John Robert Godley founder of Canterbury New Zealand.

Godley’s Plan: ‘The Poor Law provides for the animal… Mr Godley caters for the man!’

Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column recalls John Robert Godley's (Leitrim neighbour) Canadian Colonisation plan during the Great Famine.

The Godleys, known as the Lord's Kilbracken of Kilegar, Co Leitrim, are a well-known and esteemed family and worthy next-door neighbours to County Cavan.

In 1951, London County Council erected a plaque at 48 Gloucester Place, St Marylebone, to John Robert Godley in recognition of him being the founder of Canterbury, New Zealand, a hundred years earlier. John R. Godley, whose son became the first Baron Kilbracken, died at his London residence in 1861; having lived in New Zealand from 1849 to 1852.

John was experienced in ‘colonial management’ and, before founding Canterbury, he had drawn-up a juggernaut-sized colonial scheme to re-settle over one million Irish in Canada at the height of the Great Hunger in the hope of relieving the distress. While he found great support in some quarters, he also ran into opposition from those who considered his plans would act as a catalyst to clear over-crowded landed estates of the tenants.

John Robert Godley was the eldest son of Mr John Godley of Kilegar and Mrs Catherine Godley, a sister of the Right Rev. Robert Daly, Bishop of Cashel. In 1844, John Robert’s Letters from America were published to great acclaim and attracted the ‘notice of political men’ on both ‘sides’ of the Atlantic, as noted in his book, ‘A Selection from the Writings and Speeches of John Robert Godley’.

Black '47

1847 was called Black ‘47 for good reason, with so many deaths from starvation occurring throughout Ireland. The famine moved John Godley to take an interest in colonisation as a solution to the horrifying situation which unfolded before his eyes. Godley drew up a scheme which required £9,000,000 in total, £7,500,000 of which would be ‘laid out’ in Canada, and £1,500,000 to be set aside for passage money to cover the voyage costs of the people.

Godley addressed an Irish deputation about the scheme, informing them, ‘you object to my Poor Law… what other plan have you to propose?’

Having read his proposal to the Irish delegation, they were struck dumb by the scale of the venture. 'The Poor Law provides for the animal… Mr Godley caters for the man', wrote The Anglo-Celt in April 1847. The article endorsed Godley’s plan as ‘a plan worthy of fifty Poor Laws’ in its aim to relieve destitution and elevate the pauper to the position of colonist. The workhouse had in the reporter’s eyes only the ability to ‘brutify’ the unlucky souls admitted through its doors.

The Prime Minister Lord John Russell received by hand a copy of Godley’s memorial outlining the ‘elaborate’ project and then placed under consideration by the ministry. Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords were already in favour of Godley’s solution to setup the Irish Canada Company to borrow the capital needed ‘for the purpose of its incorporation’ and that it would be permitted to loan money to the ‘District Councils’ and ‘other public bodies' in Canada, at a rate agreeable to both parties. Other facilities required by the plan included the undertaking of public work schemes ‘at a valuation’ in Canada and for the purpose of buying land ’at a valuation’ to carry out said works, and other such land in the area.

The debt for Godley’s colonisation of Canada was to be passed on to the landed properties of Ireland while the interest would be paid for through an income tax. The proposed project was published in the Spectator where it received a great deal of criticism from the prominent journals of the day. Never-the-less, his book, ‘A Selection from the Writings and Speeches of John Robert Godley’ described how the proposal was supported in regard to the unanimous approval given by members of all political parties.


The Nation took a more cynical view of Godley's juggernaut-sized scheme and alerted its readers to what it called the ‘dangerous character’ of the ‘emigration project’ and resolved to use any ‘influence’ they could for forming a ‘universal and determined’ opposition to the plan. The Nation made four objections. Firstly, Ireland amid starvation was still producing enough food to feed all its inhabitants each year and pointed out that Irish exports in 1846 were an estimated £16,000,000.

Secondly, the Nation asserted the 'absolute right of the Irish people' to eat the fruit of their 'own soil and their own industry', a right the report stated was 'much higher and more perfect' than 'any' so-called 'legal right' to outdoor relief. It was stressed that the Irish had a duty to exercise these rights irrespective of whatever poor law existed.

Thirdly, the cost to the Irish people of £9 million to ship her people across the sea could only be conceived as a ‘misapplication' of national resources in the most ‘wasteful and absurd’ manner. The paper railed against the enormity of the financial outlay by asking, if the equivalent were lent to Irish proprietors and tenants, then it could be used for improvements of the soil; the railway companies; fishing companies; manufacturing purposes; all achieved, if permitted to be spent ‘without the control and intermeddling of government officials’ and as a consequence, do more to ‘repair the ravages’ of the famine.

Fourthly, Ireland had according to the research of Sir Robert Kane, 4,600,000 acres of land, which could be reclaimed easily and transformed for cultivation and thereby increasing arable production threefold. The reclamation work would, said the Nation, create employment and reduce the need to waste millions on carrying ‘human cargoes’ across 3,000 miles of ocean.

However, the Nation need not have worried too much about the scheme; Prime-minister Russell having received the documentation, was said to have pondered it for 10 days before rejecting it outright.

New Zealand

However, the rejected colonisation scheme caught the attention of a propagandist named Edward Wakefield who met Godley and they formed the Canterbury Association. Gerald Hensley’s entry on Godley in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography speaks of the distinction of the project between colonisation and emigration, where Canterbury required a balance of the sexes, churches, schools and ‘settlers of wealth’ alongside ‘assisted migrants’.

John R. Godley’s death in 1861 prompted Gladstone to say of him, he was ‘a king among men’, regarding his liberal colonisation policies. Godley’s son Arthur Godley became the first Baron of Kilbracken, Killegar in 1909.


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