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Forster, William F., 1784-1854 / Memoirs of William Forster, Volume II [excerpt] (1865)

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  [p. 210]  



Peacefully returned from his second visit to America, William Forster resumed his home duties and enjoyments only for a short time. During this interval, his ministry, it is interesting to find from contemporary testimony, was of a very impressive character. On one occasion J. J. Gurney[1*] remarks respecting it:—“Seventh Month 6th. Yesterday some precious spiritual privileges were graciously bestowed. In the morning meeting dear William Forster was largely and excellently engaged in ministry. ‘Who made thee to differ from another?—and what hast thou that thou hast not received?’ He dwelt on our accountability for the light bestowed upon us of the Christian revelation, as compared with the condition of the heathen, and uttered many awakening and even alarming words, calling our attention to that swiftly coming, and most awful period when it will be said to the filthy, ‘Let him be filthy still,’ and to the holy, ‘Let him be holy still.’”

At the Monthly Meeting, the following Fifth‐day, he was liberated to attend the ensuing General Meeting at Aberdeen, and for other religious service in Scotland and the North of England. In the   [p. 211]   course of this engagement he was occupied both in holding meetings, and in visiting Friends in their families. Soon after his return home in the Ninth Month, his feelings were deeply affected, and his attention was very much absorbed, by the alarming accounts of an impending famine in Ireland.

Though up to Midsummer, 1846, the potato crop looked remarkably well, and there appeared every prospect of an abundant harvest, in one week nearly the whole crop was destroyed. Nor was the failure of the potato the only loss. The wheat was barely an average yield, and the barley and oats were deficient. The money value of the loss in potatoes and oats was computed to amount to sixteen millions sterling. The accounts which came in from all parts of the country left no room to doubt that the awful calamity of a general famine was impending. A deep sympathy was aroused, and great anxiety prevailed to do something to relieve the rapidly increasing distress. Large subscriptions were raised throughout the British Empire, and most liberal supplies of both food and money were nobly contributed from the United States of America.

At this juncture William Forster believed it to be his duty to undertake a journey through the most suffering districts, with the view of obtaining accurate information respecting the nature and amount of destitution, and of devising the best means of affording relief. The distressed condition of Ireland had attracted his attention before he heard of the formation in that country of the “Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends in Ireland;” and he conferred with his friends in London on the subject,   [p. 212]   who fully united in his views, and encouraged him to prosecute the proposed journey. He set out on the 30th of Eleventh Month, 1846—and was accompanied in different parts of his route, by Friends from England and of Ireland, with whom he visited the counties of Roscommon, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Longford and Cavan. Most of these counties were closely inspected, and especial attention was paid to the wild and desolate parts of each. It was not until the 14th of Fourth Month, 1847, that he completed this engagement, which had been prolonged greatly beyond the expectations at first entertained by himself and his friends, and which he prosecuted in the depth of a very inclement winter, deprived of many of the comforts to which he was accustomed, and his feelings often painfully excited by witnessing misery beyond his power to relieve.

Acting in concert with the “Central Relief Committee” in Dublin, his examination disclosed a state of destitution far exceeding that which had been at first supposed. The usefulness of his visit in many respects soon became apparent. He stimulated the upper classes in the endeavour to relieve the distress around them. He encouraged those with whom he had intercourse, by the information he was able to give respecting the exertions made in other parts of the country, and by showing them that he himself sympathized with the difficulties of their position, and with the sufferings of the poor. He also afforded most important help to the Central Committee, by opening a correspondence with individuals and local bodies in those remote districts; and thus   [p. 213]   furnished them with many efficient and trustworthy agents for the distribution of the funds confided to them, in places far removed from the residence of any member of their own religious community.

Before leaving Dublin for the West, William Forster had been requested to undertake the immediate distribution of relief, by advances of money in all cases in the course of his journey, in which there appeared to him a propriety in doing so. This discretion he from time to time exercised; nor did he fail, as a minister of Christ, to watch for opportunities to urge the powerful motives of the gospel to benevolent exertion, and to draw the attention of the poor sufferers to its strong consolations.[2*]

The following characteristic extracts from his correspondence during this mission of Christian charity will not be found without interest, and may perhaps assist the reader in forming a more complete idea of what manner of man he was, and by what spirit he was actuated.

As early as in the Seventh Month, before setting out on his northern journey, William Forster wrote to his brother Josiah Forster, suggesting a deputation of Friends from this country to unite with Friends in Dublin, in looking into the prevailing distress,—adding:—

If I am thought suitable for the purpose, I am willing to be sent. My object would be to go to Galway, Castlebar, Sligo, County of Donegal, and other parts, and endeavour to ascertain the state of the smaller towns, such as Roscommon,   [p. 214]   Tuam, &c., and the country districts lying in the way and out of the way, as might seem best, right and left.

Again he writes:—

I desire to be kept from a presumptuous spirit; at the same time I have a quiet hope that if I go I shall be carried through, but of that I do not wish to make myself too sure.

Alluding to the prospect of undertaking the journey, he says, nearer the time for leaving home for Ireland:—

Having endeavoured to act upon a simple desire to be found in the way of my duty, and the discharge of a debt of love to those who are in want and under suffering, I must try to hope that, if I go in a right mind, I shall be carried quietly through all I may have to meet with.

In the course of his Irish journey, he writes to his wife:—

First‐day afternoon. Dublin.—William[3*] soon found me out at the railway hotel, Liverpool, and I was glad to have him with me. George Crosfield called upon me with a proposal from his son Joseph to bear me company. When I found that he knew where and into what I was going, I readily and gratefully fell in with his offer. He seems, by his reading and the information he has obtained, to have been in training for the service. We had all reckoned upon a moderate passage across the Channel, but had not been long   [p. 215]   out of the harbour before we found a strong north‐west wind and a very rough sea: it was the ninth time I had crossed, and decidedly the most boisterous passage of them all. Joseph Bewley had met me at Liverpool, with a very hospitable invitation to his house, and to go there immediately on landing. We were invited to a sub‐committee of Friends’ Central Relief Association. It afforded me an opportunity of becoming more than ever informed of the extent and the nature of the calamity with which so large a portion of this fine country is visited, and of entering into some of the difficulties that Friends will have to contend with in administering relief.

12th mo. 4th. Boyle.—I have been very unwell with heavy cold, bad cough, and much oppression on my breathing.—Our time has been fully occupied by day—we have travelled late in the evening. But in the midst of all—sick at heart, I have never once, from the time I drove from our own door, had the least doubt but I was in the way of my duty, and never once felt the least grudge of any little strength I had to devote to this poor afflicted people. I keep my mind steadily to the object which brought me here, and am thankful to say that, from one place to another, and in one way or another, though it may have been but on a small scale, something has been effected.

We started an association at Castlereagh to‐day, after calling upon the O’Connor Don, and visiting the union‐house—such a mass of misery!—now happily provided for as far as it goes, and an interview with the proprietor of the town, T. G. Wiles, lately come into the possession of the Mount Sandford Estate. We met there just before the business of their Presentment Sessions, and, as we found the gentlemen all of one mind, something was soon accomplished. I offered a boiler to a clergyman in a very populous country district not far distant; but, as he had some expectation of receiving one from the Sackville Association, I hold myself engaged to send him £10 as soon as I can hear that they have commenced operations.

We then went to Charles Strickland’s at Lough Glyn, agent   [p. 216]   to the large estate of Lord Dillon. It was to a lady of that family the Bishop of Norwich had given me a letter of introduction. She was not at home, but her sister entered most warmly into our object. She is going to set their girls and women to work in knitting Guernsey frocks. I shall send her a little capital for the purchase of a good supply of yarn and needles. The ladies’ committee at Moate took it up very heartily; and I hope it will supply some good substantial articles of clothing for the labouring men before the winter is over. They sadly want employment for the women and girls all through the country.

Yesterday, on our way from Athlone to Roscommon, we called at Lord Crofton’s residence, near the little village of Ballimurry (the only place in Connaught in which there is a meeting of Friends). He was not at home; but when we heard he was gone on a visit to Lord Lorton in the neighbourhood of this place, it soon determined me on deviating from the course I had thought of, and to come round by Castlereagh and Boyle to Carrick.

It is our intention to go to Rockingham to‐morrow, and, if we can effect it, to get an interview with Lord Crofton before he sets off, and to see Lord Lorton too. It is not the path I should choose for myself, and one from which I have a great natural shrinking; but I must try and do my best, and not allow myself to be turned away from what I believe to be the duty of the day.

On the 8th of Twelfth Month, from the county of Donegal:—

We had many visitors who came to us with their tale of woe. The Catholic curate made his statement with much feeling, and as I thought without any attempt at exaggeration. The surgeon of the poor‐law union told of the progress of disease; and private gentlemen came full of apprehension that, bad as things are at present, they must yet be worse. What we saw and heard of that town and neighbourhood—Carrick‐upon‐Shannon—was most harrowing. We did a   [p. 217]   little in the way of suggesting plans of relief, and I hope something will be effected. On Seventh‐day evening we were admitted to the board of guardians; and, with the applicants for admission who had come from several miles round the country, and brought their children, begging to be taken into the union house, we saw such a mass of wretchedness as cannot be described. It was late in the evening; some of them had been waiting all the day without food, and had nothing to go home to but utter famine, or to eke out their wretched existence upon cabbages and turnips. We sent for a large supply of bread.

I thought much the next day of our Lord’s compassion on the multitude, who had hungered long; and I cannot but hope—and that hope as it now revives gives me fresh comfort—that He will yet put it into the hearts of many who love Him, and desire to know his will that they may do it, to make effort for the famishing multitudes of the poor of this country.

12th mo. 9th. Stranorlan, county of Donegal.—I hope and trust that, in the kindness of our heavenly Father’s love, we may be helped to do something in the cause of searching out distress, and making it known. I could regret that I have no more strength to give to the work; but I must try to be thankful for what I have, and carefully husband the latter.

11th. Letterkenny.—We have had a winterly night, snow and stormy; we do not yet know the state of the roads northward. It was quite a refreshment to me to make the acquaintance of J. V. Stewart, living in a beautiful place; so thoroughly open‐hearted, and laboriously devoting himself to the care of the poor. There is every appearance about the place of a high standard of refinement and good domestic order. It has been very striking to me, within the last few days, to observe that in several places, persons, though not over‐abounding in either public or private means, are so much impressed with the belief that our help would be more needed in places farther north, and upon the sea wall, that they decline accepting anything from us at present.

  [p. 218]  

12th. Rathmilton.—We came from Letterkenny yesterday; a most winterly day, over a very exposed country. We had such a snow‐storm that it made me think of the Kankakee,[4*] and some of my coldest travelling in France. I never before had so much the idea of what it would be to perish in the cold. My companions went into the country to a remote and very distressed district, and I hope a channel of communication will be opened for their relief.

Evening. Dunfagashe.—Our landlord at Rathmilton is a baker, and, as he was willing to lend us a sack, I brought away a good lot of bread. One of my visits to a wretched way‐side cabin was most touching; the poor man of the house told me that last night his wife was saying, “What shall we do this weather?” He said, “I told her to trust in the Almighty, and He would send relief;” and, with eyes filling to the brim, “Now,” said he, “you see it is come.” At our last baiting‐place I got two of the constabulary—a fine, well‐ordered set of young men—to go and show me the most distressed families in the place; they seemed quite to enjoy the job, and the poor creatures were glad enough to get what would go far towards satisfying their hunger for the remainder of the day. They spoke in strong terms of the good order of the peasantry in this county; and they are, I believe, enduring their misery with great patience. If this weather continues, it is hard to say what will become of the thousands employed on the roads at task‐work; for they are not in a condition, from their broken‐down state of health, from the want of food, and from the tattered condition of their clothing, to stand the cold. And it should be remembered that, from their usual habits of life, many of them have never gone to regular out‐of‐doors work in winter. And as they are paid only for what they earn, if from any circumstance they cannot work, they and their families must starve and die.

  [p. 219]  

I have it very much at heart to get associations formed of the principal people of this county, and in three or four other counties, who should be prepared to step in with relief in cases of extremity. Another object with me is, if possible, to get some employment set on foot for the women, who, if they could earn but twopence per day, it would be worth all the effort I could make. I find that in some places the ladies want to set them to knitting; I can think of no way in which we could so effectually help them to a little clothing, if we could get them to knit Guernsey frocks, and they could be got into the hands of the poor men at very reduced prices, or be given them.

I hope my cough is a little better; and I have not been tried with so much distressing exhaustion and incapacity for the least effort as yesterday.

13th.—I had a good little meeting this morning, and thought of you. I had the comfort of feeling myself in the way of my duty; and a little hope that I should not be left to myself, and very earnest desire that it might not be so.

Dungloe.—We are now on our way through the very wilds of Donegal, baiting at a miserable village—miserable enough at all times; but, if they tell us the real truth, famine is at their doors; for there is not a peck of meal, as they say, to be bought in all the place, and unless they can get it from Letterkenny or Derry, the people must perish. Happily the frost and snow are going; and we must hope that a fresh supply will soon arrive.

We left our warm and home‐like quarters at Guidone before sunrise this morning; the journey was formidable in prospect, and there were those who would have frightened us away from the attempt. We had a good horse belonging to a man at Glenties, where we were going, and an active mare of Lord George’s for our leader, with one of his labouring boys for postillion. Thus far we have got through beyond my expectation. My companions, mounted on two ponies which they hired in the village, are gone two or three miles into the country, to see a clergyman of the Establishment, of   [p. 220]   whom we have heard a good report for his kind‐heartedness and public spirit.

I have been calling on the priest, and got him to take me to a baker’s shop to procure a supply of bread, and then to show me the way to a few of the most destitute families in the village. It is a way of getting into the interior of their condition which does indeed elicit a mass of misery that cannot be described. The priest said he had received £10 from the Calcutta fund, with which he had been selling out Indian meal at reduced or cost price. I do not wish to be too sanguine, but hope we shall succeed in getting up an association for the north‐west district of the county.

On our way from Guidone, I had what was to me a satisfactory interview with Wybrants Olphert, a gentleman of property and influence who has for several years been resident on his estate. We took with us Charles Stewart, a well‐disposed and useful clergyman, who helped us capitally in our object. They fall in with our plan of giving a little employment to the women. I have sent to Dublin for a gross of wooden needles, and offer, as I go along, to advance a little capital for the purchase of yarn: the women are good knitters. Lord George Hill gives great encouragement to the domestic employment of his tenantry, and is successful in finding a market for all the stockings of their manufacture.

My object is both to find employment for the women, and to furnish the men with at least one warm, comfortable garment, which many of them will greatly need during the next three or four months, by which time their rags will no longer hold together. And we must devise some means to help the poorest of the cottars to a few articles of clothing for their children; that which now half covers them will soon be gone. There is an article of cheap domestic manufacture worn by the small farmers that would be just the thing, or possibly something still cheaper would be bought in England. The public works are not begun in this part of the county.

How the very poorest of the cottars are kept alive it is hard to imagine; no potatoes, no corn; or if they had a few oats, they are in some cases nearly gone, and in others all   [p. 221]   eaten; none saved, or likely to be saved, for seed; no work—no wages—no credit; so that even were provisions much cheaper than they are, they have not the means of buying them. Many of the small farmers are selling what little they have of live stock, and the sooner it goes the better, as it will now bring them something; but if the animals have all the meat starved off their bones, they will bring them next to nothing at all. Few things touch me much more than to hear of their selling their poultry just at the time when they might be likely to make a few pence by their eggs; and then at last their cow, and nothing, nothing left! Our host at Guidone told me that when Lord George Hill came into possession of the property, not a single farmer had a pig. By his exertion and assistance they had become so generally supplied, that there was not a small farmer without one. Now, in consequence of the dearth of potatoes, they are all gone, not a single farmer in the neighbourhood has one.

20th. First‐day evening. Ballyshannon.—We are now leaving the county of Donegal after a great deal of difficult, and what sometimes had the appearance of perilous, travelling. It has been often to me a time of suffering from general inability; but I have not been to any great degree,—indeed I say it with thankfulness, but little,—hindered from what I have thought the duty of the day.

25th. Ballina. I am entering upon what in some respects is a new field of labour in Mayo, &c., with a tolerably submissive mind, and perhaps as good heart as I could reasonably look for. I think it best, as much as possible, to shut my ears against all that would have the effect of frightening me away from what I think to be the path of my duty. Sometimes I have a little of the renewing of that feeling by which I am enabled to put my trust in the Lord: that is the best of all, and proves to be my main stay and support. It is a mercy my health and strength are a little restored; for some days I was in such a state of exhaustion and incapacity that I could neither move, nor speak, nor think, without bringing on most distressing and violent retching,—and the cold was most nipping,—but I am better.

  [p. 222]  

1847. 1st mo. 2nd. Castlebar.—Thanks for thy letters. I had been much oppressed in mind, and worn by fatigue and cold, in the course of a long day’s journey from where we lodged last night,—a very small village in the midst of the bogs and mountains, and in the midst of poverty and famine. Famine in its direst forms seems to be upon the increase from day to day; and it must increase whilst the people are one by one reaching to the end of their store of all that is eatable, and of all that they can turn into money to buy food. It has been brought home to me within the last few days in a way that almost overpowers me. I do not murmur at my lot: I thought I had counted the cost; but I did not know, and it is well I did not, what I was coming to. My strength often fails me; and when my efforts to do the little that comes upon me from day to day are disappointed, I am perhaps unduly cast down.

I think I have never before passed through such suffering of mind, unless I were to except those moments in which I have seemed to myself racked with unutterable intensity of feeling in thinking of the horrors of the slave‐trade. Sometimes I get a little relief to my agony in tears; but that is what I cannot command. I wish to be patient, and not to give up my trust in the Lord. In my most favoured moments, a sense of the omniscience of God, and that his tender mercies are over all his works, helps me to stay my mind on Him, and to hope in his care and love.

The horrors of famine were brought home to me this morning in a way in which thou canst understand me. There was the body of a dead horse lying by the road‐side near our lodging‐place. The driver said that our landlord told him that eight horses had perished there for want of food. This tells a tale of misery that can be understood only by those who know the circumstances of these poor people, and how thinly that country is inhabited; how few there are that have a horse; and what a horse is to the man that has one, and the effort and the sacrifice he would make to keep him alive.

I hear of death from starvation wherever I go. I suppose them to be cases in which people are worn down by long   [p. 223]   fasting, and the eating of bad or unwholesome food, and that for days or weeks in succession, until they fall down and expire. If it be thus with them, what must be the condition of those that live, who are day by day, and almost all the day, enduring the misery, and all the sickening and the ravening, of extreme of hunger. It is this that brings with it the keenest anguish to my mind; it enters my very soul, and seldom leaves it through the day. I have put up my prayer that I might be brought into the way of these as I go along; and in some instances I have had the hope, and comfort in that hope, that my prayer has been answered.

It has been a true encouragement to me on my journey, particularly in our travels in Donegal, to have met with pious, and such as I believe to be truly Christian people, who are industriously and unsparingly devoting themselves to the help and relief of those by whom they are surrounded. They feel that the judgments of the Lord are in the earth; that his hand is heavy upon them. They do not give themselves up to despondency; but are using efforts equal, I believe, to their means, and making it their sole object in life, from week to week, to do all they can to relieve the wants of the poor. I have seldom met with such men as J. V. Stewart, Archdeacon Fenwick, and John Hamilton of St. Germans, near Donegal, nephew to the Duke of Wellington. Whether or not my coming may have answered much good purpose to the sufferers themselves I must leave; but possibly it may have been a little helpful and cheering, though it does not become me to say so, to those who are almost worn down by their endeavours to do what they believe to be their duty. One very striking feature of the times, and I have met with it in many places, is that the calamity seems very much to have softened down the asperity of party feeling; people now act together who had for years, it may have been all their life long, stood aloof from each other. As Colonel Gore, lieutenant of the county of Sligo, told me last week, “We have but the one thing to think of, and that occupies all our minds.”


[1*] Unpublished memoranda.

[2*] See “Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, during the famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847:” Dublin, 1852. That Committee had nearly £200,000 entrusted to their care and administration. More than half this sum came from America.

[3*] His son, William Edward Forster, Joseph Crosfield, of Liverpool, and James Huck Tuke, then of York, successively accompanied William Forster during his arduous labours in Ireland, besides some others of his kind friends from England and of that island. The three former each published reports of their journey, which will be found in the Appendix of the “Transactions of the Central Relief Committee.”

[4*] A river in Indiana, North America; on whose banks the bitterness of the cold detained him and his companions in a comfortless log cabin, in the winter of 1845.

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