[Sir] Charles Edward Trevelyan


Life
1807-1886; b. 2 April, Taunton, England; son of Anglican archdeacon; ed. East India Co. College, Haileybury; became a writer in Bengal civil service, 1826; asst. to Sir Charles Metcalfe, then commissioner at Delhi, 1827; dep.-sec. to government at Calcutta, 1831; published The Application of the Roman Alphabet to the Oriental Languages (1834); m. Hannah Moore, sis. of Macaulay, 1834; On the Education of the People of India (1838); asst.-sec. to Treasury, London, 1840-59; administered Irish relief works, 1845-47;
 
announced that the famine was over in autumn 1847, terminating government-sponsored aid operations, and making relief the responsiblility of the landlords and the rates through the extended poor laws; awarded KCB, 1848; introduced new system of admission for the civil service, 1853; he publically opposed the financial policy of Calcutta, and was recalled, 1860; appt. Indian finance minister, 1862, and instituted reforms; appt. Gov. of Madras, 1859-65; returned to Britain, 1865, and occupied himself with Army organisation, 1865;
 
created baronet, 1874; engaged in social works incl. charities and pauperism; d. Eaton Sq., London, 19 June 1886; in Ireland Trevelyan came to be seen as the epitome of the ‘providential’ theory of the famine; castigated with particular vigour by Cecil Woodham-Smith and similarly treated by Benedict Kiely and other Irish writers; his unhappy bon-mot about moral rather than physical poverty being the cause of the suffering of the poor appears in the Strokestown Famine Museum. ODNB

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Works
Sir Charles Trevelyan, The Irish crisis: Being a Narrative of the Measures for the Relief of the Distress caused by the Great Irish Famine of 184647 (London: Macmillan & Co. 1880) [rep. from the Edinburgh Review, 175 (Jan. 1848).

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Criticism
  • Thomas P. O’Neill, ‘The organisation and administration of relief, 184552’, in The Great Famine, ed. R. D. Edwards & T. D. Williams (Dublin 1956), pp.20960 [rep. with intro. by Cormac Ó Gráda, Dublin 1994);
  • J. Hart, ‘Sir Charles Trevelyan at the Treasury’, in English Historical Revew, LXXXV (1960), pp.92-110;
  • Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland, 18459 (London 1962);
  • Mary Daly, The Famine in Ireland (Dundalk 1986);
  • J. M. Hernon, ‘A Victorian Cromwell: Sir Charles Trevelyan, The Famine and the age of improvement’, in Éire-Ireland, 22 (1987) pp.1529;
  • Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine (London 1989);
  • Peter Gray, ‘Punch and the Great Famine’, in History Ireland, I (Summer 1993), [q.p.];
  • J. S. Donnelly, ‘The Great Famine: Its Interpreters, Old and New’, in History Ireland, 1 (Autumn 1993) [q.p.]
  • Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity: the Great Irish Famine, 184552 (Dublin 1994);
  • Noel Kissane, The Irish Famine: a documentary history (Dublin 1995) pp.4559;
  • Cathal Póirtéir, ed., The Great Irish Famine (Dublin 1995);
  • Christine Kinealy, A Death-dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (Chicago & London 1997).;
  • Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and beyond: the great Irish Famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton UP 1998);
  • Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology, and Rebellion (Basingstoke 2002);
  • Robin Haines, Charles Trevelyan and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Four Courts 2004), xvii, 606pp. [see infra].
 
Note: There is a page on C. E. Trevelyan by Tomás Ó Riordán on the CELT Multitext Project in Irish History (NUI Cork) - online; accessed 18.11.2010 [see extract, infra.].
 

See also Avril Doyle [Foreword], Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends During the Famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847 (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publ. 1997), 529pp. [reviewed by Breanan Ó Cathaoir, Irish Times, 11 Jan. 1997].

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Bibliographical note
Robin Haines, Charles Trevelyan and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Four Courts 2004) - Drawing extensively on Trevelyan’s original correspondence and also on that of his political masters, his colleagues, subordinates and others in the field, Robin Haines restores the portrait of a dedicated civil servant, an opinionated man caught up in the tensions of Westminster, Whitehall and Dublin, yet determined to deliver relief to a country to which he was attached by ties of affection, sympathy, and ancestry. (COPAC.)

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Commentary
Benedict Kiely, The Poor Scholar: William Carleton (1947), Chap. 15, pp.132ff [see extracts].; J. Hart, ‘Sir Charles Trevelyan at the Treasury’, in English Historical Revew, LXXXV (1960), pp.92-110; Peter Gray, ‘“Potatoes and Providence”: British Government Responses to the Great Famine’, in Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal, 1, 1 (Spring 1994), pp.75-90;

See also Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (London 1987), espec. pp.58- 61; Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine (London 1989); Austin Bourke, “The Visitation of God”: The Potato and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Lilliput 1993), 230pp. [incls. an essay rescuing Trevelyan from Woodham-Smith and Conor Cruise O’Brien], and Peter Gray, review of Bourke, “The Visitation of God” [... &c.], in Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, 1, 2 (1994) [see extract].

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Peter Gray, ‘“Potatoes and Providence”: British Government Responses to the Great Famine’, in Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal, 1, 1 (Spring 1994), pp.75-90: ‘Any analysis of the motivations behind British policy during the Famine must take account of the political and intellectual milieu in which contemporary perceptions of the Irish situation were constructed, and the languages in which policy options were articulated and debated in the political world in and beyond Westminster’ (p.75). Gray traces the discourse of providentialism in conservative and liberal politicians, remarking Peel’s resistance to any brutal implementation the idea that the famine was a providential solution to a manmade problem; treats the explanation of the failure of assistance in terms of ‘laissez faire’ economics of the day as ‘demonstrably inaccurate’ (p.76). ‘The explicit religious convictions of Charles Trevelyan are well known to most students of the Irish Famine, but are an understanding of the greater diffusion of providential attitudes, and the variety of responses they induced to the crisis of the 1840s, has hitherto been lacking’ (p.76). [Cont.]

Peter Gray, ‘“Potatoes and Providence” [... &c.]’, in Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal (Spring 1994) - cont.: ‘[E]vangelical moralists like Charles Trevelyan, Sir George Grey and Charles Wood appear to have ignored the moderate mainstream of the “canon” of Christian political economy. They combined a belief in a retributive yet beneficent providence with a resolutely no-Malthusian confidence in rapid economic progress and the utility of state intervention to attain clearly defined moral ends. In the later 1840s it was this group that was most successful in assembling a political coalition, cemented with providentialist justifications, powerful enough to enforce their Irish policy prescriptions.’ (p.77.) ‘Peel’s apparent public endorsement of such opinions [that good would come from evil was implicit in the workings of providence] from December 1845 turned the [Times] from a constant critic into an enthusiastic supporter’ (p.80.). Gray quotes Peel: ‘I wish it were possible to take advantage of this calamity for introducing among the people of Ireland the taste for a better and more certain provision for their support, than that which they have hitherto cultivated; and thereby diminishing the chances to which they will be constantly, I am afraid, liable, of recurrence of this great and mysterious visitation, by making potatoes the ordinary food of millions of our fellow subjects.’ (Commons, 27 Jan. 1846.) [Cont.]

Peter Gray, ‘“Potatoes and Providence” [... &c.]’, in Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal (Spring 1994) - cont.: Further: ‘the idea of free trade was popular with Irish radicals. Daniel O’Connell and Sharman Crawford shared the belief that the chief result of the removal of protection would a large and immediate fall in the price of grain resulting from large-scale importations into Britain from abroad. This fall would allow the Irish poor to consume the produce of their own soil … any immediate loss of income involved should be borne by the landlords in the shape of sharply reduced rentals. This was completely at odds with Peel and Graham’s vision …’ (p.81.) ‘Where O’Connell favoured the prevalence of secure smallholders living largely off their own produce, Peel looked to the proletarianisation of the smallholder and conacre peasant, who would henceforth live on imported maize purchased from wages.’ (p.82.) ‘[O]bliging Irish property to support Irish poverty [by] the extended poor law’ (p.84); ‘the national fast was welcomed by clergy and press, was widely observed, and produced much of the 435,000 raised by the British Association relief fund .. Trevelyan quickly took advantage … to establish covert Treasury control over the Irish fund, which was used to promote the moralist social vision’ (p.85). ‘Trevelyan’s argument that the famine was technically over [in Autumn 1847] seemed to have convinced many of the British public, as the second national day of fast for Ireland was widely ignored.’ (p.85.) [Cont.]

Peter Gray, ‘“Potatoes and Providence” [... &c.]’, in Bullán: an Irish Studies Journal (Spring 1994) - cont.: ‘Bessborough, in particular, and the Irish relief administrators generally, put up considerable resistance to attempts to reduce the mechanism of relief to the “penal test” desired by Treveylan’ (p.85.) Gray quotes Wood: ‘Except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into a state of anything approaching to quiet and prosperity’ (Letter to Clarendon, 23 July 1847) (p.85.) British banking crisis and financial crash of Oct. 1847 (p.85). ‘Peel shared with Thomas Chalmers a belief that the continuing Irish crisis was judgement on the whole United Kingdom and not just on Ireland, and that the burden should be equalised and sacrifices made by all … By 1849, however, Peel’s vision carried little weight with a government and a British public opinion happy to blame Ireland and the Irish for their own fate.’ [p.87; end.]

Bibl. as in Criticism, supra. Older citations incl. H. MacNeile, The Famine a Rod of God; Its Provoking Cause, Its Merciful Design (Liverpool 1847); N. W. Senior, ‘The Relief of Irish Distress in 1847 and 1848’, in Edinburgh Review, LXXXIX (1849), pp.221-68; T. Chalmers, ‘Political Economy of a famine’, in North British Review, VII (1847).

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Terry Eagleton, ‘The Ideology of Irish Studies’, in Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, 3, 1 (Spring 1997): ‘As for ambiguous ethical and political situations in which nobody has the monopoly of virtue, well, these are alright on the whole when it comes to, say, Sir Charles Trevelyan’s behaviour during the Great Famine, or indeed Anglo-Irish relations in general, but not on the whole alright when it comes to the conflict between men and women, or racists and anti-racists.’ (p.9).

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Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New, London: Chatto & Windus 1998): ‘Cecil Woodham-Smith had in her 1962 classic The Great Hunger deominsed urbane Trevelyan; had made him a byword for adminstrative callousness. But a fair reading of Trevelyan’s own tract on the Famine, published in 1848 and prematurely declaring the Famine ended, shows that he went to some trouble to demonise himself [quotes The Irish Crisis, 1848]: “the Irish smallholder] lives in a state of isolation, the type which is to be sought for in the islands of the south seas rather than in the great civil community of the ancient world. A fortnight for planting, a week or ten days for digging, and another fortnight for turf cutting, suffice for his subsistence, when, during the rest of the year, he is at leisure to follow his own inclinations wtihout even the safeguard of those intellectual tastes and legitimate objects of ambition which only imperfeclty obviate the evils of leisure in the highest rank of society.’ (source not given); Keneally further remarks that ‘the virtually widowed Irish peasant such as Esther Larkin would have laughed at the concept that her life that autumn and winter of 1845 was a South Sea idyll translated to East Galway. For all her supposeted vices, one of which would be declared to be early marriage, she had not - in terms of Europe - married recklessly young.’ (p.109.)

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Tomás Ó Riordán, notice on C. E. Trevelyan in CELT Multitext Project in Irish History (NUI Cork):
 

‘In 1840 he became Assistant Secretary to the Treasury in London and held that office until 1859. This position put him in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. In the middle of that crisis Trevelyan published his views on the matter. He saw the Famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population”. But it was more: “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”.

Such racist and sectarian views of the Irish were common enough within the English governing classes and were more crudely expressed by others. For the most part, Trevelyan’s views reflected the prevailing Whig economic and social opinion and that of the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who held office from 1846 until 1852.

Trevelyan was stiff and unbending. He firmly believed in laissez faire (essentially, the importing of food should be left to the food merchants), he thought that the Government should not intervene, and warned of the danger that people might get into the habit of depending on the state. From March 1846 he controlled the public works through the disbursement of public funds. Under Trevelyan, relief by public works in 18467 was too little too late but also it was slow, inefficient and sometimes corrupt. He defended the export of grain from famine-stricken Ireland on the grounds that the Government should not interfere with free trade. When his own administrators described this export of food as “a most serious evil’ Trevelyan refused even to consider banning it. When rioting broke out in protest against at the export of corn, he sent 2,000 troops, provisioned with beef, pork and biscuits, “to be directed on particular ports at short notice’.

He was against railway construction as a form of relief and successfully opposed Russell’s scheme for the distribution of some £50,000 worth of seed to tenants. The failure of government relief schemes finally became clear to Trevelyan and early in 1847 soup kitchens were organised under a high-level government commission. It worked badly.

In the autumn of 1847, Trevelyan ended government-sponsored aid to the distressed Poor Law districts although there was an outbreak of cholera. He declared that the Famine was over, and that from now on Irish landlords were to be responsible for financing relief works. He gained a well-deserved reputation as a cold-hearted and uncompassionate administrator. On 27 April 1848 he was given a knighthood for his services to Ireland. The Irish Crisis published in 1848 contains his unsympathetic views on the Famine and its victims.

 
—CELT Multitext Project in Irish History (NUI Cork) - online; accessed 18.11.2010.

 

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Quotations
Social evil: ‘I think I see a bright light shining in the distance through the dark cloud which at present hangs over Ireland [...] The deep and inveterate root of Social evil remain[s], and I hope I am not guilty of irreverence in thinking that, this being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and unthought of as it is Iikely to be effectual. God grant that we may rightly perform our part and not turn into a curse what was intended for a blessing.’ Trevelyan, letter to Mounteagle, 9 Oct. 1846; NL Mounteagle papers, MS 13,397/11; quoted in Peter Gray, ‘Ideology and the Famine’, in Cáthal Portéir, ed., The Great Irish Famine [Thomas Davis Lectures Series], RTÉ/Mercier, 1995, pp.86-103; p.93.)

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The change from an idle, barbarous isolated potato cultivation to corn cultivation, which frees industry and binds together employer and employee in mutually beneficial relations [...] requires capital and a new class of men.’ Wrote to Lord Clarendon, Ciceroy: ‘In the next two years there will be a grand struggle and the government of Ireland will be a painful thankless task, but I am convinced that the failure of the potatoes and the establishment of the Poor Law will eventually be the salvation of the country - the first will prevent the land being used as it hitherto has been.’ (Both quoted in Breandan Ó Cathaoir, ‘Famine Diary’, Irish Times, 27 Sept. 1997).

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The poor mouth: ‘[A]ll classes “make a poor mouth”, as it is expressively called in Ireland. They conceal their advantages, exaggerate their difficulties, and relax their exertions. The cottier does not sow his holdings, the proprietor does not employ his poor in improving his estate, because by doing so they would disentitle themselves to their “share of the relief”.’ [q. source.]

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Land-owners: ‘The owners and holders of land in these districts had permitted or encouraged the growth of the excessive population which depended upon the precarious potato and they alone had it in their power to restore society to a safe and healthy state.’ (Quoted in Breanan Ó Cathaoir, ‘Famine Diary’, Irish Times, 1 March, 1997).

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Disturbed times: ‘In disturbed times, when several murders had been committed in the neighbourhood, we habitually took our arms with us into the dining-room, and eat our meals with loaded pistols on the table beside us, and our guns leaning against the chimney-piece. It is surprising, when one gets accustomed to it, how little this affects the appetite or weighs upon the mind.’ (Realities, 1869, p.42; quoted in W. J. McCormack, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland, 1991, edn., p.37.)

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Notes
Supreme wisdom: Held to have regarded famine as form of divine intervention to solve the problem of Irish over-population; saw existing peasantry and many of the landlords as barriers to modernisation; his account of the famine in Edinburgh Review (1848), reprinted thereafter as The Irish Crisis, began with the notorious summary remark on the famine:‘Supreme wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil’. (Quoted inter al., in Colm Toibin & Diarmaid Ferriiter, The Irish Famine: A Documentary, Profile Books 1999, p.16.)

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Blinds down: Purportedly travelled through ‘Congested Districts’ in a brougham with the blinds pulled down (see Shane Leslie, ‘George Wyndham’, in Men were Different: Studies in Late Victorian Biography (London: Michael Joseph 1937),:

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