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VERE FOSTER AND THE 'CITY OF MOBILE', 1857
© Brendan Hall 2002
Undaunted by the attacks directed towards him concerning his policy of assisting young people (mostly, though not exclusively, from County Louth and mainly girls), to emigrate to America and Canada during the summer of 1856 (1), Vere Foster made it clear the following year that he would be pleased to pay for the transatlantic passage of suitable candidates, in order that they may escape from poverty and unemployment in Ireland
In a letter dated 25 Mar 1857 to a local newspaper (2), Foster appealed to anyone wishing to avail of such an offer, at the expense of the Irish Pioneer Emigration Fund, to meet with him on specified days over the coming two weeks in Dunleer, County Louth. Foster and his brother Frederick were the principal contributors to the IPEF. Among the other subscribers were the Prime Minister and Lady Palmerston, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Rev. E. Dooley, J. Levins C.C., Chichester Fortescue M.P., John Kieran of Rathbrist and many other farmers in the neighbourhood. In his letter, Foster included a transcription of correspondence he had from the Rev. Edmund O'Connor, formerly of Tulla, County Clare, now parish priest based at St. Mary's Church, Canandaigua, 'the most beautiful village in the state of New York':
DEAR AND RESPECTED SIR – In reply to your favor [sic] I have only to repeat what I have already stated to you, that I will do all in my power to aid and assist any emigrants whom you may send here. It is as good a section of country as I know for unmarried men and women of good character. They will have a good opportunity of attending their religious duties whether they are Catholics or Protestants. Do not send me many at one time, you may send them often.
In consequence of this letter Foster proposed directing about sixty girls, twenty at a time, to Canandaigua. He also stated that he had received similar assurances from other religious, namely, the bishop of Hamilton, the Rev. G. M'Nulty of Toronto, the Very Rev. Dean Kirwan of Port Sarula, and other Catholic clergy of Canada West – also Rev. James Hennessey of Detroit, the Very Rev. Dr. Dunn of St. Patrick's Church, Chicago; the Rev. Mr. M'Faul of Janesville, Wisconsin, and others.
Foster said that it was his intention to send about 140 girls and a few boys, his preference being for those who were in farm service, those on the smallest wages, those with the best recommendations, or those from the largest families, though only one out of each family.
In an interesting aside, Foster stated that he wished he could send a million emigrants as 'the ensuing scarcity of labor [sic], and therefore increase in wages and comfort would produce America in Ireland'. This statement places Foster very much in the mid-19th century and as being familiar with the political and social philosophy of Jeremy Bentham – utilitarianism (3) – a philosophy that was expanded only four years later by John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism, 1861) and already ridiculed by Charles Dickens (Hard Times, 1854). In so far as Foster was influenced by his own natural and generous sense of philanthropy, he also calculated that the knock-on effect of removing young people from the workforce in Ireland would have a more beneficial effect on the local economy while, at the same time, adding to the much-needed work force in America and Canada, all this despite the hardship which would be endured by the young people – a basic tenet of utilitarianism.
In his letter Foster also made reference to his liberal credentials, hoping that Tristram Kennedy [Independent Opposition] and Chichester Fortescue [Liberal] would be returned as members of parliament for County Louth. In fact, Fortescue [1823-98], on whom, it is said, Anthony Trollope based his character Phineas Finn in the Palliser Novels, was popular as MP and headed the poll that year (Kennedy came in fourth (4)), and later was to champion the Irish Land Acts and the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (5).
The 'City of Mobile' with its 120 'Foster' passengers (not 140 as originally intended), sailed from Liverpool on 26 May 1857 and arrived in New York on 01 July. Foster travelled by steamer, a journey of some two weeks (6). As was his want, he issued a circular on 04 August giving details of the voyage, for the benefit of friends and relatives in Ireland. In it he stated that all his passengers had landed safely in New York but forty-six [sic] of them, contrary to his advice, had opted to stay in the city, instead of moving on to the destinations originally intended. Foster then described the kindness with which the young people were met at the various destinations outside New York. He also said that they all had employment within a short time of arriving. Those who took the 44-hour long trip to Janesville, Wisconsin were allowed, thanks to the generosity of the railway companies, to travel first class, at emigration rates. Foster also went on to provide mailing addresses for the young people, as follows:
In care of the Rev. Edmund O'Connor, Canandaigua, New York:Margaret
In care of the Rev. James Hennessey, P.P. Detroit, Michigan:
Woods Mary (Feeragh)
In care of the Very Rev. D. Dunne, P.P. St. Patrick's Church Chicago, Illinois:
Woods Mary (Greenmount)
In the care of the Rev. Michael McFaul, Janesville, Wisconsin:
There were obviously some problems among his passengers during the voyage as he finished his circular by saying (in reference to his next planned trip):
Mr. Foster will endeavour to select a ship manned by a more respectable crew than that of the 'City of Mobile', and in which good discipline shall be preserved, and his passengers shall be protected from intrusion and insult on the part of bad characters amongst the sailors, who in well regulated ships are not allowed to enter that part of the ship which is occupied by passengers.
He also stated that for the next voyage, on 01 September, when he would send one hundred more girls and a few boys, he would require the highest recommendations. Whatever discretion Foster chose to show concerning those who stayed behind in New York was to backfire on him only a month later.
The damning and wildly inaccurate leading article appeared in The Freeman's Journal on 05 September and was copied by the Times of London a couple of days later. Whilst not doubting Foster's integrity, the writer condemned the lack of supervision of Foster's protégées, stating that some of the girls had been 'lead astray' by the sailors on the ship, that some had been taken to brothels after the ship docked at New York and that others were gaining employment as prostitutes on the streets of New York. It also stated that 120 of the girls had stayed in the city (in fact 26 had, and half of those had gone to relatives), contrary to the original plan of placing them in gainful employment throughout the United States and Canada. The point of the leading article centred on a sworn deposition given by one of Foster's passengers, Susan Smith, who had been found on Broadway in dire circumstances, beaten, bruised and near starvation, forced into crime and prostitution. Her story is as follows:
'DEPOSITION OF SUSAN SMITH: City and County of New York: - Susan Smith, late of county Meath, Ireland, being sworn, deposes and says that she is 21 years of age, and came passenger to the port of New York in the ship City of Mobile, Marshall, master, from Liverpool, and arrived on the 29th of June last; that after the vessel had cast anchor off Castle Garden, Margaret Floddy and four other passengers of the ship were on the same night, at about eleven o'clock, taken off the vessel by two of the sailors belonging to the ship, in one boat, and brought to the city; that on the next morning, at about eight o'clock, the ship having meantime been taken round to a pier, five passengers, names Mary Malone, Mary Kelly, Ann Donnelly, Jane Crawley, and a girl names Margaret, were taken off by the quartermaster named Bill Mooney, who was always, so far as deponent knows, at the wheel during the voyage; that at about twelve o'clock noon on the same day, Wednesday, deponent and a girl names Ellen Neary, who was a passenger, were taken off the vessel by two sailors, named James and Thomas, and brought to the house of Kit Burns, No. 32, Water-street, where deponent has remained up to the present time; says that the other passengers were taken off the vessel in a steamboat on the day of arrival, at about six o'clock p.m., and brought to Castle Garden, as deponent believes, and that meantime deponent and the other females, as above stated, were concealed in the forecastle of the ship by the sailors until brought ashore as above stated.
Susan (her X mark) Smith
Sworn to before me this 4th day of August, 1857
Bernard Casserly, Commissioner of Deeds.
The Commissioner, by the consent of Justice Osborn, sent an officer to No. 32, Water-street, and arrested Ellen Neary, and sent her to Ward's Island.'
The leading article stated that Foster should have accompanied the girls as it was obvious the matron left in charge of them could not carry out her duties, or did not understand them, 'at any rate it was highly dangerous, as events proved, to commit such a number of innocent girls to the temptation of a free intercourse with depraved men, with no other restraint than the presence of a matron, who could exercise no repressive authority in the face of such dangers'. It also pointed out that patronising between the crew and the passengers should have been forbidden.
If the editor of The Freeman's Journal had an agenda in criticising Foster it is likely that, as with the Drogheda Argus the year before, (and even if the facts got in the way of a salacious story), the problem was the mass emigration of people from Ireland – 'Better let the whole sad history be known [that of the City of Mobile emigrants]. It may produce ultimate good in wholly staying that national madness for emigration of which we have well nigh seen the end'.
Vere Foster was in America when the story broke. It was left to his brother Frederick, who was in London, to reply, something he did on the same day as the story was printed in the London Times. He wrote that contrary to what had been stated in the newspapers, twenty-six girls had stayed in New York, of which 13 had been seduced by the sailors. This, of course, he said, was too many, but was far from the 108 that the paper claimed to be victims. He requested that the paper retract its statement, in the interest of justice to his brother and for the information of the public. In response to the letter, the editor simply replied, 'The statement on which our observations were grounded were given in a sworn deposition of some unfortunate girls, as well as the American and Liverpool newspaper reports of the case', and made no attempt to correct the factual errors in the original article or apologise for them.
Foster was not a man to be put off by the vagaries of the press and he continued with his emigration policy and later his great project of improving the national school system in Ireland. The Home Rule politician A.M. Sullivan referred to Foster as 'one of the most remarkable men in Ireland' (7). A Member of the Royal Irish Academy, John Vinycomb, who knew Foster, in his article 'A reminiscence of Vere Foster' described him as 'a man who could do such great things quietly and unobtrusively to his life's end, was of real service to the community in which he lived, and all this he did, not as a commercial speculation – for he died poor – but as a thing born in the big heart of a philanthropist, and carried out with the wisdom of a statesman (8)'.
The entry in the Calendar of Wills and Administrations (9) for 1901 is as follows:
FOSTER Vere Henry Lewis  25 February Administration of the estate of Vere Henry Lewis Foster late of 75 Great Victoria-street Belfast Gentleman who died 21 December 1900 granted at Belfast to Sir Augustus Vere Foster Baronet Effects £178 8s 6d.
(1) Hall, Brendan, 'Vere Foster's County Louth Emigrants Summer 1856' in Journal of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, Vol 2 No. 2, 2001
(2) The Newry Express and Louth Advertiser
(3) The doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greater number should be the guiding principle of conduct. (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, New York 1998)
(4) Walker, B.M., Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1922, RIA Dublin 1978
(5) Hewett, W.H., '…and Mr. Fortescue', London 1958
(6) McNeill Mary, Vere Foster An Irish Benefactor, Plymouth 1971
(7) Sullivan, A.M., New Ireland, 7th edition, Glasgow 1882
(8) Tempest's Annual, Dundalk, 1957
(9) National Archives of Ireland
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© Brendan Hall 2002, 2003