Vere Foster – One of the greatest men you’ve never heard of
Vere Foster Background
Vere Louis Henry Foster was born in Copenhagen on 26th April 1819. His father, Sir Augustus Foster, was a British ambassador. His mother was Albinia Jane Hobart, daughter of the Honourable George Vere Hobart, Earl of Buckinghamshire. Vere had a privileged upbringing, the youngest of three sons. His eldest brother Frederick Richard followed his father into the diplomatic service.
While the middle boy Cavendish Henry became a minister in the Church of England. Vere studied at Eton [1830-1834] and then went to Oxford to study law. However, he left after 2 years and entered the world of diplomacy.
Arrival in Ireland – The Famine
When news of the famine in Ireland reached England, Vere was sent to discover the effects on the Foster’s Irish estate, Glyde Court, in County Louth. This was to change the young Vere’s life forever.
While the tenants on the Foster’s land had fortunately been saved from the worst effects of the potato blight, Vere was horrified at the number of starving men, women and children he saw staggering along the roads. Many were desperately trying to reach a port where they might flee to a better life in another country.
Many landlords evicted those who could not pay their rent and left whole families destitute without food or shelter. Some estate owners paid the bare minimum to have their hungry tenants shipped abroad. Not that these poor people would be welcomed on their arrival.
“Among the crimes charged against Irish landlords none has aroused more resentment in Britain in early 1847 than what is seen as the dumping ground of their evicted pauper tenants on the shores of England, Scotland and Wales… a swelling tide of Irish immigrants in Britain most of them very poor and many diseased. Many of these new arrivals died on the streets or crowded into hospitals and workhouses”London Times 16th April 1847
Drogheda to Liverpool
Upon receiving news that his father was seriously ill, Vere paid 10 shillings for a first class ticket for a sailing from Drogheda to Liverpool. However, he did not stay in his cabin but was determined to witness the journey from a poor emigrant’s experiences. Below decks, people were crowded together, far more than the ship was capable of holding, animals and livestock were herded in the same living space. There were no toilets or washing facilities. The noise, smell and prevailing sickness made it a nightmare journey.
Arrival in England
Arriving in England the problems were far from over. Most of the emigrants could only speak Irish and were easy fodder for unscrupulous robbers and conmen. So-called ‘porters’ made off with their meagre belongings and tricksters sold false tickets to America or ‘converted’ foreign currency giving a few cents in exchange for someone’s life savings.
Swindlers known as crimps, sold the unwary deeds for tracts of land in Canada and America, which were entirely false. Some landlords confiscated luggage so the traveller was forced to stay in their lodgings.
“Men, women and children would be bedded down together, often on a cold stone floor, without any blankets. Here the emigrants would often be robbed, cheated, over-charged and run the considerable risk of contacting a variety of contagious diseases”The Liverpool Albion 15th May 1850
Work and Wages
Vere Foster was sickened by the plight of the emigrants. In 1852 he wrote a pamphlet entitled Work and Wages or The Penny Emigrant’s Guide to the United States and Canada. In it he warns “be careful whom you employ to show you a shipping office; ask no questions in the street, pay no attention to the offers of service of anyone you meet, not even to ask your way to any place or office…”
Frederick and Vere Foster tour Ireland
On 1st August 1848 Sir Augustus Foster, who had been suffering from severe depression, died by suicide. Frederick, the eldest son, inherited his father’s baronetcy and returned to Glyde Court. Vere accompanied him. The brothers decided to tour Ireland to see for themselves the extent of the Great Hunger – an Gorta Mor.
Not only were they horrified at the starvation and disease that ravaged the land and decimated the people, they were disgusted at the wealthy landlords still trying to squeeze every penny out of the desperate peasants.
“Disease and death in every quarter – the once hardy population worn away to emaciated skeletons – fever, dropsy, diarrhoea and famine in every filthy hovel, and sweeping away whole families – hundreds rushing from their homes and country – dead bodies of children flung into holes hastily scratched in the earth, without shroud or coffin – every field becoming a grave and the land a wilderness”Belfast Vindicator 23rd December 1846
Vere decided to forego his diplomatic career and enrolled in the Glasnevin Model Farm in an attempt to learn the latest agricultural methods. He hoped that he and his fellow students would be able to implement progressive farming techniques throughout Ireland to improve the quality and quantity of foodstuffs produced. Above all he wanted to remove the Irish peasantry’s reliance on one crop. Vere was an enthusiastic pupil and was actually commended for his eagerness to get involved with every chore
“…to find an instance in which a gentleman of high acquirements and independent fortune…. cheerfully assisted in all farm operations. I have seen him with his coat off laying tiles in the bottom of a drain and joining in with every other kind of labour on the farm – yet he never thought it any degradation to be so employed….”Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland 1850
While Vere was studying the poor were still dying. He came to the conclusion that a policy of emigration was the best policy in the current situation. However, he felt it was necessary that estate owners ensure safe transport and a strong support system for new arrivals when they reached their destination. Not many landlords agreed with him.
“I believe that the most speedy and effectual present means of assisting the victims of the Famine is by personally aiding and advocating the emigration of a portion of the population to some other favoured land”Vere Foster Broadsheet on Emigration
Vere, with Fredericks help, set up a scheme whereby 40 girls in dire poverty would be enabled to emigrate to the USA. He felt that girls were the least able to improve their situations at home. Each emigrant was bought their ticket, food for the journey, clothing, cooking utensils and money for expenses till they found employment. Vere only asked in return that, when possible, they send some money back to Ireland to help other starving families.
Coffin Ships – On Board the Washington
Having heard of bad conditions and high mortality rates (up to 60%) on these ships sailing to America and Canada, Vere once again decided to see for himself. Dressed as a poor emigrant and accompanied by James Ward, a former teacher at Glasnevin, he boarded the Washington on 27th October 1850. The journey was to surpass even his worst fears.
The people were herded together worse than cattle. With no basic facilities sickness, lice and disease were rampant. Vere kept a diary noting that passengers were three days out of port before being given any food. Of the 900 only 30 got water that day, the rest had to wait. By 25th November, 12 children had died of malnutrition and there were 100’s of cases of dysentery.
Foster was asked to draw up a letter of complaint for the Captain. It was never delivered as Foster was assaulted by the First Mate Mr Williams and the letter destroyed. The whole crew, including the doctor, treated the Irish with contempt and brutality.
When the Washington finally docked at Staten Island in December 1850, Vere Foster and other seriously ill passengers were hospitalised. For two months his life lay in the balance. Vere was suffering from dysentery and ophthalmia, due to a blow by a member of the ship’s crew.
On recovery, Vere wrote a description of his journey to his brother Frederick. With the aid of their cousin Lord Hobart, the subject was raised in the English Parliament. In 1855 the British government and the American Congress passed a new Passenger Act which improved conditions on board ships and gave emigrants better protection from abuse.
Vere Foster Emigration Programme
On returning home Vere Foster set up an office in Dublin to deal with applicants for his emigration programme. Not only would these people be aided to emigrate they would be provided with employment and given temporary accommodation on arrival. All candidates had to prove their good character. However, these people were also penniless and Vere paid for their fare out of his own pocket.
Foster also went into partnership with a reputable shipping agent, Henry Boyd, who ensured only trustworthy ship owners and captains transported the emigrants. By using his family connections in Ireland and England, Vere’s enterprise was recommended to public figures and potential employers in New York and Washington, including the British Consul Anthony Bewley.
Twice yearly Vere travelled to the US and Canada to ensure his clients had obtained the employment arranged for them. He encouraged these new settlers to befriend and support new arrivals. He also secured the backing of the Archbishop of New York, the Most Rev John Joseph Hughes, and the local clergy to form a network of help for Irish emigrants. Vere Foster was to continue his Assisted Emigration, at his own expense, until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.
Promotion of Education
The main problem Vere encountered when securing employment for his emigrants was that the majority were illiterate as generations had been denied schooling. He became convinced the best policy to improve the lot of the Irish poor was through education. He was shocked to find that most schools were damp hovels, with little heating, earthen floors and crammed with children in one room. There was no school furniture, books, maps or even toilets.
Vere immediately set about building or improving school houses, some 2,000 in his lifetime. He spent £13,000 of his own money on this cause. In April 1863 a letter arrived at Vere’s Belfast address, it was signed by a hundred grateful teachers from County Louth
“You sought us in our dwellings and were not discouraged by the contact; you stood by us in our schools and showed your appreciation of our labours by those generous gifts of educational apparatus hitherto unfortunately beyond our reach… Startled by the suffering of the half-clad children, you substituted for the damp, unwholesome clay, the dry boarded floor, and in other important respects, exerted yourself for the promotion of decency, cleanliness and order in our schools”County Louth Teachers Letter
The Vere Foster Copy Books
Vere was aware that teachers without resources had an ‘uphill battle’ to instruct their pupils in literacy. With no blackboards, chalk, reading or writing materials half the population of Ireland were illiterate. Again with energy and enthusiasm Vere Foster set about rectifying the situation. He consulted with teachers and the education inspectorate and other experts, including the English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, as to the best way to improve writing skills. Vere also went on fact-finding missions to Europe and America. Better literacy and penmanship meant better chances of employment.
In 1865 Vere Foster’s Head-line Copy Books were published. These were later printed by the Belfast firm Marcus Ward & Co. The books were sold for 1 penny, a fraction of what they cost to produce. In the first year alone one million Foster’s Copy Books were sold.
The series of books taught children the alphabet and writing. Using horizontal and vertical lines, handwriting was practised by copying out proverbs. Copy books for older children taught basic business studies and book-keeping. In 1870 Drawing books were introduced which included titles such as Drawing to Scale, Architecture and Workshop Drawing.
Vere also engaged the artist Sir Edward Poynter for £1,000 to design a series of water- colour painting books. By 1872 Vere Foster’s Copy Books had 192 different titles and had cost him £50,000. The books were used by the New York Education Authority among many others.
‘A Nation’s Greatness Depends Upon the Education of its People’The motto printed on each Copy Book
Vere Foster was very much concerned that teachers, as a profession, were undervalued. Speaking at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Societies in Belfast in 1867, he urged an increase in teachers’ wages, the provision of rent-free accommodation and a pension on retirement.
Vere also advocated for the establishment of a teachers association and the production of a dedicated periodical so teachers could read about new ideas and developments in education.
In January 1868 The Irish Teachers Journal was published. By the end of the year Vere Foster was chosen to be the first president of the Irish National Teachers Association. Foster worked tirelessly in the interests of teachers and education in Ireland until his resignation in 1873.
Vere Foster now devoted himself to various charitable organisations in his adopted city of Belfast. In 1875 Foster was elected to the Board of the Belfast Royal Hospital. Appointed as an ‘Honorary Collector’ he raised funds and subscriptions for the upkeep of the hospital and patient treatment often matching funds donated with his own money.
As well as coaxing money from friends and family he often sat in Donegall Place holding a plate for donations. Vere also joined a society to design and build better working-class homes and was a generous benefactor to the Belfast Nursing Society and Belfast Day Nurseries. He also supported the Belfast School of Art, personally paying the headmaster’s salary for several years. Additionally, Vere paid the expenses of a number of students while they were studying at Queens College.
In the late 1870’s when another failed potato crop caused widespread starvation, Vere restarted his Emigration Programme. Over the next 20 years Vere Foster assisted over 20,000 people, of all religions, to start a new life abroad.
Vere Foster’s Death
Vere Foster died on 21st December 1900. He had been unwell for some months and his grand-niece Miss Mary Ann Foster, had been attending him.
Vere had been living in Belfast since the 1860’s, lodging in a small attic room at 115 Great Victoria Street (now demolished). The rent at £1 per week was a far cry from the grandeur of his life at Glyde Court and Branskea Castle, Dorset. When he died, Vere had £178 to his name, his wealth and inheritance all spent on the poor.
His funeral cortege, attended by scarcely a dozen mourners, passed along Protestant Sandy Row and the Catholic Falls Road on its way to the cemetery – an old man who died in relative poverty after giving a fortune away for so many. The debt owed to him is enormous but his name is largely forgotten.
Vere Foster is buried in a modest grave at Belfast City Cemetery (Plot F-527). His headstone was donated sometime later by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation
Tributes to Vere Foster
If ever a man deserved respect, honour and admiration it is Vere Foster. His generosity, kindness and courtesy to all make him a true hero.
“That one man, subject to recurring ill-health, should have organised and financed these great emigration schemes in every minute detail and carried them through single-handed was a remarkable feat, and would of itself have entitled Vere Foster to a place of lasting honour in the annals of his country. That within the same period he built and repaired many hundreds of national schools at a cost which is not possible to even vaguely estimate, launched his copy-book enterprise and transformed the teaching body from a condition of disorganised depression to full professional status, raises his achievement beyond ordinary comprehension”.Mary McNeill Vere Foster, an Irish Benefactor 1971
“One of his closest friends, in what must be a conservative estimate, stated that Vere Foster must have spent over £120,000 during his long life in the cause of charity. Because he never married and his mode of living was one of the simplest, he eschewed the luxuries of life in order that he might spend his money doing good. Indeed, all found in him a stimulating companion, for he was a man of culture, refinement and wide experience. He had seen life in many parts of the world and his unfailing courtesy in his relationships, coupled with his total dedication to the poor, meant that, for him, the concept of the ‘brotherhood of man’ was not an empty phrase, but a principle by which he lived and died”Brendan Colgan Vere Foster English Gentleman, Irish Champion 2001
“For many years, Mr Foster had been prominently identified with works of charity and benevolence and numerous were those who felt the kindness of his heart. Selfishness was unknown in his character. Zeal and philanthropy were characteristics of him and to such an extent did his fellows lead him that his financial resources were taxed to a great extent. In these circumstances, it was but natural that the regret experienced on his death should be widespread”Irish News 22nd December 1900
The pupils so happy, one school-house so neat Our floor is now boarded, it looks so complete, Do thank most sincerely that man of great fame, That lover of science, ‘Vere Foster’ by name, For his princely donation, unsolicited given, We can only thank, his reward is in heaven. To the emigrant lonely he has been a guide, To watch o’er the poor is his pleasure and pride, To aid, to improve and to better their lot, Abroad on the ocean, or at home in their cot, His princely donation so freely he’s given, We can only thank – his reward is in heaven A Poem by the teacher and pupils of Killycarvan National School 24th January 1861
Vere Foster’s Papers
Vere Foster’s papers are held by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland
PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Titanic Quarter, Belfast BT3 9HQ Tel 028 90534800
Website: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni – Foster of Glyde Papers D3618
We could only scratch the surface of this magnificent man’s achievements. We’d recommend reading further to get a full appreciation of the debt owed to him. These two books were particularly interesting
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