Surplus People

The Fitzwilliam Clearances 1847 - 1856

and the Immigrant ships

much of the text are notes or quotes taken from the book Surplus People, by Jim Rees

Article compiled by Joe Kenny -

Follow this link  for pictures and to learn about the immigrant ships  Also Mortality Rates on these ships

My Kenny family came from Motabower, County Wexford and from Kennystown, County Wicklow, both areas were in the Fitzwilliam Estate, near Carnew.  The Land was owned by the 4th Earl of Fitzwilliam at the time.  The Fitzwilliams held a large section of south County Wicklow and a smaller section, just over the border, into Wexford.  They were very liberal in their political dealings and gave much support to the Irish Catholics. In fact, they believed that religious bigotry was not only morally wrong, but economically unwise. They donated land and money to have Catholic churches built on their estate at a time when many other landlords would not even give permission for such buildings. Their support for Catholic Emancipation and other radical views, caused a great deal of ill-will between Lord Fitzwilliam and the head-tenants.  (see article on the Tomacork Church)

Before the Rebellion of 1798 broke out, the Carnew, Shillelagh and Tinahely yeoman militia, which were made up of head-tenants and other middle class Protestants on the Coolatin Estate, were among the most ferocious in their dealings with the Catholics around them.

The Coolattin estate was about 80,000 acres.  The Fitzwilliams were absentee landlords and they had the  Challoner family run their affairs in Ireland.

Land leases were generally for 21 years and a life, whichever was longer.  This policy was introduced by the Fitzwilliams around 1830.  Many of the tenants and sub-tenants had no lease.  According the Fr. Kavanagh, of Carnew, few of the Catholics held property directly from Fitzwilliam but through the hands of Protestant middlemen.  The general valuation for Irish land was fixed in 1834 by the English and was generally 25 shillings per acre.  Fitzwilliam felt that was too high and reduced that rate for many of his tenants.  On the Fitzwilliam estate, rent was generally lower than elsewhere in Ireland. The landless laborer paid £ 1 a year for his house.  For another £ 1 he could have a kitchen.  For £ 10 he was given an acre of land to grow potatoes on. Rent was paid twice yearly, the first started the 25 of March, Lady Day, and the first six months expired on Michaelmas, which was the 29 of September.  There was about a 2 month grace period after these dates for the tenants to get their rent paid.  Rent arrears were very common, but Fitzwilliam seldom evicted his tenants.  The average wage in Ireland was about 10d (about 4 pence), per day, but in many cases, Fitzwilliam paid his laborer, 1 shilling, per day. The Fitzwilliams were considered as good landlords.

In 1838, England passed the Poor Law (Ireland Act) It was designed to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Ireland, but it merely was an Act to stop the Irish poor from flowing into British cities. Migrant labor from Ireland was always welcome when season demanded a large, cheap labor force but the welcome was short lived once the work was complete.  In the 1820-30's, more and more immigrants stayed in England.  Meanwhile in Ireland, the poverty was getting out of control, but England would refuse to agree with the studies done of just how bad it actually was. England finally saw that there was a growing need and they divided Ireland into 130 administrative Poor Law Unions and started to build workhouses also known as Poor Houses. This would be financed by a local levy on landowners.  In the workhouses, families that went in were split up; the men in one wing and the women in another. 

Though it was considered that the Fitzwilliams were good landlords, still, many Irish living on the Fitzwilliam Coolattin area lived in wretched conditions and were very poor. In October, 1845, things only worsened when there were reports of Potato Blight. Throughout the spring of 1846, availability of cheap food was reduced and this resulted in price gouging.  By the summer of 1846, the stench in there air was terrible from the rotten potato crops.  The workhouses were designed to discourage people from using them, but in Wicklow, they had become overflowing by the winter of 1846-47.  A major overhauling of the Poor Tax was needed and by 1847 England further taxed the landlords with a much higher tax.  This was the catalyst of the clearance of the surplus people.  In many cases, landlords throughout the country began evicting their tenants, many ending up in the streets of larger cities.  Fitzwilliam decided it was time to evict some of his lower class and poorer tenants too, but he paid passage aboard immigrant ships to Canada, and paid them to leave, even paid an extra five shillings (25p) if they were to pull down their shanty. In February 1847, volunteers were needed for emigration, though records show that not all emigration was on a volunteer basis. The situation had a carrot-stick effect.  The stick was the looming workhouses and the fear for eventual eviction, and the carrot was a new life in Canada, with possible opportunities there. 

The immigrant ships were to leave New Ross, County Wexford in April and each family was to try to sell everything they had.  They were allowed one large chest per family that they were to cram anything they wanted to take into it.  The journey to New Ross was done on foot, 60 miles away.  Friends and relatives would haul the chests and the elderly on wagons.  This usually took 2 days if all went well.  

Once on the ship, they were directed immediately to the lower deck, where there were bunk style sleeping and living quarters. A family of 4 would be expected to live on one of these bunks that was about 6' x 6'.  If you were unfortunate enough to be assigned a lower bunk, any bodily fluids from sea sickness or other bodily accidents would drain through the boards on to the lower bunk.  Each ship was allowed to carry about 300 people.  To compound the sardine effect, a child under the age of 14 was considered a half of an adult. Provisions for each passenger was entitled 3 quarts of water each day and 7 pounds of bread, biscuit flour, oats or rice per week. Part of their provisions was tea.  Many of the passengers did not know what this was.  Their usual drink would have been buttermilk.

 You can only imagine what they were thinking once they were aboard this ship, as the ship was leaving their homeland, for good.  The passengers were allowed in many cases to stay on the upper deck while the ship was in tow, 4  miles down the river towards the sea.  Once out at sea, they were to remain under deck for the most of the journey.  At times the passengers would be allowed on top for small allotments each. Below deck, the air would be filled with the stench of sea sickness and excrement.  Chamber pots were available on the lower decks, but there were not enough of them.  The main toilets were on the upper deck, but they were denied access when weather was bad. Many families would loose loved ones due to illness and disease.  After 40 days of travel across the Atlantic, land would come into view.  Here, they would leave the Atlantic and head down the St. Lawrence River to be what will become the most terrifying  part of their trip.  The quarantine station called Grosse Ile, was designed to keep out diseases but with so many Immigrants coming in all at once, the facility couldn't manage properly.  The average quarantine time was 8-16 days.  Many people coming were quarantined for the purpose of not spreading disease into Canada, but many got sick at these areas and died. 

I have other family with the surname, TOBIN, that left Ireland on a different program. England needed help in defending its Canadian territories from a potential invasion from the United States.  It saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.  Because there was so many poor in Ireland and a depression was settling in, The English government in 1823, asked Peter Robinson, the son of a Loyalists and elder brother of Upper Canada’s powerful Attorney General, John Beverley Robinson, to look for volunteers to go to Canada and perhaps have a better life.  There were two different emigration opportunities given to the people of south Ireland, many from County Cork, in 1823 and again in 1825.

Most of the Fitzwilliam immigrants never had it in there minds to stay at their debarkation spot.  Many traveled on to areas where family before them had gone too.  With the Kennys, this area was Smiths Falls, Ontario.  With the Peter Robinson group, they were all given land immediately in the area that they were brought to, Peterborough, Douro, Ontario.  Many stayed in Douro.