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November 2nd 1844

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Lazy, ignorant and ... starving

Lord Cockburn was a man of great reforming zeal, a sympathetic observer of the Great Disruption of 1843 and in his personal dealings both kindly and generous. But he was also a man of his age and shared views which today might seem reactionary and unfeeling. Though he was concerned with the potato famine in the Highlands in the 1840’s he came out against doing very much to help the starving.

“A general subscription (for the relief of the Highlanders) is now going on which will be very productive. In truth, the worst thing in the calamity is exactly these contributions. If it had been possible to have raised or distributed the money silently, feeding the people would not have corrupted them; but permanent mischief must be done to a population which, however worthy otherwise, is lazy and ignorant, by the proclaimed meetings, and begging committees, and pathetic speeches, and moving sermons and all the publicity of the apparatus by which the water of life is pumped up and diffused.” 

His views on prison reform with which he could presumably speak with some authority, were also not particularly progressive to modern thinking. “There has been a strong desire for years past to avoid the necessity of transportation by trying long imprisonment’s in properly regulated prisons…..I grieve to say that the results, as yet, are not encouraging. Those who have come out of an eighteen months’ or two years’ confinement seem to revert to crime as if nothing had been done to reform or frighten them.” 

In support of his views he mentions the case of Mary Boyle of Perth. “One handsome looking young woman, Mary Boyle, had been in the Penitentiary at Perth- the very school of penal virtue, and had come out of it with a great character- thoroughly reformed, their best swatch. Well, after being a month free and in employment she engages in a daring burglary with a gang of male villains; and, on being sentenced to transportation she threw off in an instant the decorous air which had made people first doubt the evidence and then pity her, and broke out into a paroxysm of the most cordial fury I ever saw at the bar; cursing prosecutor, Judges, jury, and her own council, in the coarsest terms; and dealing effective blows on all within her reach, not omitting the poor macer who had nothing to do with it. But No crime, nay the particular sort of it, runs in families like everything else, and this lady belongs to a race of thieves. She had a father, a mother and two brothers or sisters already in the colonies, and the only two that remain have already gone through what seems to be the first stage of the transporting process- a short imprisonment.” 

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