Vere Foster – One of the greatest men you’ve never heard of

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Vere Foster
Vere Foster

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.

Ireland 1847

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
Famine Memorial Dublin
Famine Memorial Dublin

Model Farms

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

Assisted Emigration

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.

Famine Coffin Ships
Famine Coffin Ships

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.

Vere Foster Copy Book
Vere Foster Copy Book

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

Teachers Rights

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.

Belfast Charities

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.

Great Victoria Street Home
Typical Great Victoria Street Home

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.

Vere Foster Obituary
Vere Foster Obituary

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 Tribute, Irish News
Vere Foster Notice, Irish News

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

Contact Details:

PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Titanic Quarter, Belfast BT3 9HQ   Tel 028 90534800
Website: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni – Foster of Glyde Papers D3618

Further Reading

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

Vere Foster An Irish Benefactor - Mary McNeill
Vere Foster An Irish Benefactor – Mary McNeill
Vere Foster Book - Brendan Colgan
Vere Foster English Gentleman, Irish Champion
– Brendan Colgan

Related Images

Vere Foster Grave
Vere Foster Grave
Freeman's Journal 8 October 1851
Freeman’s Journal 8 October 1851
Vere Foster Grave Inscription
Vere Foster Grave Inscription
Vere Foster Grave Full Inscription
Vere Foster Grave Full Inscription
Life Goes On
Life Goes On

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24 Comments

Siobhan King · 16 June 2021 at 11:46 pm

No doubt many Irish descendants in America today that wouldn’t be alive except for his great work for their ancestors. Thankyou for telling his story. Inspirational!

    P&P · 17 June 2021 at 7:47 am

    I dont think enough people in Ireland or America appreciate the debt they owe to him

Padraigin No Cheannaigh · 16 June 2021 at 9:46 pm

A terrific gentleman. A man ahead of his time. Amazed at his progressive thinking. The contribution of this great man should be taught in schools.

    P&P · 17 June 2021 at 7:46 am

    Agree totally

    Pat Rennix · 17 June 2021 at 5:42 pm

    This man’s incredible sacrifice should be taught in history books. I live in Northern Ireland and we are only taught British history in our schools. I’m ashamed of the lack of support given to fellow Irish people who were treated so badly during the famine.

      P&P · 17 June 2021 at 7:10 pm

      Agreed. Such inspirational characters should be celebrated in our schools.

James Wallace · 16 June 2021 at 5:44 pm

What an amazing story and man! The Irish have given so much to their adopted countries for decades upon decades…a proud, strong and unstoppable people who can and have overcome so much…just like other cultures who have been tread upon, and forced from their lands and homes, beaten with intent on obliteration, yet endured, prospered and contributed more to their new lands than most natives of their “new countries.” In America…we are ALL descended from immigrants! This country’s foundation. We apparently are quick and ready to forget that. Thank you for this story. Very inspiring and Vere Foster deserves every accolade he gets. Makes me think about my family coming to this shore and what they must have endured…

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 6:07 pm

    We thought it was an inspirational story too

Agnes McGowan · 16 June 2021 at 5:04 pm

This man was a Saint in his time R.I.P

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 6:08 pm

    He would certainly deserve to be

Patricia Thompson · 16 June 2021 at 11:52 am

A very informative article about a great man, who did so much for the education and health and well being for people throughout Ireland during a time of great suffering for the destitute.

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 2:54 pm

    Thank you Patricia.

Lorene Rouse · 16 June 2021 at 9:04 am

Having been born in Belfast and being a volunteer at the NT Blickling Hall in Norfolk, the home of the Hobarts/Earls of Bu mi gamshire and I was particularly struck by the life and work of Vere Foster.

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 9:30 am

    He led a special life

Linda Thompson · 16 June 2021 at 7:16 am

Great article. Very interesting. I had not known the story of Vere Foster however I did attend Vere Foster primary school in Belfast in the 60s for a short period. Thank you for taking the time to share the history of a great man.

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 8:26 am

    Linda, in truth we didn’t know the extent of his charitable works until we started researching the post. It’s taken months to get it to a state that can begin to do him justice though there is so much more left out. A great man.

    Sheila maguire · 17 June 2021 at 12:29 am

    Where was the verse foster primary school in Belfast

      P&P · 17 June 2021 at 7:11 pm

      Was it near the Upper Springfield Road?

Sheila Magennis · 16 June 2021 at 6:04 am

Vere Foster was amazing. I loved reading every bit of it. What a true hero. His story needs to be told and more ready available to pupils in schools after all they might not be there only for him. Also the Royal hospital was extremely interesting to read about. So much one man did for one country and not many know about him. Really should be taught in history in schools, big part of our history.

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 8:54 am

    Yes, the response to this story shows that people want to hear about the good people in history. The feedback has surprised us across a number of FB groups

Vincent O Neill · 15 June 2021 at 11:21 pm

I never realised the dedication of this man to education. I’m glad the INTOpaid for his grave marking.

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 8:28 am

    Yes, he deserved the recognition having given so much.

Arturo Melian Randolph · 15 June 2021 at 10:23 pm

Thank you for the article!
I did not know of the gentleman, who led such a heroic life of dedication to the most humble and the poor.
I am a great admirer of Ireland. I love the music and the figure of Torlough O´Carolan and one day I want to walk on the Steping Stones of Tollymore Forest Park.
Cheers and please keep up the good work!

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 8:28 am

    Thank you Arturo

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