George Cornewall Lewis, Irish character and the Irish poor law debate, 1833–1836

John-Paul McGauran

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George Cornewall Lewis was a prominent political and literary figure in the mid nineteenth century, serving as both chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary under Palmerston. He had a wide range of interests and wrote on many topics from philosophy to philology and forms of government to astronomy. This article focuses on his views of what was called ‘the Irish character’ in the period 1833–1836, alongside the part which he believed a poor law could play in the reform of both the individual Irish peasant and the wider economy of Ireland. Lewis was an assistant commissioner on the royal commission which examined poverty in Ireland and was responsible for examining Irish migration to England and Scotland. He later wrote a confidential report to Thomas Spring Rice strongly criticising the royal commission's refusal to recommend a poor law for Ireland and also published a book in which he discussed what he saw as the main causes of, and solutions to, Irish poverty. Lewis's public and private writings provide a rich source of theory and philosophy surrounding the character of the Irish peasantry, its capacity to develop, and the central role of an Irish poor law in this process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-39
JournalJournal of Historical Geography
Early online date20 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished online - 20 Jun 2017


  • George Cornewall Lewis
  • Irish poor law
  • Irish character
  • Economic development
  • Immigration
  • Land


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