The Fall 1845 potato blight of Ireland, because of the poor Irish population's reliance on the potato as a staple, quickly escalated to pre-famine and famine conditions. Early in the disaster, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel realized the need to get cheap foodstuffs into Ireland. His solution was the abolishing of the post-Napoleonic Corn Laws in order to get cheap foreign grain into Great Britain. Although Peel realized the need for haste, he met great opposition in both houses of Parliament. This paper will seek how the formerly Protectionist Peel decided upon the necessity of abolishing the Corn Laws and why the Protectionists protested so vehemently against repeal when thousands of Irishmen were on the verge of starvation.

At the end of an unusually wet and sunless summer of 1845, scattered reports of a black rot effecting potato crops in Belgium, Poland, Germany, France, and the Isle of Wight began to appear in the agricultural journals. By the twelfth of September, the Gardeners Chronicle announced, "We stop the press, with very great regret, to announce that the Potato Murran has unequivocably declared itself in Ireland...where will Ireland be in the event of a universal Potato Rot!"1 The blight, believed by many peasants to be a form of cholera spread to the potato because of the deaths by disease associated with it2 , was actually caused by the fungus Botrytis-phytiphthora infestans. The fungus manifested itself on the leaves of the potato plant and released spores which spread down to the roots of the tubers.3 Although the potato would seem sound when first dug, within a few days they would turn black and become a "stinking mass of corruption."4 Panic and restlessness soon set in; by the end of October, the Limerick Chronicle predicted famine.5

Ireland in the nineteenth century was no stranger to potato failure. There had been as many as fourteen partial or complete famines in Ireland between 1816 and 1842. However, these crisis tended to be fairly localized, thus panic did not spread as widely as it did in autumn 1845.6

The feared effects of famine were greater in Ireland than in most of the other countries because a high percentage of Irish peasants depended upon the potato for their very survival. During the second half of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, the potato increasingly became the basis of the diet for the poorer tenant farmers. By the 1840's, it was well established as a staple.7

The potato, along with supplements of milk or fish, had an advantage of providing sufficient nutrients for very little outlay.8 Indeed an acre and a half would provide a family of five or six with food for twelve months. Furthermore, the only needed equipment was a spade.9 Unfortunately, economic circumstances forced a greater and greater percentage of the population to rely solely upon the potato for sustenance. By 1841 there were about 700,000 holdings under 15 acres.10 Furthermore, some 45% of all farms were 5 acres or less.11

The introduction of this staple has been closely linked to the great increase in population during the pre-famine years. Because a vast majority of the Irish population lived in an extreme form of poverty from which there was little recourse, young people were encouraged to marry early. A field of potatoes could easily feed a couple and any children they might have. Girls commonly married at sixteen and boys at seventeen or eighteen.12 Early marriage often resulted in many more pregnancies per couple than had they waited a few more years to marry.

The 1841 census taken in Ireland indicates that there were 8,175,124 people. This was one fifth greater than the 1821 census which indicated that 6,801,827 people lived in Ireland.13 Furthermore, when compared to the calculations of recent scholarship which indicates that some five million people were in Ireland in 1780, Ireland probably achieved a population rate equal to that of Great Britain.14 However, Ireland did not enjoy the same rate of industrial expansion as England did. No advances took place in agricultural methods, the improvements of land tenure, or tenant compensation for improvements.15 In fact, all that kept starvation at bay, in abundant years, were the supply of potatoes and a pig with which the peasant paid the rent.16

Although in Irish mythology much blame is heaped upon the British government for its failures to act in a generous manner, the private papers and records of genuinely good men tell a different story. There was no conspiracy to destroy the Irish people.17 In fact, several men compromised their political careers in order to alleviate the effects of the famine. Some of the perceived British failures were more due to bureaucratic inefficiency than to malicious neglect.

For some years, the efficacy of the Corn Laws of England had come under intense debate. Established during the unrest of the post-Napoleonic period, the 1815 Corn Laws were a reflection of the legislatures intense desire to be independent of foreign food imports.18 What the protectionists desired was a reasonable protecting limit. Because this proposal was also calculated to raise rents, it was probably suggested by the landlords.19 Although by 1840 the economic hardships which had initiated the Corn Laws were over, the Corn Laws continued to be the stronghold of Tory economic policy.

The Anti Corn Law League, led by Richard Cobden, grew out of the economic crisis of 1838-39. The subject of its rhetoric was simple: the total repeal of the Corn Laws. The League hoped to settle some of the outstanding problems of the time by cheapening the price of food, giving the manufacturer more outlets for his goods, making English agriculture efficient by stimulating the demands of urban and industrial areas, and by bringing about a new era of international trade and peace.20 Cobden's recruitment in 1841 of John Bright, master speaker and MP for the city of Durham, spread the publicity of the Anti Corn Law League. Bright's condemning of the Corn Law as "inhumane, immoral, and unChristian" stirred the middle and lower classes to an almost religious fervor.21

When Tory Sir Robert Peel accepted the Prime Ministership of England in 1841, he already had a history of moving the Tory party towards reform. One historian has argued that Peel's readiness to accept new ideas made him a particularly good leader for England during a period of social upheaval. Moreover, Peel found it easier to apply new policies under specific circumstances than to reshape his political thinking.22 Thus Peel had little problem shifting from protection to repeal during a time of perceived social crisis. Peel himself looked over every bit of paperwork which came through the cabinet. So personal was his influence that his Home Secretary Sir James Graham once said, "We never had a Minister who was so truly a first minister as he is. He makes himself felt in every department and likes to be kept fully informed of what was going on.23

Peel had entered parliament as a loyal Tory at the early age of 25 in 1809.24 After witnessing the Parliamentary battles for Roman Catholic emancipation, he served as Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1812 to 1819. Although his witnessing of the gross inefficiencies of the Irish civil service spurred him later towards bureaucratic reform25, as a true Tory, he welcomed the Corn Law of 1815 as a boon to Irish agriculture, which, along with a protective tariff, would be a stimulant to other Irish Industries.26 Peel left the Irish secretaryship with a very negative view of the country. He especially regretted the corruption within the government. He was also well aware of, and never forgot, the overriding poverty of the majority of the populace.

Peel's first job when he came into office in 1841 was to balance the budget for the Whigs had mismanaged funds. In 1842 he cut the duties on 750 articles and amended the sliding scale of corn to reduce prices during periods of inadequate supply. This resulted in the transforming of a 2 million pound deficit into a surplus.27 Amidst much Tory outcry, he began to argue for the removal of the "superfluous duty and uncompensated loss to incur the odium of unnecessary protection."28 This widened the breech which had begun to grow steadily between Peel and his followers in the Conservative Party. The very lessening of the tariffs demonstrated what little confidence he had in Protectionism.29

By May of 1845, Richard Cobden felt that Peel was only waiting for a pretext to repeal the Corn Laws. In order to be prepared for this event, the Corn Law League began a media blitz of free trade propaganda.30 Tragically, the summer and fall of 1845 would provide just such a pretext.

As early as August, Peel and Sir James Graham corresponded over the potato blight which was making news on the continent. Peel was quite anxious over what might happen should the blight arrive in Ireland. On September 19, Peel wrote, "I deeply regret the forebodings as to the potato crop in Ireland."31 Reports more alarming than the last began pouring into London. By mid-October, a report of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, warned the government "to prepare for the worst."32 At first, it had been suggested that the export of food from Ireland should be prohibited, but the government had no confidence in the efficacy of these measures.33 Thus, on October 12, 1845, Peel gave his remedy of the famine as "the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food--that is, the total and absolute repeal forever of all duties on all articles of subsistence."34

Peel realized the necessity for speed; on October 31 and November 1, Peel met with his cabinet to give evidence of the paucity of food not only in Ireland, but in Scotland and England. He also had to decide whether or not the Corn Laws be suspended by Order of Council, which merited speed, but also required proof that delay would be dangerous.35 Peel opted for legislative repeal. However, once the issue of repeal came out into the open, Peel found his cabinet split with an overwhelming majority against him. All they could reach a decision on was to meed again in a weeks time.36

After several meetings over the next few weeks, Peel's fears began to be mollified. At meetings held on December 4th and 5th, twelve of his fourteen cabinet members, including the old tory Wellington, "reluctantly were persuaded to agree with him." Nevertheless, neither Lord Stanley nor the Duke of Buccleuth would support any measure involving the repeal of the Corn Laws.37

Because he feared the failure of his free trade measure without the support of Stanley or Buccleuth, Peel tendered his resignation on December 8 to Queen Victoria.38 However, Whig leader Lord John Russell, who was pledged to free trade, refused to form a government by December 20. Thus, Queen Victoria asked Peel to withdraw his resignation and to fill up the posts in his new ministry.39

Peel decided to deal with the Corn laws in such a way as to benefit all classes and to remove all restrictions and monopolies. However, his ultimate decision was to repeal the Corn Laws gradually over three years time. Peel hoped that the gradual implementation of repeal would better facilitate the bill's passage.40

{The notes in parentheses denote page and column numbers in

Annual Register LXXXVII (1846)}

On the 29th of January, Sir Robert Peel presented his scheme of commercial and financial policy. He maintained that "the repeal of prohibitory [tariffs] and the relaxation of protective duties was in itself was a wise policy." (p. 29a) Furthermore, he especially addressed the agricultural interests by proposing that indian corn (maize), buckwheat, and every kind of animal or vegetable food be admitted duty free.(p. 31b) For those goods which were presently covered by the Corn laws, he proposed that there be a three year reduction of the tariff over three years until January 1849. (p. 31b) His proposal to parliament, therefore, was not the immediate repeal desired by the Anti Corn Law League. Peel decided to walk the fine line between two extreme interests of Protectionism and Repeal.

In continuing his address, Peel admitted that the potato crisis had spurred his decision to begin the repeal of Protection. He feared that the Irish "might have worse harvests, and therefore they ought to avail themselves of an adjustment of this question, which must immediately be made, and which would not long be delayed without the peace and security of the empire." (p.35) After some concluding remarks about the continuance of contentment and happiness, Peel stepped down to resounding cheers.

Although the main debates did not begin until February, the opposition began voicing its opinion immediately. Though the opposition, led by Stafford O'Brian and Phillip Miles, recognized the potato failures in the fall, they argued that since the crop in England was abundant and the fact that wheat was then at 56s a quarter, that repeal was not necessary. (p. 37b) Lord Sandon feared that the proposed three years of "hazardous experimentation" would not justify the risks of rendering the sphere of competition larger and larger.

After some encouraging free trade remarks by Lord John Russell, Peel made an announcement: "I am ready to say, seeing the contest that is going on...over a few shillings or a small fixed duty, that I think the abolition of the duty is the most expedient course for a government to propose to Parliament. (p. 40a-b) Lord Russell seconded this proposal by pledging the support of the Whig Party. He thought the plans of moderating duties not exclusively Whig nor Tory but to be brought about by both. (p. 42a) Immediately, Peel was censured by Tory Sir R. Inglis for "not seeing how [he--Peel] had broken up a great party." (p.42b) O'Brien further accused the government of "changing its principles since it came into power" and for having taught him a "valuable truth--that parties in this country were no longer to be kept together by distinctive principles." (p. 43b)

Much conservative outcry was based upon a belief that the situation in Ireland did not merit so drastic a measure as repeal. O'Brian thought the reports of famine were "greatly exaggerated" and considered that the possibilities of famine in Ireland would be aggravated by the repeal of the Corn Laws for it would leave the poor man without protection. (p.44a) He further accused the government of spreading words about the "alleged famine" for he had it on authority from the Central Agricultural Association that there was sufficient stock of wheat in London. Furthermore, since the price of potatoes was already falling, he was certain that the supply of them was not deficient. (p. 51a)

In reply, Sir George Clerk, Vice President of the Board of Trade, asserted the contention that the famine was not confined to the present season, but extended on and would eventually, if left unchecked, encompass England too. To address O'Brien's comments on the price of potatoes, Clerk compared the January 1845 price of potatoes as varying from 50s to 80s per ton as to the January 1846 price of 80s to 160s per ton. (p. 62a)

Sir James Graham followed this by a lengthy speech in which he adamantly supported free trade. He saw that in Ireland the failure was so widespread that soon it would be necessary make a grant of public money to purchase food from the starving. "...but how could any Minister take it upon himself the responsibility of asking the people of Great Britain to submit to a tax whist their own food was enhanced in price by artificial regulation?" He certainly could not. (p. 46b) Other free trade arguments struck a Malthusian chord such as Lord Morpeth's fears of being able to feed England's burgeoning population. (p. 48b)

Peel further reiterated that the scarcity of the potato was mounting towards "appalling" levels for, because of the famine on the continent, it was going to be impossible to secure the amount of potatoes needed from any foreign source. (p.53a) He further announced that because of approaching famine, "the proper course to be adopted was free importation of corn." (p. 52b)

John Bright, in a speech which the Annual Register assailed as "more powerful and more admirable than any speech ever delivered in that house within the memory of any man in it," gave his staunch support of Peel's new measure. He was followed by another eloquent speaker, Benjamin Disraeli who accused the cabinet as being "alarmist...[with] fear stamped upon the countenance on it," contended that no man could prove that Protection had ever been the "bane of Agriculture." (p. 59a-b) Later in the debate, Richard Cobden assured the Tories that "just as Protectionism had been were the people on the side of Free Trade." (p.66b) After much backing and forthing, the question of repeal was put to committee for the second of March to the vote of 337 ayes and 440 noes. (p. 68b)

Over the next several weeks starting on March 2. Parliament broke into committees and scoured over "every inch of ground being pertinaciously contested by the opponents". (p.69b) Mr. Villiers proposed an amendment for the immediate repeal of all duties. (p. 70a) John Bright took hold of this proposal and threatened the House with continued agitation if repeal was not immediate and was quickly censured by Robert Peel. (p. 71a) However, Lord Russell expressed his concern over the possibility that the amendment might keep the measure from passing. (p. 71a) It was put to the vote; the amendment to abolish the duties immediately lost 78 to 265.

The Protectionist Mr. Giles spoke again about Ireland admitting that although there was a problem, the repeal of the the Corn Law would be a permanent measure long after the current crisis was over. (p. 72a) Some protectionist MPs continued pressing for an amendment on the 20th of March to delay the bill's second reading for six months because "the distress in Ireland was greatly exaggerated." (p. 72b) Sir George Burrell even went so far as to call on Lord Lincoln (Secretary for Ireland) to deny that the fear of famine was already at an end. (p. 75b) Lord Lincoln retorted that the famine was far from over for "it had not yet reached its height." He indicated that destitution and severe distress so existed in some parts of Ireland, that soon it would be difficult to keep the peace. (p. 76a)

Protectionist arguments to no avail, the third reading was carried in a full House at 4 o'clock in the morning on the 16th of May and passed 327 to 229. (p. 76b) Thus, it was now up to Lords to determine the issue of Protectionism verses Free Trade.

The principle debate in House of Lords opened on May 25th with the Earl of Ripon declaring that the repeal of the Corn Laws was only a matter of time and that its time had come. The Earl of Fitzwilliam supported the bill's immediate abolition for he "objected to a rag of protection for three years." (p. 78b) Opposition stated that the measure was purposely structured to "crush the aristocracy" by cheapening the landed interests (p. 78b), would be injurious to the "pride and ornament of England"--the yeoman farmer (p. 79a), that it would cause corn prices to fluctuate uncontrollably (p. 80b) and "destroy the whole basis upon which our colonial system rested." (p. 81a)

Some of the lords, such the Earl of Hardwick, saw no reason to repeal a measure which had caused the country to prosper in agriculture, shipping, and revenue, and had kept pace with the national expenditures. (p. 86a) Others, such as Earl Grey considered the Corn Laws to be at a "double disadvantage" to the laboring class for "while they enhanced the price of food, the depressed the rate of wages." (p. 87a) He was seconded by the Bishops of St. David and Oxford. (p. 94b) By this time, the House of Lords seemed fairly evenly divided, according to the speeches in the Annual Register, throughout both the first and second readings.

When on June 22, the halt of the debates began, Lord Ashburton proposed an amendment stating, "...that the sudden introduction of the large quantity of wheat, now in bond...may be productive of great injury and injustice to the cultivators of the soil in the United Kingdom and...some better provision against just such a calamity should be provided than is contained in the Bill now before the House." (p. 96a)

The revolved of the debates revolved around this amendment. The Earl of Dalhousie spoke for Free Trade in a speech which indicated that there was a sever shortage of grain in all of Europe (p. 97a) and that he thought the best course would be to make the change of duties immediate. (p.97b) Although the opposition, led by the Duke of Richmond, held to the last, the amendment proposed by Lord Ashburton was negated, the bill read for and third time, and the Repeal of the Corn Laws was passed. (p. 98a-b)

Through the combined efforts of Peelites and Whigs, the measure passed. On June 26th, Bright had the honor or writing to a League associate, "...The Assent is was 5 o'clock before the words were said which completed our labors...We have not seen the last of the Barons, but we have taught them which way the world is turning."41 Although Peel had gained a victory for the Anti Corn Law League, his enemies in the Conservative party gained their revenge by striking down his Irish Coercion bill which had been debated along with tariff repeal. Discouraged and angry, Robert Peel resigned four days later; he never held high office again.42

Ironically, the very issue for which Peel risked his party over did little to assist the starving Irish. Cheap grain is of no use to those who could not have afforded it in pre-famine times. By the same token, the 200,000 pound's worth of maize which Robert Peel had secretly authorized for distribution hardly made a dent into the effects of the famine.43 Although the new ministry under Lord Russell commissioned many relief programs, the Irish Famine continued to mount until by 1851, some 860,645 had died and another one million had emigrated.44 Irish Folklore still condemns the English for deliberate and malicious neglect of Ireland during its greatest crisis.

Interestingly, in the famines which occurred before the nineteenth century, the English had all but ignored their impoverished neighbor.45 The organization of relief was as much a Victorian act as a humanitarian one. Tragically, what was done was not enough; between bureaucratic and transportation delays, thousands of those intended for relief did not receive aid. Robert Peel's actions were certainly Victorian; he understood the responsibilities of his position as Prime Minister and he did what he thought was right to preserve the union of Great Britian.


Annual Register LXXXVII (1846) pp.29-99

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