1800-1859 | Famine

British treasury halts relief to famine struck Irish peasants

17 July 1846

Today in 1846, Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury, on learning of the ‘very unfavourable’ reports on the potato harvest’,  wrote to Sir Randolph Ralph, head of Ireland’s Relief Commission. He warned him that ‘the only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring the (relief) operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes it more necessary.’1 He claimed that if continued, the food relief, though only sufficient to feed a small proportion of those suffering from extreme hunger and starvation, would cripple private enterprise and make Ireland dependent on the magnanimity of English charity for years. ‘The Chancellor of the Exchequer,’ he assured Routh, ‘supports this strongly.’ He therefore ordered him to close the relief depots, with their stocks of subsidized Indian corn, by 15th August.2

The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith comments that ‘the people of Ireland, gazing over their blackened fields, despaired. They were already exhausted. What resources these possessed had been used up, and death from starvation was not a possible but an immediate fate.’3 Everyone appeared all too aware of the dire consequences.  On the 15th August the Dublin Correspondent of the Morning Chronicle reported that ‘it is quite useless now to mince the matter – the potato crop – the staple food of millions of our population is rotting everywhere, and its utter destruction appears inevitable’4, while on the same day the Sligo Journal noted that ‘the most deplorable accounts of the blight in the potato crop are daily heard in this county, and it is melancholy to think that the fearful ravages are not limited to one locality… (and for) the peasantry of Ireland the convenience attendant on so sweeping a loss will be incalculable’5

One Irish priest was so moved by the plight of the hungry that he wrote in person to the Prime Minister, Lord Russel, warning him that ‘if assistance be not afforded on a large and liberal scale, the consequences will be fearful.’6  However, the government was not so easily moved from its commitment to a philosophy of laissez-faire regardless of the human cost. This indifference was justified week after week, by articles in the British press as well as cartoons in the satirical magazine Punch portraying the Irishman as a cunning, brutal and exploitative rogue, feigning hunger in order to beg for money on food, which he treacherously spent on weapons for rebellion.7


  1. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London 1962, p. 89
  2. Ibid., p. 89.
  3. Ibid., p 102.
  4. ‘Ireland: Destruction of the Potato Crop,’  The Leeds Mercury, 15 August 1846, p. 7.
  5. The Sligo Journal cited in ‘Ireland: Failure of the Potato Crop’, The Northern Star, 15 August 1846, p. 18.
  6. The Rev. J. Cotter cited in ‘Ireland’, The Bradford Observer, 20 August 1846, p. 3.
  7. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London 1962, p. 89 and Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 213.

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