chief Secretary for Ireland, frequently rose after dinner and, assuming the traditional attitude, 'standing on his chair with one foot on the table', drank the Orange toast to 'the pious, glorious and immortal memory of William III. These and similar activities led O'Connell to give him the nickname, by which he is still remembered in Ireland, of 'Orange Peel'.
Deliberate in manner, carefully and cautiously weighing his words and possessing a singularly chilly smile, 'like the silver plate on a coffin', Peel did not readily inspire liking; he had, wrote Greville, 'no popular or ingratiating qualities'. But though Peel might be a man whom it was difficult to like, he was also a man whom it was impossible not to respect. His family and his friends loved him, he possessed consummate political skill, vigour and power in debate, and a supreme capacity for administration. Extreme conscientiousness and a sense of justice were his leading characteristics, and however little liking Peel might feel for the Irish people he could be relied upon never to allow his feelings to influence what he considered to be his duty towards Ireland.
The passage of time had somewhat softened Peel's attitude on Irish questions; it was nearly thirty years since he had drunk the Orange toast, and recently he had been responsible for measures of conciliation; he had appointed the Devon Commission in 1843, he trebled the annual grant to the Catholic seminary of Maynooth, and he established non-sectarian 'Queen's Colleges' in three Irish towns.
Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, was already distrusted in Ireland for his part in the eleventh-hour suppression of the monster meeting at Clontarf and for the subsequent arrest and trial of Daniel O'Connell. Head of an old north-country family, tall, handsome and supercilious, he also possessed personal integrity and a capacity for business, and showed an invaluable attention to detail. He was Peel's closest colleague and had been in office as Secretary of State for Home Affairs, and consequently responsible for the administration of Ireland, since 1841.
THINGS GET WORSE
As digging of the potato crop progressed the news from Ireland grew steadily worse, and the Constabulary Reports of October 15 were the gloomiest yet forwarded. In Antrim, the failure was more serious than at first supposed; Armagh had hardly a sound potato; Iri the South, Bantry and Clonakilty reported great failure; in Bandon and Kinsale disease was extending, while in the fertile midlands and Kildare blight had appeared. In Wicklow potatoes grown between the sea and the mountains, where the clouds broke on the mountains in rain, were diseased to an alarming extent. In Monaghan, Tyrone and several other counties it was reported that 'potatoes bought a few days ago, seemingly remarkably good, have rotted'.
The soundness of the potato when first dug was responsible for bewildering contradictions. Optimists, delighted to witness the digging of what seemed a splendid crop, hastened to send off glowing accounts. Lord Heytesbury received one such report, on October 17, from the Dean of Ossory, though in forwarding it he wrote he 'must observe that the Dean tho' a sensible is a somewhat sanguine man'.
In almost every case, hope was short-lived. Within a few days the fine-looking tubers had become a stinking mass of corruption, and growers began to flood the market with potatoes, anxious to get rid of them before the rot set in.
For some years Peel had been on friendly terms with Dr. Lyon Playfair, a scientist and chemist of considerable reputation, and on October 18 he was staying at Peel's country house. Dr. Playfair had studied chemistry under the great Liebig, but was perhaps more successful as a courtier than as a scientist. He had conducted scientific experiments before Queen Victoria and was a noted sitter on Parliamentary enquiries and Royal Commissions. Subsequently he became a gentleman usher in Prince Albert's household and was, finally, elevated to the peerage as the first Baron Playfair of St. Andrews.
He now advanced a theory that potatoes which were apparently sound, or almost sound, when dug could be given a chemical treatment to prevent them from rotting: 'it might be possible to mitigate the evil of the potato disease by some chemical application and by the issue of plain, practical instructions for the treatment of those potatoes which are not at all, or only partially, affected by the disease.'
Peel decided to set up a Scientific Commission in Ireland to investigate what science could do to save the potato. Dr. Lindley agreed to serve with Playfair, and they crossed immediately to Dublin. By October 24 the Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury, was reporting that 'the two professors' were already 'earnestly employed'. Indeed, that very day, as a proof of 'unremitting attenion', the first of six long documents was addressed to Lord Heytesbury. In addition, Peel arranged for the co-operation and assistance of an Irish Catholic scientist of eminence, Professor Robert Kane, knighted in 1846, who was already making an investigation of the potato disease on behalf of the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society for Ireland and had recently published an important book, The Industrial Resources of Ireland. Kane was to supply local knowledge and information, and it was hoped that, since neither Lindley nor Playfair had any previous connection with Ireland, they would be able to form 'a dispassionate judgment as to the real character and extent of the evil to be apprehended'.
No deliberation was necessary. The briefest possible enquiry was sufficient for the professors to become alarmed, and after two days Playfair wrote to Peel that 'the account is melancholy and it cannot be looked upon in other than a most serious light. We are confident that the accounts are under-rated rather than exaggerated ... I am sorry to give you so desponding a letter, but we cannot conceal from ourselves that the case is much worse than the public supposes'.
All too soon the Scientific Commissioners were estimating that half the potato crop of Ireland had either been already destroyed or would shortly perish; thus to find a method of preventing potatoes sound when dug from rotting was of overwhelming importance. A number of suggestions were now put forward by the Commissioners. Advanced in all good faith, these recommendations were the first evidence of that fatal ignorance of conditions in Ireland which was to be responsible for a large part of the suffering in the famine years.
The traditional Irish method was to store potatoes in a pit; to dig a pit was simple, and in it the tubers were to some extent protected from frost and rain. In the Commissioners' 'Advice concerning the Potato crop to the Farmers and Peasantry of Ireland' the peasant was instructed to dry his potatoes in the sun, then to 'mark out on the ground a space six feet wide and as long as you please. Dig a shallow trench two feet wide all round, and throw the mould upon the space, then level it and cover it with a floor of turf sods set on their edges'. On this was to be sifted 'packing stuff', made by 'mixing a barrel of freshly burnt unslacked lime, broken into pieces as large as marbles, with two barrels of sand or earth, or by mixing equal parts of burnt turf and dry sawdust'.
There followed instructions so complicated that the 'indefatigable trio of potato Commissioners', as The Times called them, appear to have had some doubts as to their intelligibility, for they concluded, 'If you do not understand this, ask your landlord or clergyman to explain its meaning.'
To deal with diseased potatoes, the Irish peasant was to provide himself with a rasp or grater, a linen cloth, a hair sieve or a cloth strainer, a pail or tub or two for water, and a griddle. He was then to rasp the bad potatoes, very finely, into one of the tubs, wash the pulp, strain, repeat the process, then dry the pulp on the griddle, over a slack fire. In the water used for washing the pulp would be found a milky substance, which was starch. Good, wholesome bread could be made by mixing the starch with dried potato pulp, peas-meal, bean-meal, oatmeal or flour. 'There will be of course,' wrote the Commissioners, 'a good deal of trouble in doing all we have recommended, and perhaps you will not succeed very well at first; but we are confident all true Irishmen will exert themselves, and never let it be said that in Ireland the inhabitants wanted courage to meet difficulties against which other nations are successfully struggling.'
Seventy thousand copies of these well-meant suggestions were printed by the Government and circulated to local agricultural committees, to newspapers, and to parish priests, who received thirty copies each.
This was only a beginning. For between October 26 and November 12 the 'untiring industry' of the Commissioners produced, in rapid succession, what The Times called 'four monster reports', as well as two statements dated from the Royal Dublin Society and addressed to the Lord-Lieutenant. Of these Graham wrote to Peel, on November 8, that it was 'difficult to extract much that is useful from Playfair's letters'.
Four days later, having been in Ireland something less than three weeks, the men of science returned to London.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the possibility of making use of diseased potatoes was being anxiously explored, and confusion arose about starch. In the Nation a correspondent stated that as much as twenty to twenty-one pounds of starch might be extracted from every hundred pounds of diseased potatoes, and this could be used, mixed with flour, for pies, puddings and 'farinaceous spoon meat'; at the same time the Freeman's Journal urged that a machine for extracting starch on a large scale be installed in every workhouse.
Unhappily, the Commissioners were obliged to point out that 'starch is not the material which serves for the support of the human frame, and an animal fed merely on starch dies of starvation nearly, if not quite as soon, as if totally deprived of food'.
Perhaps, then, the good and bad parts of a partially blighted potato could be used separately? Sir John Murray, at any rate, printed in the Nation a recipe he claimed to have tested: 'cut off diseased parts and steam or boil into a mash with bran and salt. When warm [it] is nourishing for pigs and cattle but tainted potatoes cold are apt to disagree.' Other correspondents' proposals directed that the potatoes should be cut up in slices and soaked in bog water, or dried out in ovens, or spread with lime and salt, or treated with chlorine gas, which was to be manufactured by the Irish cottiers themselves mixing vitriol, manganese dioxide and salt, thus embarking on the domestic manufacture of poison gas.
NO COMMON SENSE
Common sense was forgotten. One suggestion called for the baking of diseased potatoes, presumably in primitive Irish cabins, for 18 to 22 minutes at a temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. When 'blackish matter' with a foul smell oozed out, the potatoes would, it was claimed, then turn white, and could be peeled.
All specifics, all nostrums were useless. Whether ventilated, desiccated, salted, or gassed, the potatoes melted into a slimy, decaying mass; and pits, on being opened, were found to be filled with diseased potatoes—'six months' provisions a mass of rottenness'. Alarm turned to terror.
WHY THE ROT?
Where did the rot come from, people asked fearfully? Did it fall from the sky in rain, did it drop from the clouds, did it rise from the ground? Had the soil itself become infected?
Wild suggestions were advanced. Had the potatoes become blighted by 'static electricity', generated in the atmosphere by the puffs of smoke and steam issuing from the hundreds of locomotives that had just come into use? Or was the disease caused by 'morti-ferous vapours' rising from 'blind volcanoes' in the interior of the earth? Another school of thought blamed guano manure, consisting of the droppings of sea fowl, which had recently become fashionable. From County Clare came a new theory: a field was partly covered with clothes laid out to dry, and the covered portion escaped the blight—'this,' reported the Nation, 'proves that the blow came from the air.'
The opinion of Dr. Lindley himself was that the potatoes had contracted a kind of dropsy. Through the extraordinary dampness of the weather they had become laden with water they could not absorb, and 'wet putrefaction' had set in. Torrential rain was commonly blamed. It is the 'general opinion', wrote Lord Heytesbury, that 'the season had been so ungenial and the absence of sunshine so remarkable during the last two months that the potatoes have imperfectly ripened'.
NOTHING AS BAD AS THIS
At the end of October urgent warnings began to reach the Government. Lord Monteagle, one of the most enlightened Irish landowners and a man of importance—he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1835 to 1839—told Sir Robert Peel on October 24 that he did not 'recollect any former example of a calamitous failure being anything near so great and alarming as the present ... I know not how the peasantry will get through the winter in very many cases.'
Another ominous warning came from Coleraine. The condition of the potato crop throughout the whole country was 'deplorable', wrote the medical officer to the Coleraine workhouse on October 15. 'Nothing else is heard of, nothing else is spoken of ... Famine must be looked forward to and there will follow, as a natural consequence, as in former years, typhus fever, or some other malignant pestilence.'
On November 5 the Under-Secretary at Dublin Castle was warned by Lord Clare that he would not 'answer for the consequences' if a famine occurred. 'The farmers with a good supply of corn and high prices will struggle through the year; but what will you do with the unemployed multitude whose store of provisions for the next ten months is gone and who have not a shilling to purchase food ... the thousands of the occupiers of conacre land in wild and remote districts, how are they to exist until August 1846?'
ADD TO FOOD SUPPLY
Suggestions for adding to the available food supply included one for reducing the amount of corn given daily to Government horses: if the 12,000 police and army horses in Ireland were given five instead of ten pounds of corn daily, an extra 60,000 pounds a day would be available to feed the people. More far-reaching was a suggestion made by the Duke of Norfolk, that in place of the potato the Irish should learn to consume curry powder, on which, mixed with water, he appeared to believe the population of India was nourished.
NO STEPS TAKEN….UNTIL
Meanwhile, apart from the appointment of the 'men of science', the Government had taken no steps, and on October 28 a meeting was called by a committee of the Dublin Corporation, under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor. Three days later a meeting of citizens was called, which appointed a committee presided over by the Duke of Leinster. As a result on November 3 a deputation of the highest respectability waited on the Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury, to urge him to adopt measures 'to avert calamity'. The deputation included the Duke of Leinster, Daniel O'Connell, Lord Clon-cuny, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Henry Grattan, son of the famous patriot, Sir J. Murray, John Augustus O'Neill and some twenty others. The proposals, drawn up by O'Connell, called for the immediate stoppage of the export of corn and provisions and for the prohibition of distilling and brewing from grain; the ports should be thrown open for the free import of food and rice and Indian corn imported from the colonies; relief machinery must be set up in every county, stores of food established, and employment provided on works of public utility. It was proposed that the cost be met by a tax of ten per cent, on the rental of resident landlords and from twenty to fifty per cent, on that of absentees. In addition, a loan of £1,500,000 should be raised on the security of the proceeds of Irish woods and forests.
THE SILLY REPLY
The Lord-Lieutenant received the deputation 'very coldly' and read aloud a prepared reply. Reports on the potato crop varied and at times contradicted each other, and it was impossible to form an accurate opinion of the extent of the failure until digging was completed. The proposals submitted by the deputation would at once be placed before the Government, but the greater part of them required new legislation, and all must be 'maturely weighed'. As soon as Lord Heytesbury 'had concluded reading he began bowing the deputation out'.
Next day the Freeman's Journal denounced the Government in a furious leading article: 'They may starve! Such in spirit, if not in words, was the reply given yesterday by the English Viceroy to ... the deputation which ... prayed that the food of this kingdom be preserved, lest the people thereof perish.'
In fact, Peel had arrived at a momentous decision. To compensate for the failure the millions of Irish who had lived on potatoes must be fed on grain; to accomplish this, grain must be freely imported, and therefore the Corn Laws must be repealed.
The decision was not sudden but the result of long deliberation. Though famine in Ireland provided the immediate cause, Peel had been painfully moving for more than four years towards the conviction that he no longer believed in protection for British agriculture, and that the Corn Laws must be removed. He was well aware that to advocate Corn Law repeal meant almost certain political ruin—his old friend and supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, had gone to the length of resigning from the Cabinet in 1842 on a mild modification of the Corn Laws being proposed. Now, as the news from Ireland grew steadily worse, Peel suffered mental torture. 'I never witnessed in any case such agony,' wrote the Duke of Wellington. By October 15 Peel's decision had been made. 'The remedy,' he wrote, 'is the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food—that is, the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence.' And to inform the Cabinet of this most serious decision he summoned an emergency meeting for October 31.
The entanglement of the Irish famine with the repeal of the Corn Laws was a major misfortune for Ireland. Short of civil war, no issue in English history has provoked such passion as Corn Law repeal. As a consequence of Peel's decision the country was split in two, and the controversy was conducted with frightful acrimony and party bitterness. The potato failure was eclipsed by the burning domestic issue of Corn Law repeal. The Irish famine slipped into the background.
In the simplest terms the purpose of the Corn Laws was to keep up the price of home-grown grain. Duties on imported grain guaranteed English farmers a minimum and profitable price, and the burden of a higher price for bread was borne by the labouring classes, in particular by the millions of factory workers and operatives toiling in the great new industrial cities.
It was asserted that if the Corn Laws were repealed all classes connected with the land would be ruined and the traditional social structure of the country destroyed, and in 'the rising wrath of Tories and landlords' all interest in Ireland was submerged.
STILL MORE BLINDED MINDS
More unfortunate still, because the potato failure in Ireland provided an urgent reason for pressing forward with Corn Law repeal, the opponents of repeal denied that any failure had taken place, 'except to a very partial extent', and famine in Ireland became a Party question. The Tory Mayor of Liverpool refused to call a meeting for the relief of Irish distress, the Mansion House Committee in Dublin was accused of 'deluding the public with a false alarm', and the blight itself 'was represented as the invention of agitators on the other side of the water'. 'To profess belief in the fact of the existence of a formidable potato blight,' wrote Mr. Isaac Butt, Q.C., 'was as sure a method of being branded as a radical as to propose to destroy the Church.'
Peel's position was painful. He was leader of the Conservative Party, the Protectionist party, and he was aware that for him to propose repeal would be considered gross and shameful treachery.
The emergency meeting of the Cabinet summoned by him took place on October 31, and immediately it began 'very serious differences of opinion' became evident. The first day was occupied in reading aloud memoranda and reports from Ireland on the potato failure; next day the Prime Minister proposed that a relief commission should be set up in Ireland, employment on drainage increased, and a sum of money advanced to the Lord-Lieutenant to buy food for destitute districts. These proposals were readily approved; indeed, they were standard measures which had already been adopted in previous periods of famine in Ireland.
But, as Peel went on to point out, these measures required an advance of public money, and the first sum voted for the purchase of food to be issued to destitute districts must unavoidably open the 'whole question of the Corn Laws. Can we vote public money for the sustenance of any considerable portion of the people on account of actual or apprehended scarcity and maintain in full operation the existing restrictions on the free import of grain? ... I am bound to say,' declared Peel, 'my impression is we cannot.'
The crucial point had been reached, the issue of Corn Law repeal was out in the open, and the Cabinet split, with an overwhelming majority against Peel. To reach a decision proved impossible, and the Cabinet adjourned until November 6.
On that day Peel laid proposals before the Cabinet for the immediate relaxation of the Corn Law duties and the modification of the Corn Laws themselves in a bill to be brought forward after Christmas. He was once more defeated, being supported by only three of his fourteen Cabinet Ministers. Nevertheless, he determined not to resign on the spot: time should be allowed for reflection. The Cabinet was once more adjourned.
On November 15 Dr. Lindley and Dr. Playfair issued their official report. They had visited Louth, Meath, Westmeath, part of Kildare, and the districts round Dublin and Drogheda, some of the most fertile country in Ireland, and had examined official reports and returns at Dublin Castle. 'Judging from the evidence thus collected ... we can come to no other conclusion than that one half of the actual potato crop of Ireland is either destroyed or ... unfit for the food of man. We, moreover, feel it our duty to apprise you that we fear this to be a low estimate ... We would now add, melancholy as this picture is ... that in all probability the late rainy weather has rendered the mischief yet greater.'
When the Cabinet met again, on November 25, its attitude had modified, and after a further meeting, on December 2, Peel was 'not without hopes that there will be general concurrence'.
His hopes were not realized. After further discussion at Cabinets held on December 4 and 5, twelve out of his fourteen Cabinet Ministers, including the Duke of Wellington, were 'reluctantly' persuaded to agree with him, but two Ministers of immense influence and importance stood out. Neither Lord Stanley nor the Duke of Buccleuch would support 'a measure involving the ultimate repeal of the Corn Laws'.
Peel decided he must resign. Without the support of Lord Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch he thought it 'very doubtful' whether he could carry Corn Law repeal 'to a successful issue', and on December 5 he 'repaired to Osborne in the Isle of Wight' and tendered his resignation to Queen Victoria.
NEW GOVERNMENT…. NOT!
According to custom, the Queen then sent for the Leader of the Opposition, and requested him to form a government. The Party in opposition, the Whig Party, was led by Lord John Russell, who was pledged to Corn Law repeal; but after ten days suspense, negotiation and intense excitement, known as 'the famous ten days', Lord John, on December 20, wrote to the Queen, to state that he had found it impossible to form an administration. Great political difficulties, he wrote, lay before a government 'prepared to attempt the settlement of the Corn Laws', and the formation of a Cabinet had proved impossible because Lord Grey refused to take office if the headstrong and high-handed Lord Palmerston were made Foreign Secretary.
What Disraeli described as 'the poisoned chalice' was now handed back to Peel, who was summoned again by the Queen. 'On entering the room,' wrote Peel, 'Her Majesty said to me very graciously, "So far from taking leave of you, Sir Robert, I must require you to withdraw your resignation and remain in my service".'
PEEL BACK IN POWER….BUT DECLARED AN ENEMY
So Peel was Prime Minister once more, but in a situation of unexampled difficulty and complexity. Leader of the Tories, he was now to carry Corn Law repeal against a majority of his Party and in the midst of 'such a storm of rage and hatred as no other Minister was ever exposed to'. He was accused of apostasy, of turning his coat for his own ends; his conduct was christened the 'Great Betrayal', and Lord Alvanley declared he should not be allowed to die a natural death.
His support must come from the Opposition, but that support would be unwilling and resentful, since the Whigs considered "Corn Law repeal" their measure, and Peel had filched it from them. It was a further complication that between Peel and Lord John Russell the Whig leader a 'mutual antipathy' existed.
Nevertheless, Peel took up office again, with feelings of satisfaction. 'I resume power,' he wrote to Princess Lieven on December 26, 1845. '... I feel like a man restored to life after his funeral service has been preached.'
In common with the rest of the Conservatives, however, the Duke of Wellington, Peel's intimate friend and the pillar of the Tories, found the situation unpalatable. 'Rotten potatoes have done it all,' he grumbled to Greville…. 'they put Peel in his
TO BE CONTINUED