Larcom the cartographer: political economy in pre-Famine Ireland

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2008), The Famine, Volume 16

Thomas Aiskew Larcom (1801–79)—combined engineering zeal with a human and utilitarian bent for the benefit of Ireland. (Ordnance Survey of Ireland)

Thomas Aiskew Larcom (1801–79)—combined engineering zeal with a human and utilitarian bent for the benefit of Ireland. (Ordnance Survey of Ireland)

Thomas Aiskew Larcom was born on 22 April 1801 in Gosport, Hampshire, into a military family. From 1817 to 1821 he undertook a soldier’s education and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant. He was trained by Charles Pasley and Henry Mudge, head of the Ordnance Survey (OS) of England. Larcom joined the OS in 1824 or 1825, gaining valuable first-hand experience of surveying fieldwork. While memories of the Napoleonic wars were fresh, the expectation was that the post-Vienna Congress future would see a period of peace when public, rather than battlefield, endeavours would see a soldier make his mark on society. Larcom recounted the period as a practical and engineering age, with the advent of railways, steam and iron ships, and a great industrial movement that rendered ‘practical men necessary to the service of the government’.
On his transfer to the Irish OS in autumn 1826, he worked alongside Capt. J. E. Portlock, formerly assistant to Col. Colby in the early days of the Survey. Larcom’s fieldwork ended on 7 July 1828 when Colby appointed him to duties at OS headquarters in Mountjoy House in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, with the task of overseeing the publication of the six-inch maps. In selecting Larcom to replace the previous incumbent, it is unlikely that Colby was prepared to gamble his own future, and perhaps that of the Survey, on a person whose abilities were untested. Colby was already aware of the professional and personal qualities that marked Larcom as an officer of stature well capable of playing much more than a bit part, and was prepared to put him to the test. Portlock makes the very interesting comment that this appointment demonstrated Colby’s desire for the Survey to extend to certain ‘collateral objects’, such as natural history, geology and statistics, the first indication of secondary research into areas beyond cartography, the precursor of the Memoir.

Political economy and statistics
While Larcom’s military training marks him as a man of science, it is less obvious why he was equally suited to civil administration. One possible explanation was his interest in political economy. This early nineteenth-century forerunner of economics was adopted by many influential Whigs as a counterweight to the policy of laissez-faire that was gaining currency with the Tories. Devotees of this philosophy regarded it as a science. J. A. Lawson, Whately Professor of Political Economy at Trinity (1840–5), defined it as ‘treating of the nature and production of value, and the laws which regulate the distribution of wealth among the different orders of the community’.

Colonel Thomas Colby, the other dominant figure from the early Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

Colonel Thomas Colby, the other dominant figure from the early Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

A major component of political economy was statistical inquiry, the study of which engrossed Larcom for much of his working life. The term ‘statistics’ (a key element of the Memoir) conjures up the idea of mathematical calculation; the meaning in the early nineteenth century, however, was much closer to the modern-day subject we call sociology. W. S. Mason, an Irish political economist and author of a number of topographical works in the early 1800s, suggested that statistics could be defined as a scientific knowledge of the present state of the country, with a view to its future improvement. It is clear that Larcom was a student of statistics and believed in the value of political economy to society. For example, he was to become a founder member and vice-president of the Dublin Statistical Society, established in November 1847. Although this organisation post-dated the Survey, Larcom traced its origin back to 1833, when the Whig-leaning Archbishop Whately had founded the chair of political economy at Trinity. In addition, he commended Whately for adding political economy to the curriculum of the university. Many of Larcom’s friends were prominent men who shared his interest in all branches of statistical inquiry. One of the most notable was Prof. Sir Robert Kane, a scientist of international standing whose Industrial resources of Ireland (1844) examined the various sources of wealth in Ireland and suggested ways of applying them to the best effect. Like Larcom and Whately, Kane was prominent in the Dublin Statistical Society.
Larcom was attracted to political economy and from the early 1830s promoted Colby’s idea that statistical and other surveys should run in tandem with mapping. From this was to evolve the Memoir. Both the structure that Larcom tried to impose on the collection of data for the Memoir and the wide range of information garnered were manifestations of the statistical bent of the political economist. It was no accident that, in 1832, he devised what became known as the ‘Heads of Inquiry’ (HoI), a 37-page set of questions to be used by civil assistants while working in the field. This document, which has a strong statistical flavour, sought information on almost every aspect of life, with a particular focus on those factors that either assisted or hindered improvement. It also showed Larcom’s flair for rarely missing an opportunity for collecting data far in excess of those required for the project at hand. Larcom observed that the HoI were created after Colby had consented to his plan for digesting information collected through Survey officers’ fieldwork and combining it with researches into orthography and other areas in order to carry out Larcom’s project of county memoirs. The fact that few, if any, army officers or civil assistants were versed in political economy, and, more pertinently, would have more pressing surveying duties to attend to, may explain the need for a consistent set of data written to a prescribed form that could be assessed by others. On the other hand, both Larcom and Portlock urged fieldworkers to gather as many data as possible for the Memoir and not to be overly discriminating in the categories of information they chose to record. A voluminous, if disparate, corpus of information would be preferable to jejune records that gave little away.

Captain (later Major-General) J. E. Portlock, formerly assistant to Colby. Larcom worked alongside Portlock on his transfer to the Irish Ordnance Survey in autumn 1826. (Geological Society of London)

Captain (later Major-General) J. E. Portlock, formerly assistant to Colby. Larcom worked alongside Portlock on his transfer to the Irish Ordnance Survey in autumn 1826. (Geological Society of London)

An example of Larcom’s unshakeable belief in political economy came in July 1843, when the government commissioned a detailed inquiry into the Memoir. By this stage the work of collecting statistical and antiquarian information had been officially suspended for three years. Prospects of its being restarted were slim, though a renewal on more limited lines was suggested. Larcom, however, wanted nothing less than a full resumption of work on the Memoir. On the face of it, this was foolhardy at a time when government retrenchment was the order of the day. The only possible explanation was his advocacy of political economy, something that in his eyes could not be compromised. Up to then, the committal of substantial resources to any venture had never been a feature of Tory policy in Ireland: as recently as 1839 and 1841 that party had opposed state funding for Irish railways, even under the Board of Works. There being no likelihood that things were set to change under Peel’s administration, it was crucial that any proposed improvements be applied to those areas most in need or which were most likely to be of wider benefit in the longer term. The political economist required all information to be up to date and accurate for an effective scientific evaluation to be possible. A partial system of inquiry, via a limited Memoir, was necessarily productive of ‘imperfect views’ and not the basis for a correct allocation of public money.

Political beliefs
As a serving army officer, Larcom was not at liberty to air political views openly: the great majority of his ‘political’ comments on the Memoir are retrospective, dating from his later years when his career had moved on. Like Colby, he may have felt the relative superiority enjoyed by men of science that enabled them to remain above the political cut and thrust. Moreover, it was vital for the political economist and the statistician not to be ranged amongst contending political factions but to remain neutral. In this regard, Larcom took great pains to stay out of politics and to avoid saying or writing anything that could compromise his strictly dispassionate reputation.
It is difficult to determine whether Larcom’s personal political feelings were ranged significantly on one side or another. A number of clues to Whig preferences are detectable, however. For instance, the Edinburgh Review, a leading Whig journal, gave a glowing account of Larcom’s career in a narrative that immediately followed a review of the life of Thomas Drummond, an avowed Whig. Lord Chancellor Brougham, a Whig and Drummond’s patron, was referred to by Larcom as a ‘great man’. Granted this is merely a reflection of the stature of that individual to which few could have objected, though his also being a leading figure in the Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge (SDUK) and a supporter of the Memoir undoubtedly marked him and Larcom as kindred spirits. In a similar vein, his closeness to Drummond might ostensibly suggest Whig sympathies, particularly in light of Larcom’s incisive and personal account of the former’s role in the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. Larcom confined himself, however, to summarising Drummond’s reaction to this historic event (at least to the Whigs) as ‘a firm conviction that he had done his duty to the government’. As might be expected, therefore, little is given away in Larcom’s account of Drummond’s best-known role, that of under-secretary in Ireland from 1835 to 1840. Larcom took care to refer to the return of ‘his party’ to power, adding that someone else better qualified might record Drummond’s role as a politician in Ireland. It is noteworthy, too, that both Whig and Tory administrations called on Larcom for public services: in the 1830s the most important were the Boundary Commission, Municipal Commission and Railway Commission; in the 1840s he served on the Census Commission, Dublin Society Commission, Queen’s Colleges Commission and the Board of Works. These substantial endeavours were unpaid; Larcom subscribed to the philosophy that a soldier should decline all additional remuneration.

One of the first six-inch OS maps of Castleblaney, Co. Monaghan. (Ordnance Survey of Ireland)

One of the first six-inch OS maps of Castleblaney, Co. Monaghan. (Ordnance Survey of Ireland)

Larcom’s ability to stay above party politics enabled him to work effectively with all shades of political opinion. As expected, he had few difficulties with Drummond. On the other hand, his friendship with the third earl of Dunraven (Lord Adare), Conservative MP for Glamorganshire from 1837 to 1851, might appear strange if there were fundamental political differences between them. This close relationship hints at Larcom’s being largely non-political, although it should be borne in mind that he was prepared to make heavy demands on the public purse, which would scarcely mark him down as a Tory. Nevertheless, both men had many things in common, notably their love of science, archaeology and antiquities. Both enjoyed a common circle of friends, in particular the artist, musician and antiquarian George Petrie, and, most importantly, a shared belief in the value of the Memoir and the need for its survival, notwithstanding high-level opposition to it on the grounds of cost. Adare was arguably the most influential advocate of the Memoir, yet he did not hesitate to chide Larcom for what he perceived to be errors of judgement. In a letter of February 1838, Adare said that it was a mistake for the first volume of the Memoir, Templemore, not to have covered the whole of County Londonderry, and suggested that Larcom had underestimated the value placed on its size. Their relationship was strong enough to survive this hiccup and Adare remained a close ally of Larcom’s, taking much of the credit for managing to persuade Peel to establish the commission of inquiry in 1843 which at least offered the hope of a restart of the Memoir in some capacity.

Sir Samuel Ferguson
Another man of strong conservative principles numbered amongst Larcom’s close friends was the lawyer and poet Sir Samuel Ferguson, who admired Larcom’s work to make Ireland a better place. In describing Larcom as another Sir William Petty (the seventeenth-century political economist who was the first to base his arguments on statistical research), Ferguson noted that ‘every development of a self-respecting patriotism that could advance and elevate a people had its place in his economics’. Like Adare, Ferguson was an enthusiast for the Memoir and wrote an article in the Dublin University Magazine supporting the positive recommendations of the Ordnance Memoir Report of 1844. His sales pitch to Peel was that the Memoir would be a unifying force that would give pride to Irishmen of all backgrounds and encourage them to work together for the betterment of their country within the context of a ‘greater Great Britain’. Larcom kept a copy of this article in his private papers (the Larcom Papers), an indication of the importance he placed on securing unqualified support for the Memoir from a figure with such impeccable conservative credentials.

Captain Thomas Drummond, Royal Engineers, under-secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. Larcom’s closeness to Drummond suggests Whig sympathies. (Painting by H. W. Pickersgill, engraved by Henry Cousins)

Captain Thomas Drummond, Royal Engineers, under-secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. Larcom’s closeness to Drummond suggests Whig sympathies. (Painting by H. W. Pickersgill, engraved by Henry Cousins)

Yet it is a testimony to Larcom’s ability to steer clear of factional politics that in 1853, when the post of under-secretary became vacant, he was appointed to the position, which, for the first time, was made non-political and permanent. Many believe that this was designed to ensure that he continued in that office. If so, the government was being careful not to lose the talents of a man with considerable administrative ability and unceasing application to his duties, who could choose his assistants well. The appointment was received with commendation, even by the nationalist press, and many deemed it a success.
Strengths and weaknesses
Larcom’s work with the OS was a military operation that was mainly for civil purposes (making local taxation fairer). Those employed on the Survey had more contact with the civil administration than would normally be the case for an army officer. This increasing involvement of the military in public administration was characteristic of the age. It raised the profile of the Royal Engineers so that by 1832, when the Irish Board of Works was established, its first chairman was Col. John Burgoyne, a rising star in the Royal Engineers and a close friend of Larcom’s. The latter was evidently not immune to the esprit de corps that caused fellow officers to claim that a Royal Engineer was stationed in every harbour in the kingdom and that, in due course, there would be an ‘Engineer government and the Inspector General [of Fortifications], Prime Minister’. He transferred this bullish and energetic utilitarian culture to his work in the Survey and sought to integrate as much as possible into the society of the country he worked in. While Colby did not like being ‘bottled up in Ireland’, Larcom made Ireland his home and enjoyed the Anglo-Irish way of life in the capital city.
In addition to his impartiality, one reason for his success as an administrator was a willingness to learn as much as he could about Ireland. The country provided many outlets for his interest in antiquities, and soon after his appointment he met Petrie, whose work in the Survey’s Topographical Department would have a significant impact on Larcom’s career in Ireland. Moreover, by learning Irish he would find it easier to get to know Irish people, and knowledge of the language would aid his understanding of place-names on maps. As he said himself, if his life was to be spent chiefly in Ireland, it would be desirable to learn Irish. For a while, therefore, he received instruction from John O’Donovan, a young man from Kilkenny who was beginning to make his way in the world of scholars and who was recommended to him. In the end, Larcom decided that he lacked sufficient time to study the native language and chose instead to employ a group of scholars, led by Petrie, to pursue professional research on the origin of Irish place-names and to advise on the accuracy of names to be engraved on the maps.
Larcom had his weaknesses. One trait that emerged early was the pursuit of what he considered his own project without always thinking of the wider consequences. The development of the Memoir is a case in point. While it needed to be as detailed and accurate as possible, its scope was considerable; this factor was bound to lead to opposition on the basis of cost alone. Colby recognised as much, even if he was keen on the utility of geological researches and willing to let other branches of the Survey have the opportunity of proving themselves useful. These included the Memoir, which he agreed should become a special feature of the Irish Survey and for which he approved expenditure. He must have been disappointed, however, at the delay in publishing Templemore and at the amount of money needed if all future volumes were to be to the same scale. His correspondence with Larcom on the matter is quite restrained, though by the same token he had little to complain of in terms of Larcom’s major duty of having the maps engraved and published. This stubbornness of Larcom’s also manifested itself in his unstinting efforts to revive the Memoir, most notably in the commission of inquiry of 1843, and even in his career subsequent to leaving the OS in 1846 he considered the abandonment of the Memoir an opportunity lost.

The antiquarian George Petrie. Larcom lacked sufficient time to study Irish and chose instead to employ a group of scholars, led by Petrie, to pursue professional research on the origin of Irish place-names. (Drawing by William Stevenson)

The antiquarian George Petrie. Larcom lacked sufficient time to study Irish and chose instead to employ a group of scholars, led by Petrie, to pursue professional research on the origin of Irish place-names. (Drawing by William Stevenson)

Larcom was not only distinguished as a scientist; he possessed a wide range of interests and expertise. He combined engineering zeal with a human and utilitarian bent for the benefit of Ireland, which he called the ‘sister island’. His work in exploring new avenues towards the improvement of life for its citizens is what might be expected of someone who regarded Catholic Emancipation as the last and crowning act of greatness and justice of the Tory regimes of the 1820s, and who spoke of the Whigs as having the subsequent task of ‘giving reality to Emancipation’. Reconciling what he considered a dominant class and a proscribed race, equal in law but unequal in society, was an obstacle of no small difficulty. In his introduction to the Down Survey in 1851, he noted that the modern OS had its origins in peace and that its aim was the improvement of the country, an aspiration he shared and which almost persuaded the Dublin University Magazine of 1849 to describe him as ‘our distinguished countryman’.

Patrick McWilliams, of the Institute of Governance at Queen’s University, Belfast, completed his thesis on the OS Memoir of Ireland in 2004.

Further reading:
J. H. Andrews, ‘Thomas Aiskew Larcom 1801–1879’, in T. W. Freeman (ed.), Geographers: biobibliographical studies, vol. 7 (1983), 71–4.
M. J. Cullen, The Statistical movement in early Victorian Britain: the foundations of Empire (New York, 1975).Report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the facts relating to the Ordnance memoir of Ireland (1843), Sessional Papers HC 1844 (527), xxx, 259–385.
W. Stokes, The life and labours in art and archaeology of George Petrie (London, 1868).

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