Journal Volume 5 2006

Surplus People from Newcastle and Ballyvolan  (continued/3)

The Fitzwilliam Clearances

Heartless as it may seem, such clearances were the only way to avoid bankruptcy of many estates. With decreasing rent revenue each year and greater expenses on rates, most estates faced insolvency and clearances were their only hope of survival. Many estates did go under at that time. But it was how such clearances were carried out that separated the more humane landlords from the more callous.

Fitzwilliam was one of those most severely affected. He knew that shedding unviable or, in the expression of the time, 'surplus' tenants was the only way to avoid bankruptcy, but he avoided simply turning them out on the roadside, except in very few instances. Instead, he offered assisted emigration to those he wished to be rid of. They would be given free passage and a financial incentive to help them settle on the far side of the Atlantic. This was not a new policy on the estate. Tenants willing to emigrate had been helped to do so long before the Famine struck. There are references to assisted passages in ledgers dating from the 1830s, and four notebooks in the Fitzwilliam Collection in the National Library show that it was still common enough between 1842 and 1846.6 Adults, that is those over the age of fourteen, were given thirty shillings (£1-10-0 or £1.90) while children were given £1 (£1.27). Each would also have their fare paid.

In 1845, two Newcastle families applied to the estate for assisted emigration.7 They were Edward McGuire, his wife and five children. Neither his wife's name nor those of his children were recorded, but the eldest child must have been over fourteen as the amount applied for was £8-10-0, that is three adults and four children. The other family was that of John Ellis who was to be accompanied by his wife, his father, his mother, and his seven children, again no names, but each helping to bring the cost to £14 and their passage. Unfortunately, I have not checked the estate accounts for 1845 to see if their applications were granted.

By the middle years of the Famine the numbers of tenants to be encouraged to leave necessitated a reduction in the financial incentive, but the deteriorating situation would have made even free passage without cash payment an attractive proposition to the many people who were already destitute. The new payments varied, averaging about ten shillings (about 63 cent) a head, but some managed to negotiate much better terms. The estate also agreed to purchase any crops in the ground.

In March 1847, the estate manager Robert Challoner opened the Emigration Book.8 In it, he recorded the names of every tenant and family member prepared to leave for ‘America’. This did not refer to the United States, but to British North America - Canada. The townland of residence, the ages, family relationships, size of holding, and sometimes the name of the ship on which they sailed were also recorded. Between April and August, 313 families, comprising 2207 men, women and children left the Coolattin estate for Quebec. They were among 98,000 refugees who sailed up the St Laurence that year to a country that was ill-prepared to receive such a deluge of pauperism.9


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