The Fergus farm of Sir John Benn-Walsh

By Doug Lucey

Sir John Benn-Walsh (otherwise Sir John Walsh) was born at Warfield Park, Berkshire on 9 December 1798, son of Sir John Benn-Walsh, baronet, and Lady Jane Grey. His father, originally named John Benn, had assumed the surname and arms of Walsh, in compliance with the will request of Lady Jane’s uncle. Benn-Walsh had a long parliamentary career, being Tory member for Sudbury (1830-4), Salisbury (1838-40) and Radnorshire (1840-68), and published a number of pamphlets on parliamentary reform. He was created Baron Ormathwaite in 1868 and died at Warfield Park on 3 February 1881.1

NPG Ax50423; John Benn-Walsh, 1st Baron Ormathwaite by Camille Silvy

© National Portrait Gallery, London  (Image reproduced under licence).

Benn-Walsh owned large estates in England, Wales and Ireland (Cork and Kerry) including a farm in Fergus,2  near Coachford village, which his father had previously purchased. Between 1821 and 1864, he made twenty visits to his Irish estates and kept journal entries. James S. Donnelly, Jr published two articles in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in the mid-1970s on journal content and Benn-Walsh’s management of his Irish estates. The journal entries give details of pre-Famine and post-Famine conditions relating to holdings in Fergus.

Donnelly describes Benn-Walsh as a staunch conservative with strong views on the rights of landowners and dismissive of tenant rights, having no use for leases and generally letting lands by annual agreement after eliminating middlemen. Benn-Walsh liked to think rents were fixed at what tenants could afford to pay, but in reality he was guided by material gain. Tenants less than productive, or who fell into arrears, or subdivided holdings were evicted, but strong tenants could benefit under his regime.3

In 1823 Benn-Walsh visited and described ‘East and West Fergus’ as a large farm of 952 acres, purchased by his father from General Robert Hill Farmer of Barnhill, County Cork, being good land but racked and abused by bad tenants. It had been let for the amount of £607 to cottiers in recent years, who were encouraged to lime and improve the land and build houses. He hoped to advance rent to £800 and felt the property worth £1,000 if well farmed and improved.4 On 16 April 1823 Benn-Walsh walked the farm at Fergus ‘followed by a rabble of tenants’. Some lands were previously relet, with tenants refusing to surrender possession, and requiring to be evicted.5 On another visit, on 27 September 1824, Benn-Walsh described the Fergus tenants as good with some exceptions.6

No further journal entries occur for Fergus until 8 August 1834, when Benn-Walsh described it as much improved with the houses nearly all comfortable slated dwellings. He elected to raise the rent to £815 with tithes of £92 also due.7 Three days later he met the Fergus tenants at Dripsey Bridge, describing them as ‘satisfied with arrangements’.8 A decade later, on 22 August 1844, he again visited and was critical of farm management, complaining about scarcity of green crops, fields full of weeds, and considered the introduction of turnips and stock. He also complained of subdivision without his knowledge.9 Interestingly, William Crooke of Derreen, in evidence to the Devon Commission at Macroom on 17 September 1844, refers to an adjoining landlord [who is undoubtedly Benn-Walsh] visiting his large estate ‘the other day’ and threatening to turn out any tenant who divided his land which ‘checked it on that estate’.10

There are no further recorded visits to Fergus by Benn-Walsh until August 1849, being towards the end of Famine distress in the Coachford area. He was, however, actively involved in parliamentary debates during the Famine years, particularly Irish affairs. With the crisis worsening in 1847, Benn-Walsh stated on 16 February 1847 that no poor law could meet the existing crisis, and to cast the burden of maintaining the population upon landed proprietors would engulf capital and destroy the property of Ireland. Land improvement should occur over time with financial assistance and not be employed as emergency relief.11

Benn-Walsh advocated assisted emigration, which could alleviate the distress in Ireland if properly carried out, and he gave the example of an unnamed Irish landlord who relocated tenants to Canada ‘for their benefit’.12 His journal entries contain admissions of emigrating tenants, but contain no specific reference to the inhabitants of Fergus.

His strong views on landlords’ rights were aired in parliament. During a committee debate on the Poor Relief (Ireland) Bill, he urged caution in enacting legislation which would repudiate and ostracise the landed gentry of Ireland, and prevent their involvement in administration of the country, claiming that it would be a great misfortune.13 By 16 June 1847, Benn-Walsh was claiming Irish landlords had made greater sacrifices than their English counterparts for the benefit of tenants, with the main difficulty for Irish landlords and middlemen being the disposition and habits of the native Irish. He claimed the lower class were accustomed to land for subsistence and not trade or manufacture; that early marriages led to land subdivision; and subsequent dispossession led to young couples and families becoming destitute. In order to improve Ireland, he suggested landed proprietors had to be principal agents, with the landlord having a double relation; as a property holder entitled to rent, and a capitalist contributing outlay to cultivate and improve soil and entitled to a share of the profits. Inducing landlords to invest capital would increase production and create a better standing between landlord and tenant, whereas regulation by law would have a counter effect, with landlords employing their capital elsewhere and not improving properties.14

By 1849 Benn-Walsh was highlighting deficiencies in the poor law system and berating the government for not devising measures to remedy defects.15 He believed unless modifications were made and the poor law subjected to complete revision, the whole of [Ireland] would be pauperised, and the constant charging of land with encumbrances would suspend and destroy improvements and the country itself.16 In parliamentary debate on distress relief, Benn-Walsh gave his personal history, which is useful in gauging his mindset. Upon coming of age and possessing considerable property in Ireland, he claimed an awareness of tenants on his estates and their circumstances. Initially there were many middlemen holding upon leases for lives, but with the gradual lapse of these leases three-quarters of the property was now directly in his hands. It required time and attention to raise a prosperous, independent, and improving tenantry; encouraging the deserving and industrious and removing the lazy, unprincipled, and worthless. To an extent he had realised his ambitions. He had attempted to prevent subdivision and large numbers of cottiers on his lands. When the potato failure occurred and many became distressed, he had induced one to two hundred of the poorest to emigrate to Canada in 1847-8, whom he now believed to be prosperous and content.17 By March 1849 he was suggesting the government revive prosperity by restoring property rights and limiting the poor law in certain districts, reducing taxation to give employment, and encouraging emigration in districts burdened with ‘superabundant population’.18

Benn-Walsh visited Fergus on 10 August 1849, being his first visit in five years and since the Famine began. He found the farm improved, the tenants in good spirits, and additional buildings such as barns and cow houses adding to its appearance.19 What is noticeable is the marked contrast in his account compared to conditions and the state of affairs reported elsewhere in the locality. Benn-Walsh’s primary consideration would have been a successfully managed holding yielding profit, as opposed to the welfare of tenants. He had induced many to emigrate, which he openly admitted, and this may have included some of the inhabitants of Fergus, but no documentary evidence appears to exist to confirm this.

By 1850, Sir John Benn-Walsh was complaining of the Fergus tenants ‘going back rapidly’ as victims of free trade and due to the failure of potatoes,20 which was the opposite of his positive outlook portrayed in 1849. He met his agent Matthew Gabbett on 18 August 1850 to discuss the eviction of Cork tenants, to include William Forde and some ‘Danahys’ at Fergus, adding that assisting persons to emigrate would cost £2 10s. per head at that time of year. Benn-Walsh concluded that the Irish estates would have been more profitable and better improved but for ‘lamentable times’.21 On 1 September 1851 he again visited Fergus and had ‘weeded out’ small and weak tenants and added to the farm size. William Forde, the Danahys and two Fordes (Corkery’s partners) had been evicted, with several tenants, named Corkery, Crowley and two Dolohenys to go.22

Benn-Walsh philosophically left Ireland in 1851 ‘with more hope and in better spirits’ than he had on other visits since the famine began, with poor rates diminished and his farms ‘weeded of bad tenants’ by Gabbett, without evictions or employing the sheriff or harsher measures. In many cases paupers and cottiers had surrendered possession for amounts ranging from £1 to £3, with cabins subsequently levelled. Some larger families had been assisted to emigrate, which was expensive but enabled consolidation of farms. Improvements had increased the value of farms and some new tenants were introduced.23

There are three additional journal entries of Fergus visits, with Benn-Walsh again displaying an air of optimism. In October 1852 the farm was described as improving and the removal of bad tenants a ‘godsend’.24 On 26 September 1853 he walked the farm with Gabbett, noting considerable improvement and tenants ‘in good spirits’. Cow stocks had increased, with more clover and turnips grown. It was still required ‘to get rid of’ the two elderly Dolohery brothers to comfortably settle the farm. Food prices were higher, with butter and wheat at c. 60s. per quarter.25 In 1853 he hoped the period of distress had passed with prices high, particularly for butter, pigs and cattle. Oats were receiving good prices and potatoes were little affected that year.26 In his final recorded visit on 3 September 1855, Benn-Walsh noted Fergus to be again improving, with all tenants adopting dairy farming conjointly with arable, cows maintained with clover and turnips, and numerous applications for cow houses.27

Although one of the few absentee landlords in Magourney, Benn-Walsh took an active approach in the management of Fergus and his Irish estates, by making a considerable number of visits over some four decades. This was in contrast to many absentees directing operations from England or allowing agents exclusively to manage Irish affairs on their behalf. His ruthlessness, and his unemotional and calculating manner can be gauged from journal entries, and yet the subscription of £10 in his name to Coachford district poor relief committee in 184628 ranked among the highest personal subscriptions locally made during the entire famine period, and was larger than any recorded subscription from resident landed proprietors.

Benn-Walsh was self-opinionated, anti-democratic,29 and dismissive of tenant rights, but he had a close connection to the state of affairs and conditions in Ireland from his many visits, which was evident from his knowledgeable parliamentary contributions. His views and dissatisfactions mirrored those of resident proprietors and landed gentry, concerning government measures to deal with the famine crisis in an adjoining, distressed, and very different country.

1 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘John Benn-Walsh’ ( )(accessed 14 Jun 2019).

2 The Fergus farm was located both in Fergus East in the civil parish of Aglish and Fergus West in the civil parish of Magourney, County Cork.

3 James S. Donnelly Jr., ‘The journals of Sir John Benn-Walsh relating to the management of his Irish estates, 1823-64’, in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, lxxix (1974), no. 230, p. 88.

4 Ibid., p. 92.

5 Ibid., pp 93-4.

6 Ibid., p. 95.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., p. 96.

9 Ibid., p. 100.

10 Evidence taken before her majesty’s commissioners of inquiry into the state of the law and practice in respect to the occupation of land in Ireland, part III, 65, H.C. 1845, [657], xxi, 71.

11 Hansard 3, xc, HC Deb 16 Feb. 1847, cc. 37-126.

12 Ibid. Benn-Walsh was not alone in advocating emigration, as did the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Letter from Clarendon, VR Lodge, to Leinster outlining the necessity of emigration as a pre-requisite for agricultural improvement in Ireland, 7 Aug. 1847 (P.R.O.N.I., D3078/3/34/63).

13 Hansard 3, xci, HC Deb 25 Mar. 1847, cc. 387-413.

14 Ibid., xciii, HC Deb 16 June 1847, cc. 630-646.

15 Ibid., cii, HC Deb 2 Feb. 1849, cc. 154-220.

16 Ibid., HC Deb 7 Feb. 1849, cc. 374-436.

17 Ibid., HC Deb 16 Feb. 1849, cc. 784-849.

18 Ibid., ciii, HC Deb 1 Mar. 1849, cc. 48-86.

19 James S. Donnelly Jr., ‘The journals of Sir John Benn-Walsh relating to the management of his Irish estates, 1823-64’, in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, lxxix (1974), no. 230, p. 104.

20 Ibid., p. 110.

21 Ibid., p. 111.

22 Ibid., p. 116.

23 Ibid., p. 117.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., p. 121.

26 Ibid., p. 123.

27 James S. Donnelly Jnr., ‘The journals of Sir John Benn-Walsh relating to the management of his Irish estates, 1823-64′, in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, lxxx (1975), no. 231, pp 15-42.

28 Cork Constitution, 16 May 1846; Cork Examiner, 18 May 1846.

29 On 22 February 1850, Benn-Walsh declared democracy to be unfavourable to freedom, causing danger to liberty, justice, and civilisation itself, Hansard 3, cviii, HC Deb 22 Feb. 1850, cc. 1289-1317.