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Was O'Connor's Land Plan doomed to failure or was its failure due to lack of effective management?

Model essay

Feargus O'Connor's Land Plan was based on the premise that pre-industrialized England was a Utopia of healthy, contented, self-sufficient people. As an Irish landowner, familiar with the Irish land problem, he saw a return to the land as the answer to England's industrial problems of overcrowding, unemployment and existence. However, as Woodward says, 'O'Connor was reckless in money matters, and selfishly eager for popularity. His scheme was financially unsound and entirely unpractical'. (Age of Reform). Equally unfortunate was Peel 's economic policy, so far as the Land Plan was concerned. As Peel's measures took effect, so enthusiasm for a return to the land waned: working conditions and wages improved, employment rose, and town dwellers found no reason to join the land scheme. In the Northern Star in 1846 O'Connor accused Peel of having led an "incipient Chartist movement" for the previous five years.

The Land Plan was launched in 1845 and finally collapsed in 1851. In view of its inherent weaknesses and O'Connor's managerial inability, it is surprising that it lasted so long. The major flaw in O'Connor's land scheme was that he began with the ideal situation in which the country would be divided into smallholdings, establishing a stable and prosperous peasantry, which would remedy the social evils of industrialism. He appears not to have considered that England was the leading industrial country of the world, and failed to see that most factory workers were not opposed to factories per se, only the bad conditions and low wages found in the system. Luddism was a symptom of hand craftsmen showing their hatred of the factory system, but the Plug Plots show the workers' dissatisfaction of the results of industrialisation, rather than hatred of factories.

An agricultural answer to an industrial problem was no answer at all. Many factory workers had no background for agricultural self-sufficiency, since they and perhaps even two previous generations had been factory workers. If factory hands returned to the land and failed to support themselves, their only recourse would be to the workhouses, placing a strain on the Poor Law. Consequently the Poor Law Commission was one of the bodies which opposed the Land Plan.

The principle of offering smallholdings to unemployed factory 'hands' to give them some independence sounded reasonable, but the numbers of unemployed were rising rapidly, as the population grew and mercantilism strangled industrial expansion. Far too much land was needed to cope with the settlement of subscribers to the scheme, and the only saleable land was the marginal lands turned to crops in the French Wars. This type of land was offered at the 'right price' to O'Connor, partly because by 1845 it was obvious that the Corn Laws would be repealed and marginal lands would become unprofitable. The owners could sell their otherwise useless land and the new settlers could not possibly make a living from the poor soil.

O'Connor proposed to operate his Land Plan by collecting subscriptions from members, and giving shares. Each share cost £1/6/-, when an average wage was about 3/- a week, so subscribers had to save over long periods to buy one share to take over a holding. Subscriptions came mainly from the depressed Lancashire and Yorkshire areas initially, but as artisans began to lose the battle against industrialisation, they also joined the scheme. As a result, membership of the Land Plan came from the pressure of other factors, rather than from the intrinsic value of the plan: it was used as a form of escapism.

Because of the numbers of subscribers - about 70,000 by 1851 - the allocation of holdings was extremely difficult: there were too many members and not enough land. O'Brien called the scheme a "land lottery", and other Chartists warned the workers away from participating. The first settlement at Lowbands, Gloucestershire, was settled with 250 families; the other four estates (O'Connorville, Snig's End, Minster Lovell and Dodford) were barely begun when the scheme collapsed. Dodford was never settled, Minster Lovell's soil was poor and O'Connor failed to make the terms of land-holding clear. Many of the settlers believed that their shares entitled them to own the land, and O'Connor found it difficult to collect rents: consequently he found it difficult to repay the mortgages which he had taken out on the land, and lost a great deal of his own money when the scheme crashed.

O'Connor also found it difficult to obtain financial backing, despite the setting up of the "Land and Labour Bank" as a separate department of the National Land Company. The aim of the Bank was to raise loans and handle funds, but the main contributions to the fund came from subscribers. Wealthy industrialists were investing their money in railways, which were becoming the obvious source of investment, following Peel's Railway Acts and with the forthcoming repeal of the Corm Laws, which would lead to a second - and lucrative - industrial revolution. The wealthy middle classes wanted maximum returns on their investments, and hardly could be expected to support a scheme run by and for a group totally opposed to themselves, in the bitter class struggle which had developed since the 1832 Reform Act.

By 1845 Peel's economic reforms were beginning to take effect. His Budgets had lowered tariffs and increased sales abroad, his introduction of income tax had reduced indirect taxation, and the Mines and Factory Acts had begun to deal with social injustices in industrialised England. The misery of the poor was alleviated slightly, and as grain prices fell with the terminating of mercantilism, wages did not fall - as had been expected - because Peel's policy favoured economic expansion and prosperity. Even O'Connor realised that this economic policy helped the Land Plan to fail.

The less harsh implementation of the Poor Law and the prospect of greener fields overseas also assisted the crash of the Land Plan. Workhouses became slightly less severe; economic recovery meant fuller employment; emigration provided an answer to thousands of desperate unemployed people. The success of the Anti-Corn-Law League in achieving the repeal of the Corn Laws and the resultant economic boom also helped the failure of the Land Plan. The "Golden Age of English Farming" was an ironic twist of events: as the Land Plan failed, food production fetched higher profits and specialisation farming proved profitable. Food prices rose, but the profits from marginal lands fell: these were the estates sold to O'Connor for his Utopia.

O'Connor began his Land Plan after Robert Owen's New Harmony had failed, and he should have learned something from Owen's venture. Robert Owen was also an idealist, beginning with an ideal and trying to make it work: he did not consider human nature, and the township failed. Owen was a far better administrator than O'Connor - if Owen failed, O'Connor had little chance of success.

The Government gave O'Connor no support and in its investigation of 1848 found the Company's affairs in a hopeless muddle: the Company was bankrupt and no formal accounts had been kept of financial dealings. O'Connor was discredited, although there was no question of him embezzling the Company which, in fact, owed him money. O'Connor had made only a temporary registration of the Land Company, and the Government declared the Company illegal, and ordered it to foreclose.

Opposition to the Land Plan came not only from the Poor Law Commission and the Government but also from other Chartists. In the face of opposition and bad management, the Land Plan was doomed to eventual failure, but Peel's economic measures and an unsound foundation to the Land Plan led to its collapse sooner, rather than later. O'Connor's Land Plan failed because of the rapid social and economic changes taking place in England, which were well in advance of the outdated agrarian plan, in an industrial nation, and because of its innate weaknesses caused by poor management.


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