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British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in the Remote Parishes of Ireland and Scotland

The British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in the Remote Parishes of Ireland and Scotland, known as the British Relief Association was a private charity established in December 1846 by a group of prominent aristocrats, bankers and philanthropists with Lionel de Rothschild in the lead, in response to the Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, which resulted in mass starvation, disease, and emigration. Most severely affected areas were in the west and south of Ireland. During the famine, an estimated one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island's population to fall by between 20% and 25%. The British Relief Association was the largest private provider of relief during the Great Irish Famine and Highland Potato Famine of the 1840s. During its brief period of operation from 1846-1848, the British Relief Association received donations and support from many notable politicians and royalty, including Queen Victoria.


When potato blight first appeared in Ireland in 1845 there was some sporadic fund-raising activity in the British Isles. However, the scale of the second blight in 1846 brought about a more concerted and widespread relief effort. The publication of a public appeal in The Times on 24 December 1846 from an Irishman, Nicholas Cummins, led to a sudden influx of donations from British merchants and bankers, and within days over £10,000 had been raised. Consequently, the British Relief Association was established at the instigation of Baron Lionel de Rothschild to manage donations to the famine relief effort.

Organisation and activity

The British Relief Association held its first official meeting on 1 January 1847 at the 148 Piccadilly, the London home of Lionel de Rothschild. Rothschild had invited some of the richest and most notable men in British society to the meeting, which was attended by Mayer Amschel de Rothschild, John Abel Smith, George Robert Smith, Henry Kingscote, Samuel Gurney and Hon. Stephen Spring Rice, among others. Future meetings, held at South Sea House in London, were attended by Raikes Currie, Samuel Jones-Loyd, 1st Baron Overstone, Thomas Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook, George Kinnaird, 9th Lord Kinnaird and David Salomons, who all also served on the Association's committee. Spring Rice, one of the two men on the committee born in Ireland, was made the Association’s secretary, as he had first-hand experience of the potato blight's effect on his family's estates in County Kerry and County Limerick. Each committee member donated at least £1,000 to the relief effort, and the group met daily to coordinate the allocation of funds.

Hannah, widow of Nathan Rothschild wrote to her son Mayer on 11 January 1847: "I am exceedingly sorry to observe the continued distressing accounts from Ireland and other places.  Lionel informed me of the donations given which are very munificent and I pray that the situation of the Poor may soon be ameliorated by a plentiful supply of food etc. and that God Almighty may bestow his usual blessings on these countries which so greatly require his protection.  I would willingly say, add my donation for my account if it is necessary which may be thought essential..." (RAL 000/10)

From its inception, the British Relief Association was politically well-connected, particularly to the Whig Party, and this helped it to gain early prominence. The establishment of the charity was praised by the Quaker philanthropist William Edward Forster, who commented on the committee's commitment and desire to provide more assistance than mere gifts of money. Within days of the Association's being established, requests for support arrive from organisations across Ireland. The committee began lobbying financial and transport companies for assistance. Much of the aid was channelled through pre-existing relief groups in Ireland and the members of the Association used their connections to encourage fundraising among municipal bodies and political groups throughout the British Empire. The Association worked closely with the British Government to coordinate their activity, and aimed to provide assistance to those who could not be reached by the authorities. This necessitated working alongside Sir Charles Trevelyan, whose involvement in the Association’s work was only counterbalanced by the administrative skill of Spring Rice and Paweł Strzelecki, the Association's agent in Ireland. Strzelecki's regular eye-witness reports to the Association were reprinted in several British newspapers, thus providing important evidence of the extent of the suffering to the British public.

By 1 March 1847, Strzelecki is recorded as having distributed aid in 65 localities across Ireland, which included bales of clothing, over one thousand bags of rice and almost two thousand barrels of meal. Strzelecki had spent £2,953 in County Mayo, £1,740 in County Donegal, and £1,193 in County Sligo by 1 April 1847. In Westport, County Mayo, an estimated 8,000 people were being fed on a weekly basis by Association grants during 1847. The increasing demands on the Association led to Strzelecki being appointed Executive Director in May 1847, and several extra volunteer agents were taken on to assist in the relief effort. Lord Robert Clinton, Lord James Butler and Matthew James Higgins were among those who offered their services. By summer 1847 a temporary relief measure in the form of an Ireland-wide network of soup kitchens was feeding 3 million people a day. At this point, the Association decided to reduce the scope of its own operations, and only Strzelecki remained in Ireland on the Association's behalf at the end of June.

In autumn 1847 the British government declared that it believed the famine to be over, and that no further money from HM Treasury would be spent on the relief effort. Nonetheless, the need for assistance was still apparent, and the Association used its residual funds to help 22 Poor law unions in Ireland. For over eight months approximately 200,000 children in Ireland were provided with free rations of food on a daily basis, and were also given clothing. By July 1848 the British Relief Association's funds were entirely depleted, and the scheme was finally shut down.


Queen Victoria donated £2000 to the British Relief Association and was the largest individual donor. The first donation the BRA received from outside the Association was from Queen Victoria. The Queen had repeatedly refused to act on advice from ministers pending the famine and was frequently derided for a lack of effort and even interest in the crisis. She donated £2,000 three days after the charity had been established. The Queen had initially sent a donation of £1,000, but the Association's Secretary, Stephen Spring Rice, refused to accept the cheque and complained to Henry Grey, 3rd Earl Grey that it was "not enough". This was communicated to the Queen, who increased her donation by £1,000. The next day Prince Albert donated £500. In the following weeks additional donations were received from Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (£1,000), Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover (£1,000), Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge (£500), Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh (£200) and Princess Sophia of the United Kingdom (£100).

Additional donations were received from Abdülmecid I, who according to legend originally intended to send £10,000, but was convinced by British diplomats in Constantinople to reduce it to £1,000, and several British politicians, including Lord John Russell (£300), Sir Charles Wood (£200) and Sir Robert Peel (£200). Among the groups to make donations to the Association were the Singapore Irish Relief Fund (£31), the East India Company (£1,000), The Observer (£50), Magdalene College, Oxford (£200) and the British Royal Household (£247). A donation of £50 was received from the journalists of Punch magazine, a publication which was known for its belittling and acerbic attacks on Ireland.

The committee of the Association was ecumenical in nature, including Anglicans, Jews and Roman Catholics, and the donations received from religious bodies reflected this fact. Queen Victoria wrote open letters to Anglicans in March and October 1847, known as the 'Queen's Letters', and these appeals Church of England congregations raised around £170,000 and £30,000 respectively. Other donations were received from Methodist, Roman Catholic and Baptist groups. Many donations were sent from overseas. Over £20,000 was sent from British North America, and Abraham Lincoln, then a young lawyer, is recorded as having given £5. The largest single donation was sent by the Bombay Relief Committee, which had raised £10,177.

In total, approximately £500,000) was raised by the British Relief Association. Over 15,000 individual contributions were sent to the BRA secretariat, each of which was carefully noted in the committee's records.

Archive sources

Regretfully no papers of the British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in the Remote Parishes of Ireland and Scotland survive in the collections of the Rothschild Archive. Very few business papers of Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879) survive. Much of his personal private correspondence was destroyed by his executors (following his wishes) after his death; including papers held by the London bank.

Minute Books of the British Relief Association will be found in the National Library of Ireland.

The Irish 3% Loan, 1847

To alleviate hardship, the Irish 3% Loan, for £8.9m, was issued by N M Rothschild & Sons and with Baring Brothers in 1847. No papers relating to the Irish 3% Loan survive in the Archive's series of loan contracts and correspondence. This is possibly a reflection on the nature of the loan, which may have been more of a private business transaction by Lionel de Rothschild rather than 'official' business of the London Rothschild bank. No papers can be found in the sundry correpondence series for 1846 and 1847 (XI/114/9A, 9B, 9C), although here may be papers in the XI/109 series, Private Correspondence, Sundry (XI/109/55A-64B) and Outgoing Letter Copybooks (XI/148/97-103).

Papers in the Baring Archive

However, relevant papers may be found in the collections of The Baring Archive, including letters and other documents concerning the importation, by Barings, of Indian corn and other foodstuffs into Ireland for famine relief, 1845-1848 (ref HC3.75); papers relating to subscriptions to The Irish Famine Loan issued jointly by Barings and Rothschilds, 1846-1847 (ref HC3.75a ); documents concerning the operation for the import of American grain into Ireland for famine relief, 1846-1848 (ref HC3.15a.2.).

Other sources

Christine Kineally has written extensively about The British Relief Association. See This Great Calamity, Chrstine Kineally, ( Gill & Macmillan, 1994) and  The British Relief Association and the Great Famine in Ireland, Revue Française de Civilisation Britanique, XIX (2), 2014)

Professor Ferguson’s authoritative history of the House of Rothschild, The World's Banker: the history of the house of Rothschild, Niall Ferguson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998) gives some information about the British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in the Remote Parishes of Ireland and Scotland, and the Irish 3% Loan.

His footnotes refer to some documents, which come from the XI/109 series, Private Correspondence, Sundry, and a some private Rothschild family letters in the collection. Note the 'RFam' reference quoted by Professor Ferguson is now no longer used.

"Perhaps the most successful gesture of public-spiritedness at this time was made by the English Rothschilds in response to the catastrophic potato blight and famine in Ireland - the worst of all the calamities of the 1840s, which cost the lives of around 7775,000 people and drove a further two million to emigrate. Ireland was not a land with which the Rothschilds had many dealings; yet as early as 1821, hearing rumours of an impending famine there, Nathan had alerted Lord Liverpool to the possibility of buying 'American and East India Rice before speculators come into the market, the price of which is at present low and the Stock large and which in case of a deficiency of the Potato Crop would supply the numerous Poor of that Country with a wholesome food during the Winter'. [21] When Peel used the Irish famine twenty-five years later to justify repealing the Corn Laws (thus freeing the import of grain into the British Isles, but also bringing down his own government) the Rothschilds were ambivalent. While Alphonse viewed Peel's conversion to free trade 'without admiration' as an 'utter revolution', [22], his father 'very much regretted' Peel's fall - though probably more for the diplomatic implications of Palmerston's return to office. [23]

Lionel, by contrast, was a thorough-going Free Trader; but he understood that free trade alone would not alleviate the famine in Ireland, because of the general European cereal deficit. In the absence of a more than halfhearted official relief effort, he therefore took the lead in setting up - at New Court- the British Association for the Relief of the Extreme Distress in the Remote Parishes of Ireland and Scotland, which raised some £47,000 in the course of its existence - even soliciting a contribution from that ardent Hibernophobe and Protectionist Disraeli! [24] The Rothschilds themselves contributed £1,000 to the fund, the second biggest donation after the Queen's£2,000 and on a par with the Duke of Devonshire's. [25] In this instance, contemporaries were sincerely impressed by the Rothschild effort. As he declared to a friend, it did the heart of the future Liberal Irish Secretary W. E. Forster 'good' to see 'Rothschild, Kinnaird, and some dozen other millionaire city princes meeting every day, and working hard. A far greater sacrifice to them than mere gifts of money. [26] Lionel personally involved himself in 'regulat[ing] the purchase and shipment of provisions to Ireland and the formation of depots around the coast and in the interior of the country'. [27] Though it is possible that this activity was partly designed to win Catholic votes at the 1847 election (in which he was a Liberal candidate),his mother's letters on the subject testify to the sincerity of the family's response to the Irish disaster. [28]”

[21] RAL, I/2I8/3, Nathan to Liverpool, August 21, 1826.

[22] RAL, T7/122 [XI/109/55/1/177], Alphonse, Paris, to Mayer Carl, Frankfurt, Jan. 31, 1846.

[23] RAL, XI/109/J/J/46, James, Paris, to his nephews, London, June 21, 1846; same to same, June 23; RAL, Xl/I09/61/2/42, Nat, Paris, to his brothers, London, undated, c. June.

[24] RAL, RFamCh/53, Disraeli to Baron Lionel, Feb. 25, 1847.

[25] Weintraub, Albert, p. 175.

[26] Wemyss Reid, Life of Forster, p. 186. Cf. Davis, English Rothschilds, p.134. Arthur Kinnaird was a partner in the house of Ransom & Co.

[27] The Times, June 5, 1879, p. 8. See also RAL, XI/109J/J/47 James, Paris, to his nephews, London, April 23, 1847.

[28] RAL, RFamC/1/105, Hannah, Frankfurt, to Mayer, London, Jan. II, 1847; RAL, RFamC/1/108, Hannah to Lionel, Jan. 26.