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British social reformers in nineteenth-century Ireland

By Ciarán McCabe

In researching the history of poverty and charity in pre-Famine Ireland, I have been struck by the constant flow throughout Europe and the Atlantic world of ideas of moral and material improvement. Philanthropists and social reformers, either acting in an individual capacity or as part of a corporate entity (such as a charitable or intellectual society), regularly exchanged correspondence with colleagues in other countries, in which they shared their experiences and ideas of poor relief, medical treatment and education initiatives, to name but a few areas of interest.

Furthermore, many individuals travelled abroad extensively, gaining a first-hand insight into the work of other philanthropists. Many of the leading British social reformers in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries travelled to Ireland, visiting various institutions and meeting contacts among the philanthropic urban middle classes. The value of travellers’ writings has long been appreciated by historians, from Constantia Maxwell’s work in the 1940s and 1950s, to Christopher Woods’s recent guide to travellers’ accounts as source material (published in the Maynooth Research Guides to Local History series). What attracted many of these social reformers to this island was the impression that Ireland was a distinctive place on the fringes of Europe, singularly afflicted by poverty and moral decay. As Niall Ó Ciosáin has argued in his most recent work (Ireland in official print culture), the tropes of social conditions in Ireland being indescribable and unimaginable, and worse than those anywhere else, were well established in contemporary discourse. These motifs are to be found in the reported proceedings of parliamentary debates and inquiries, public sermons, and reports of social reformers. Having noted this trend, it is useful to briefly identify just some of these individuals, whose influence was international and who visited Ireland at some point in this period:


Elizabeth Fry (née) Gurney (1780-1845), penal reformer and philanthropist. By the time she travelled to Ireland in 1827, Fry was already a noted campaigner for prison reform, particularly in the incarceration of women and children. During her three-month visit to Ireland in 1827, Fry and her brother (Joseph John Gurney) visited around forty welfare and custodial institutions throughout the country – prisons, lunatic asylums, mendicity asylums, houses of industry. They co-authored a report to the Lord Lieutenant on their inspections of these institutions.

Elz Fry

Caption: Quaker Elizabeth Fry, who drove prison reform in early-nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland


Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), educationist in London. The Lancaster model of education was based on the monitoring system, whereby older pupils (monitors) taught the younger pupils, overseen by an adult master. His educational reforms proved influential and were adopted by the Kildare Place Society, whose founding meeting in Dublin in 1811 was attended by Lancaster. Lancaster visited Ireland on a number of occasions and was a popular public speaker; a lecture in Drogheda in 1815 was attended by a reported 1,500 people.


Robert Owen (1771-1858), philanthropist and industrialist. Owen is best known for establishing the town of New Lanark in Scotland, centred around his cotton mill enterprise. His enterprise was marked by reduced working hours and improved housing for employees, and the provision of infant education. Owen’s tour of Ireland lasted from October 1822 to April 1823, a period of famine in western Ireland and during his visit, Owen visited many distressed areas. Throughout the country, he held public meetings, at which he promoted his ideas for planned communities. Two years later, Owen gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into poverty in Ireland and his New Lanark model was implemented at Ralahine, County Clare in the early-1830s.

Caption:  Robert Owen, whose planned industrial town at New Lanark (right) inspired a similar experiment at Ralahine, County Clare.


Rev. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), Church of Scotland minister and social reformer. Chalmers was perhaps the most well-known and influential public intellectual in the first half of the nineteenth century. In St John’s parish in Glasgow, he pioneered a poor relief scheme based on house-to-house visiting of the poor and voluntarism in the provision of assistance. Chalmers travelled to Ireland on a number of occasions, being regularly invited by Irish ministers to deliver charity sermons, in the knowledge that Chalmers would attract large crowds of donors. In advance of his sermon at the opening of the Fisherwick Place meeting house in Belfast in 1827, members of the public were advised that only ticket-holders would be admitted, given the demand for places.


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