Vere Foster – Irish Hero

Tallanstown sculptureThis website was set up as part of a Shared Learning Project involving members of Armagh, Downe, East Antrim and North Down & Ards U3As in Northern Ireland in association with Active Retirement Ireland and the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland.  It records the research done into the life and deeds of Vere Foster.

Who was Vere Foster?

Older people throughout Ireland know about him from the Vere Foster writing books which he was responsible for producing and introducing to schools.

vfbookHowever, he was also responsible for providing the means for over 25,000 Irish girls to emigrate to the USA.

In his later years his benevolence was centred on the conditions of the poor and sick in Belfast.

For over forty years Vere Foster gave freely of his own money until his death in 1900. During his life he assisted c.25,000 people to start a new life (mostly at his own expense) in the  Americas and it is believed he spent approximately £100,000 on other charitable projects while he himself lived on the equivalent of 100 pounds a year. He died, on December 21, 1900, in a cheap lodging house in Belfast.

Vere Henry Louis Foster was born in Copenhagen on April 25, 1819, while his father, a Foster of Ardee, was ambassador there.  His paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of the “Earl Bishop” of Derry, married first to John Foster of Ardee then, after a famous “ménage a trois”, married to the Duke of Devonshire (“The Two Duchesses”).  Vere was educated at Eton and Oxford before entering the Foreign Office where his promising career as a diplomat was put aside once he returned to Ireland, in 1847.

The rest of his life was dedicated, unselfishly, to bettering the conditions of the poorer classes of Ireland. to helping his fellow countrymen.

Emigration

He believed that the only immediate remedy to Ireland’s problems was emigration. Therefore he set about opening subscription lists, encouraging all and sundry to contribute to his Irish Female Emigration Scheme. He paid the passages of aspiring emigrants out of his own pocket.

His was a forward thinking approach.

  • He believed that the most effective means of support would be through funding the emigration of girls who would then send money for other members of their families to go out.  Men would spend their money on other things.
  • He gave each funded emigrant a note stating “I entreat you specially to love liberty and fair play for others as well as yourself, without distinction of race, religion or colour”.
  • He valued information for would-be emigrants, producing a pamphlet entitled “Work & Wages” which sold over 300,000 copies, giving information on the costs of different routes to America, a list of what should be taken, comparison of wages, addresses of support agencies in America.

He regularly travelled all over America to view conditions for himself .

Education

In the long-term, Vere Foster considered education to be the way forward for Ireland.   He

  • Was responsible for building or upgrading around 2,000 rural schools Ireland regardless of religion;
  • Named and shamed landlords who gave nothing towards educating the children of their tenants and workers;
  • Challenged the powers of the various clergies;
  • Was a champion of teachers, advocating higher wages, security of employment, payment by results, provision of school houses;
  • Devised cheap but very effective school books which were sold in millions across the English-speaking world.

Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital
In 1817 the Belfast General Hospital was set up in Frederick Street by a group of philanthropists; it was renamed the Belfast Royal Hospital in 1857. The Royal at that time was a voluntary hospital and depended on the goodwill of individuals and organisations for its funding.

He donated proceeds from the sale of his Copy books to the hospital’s funds.   This was a sizeable amount since the books were still being sold in vast quantities throughout the world, especially in America and the English colonies.

Help wanted

As part of the project, an On-Line Course is being prepared for U3As and a first draft is available on this site, giving an overview of the man.  You are invited to participate in the project by checking out the website, adding information, making comments and suggestions about the course or contributing to the debate on what led a man with his background to be so philanthropic.

The objective of this project is to promote awareness of the man and his deeds.  He is surely worthy of more recognition in Belfast than an Ulster History Circle  Blue Plaque stating:

Vere Foster
1819 -1900
Educationalist and first President of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation