Written by Vladimir Moss



     Robert Tombs writes: “’The Hungry Forties’ – a term invented retrospectively during the anti-protectionist campaign of the 1900s – saw a Europe-wide economic slump of extreme severity. Beginning in 1846, this was a combination of the last of the age-old dearths caused by harvest failures and the first great global financial panic. Rising prices, a rush to import food, government borrowing and interest rate increases burst a speculative bubble based on railway-building. This gave rise to an acute sense of change and crisis, inspiring both utopian hopes and a sense of dread, as mass hunger and unemployment precipitates in 1848 a bloody cycle of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary conflict across much of Europe. The 1840s were also the climax of agonized English self-examination, the decade of several of Dickens’s most popular works – including The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), Barnaby Rudge (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), Dombey and Son (1848) and David Copperfield (1849-50); of Carlyle’s Chartism (1840), famously denouncing the ‘cash nexus’, and Past and Present (1843); of Disraeli’s Coningsby  (1844) and Sybil (1845); Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847); Charles Kingsley’s Yeast (1848); Thackeray’s Vanity Fair  (1848) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848); and impassioned poetry, including Thomas Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt’, Elizabeth Barrett’s ‘The Cry of the Children’ and Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’. Literature made metropolitan readers more aware of regional differences and problems, particularly those of the industrial north – though one reader declared that after reading the Brontës she would ‘rather visit the Red Indians than trust herself in Leeds’. The aim was to haunt readers’ imaginations and prick their consciences.

     “Bad weather and the arrival of an unknown plant disease from America in 1845 began ‘an ecological catastrophe almost unparalleled in modern history’ by destroying potato crops. In 1846 wheat and rye harvests also failed from Spain to Prussia. Potatoes provided good and cheap nourishment across northern Europe, and the crop failures caused some 40,000-50,000 deaths in Belgium and similar numbers in Prussia. Far worse ensued in Ireland, whose population had risen to at least 8 million (compared with England’s 13 million) and which was more dependent on potatoes than anywhere else, consuming some 7 million tons per year. The Irish famine, during which nearly a million people died [according to other estimates, 1.1 million between 1845 and 1850] and as many emigrated [mainly to the United States], has left a dark stain on English history, because of the overall responsibility of predominantly English governments. The tragedy has been described as ‘genocide’, developing an accusation first put forward by Irish nationalists in the 1860s. It bred generations of hatred, not least among Irish Americans. The genocide accusation, which can be found today on websites and in pop songs and was approved in the 1990s for teaching in schools in parts of the United States, alleges not merely that English aid was inadequate, but that the government deliberately blocked aid and created an artificial famine by extorting vast quantities of food from Ireland to feed England.”[1]


     Let us first listen to the case for the prosecution. Niall Ferguson writes: “It may have been phytophthora infestans that ruined the potatoes; but it was the dogmatic laissez-faire policies of Ireland’s British rulers that turned harvest failure into outright famine.”[2]

     John Mitchel put the same point as follows in his The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) 1860: “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.” “These words,” writes A.N. Wilson, “very understandably became the unshakeable conviction of the Irish, particularly those forced into exile by hunger. The tendency of modern historians is not so much to single out individuals for blame, such as Charles Edward Trevelyan, permanent head of the Treasury, as to point to the whole attitude of mind of the governing class and the, by modern standards, gross inequalities which were taken for granted. Almost any member of the governing class would have shared some of Trevelyan’s attitudes.

     “But there is more to John Mitchel’s famous statement (one could almost call it a declaration of war) than mere rhetoric. Deeply ingrained with the immediate horrors of the famine was the overall structure of Irish agrarian society, which placed Irish land and wealth in the hands of English (or in effect English) aristocrats. It was the belief of a Liberal laissez-faire economist such as Lord John Russell that the hunger of Irish peasants was not the responsibility of government but of landowners. No more callous example of a political doctrine being pursued to the death – quite literally – exists in the annals of British history. But Lord John Russell’s government, when considering the Irish problem, were not envisaging some faraway island in which they had no personal concern. A quarter of the peers in the House of Lords had Irish interests…”[3]

     Another factor contributing to English callousness was “No Popery”. English Protestantism had made a significant concession to Irish Catholicism in 1829, when, under the guidance of the Duke of Wellington (an Anglo-Irish landowner who also commanded many Irish soldiers in the Napoleonic wars), and under the pressure especially of the Catholic Member of Parliament for Co. Clare, Daniel O’Connell, the British government repealed the anti-Catholic legislation that had been in place since the Gunpowder Plot. And yet anti-Catholic feeling remained.

     Thus, as Wilson writes, “there were plenty who saw [the famine] as ‘a special “mercy”, calling sinners both to evangelical truth and the Dismantling of all artificial obstacles to divinely-inspired spiritual and economic order’, as one pamphlet put it.”[4]

     In spite of such attitudes, there were English men and women who felt their consciences and contributed to the relief of the famine – Queen Victoria and Baron Rothschild among them. “Yet these overtures from the English side,” continues Wilson, “were undoubtedly made against a tide of prejudice and bitterness. The hordes of Irish poor crowding into English slums did not evoke pity – rather, fear and contempt. The Whiggish Liberal Manchester Guardian blamed the famine quite largely on the feckless Irish attitudes to agriculture, family, life in general. Small English farmers, said this self-righteous newspaper, don’t divide farms into four which are only sufficient to feed one family. (The economic necessities which forced the Irish to do this were conveniently overlooked by the Manchester Guardian: indeed economic weakness, in the Darwinian jungle, is the equivalent of sin.) Why weren’t the English starving? Because ‘they bring up their children in habits of frugality, which qualify them for earning their own living, and then send them forth into the world to look for employment’. 

     “We are decades away from any organized Irish Republican Movement. Nevertheless, in the midst of the famine unrest, we find innumerable ripe examples of British double standards where violence is in question. An Englishman protecting his grossly selfish way of life with a huge apparatus of police and military, prepared to gun down the starving, is maintaining law and order. An Irishman retaliating is a terrorist. John Bright, the Liberal Free Trader, hero of the campaign against the Corn Laws, blamed Irish idleness for their hunger – ‘I believe it would be found on inquiry, that the population of Ireland, as compared with that of England, do not work more than two days a week.’ The marked increase in homicides during the years 1846 and 1847 filled these English liberals with terror. There were 68 reported homicides in Ireland in 1846, 96 in 1847, 126 shootings in the latter year compared with 55 the year before. Rather than putting these in the contexts of hundreds of thousands of deaths annually by starvation, the textile manufacturer from Rochdale blames all the violence of these starving Celts on their innate idleness. ‘Wherever a people are not industrious and not employed, there is the greatest danger of crime and outrage. Ireland is idle, and therefore she starves; Ireland starves, and therefore she rebels.’

     “Both halves of this sentence are factually wrong. Ireland most astonishingly did not rebel in, or immediately after, the famine years; and we have said enough to show that though there was poverty, extreme poverty, before 1845, many Irish families survived heroically on potatoes alone. The economic structure of a society in which they could afford a quarter or a half an acre of land on which to grow a spud while the Duke of Devonshire owned Lismore, Bolton (and half Yorkshire), Chatsworth (and ditto Derbyshire), the whole of Eastbourne and a huge palace in London was not of the Irish peasant’s making.


     “By 1848/9 the attitude of Lord John Russell’s government had become Malthusian, not to say Darwinian, in the extreme. As always happens when famine takes hold, it was followed by disease. Cholera swept through Belfast and Co. Mayo in 1848, spreading to other districts. In the workhouses, crowded to capacity, dysentery, fevers and ophthalmia were endemic – 13,812 cases of ophthalmia in 1849 rose to 27,200 in 1850. Clarendon and Trevelyan now used the euphemism of ‘natural causes’ to describe death by starvation. The gentle Platonist-Hegelian philosopher Benjamin Jowett once said, ‘I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.’ As so often Sydney Smith was right: ‘The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots.’”[5]




     And now the case for the defence, made by Robert Tombs: “When the blight was first reported to [Tory Prime Minister Lord] Peel in September 1845 – a potato merchant wrote warning him personally – he bought American maize for Ireland to feed 500,000 people for three months. In January 1846 he suspended the Corn Laws to allow untaxed imports. A Public Works (Ireland) bill was introduced to provide employment. But the early potato crop was good, and disguised the peril. Irish nationalists minimized the problem and rejected aid: ‘No begging appeals to Ireland… For who could make men and freemen of a nation so basely degraded?’ Peel’s fall in June 1846, after repealing the Corn Laws, brought in a Whig government under Lord John Russell, which has long been condemned for dogmatic adherence to free trade. The traditional villain of the piece is Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, accused of dogmatism, racism and an Evangelical belief that the famine was the work of Providence. There is some truth in this, though Providentialist views were widespread, including in the Irish Catholic Church. The Whigs certainly believed in the beneficence of free trade, including exports from Ireland. They set up a public-works programme as a means of famine relief, though rejecting a large-scale plan of railway-building, aid to farmers and taxes on absentee landlords proposed by the Tory Lord George Bentinck. At the peak, over 700,000 people were being employed on public works – more than the total employment provided by Irish agriculture. But this was still insufficient. The potato crop failed disastrously again in 1846. Trevelyan wrote to a Catholic priest: ‘The famine is increasing; deaths become more frequent; and the prospect may well appal the heart’. In January 1847 the government began direct food distribution through soup kitchens, which by July fed 3 million people daily, but this was considered only possible for a few months, and was cut back when the next harvest came. Trevelyan declared that ‘Absolute famine still stares whole districts in the face,’ and appealed for ‘a great effort [of] human exertion’ – voluntary contributions from the English people. A leading nationalist paper replied: ‘We scorn, we repulse, we curse all English alms.’ The main collection in England, despite its own economic depression, raised £435,000 – the equivalent of over £100 million today – smaller contributions came from the empire and America. The British Relief Association, a charity, was helping to feed up to 200,000 children. Another £0.5m came from public funds, equal to a sixth of total state spending and ‘probably unprecedented in famine history’. Yet it was nowhere near enough. People continued to die in their thousands, mostly from untreatable epidemic diseases worsened by hunger, movement and overcrowding at soup kitchens and workhouses, where many doctors and clergy also died. Trevelyan and Russell doubtless believed that everything possible had been done, and that the only long-term remedies were migration and agricultural reform. Palmerston, Foreign Secretary and an Irish landlord, himself chartered ships to take his impoverished tenants to Canada and he supplied them with clothes and money.

     “In the conditions of the time – when the United Kingdom was economically at about the level of Cameroon today – famine could not have been wholly prevented. It was immense in scale and duration: there was a total overall shortfall of some 50 million tons of potatoes. The food exported to England (a staple of the genocide accusation) accounted for only a fraction of what was needed to replace the potato and was ‘dwarfed’ by government purchases of maize. A measured judgement is that the Whig government ‘may have lacked foresight and generosity’ and ‘may have been guilty of underestimating the human problems,’ but it was ‘not guilty of either criminal negligence or of deliberate heartlessness’. At the time, there was no clear demand within Ireland for a different policy, and the disaster made Irish independence seem unfeasible. Yet British shortcomings, however they are judged, provided one of the pillars of Irish nationalism in future generations.

     “Aid from England, however substantial, had limits. Public opinion blamed rapacious Irish landlords for the problem, especially when they evicted impoverished tenants (there the English agreed with Irish nationalists): hence a general determination that they should pay their share. In Russell’s words, ‘The owners of property in Ireland ought to feel the obligation of supporting the poor who have been born on their estates and have hitherto contributed to their yearly incomes. It is not just to expect the working classes of Great Britain should permanently support the burden.’ Prosperous Irish tenant farmers also inspired little sympathy, in the light of reports that they were ignoring the crisis and even profiting from it. It was also reported that aid was being siphoned off to buy arms, while nationalists continued to collect political funds from the population. There developed a certain ‘compassion fatigue’, aggravated by the hostile responses of Irish nationalists – ‘thank you for nothing is the Irish thanks for £10 million’. But racial prejudice does not seem to have been a significant barrier to aid, and policies in Ireland were the same as in Scotland, which was also suffering. Views for which English politicians were subsequently excoriated were shared by prominent Irish nationalists, one of whom, Justin McCarthy, a witness of the suffering, wrote later that ‘terrible as the immediate effects of the famine are, it is impossible for any friend of Ireland to say that, on the whole, it did not bring much good with it.’ There was a bitter irony in the polemic, at the time and since. English politicians insisted on the permanence of the Union, yet thought of Ireland as a semi-foreign country; Irish nationalists rejected the Union and ‘appeals to England’, yet later accused the English of lack of solidarity. The real English responsibility lies in the dysfunctional aspects of Irish society, in large part due to its long and troubled hegemony.”[6]

     Whatever the final verdict, the impact of the famine on the island of Ireland was colossal. “Between 1848 and 1855,” writes Sir Richard Evans, “the island’s population fell from 8.5 to 6 million, and while much of the decline at the beginning of the period can be ascribed to the famine, the continuing fall, to under 4.5 million by the census of 1921, was almost entirely due to emigration. More than 700,000 had arrived on the British mainland by 1861, over 200,000 went to Canada and 289,000 left for Australia (many of them to join the gold rushes of the 1860s). But the bulk of the migrants found their way to the United States – more than three million in all between 1848 and 1921. By 1900 there were more Irish-born men and women living in the USA than in Ireland itself…”[7] Ireland was England’s first colony, the beginning of what John Dee in about 1580 had called “the British Empire”. If it had remained her only colony, then as a consequence of the Irish famine, not to mention earlier troubles, the British Empire would have to be deemed an unequivocal failure…


      “The Irish crisis,” continues Tombs, “had caused Peel to suspend grain tariffs as an emergency measure, and he then abolished the Corn Laws formally in January 1846 against the will of his own party. Passage through the Commons took thirty-two nights of angry debate, among the most dramatic in parliamentary history. The leading protectionist spokesmen were Lord George Bentinck, who obliquely accused Peel of ‘double-dealing with the farmers of England… deceiving our friends, betraying our constituents,’ and Benjamin Disraeli, who claimed to speak for ‘the cause of labour – the cause of the people – the cause of England!’ The Conservative party was split: two thirds voted against Peel, typically those representing the counties and smaller boroughs, and holding local office as JPs, lords lieutenant and sheriffs; they agreed with Disraeli that agriculture provided ‘the revenues of the Church, the administration of justice, and the estate of the poor’. Liberals and Radicals voted overwhelmingly – 95 percent – for repeal. Soon after, Peel was defeated on a secondary issue, and his career was over. In his resignation speech he said that the working class would have ‘abundant and untaxed food… no longer leavened by a sense of injustice’. His followers, including young disciples such as William Ewan Gladstone, gravitated to the Liberals. He died in 1850, after falling from a horse. Factories closed as crowds of working class people gathered to mourn. He was surely the most popular Conservative leader of all time with urban workers: 400,000 contributed a penny each for a memorial fund to buy books for working men’s clubs and libraries. He did much to convince them that the established order was not their enemy.

     “The repeal of the Corn Laws had little economic effect for a generation. But it had immense political and moral effect. It shattered the Conservative party and brought political divisions into private life to an unusual degree: for example, the Duke of Newcastle used all his influence to bring about his Peelite son’s election defeat, and was only reconciled with him on his deathbed. More than material interests were at stake: there is no obvious correlation between Tory MPs’ vote on repeal and their personal sources of income. Bentinck declared that repeal would save him £1,500 a year: ‘I don’t care that: what I cannot bear is being sold.’ Disraeli’s stance if usually dismissed as opportunistic – the accusation of his political opponents, aggravated by snobbery and anti-Semitism, and repeated by historians afraid of being branded naïve. In reality, he was a romantic English nationalist, a consistent supporter of protection against the cost-cutting commercialism of the ‘Manchester School’. He also believed that Peel’s betrayal of electoral commitments undermined the party system on which politics depended.

     “Symbolically, and in the long term really, the end of the Corn Laws marked the end of a governing order and a set of political ideas. These ideas were of England as primarily an agricultural country, feeding itself, and governed by a paternalistic landed elite – the vision of Burke, Wordsworth and Coleridge. But by 1846 more than half the population lived in towns, and more people had worked in manufacturing than in farming since the 1820s. The new urban mechanistic ideologies of Utilitarianism, political economy and free trade became the norm. All their opponents – from Tories to socialist Owenites – had lost the argument…”[8]


June 20 / July 3, 2018.


[1] Tombs, The English and their History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, pp. 451-452.

[2] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, p. 253.

[3] Wilson, The Victorians, London: Hutchinson, 2002, p. 80.

[4] Wilson, op. cit., p. 76.

[5] Wilson, op. cit., pp. 82-83.

[6]Tombs, op. cit., pp. 452-454.

[7] Evans, The Pursuit of Power. Europe 1815-1914, London: Penguin, 2017, p. 347.

[8]Tombs, op. cit., pp. 454-455.

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