1800-1859 | Famine | Refusing refugees

The Irish famine victims removal and punishment act becomes law

Plaque commemorating the Irish famine by the gates to Clarence Dock, Liverpool.
Rose and Trev Clough – CC BY-SA 2.0 – via Geograph.

21 June 1847

On this day in 1847, the Poor Law Removal Act became law, allowing municipal authorities in England and Scotland to send any paupers claiming poor relief back to their place of origin with the minimum of legal formalities.  It was specifically designed to stem what Lord Brougham in the House of Lords referred to as the ‘swarms of Irish paupers,’ as he presented a petition from a ‘number of highly respectable inhabitants’ of Liverpool to ‘prevent Ireland emptying her diseased, infirm and starving population into the town.’ The ‘poor wretches’ had discovered that, although the British supported the poor in England with a tightfisted reluctance, the relief they might obtain was still far more generous than could be hoped for from British officials in Ireland.1

The results of the new law, which one Irish newspaper labelled ‘the Punishment of Vagrants (Ireland) Bill’,  were catastrophic for the thousands forcibly returned.2 The Mayor of Drogheda complained to the Home Office that the authorities in Liverpool had sent back fever ravaged individuals who were too sick even to stand, while the Lord Mayor of Dublin expressed his consternation over what to do with the first shipment of sick and desperate paupers and unsuccessfully requested that the British government allowed him to impose the same quarantine procedures on ships arriving from England that were routinely imposed on ships entering English ports.3

Despite such protests, additional measures to deter Irish immigrants were taken in several English cities, including Liverpool where thousands had taken refuge in the cramped confines of basement cellars. These were filled with sand to prevent reoccupation and any homeowners who continued to rent out their cellars were heavily fined at rates of twenty shillings per day.4 The combined impact of such measures and the draconian legislation on the number of Irish paupers claiming any sort of food relief in Liverpool was almost immediate, with the number falling rapidly from over 3,400 weekly to 1,658 by 24 July. Many of the hungry preferred to try to survive by begging rather than to be sent back to Ireland.5


  1. First quotation, ‘swarms of Irish paupers’, by Lord Brougham cited in ‘Imperial Parliament,’ The North Wales Chronicle, 15 June 1847, p. 1. Second citation from Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49, Penguin Books, London 1991 p275. Third citation from ‘House of Lords – Thursday’, The Tipperary Free Press, 16 June 1847 p. 1. Last citation ‘poor wretches’ by Sir Benjamin Hall quoted in the London Daily News, 1 June 1847 p. 2.
  2. ‘Food Arrivals,’ The Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, 16 June 1847 p. 2.
  3. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49, Penguin Books, London 1991 pp. 278-279.
  4. Ibid p. 279.
  5. Frank Neal, Sectarian Violence: The Liverpool Experience 1819-1914: An Aspect of Anglo-Irish History, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1988 p. 96.

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