From the files of the DIB…‘The exterminator’

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), News, The Famine, Volume 17

73_small_1252855956BINGHAM, George Charles (1800–88), 3rd earl of Lucan, soldier and landlord, was born on 16 April 1800 in London, eldest son of Richard Bingham, 2nd earl of Lucan, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of the 3rd earl of Fauconberg. Educated at Westminster School (1812–16), he was commissioned ensign in the 6th Foot in 1816 and by 1826 had become lieutenant colonel of the 17th Lancers. A martinet and a perfectionist, he drilled his men incessantly and spent so lavishly on their horses and uniforms that the 17th became known as ‘Bingham’s Dandies’. Though an intelligent man, he lacked all common sense, and his severity and pettiness made him deeply unpopular with his officers and men. Desperate to gain experience of war, in 1828 he was seconded to the Russian staff to observe the Russo-Turkish campaign in Bulgaria and took every opportunity to join the fighting. He became Tory MP for County Mayo (1826–30) and supported Catholic Emancipation. He married (1829) the beautiful Anne Brudenell, seventh daughter of Robert, 6th earl of Cardigan; she detested living in Mayo and they separated in 1854.
Finding peacetime army life dull, he retired on half-pay in 1837 and went to Castlebar, Co. Mayo, to take charge of the large but unremunerative family estate of c. 60,000 acres. Announcing that he ‘would not breed paupers to pay priests’, he dismissed his agent, St Clair O’Malley, a popular local figure, and began a systematic campaign of land clearance. In 1842 he summonsed O’Malley, a fellow magistrate, for poaching and had a violent argument with him in court, for which he was dismissed from the magistracy for contempt. Furious at the decision, he carried his grievance to the House of Lords and was eventually reinstated (1843). He also quarrelled with the commander of the local English garrison, forcing him to block up his barracks windows because they overlooked Lucan’s demesne and allowed soldiers to observe his wife as she took her walks. Known in Mayo as ‘the exterminator’, he was greatly feared by his tenantry: on one occasion, believing him to be away in London, they burned him in effigy in Castlebar, but scattered in terror as Lucan galloped into their midst on his great black horse, shouting ‘I’ll evict the lot of you!’.
During the Great Famine he engaged in wholesale evictions and showed a complete disregard for public opinion. In the parish of Ballinrobe alone he demolished over 300 cabins and evicted 2,000 people (1846–9). He then consolidated the holdings and leased them to wealthy ranchers. Chairman of the board of guardians of the Castlebar Poor Law union, he refused to pay his full Poor rate and insisted that the Castlebar workhouse should be closed at the height of the Famine. His heartless conduct was strongly criticised in parliament, but Lucan defended himself by claiming that he had invested heavily in his lands and that the Famine was proof that consolidation was in his tenants’ long-term interest. The execration he received in these years only aggravated his harshness, irascibility and self-righteousness.
On 1 April 1854 he was given command of a cavalry division destined for the Crimea. Many believed that he owed this to his ruthlessness in County Mayo, as he had performed no military duties in seventeen years. The division’s light brigade was led by his brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, but they disliked each other intensely and were bitterly at odds during the campaign. At the battle of the Alma the cavalry were not allowed to engage the enemy; several of Lucan’s officers, irked by their inaction, dubbed their commanding officer ‘Lord Look-on’. During the battle of Balaclava his commander, Lord Raglan, ordered him to advance to prevent the Russians from seizing artillery from nearby redoubts. The redoubts, however, were not visible from Lucan’s position and the written order delivered by Raglan’s aide, Capt. Lewis Edward Nolan, was unclear. Interpreting it as a command to attack the Russian guns at the end of the valley, Lucan then ordered the famous charge of the light brigade. Raked by fire on three sides, the brigade was annihilated. Fierce recriminations followed and, to his fury, Lucan was recalled in February 1855 (
On his arrival in England he attempted to vindicate himself in the House of Lords and by publishing letters to the press and A vindication of the earl of Lucan from Lord Raglan’s reflections (1855). Although many believed that he had been made a scapegoat, his constant complaints tested public patience. He held no active military commands after 1855, but was promoted lieutenant general (1858) and field marshal (1887). He died on 10 November 1888 in London.  HI

James Quinn is Executive Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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