Sunday, December 9, 2018

An infinity of petty squabbles

‘All these arrangements gave birth to an infinity of petty squabbles, extremely difficult to settle or even understand. However, I am sanguine in my expectations that a little time & perseverance will compose all the jarring elements. Everything confirms my first opinion that setting to the occupying tenant, though more troublesome, is in the end much more advantageous to the landlord. I am well persuaded that if the times continue tranquil & the prices as at present, this portion of my property will gradually rise most considerably in value - if I continue to visit & superintend it.’ This is from the journals of John Benn Walsh, the first Baron Ormathwaite, born 220 years ago today. He was an English politician and landowner, having inherited vast estates in England, Wales and Ireland from his wife’s uncle. The extensive journals are held by the National Library of Wales, but only a small fraction of them - concerning his regular trips to Ireland to oversee his property and tenants - have been published.

Benn Walsh was born on 9 December 1798 at the family home of Warfield Park near Bracknell in Berkshire. His father, originally called Benn, had inherited large estates in England and Ireland from his wife’s uncle, Sir John Walsh (who had also required his father to assume the Walsh name). John was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He married Jane, daughter of George Grey, 6th Earl of Stamford, in 1825. They had two sons and two daughters. Also in 1825, on the death of his father, he inherited the family estates. He entered Parliament for the borough of Sudbury in 1830. After losing that seat and campaigning unsuccessfully for others, he was elected, in 1840, for Radnorshire, a seat which he then held for nearly 30 years.

Benn Walsh was a noted advocate of social and parliamentary reform. He also acted for a while as a Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff in Berkshire and later for Radnorshire. He regularly visited his estates in Ireland, where he was considered an exacting landlord, though he saw himself as benevolent and progressive. He was created a baron in 1868 (Baron Ormathwaite). As a writer he published various pamphlets, such as one comparing astronomy and geology, and another on the lessons of the French Revolution. He died at Warfield Park in 1881. A little further information (but not much) is available at Wikipedia, Royal Berkshire History, and Cracroft’s Peerage.

However, Benn Walsh was a committed diarist, and many of his manuscript journals are extant, and held by the National Library of Wales. Indeed, the library provides, on its website, this summary of the journals: ‘In many respects the diaries are similar in contents to his mother’s (i.e. personal and domestic) but with more emphasis on the London season and politics and they are, in general, far more detailed. The earlier diaries are dominated by his obsessive ambition to make a mark in society. By endeavouring to create a web of connexions he sought to become known to the most powerful and fashionable aristocratic families in England. Such connections would, he hoped, fulfil both his marital and political ambitions. He has some very pertinent things to say about the closing down of the avenues of advancement after the end of the Napoleonic wars when the aristocracy closed ranks. After his marriage in 1825 the diaries, naturally, are more domestic: the pleasures and pains of parenthood and later of grand-parenthood, family holidays, his wife’s relations, etc.’ (Further information about his mother’s diaries can also be found on the same website here.)

There are no printed biographies of Benn Walsh, nor have his diaries been published, except for those concerning his near-annual trips to oversee his estates in Ireland. These were edited by James S. Donnelly, Jr. and appeared in successive volumes (1974 and 1975) of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society (volume 79, pages 86-123; volume 80, pages 15-42). Both parts of The Journals of Sir John Benn-Walsh Relating to the Management of His Irish Estates, 1823-64 are freely available on the Society’s website. Here is an extract from Donnelly’s introduction.

‘Not only was Benn-Walsh a great landowner in Great Britain and Ireland, with some 26,300 acres altogether by the 1870s, but he regarded his estates very much as a business enterprise and constantly strove to increase the profitability of his landed investments. His keen interest in superintending the development of his properties prompted him to make repeated journeys to Ireland. Between 1821 and 1864 he visited his Cork and Kerry estates in twenty different years, usually during late summer and for a period of about two weeks on each occasion. While making these tours of inspection, he either wrote a daily journal or made entries as regularly as possible from notes and from memory. The volumes of his journals for the years 1821, 1825, and 1829 are missing from the collection. [. . . The] surviving records constitute an unvarnished, wonderfully detailed, and invaluable account of an absentee proprietor’s relations with his tenants during a momentous epoch in Irish agrarian history.’

And here are several extracts from the journals. They include references to the impact of the potato famine, and to the benefits of the new railway connection to Holyhead.

16 September 1824
‘We left Limerick by the steamboat, which took us down the Shannon to Tarbert - from whence we took a chaise to Listowell, where we found Mr Gabbett busy receiving rents for me. I did not keep my journal regularly during my stay at Listowell, which I left on Wednesday 22nd. I was occupied while there in arranging the affairs of Tullamore, which is now set for the six months, & as Julian has no intention of redeeming it, I ordered it to be surveyed & valued by Kane & McMahon. I likewise allotted the new divisions I have caused to be made at Derrimdaff, & the tenants are to take possession of them in March next. All these arrangements gave birth to an infinity of petty squabbles, extremely difficult to settle or even understand. However, I am sanguine in my expectations that a little time & perseverance will compose all the jarring elements. Everything confirms my first opinion that setting to the occupying tenant, though more troublesome, is in the end much more advantageous to the landlord. I am well persuaded that if the times continue tranquil & the prices as at present, this portion of my property will gradually rise most considerably in value - if I continue to visit & superintend it. This is absolutely necessary. Gabbett is in many respects a useful agent. He is a good lawyer, a man of excellent understanding, good disposition, & integrity. His practice at the police office & his naturally conciliating character gives him a great readiness in managing the (205) lower orders, & he is a ready accountant & man of business. But he is a nonresident, he is not deeply interested in the business, he has many partialities in the country, & he would go over the business in a very slovenly, negligent manner if I were not to accompany him.’

14 August 1834
‘This morning I went to Tullamore & inspected the banks & road. I also visited Julian’s house, which seems to want repair, & as he has been a punctual tenant lately, I determined to allow him a gale’s rent. The banks are all to a trifle completed & the road is made through three-fourths of the farm. These are great & real improvements, & I think that Tullamore is now very moderately set. But on some of the divisions, Shronoun & Shronedrislig, there are far too many tenants. Mr McMahon, the surveyor or land valuer recommended by Spring Rice, came to meet me today; he has lately mapped & surveyed Ballyhaurigan &Ballyrehan, the two farms Mr Hilliard holds upon a very old lease. Date, I think, 1773. He now pays £220 a year & McMahon computes the rise at £447; when out of lease, they will set for £687. I have a good opinion of his fairness & integrity.’

24 August 1844
‘We went with Mr & Mrs Gabbett & their family on the lake in a boat. I once before visited this lake with poor Digby in 1824. We had a fine day & enjoyed our excursion very much. In the evening we heard a singular concert, a blind Irish piper of the name of Gantsey & his son accompanying him on the violin. He was really a wonderful performer & drew sounds from his Irish pipes which quite surprised us. He was a fine old man, full of taste & enthusiasm in his art, & put me quite in mind of Wandering Willie in Redgauntlet. But Gantsey is a celebrated person in his way, & two years ago he travelled to Edinburgh & gave a concert at which he realised £50. The Irish bagpipe is far softer than the Scotch.’

3 October 1848
‘I went off by the express train at 9 & arrived at Holyhead by 6 [the station at Holyhead had opened two months earlier]. Here I embarked in a fast new steamer, the Scotia. It blew a gale of wind, but we made our passage to Kingstown by eleven & I got to Morrison’s Hotel, Dublin, by twelve. Mr Matthew Gabbett met me at the station & we agreed to set out for Limerick by the 10 o’clock train.’

2 September 1851
‘I left Cork with Mr M. Gabbett by the 9 o’clock. We arrived in Dublin by four & I went down to the hotel at Kingstown. . . . Mrs Gabbett sent me an invitation to dinner & I had the pleasure of another evening with my old agent, for whom I have a real regard. However, his son Matthew is a much more active & efficient agent than he ever was & enters far more fully into all my views. I think that it is greatly owing to his good management that I have a chance of getting through the crisis which has been fatal to so many Irish proprietors. I leave Ireland with far more hope & in better spirits than on any of the three former occasions since the potato failure. First, I see that the poors rates are diminished owing to our having got rid of outdoor relief & diminished the size of the electoral divisions. Between Matthew Gabbett & Captain Larcombe, my farms have been put into the best electoral divisions of the union. Secondly, my own estates have been very much weeded both of paupers & bad tenants. This has been accomplished by Matthew Gabbett without evictions, bringing in the sheriff, or any harsh measures. In fact, the paupers & little cottiers cannot keep their holdings without the potato &, for small sums of 1£, 2£, & 3£, have given me peaceable possession in a great many cases, when the cabin is immediately levelled. Then, to induce the larger farmers to surrender their holdings when they became insolvent, I emigrated several, either with their whole families or in part. This was expensive, but it enabled me to consolidate & make comfortable sized farms of from £30 & £40 up to £140 per annum. Then, the improvements I have carried on have greatly increased the value of the farms & given the tenants courage. I have introduced some good new tenants of a solvent description. From all these causes I see the estate coming round, the tenantry more comfortable, & though there are still great fallings off in the receipts, yet things are righting themselves.’

17 October 1852
‘Mr Gabbett came into town early & took me to his parish church at his new purchase about 8 miles from Limerick. The farm he has bought under the Encumbered Estates Court is in the centre of the property of his family. We passed a little stone tower, something like a martello tower . . ., which this Mr Matthew Gabbett’s uncle (whom I remember meeting at Rome in 1819) built as a fort & place of refuge in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. After church we drove again into Limerick. Mr Gabbett returned to his farm. He goes by an early train to Dublin & we meet at the Dublin terminus at 4. I dine with my old agent Mr Gabbett, Senior, at Bray, & on Tuesday I cross the water. . . .

So ends this visit to my Irish estates. How easily is the communication & transit made now, compared with what it was. My first visit to Ireland in 1821 was in the first year of the establishment of mail steam packets. I well remember the alarm felt when, about mid channel, something in the machinery broke & we were left floating without any progress for about an hour. It then took three good days to travel from London to Holyhead, one to cross, three to get from Dublin to Listowel. Now I get easily from London to Dublin in one day, from Dublin to Cork or Limerick in another. I can visit all the estates & return to London in little more time than it took me then to travel to and fro. But even the facilities I then enjoyed were very great compared with those which existed when my great uncle Walsh made the purchases in 1764 & subsequent years. His motives for his Radnorshire investments were intelligible enough. Its contiguity to Shropshire, where the first Lord Clive had established himself, & the smallness of the county, giving him a prospect cf acquiring parliamentary influence, explain this selection, but what first led him, an Englishman returned from India, having no Irish links or associations that I ever heard of, to select such a remote county, the very ultima Thule of Ireland itself, I have never heard explained. I don’t think that my dear mother had ever heard of it. She often spoke of his love for scattering his investments & mentioned that he had even bought an estate somewhere in Scotland which he subsequently sold. She quoted a criticism which her father Mr Fowke passed upon him. “There’s Walsh now has bought land in Ireland, Scotland, & Wales & has ended in seating himself down at Warfield where he can’t shoot a partridge.” Yet I have always great respect & regard for the memory of my great uncle, who died before I was born, but to whom I am so largely indebted, & who may be considered the founder of our family. His Irish investments, though singular, were not unwise. He bought very reasonably in those days what has turned out a valuable and improving estate &, now that the famine crisis is past, promises still to prove so.’

The Diary Junction

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