Hamilton, John (1800–84), landlord and writer, was born 8 August 1800, eldest among three children of James Hamilton, a wealthy landowner with 20,000 acres in Co. Donegal, and his wife Helen, daughter of Edward Michael Pakenham, 2nd Baron Longford. By the age of seven John was orphaned, and he and his brother and sister were placed under the guardianship of their uncles Sir Edward Pakenham (qv) and the Rev. Abraham Hamilton. They were mostly reared by their grandmother, Lady Longford, at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath, but spent some time in Dublin with their uncle Sir Arthur Wellesley (qv). John attended Armagh Royal School (1810–15), and in 1818 proceeded to St John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated MA (1821) without sitting an examination, by availing of a dispensation relating to peers’ grandchildren who could prove lineal descent from an English king. He married (7 May 1823) the 17-year-old Mary Rose of Novar, Scotland, and returned with her to Donegal. Finding that the main house at Brownhill estate was under a lease held by TCD, he built (1824) a new house on a small island, St Ernan's, facing Muckross Hill, and lived there for most of his life. Energetic and ambitious, he embarked on a forty-year plan to improve his estate and the condition of his tenantry, without due initial regard for cost. He later admitted that he could have made the same improvements with half the sums, had he been more patient and thrifty: for instance in 1824 he built a new road at Rath without applying for grant funds because he disliked what he called ‘red tape-ism’ and he began work during the winter months instead of waiting for drier conditions, so that the whole venture trebled in costs.
Hamilton was a deeply religious man, whose actions were animated by his faith. He began a Bible class in 1827 which proved successful, with attendance numbers swelling to 300; the following year he considered taking holy orders but was dissuaded by Bishop William Bissett of Raphoe (1822–34). He maintained a doctrinal hostility to Roman catholicism, believing that catholic priests deliberately kept their flocks in ignorance by refusing to encourage them to read the Bible. For a short time in 1830 he presided over meetings of the anti-catholic Brunswick clubs, but soon regretted his association with them, maintaining that most of their members were Orangemen who ‘hated popery less than they hated papists’ (James, 54). He personally interfered to prevent Orange marches in Ballintra and gave evidence in Lifford against Orangemen accused of unlawful behaviour in 1830. Finding it grossly unfair that catholics and presbyterians had to support the established church, he relieved all his tenants from tithes, and after refusing in 1831 to contribute towards a catholic church he reconsidered and made donations in 1842. It was largely with the idea of broadening his faith, through contact with other denominations, that he decided to spend four years in Europe (1836–40) with his wife and five children, one of whom died in Germany in 1840.
Returning to Donegal he devoted himself to his estate, and by summer 1845 had doubled the area of arable land, improved sanitary conditions (thus reducing instances of fever), and built many new houses. His response to the famine was decisive. Deploring dependency on the workhouse system, he employed tenants on land improvement works and later claimed that none had entered the workhouse and only one had died of starvation. To a question posed in the Morning Chronicle, ‘What is the use of Irish landlords?’, he replied cogently and at length (28 August 1847) that though some landlords were responsible for the present misery, blame really lay with the government for ‘its stream of vicious legislation’. His correspondence with the lord lieutenant, Lord Clarendon (qv), resulted in a fifty-page pamphlet, Ireland's recovery and Ireland's health (1848), in which he criticised the government for taxing all landlords equally, regardless of whether they employed their tenants or threw them on relief. The end of the famine found him financially straitened, his estate mortgaged and in debt to the government. He was unable to solve these difficulties, so that his son inherited a reduced, heavily mortgaged, and generally impoverished estate. His first wife died in 1855, after which Hamilton ceased to keep a journal though he continued to write pamphlets and address his tenants in open letters. He gave cautious support to the extension of the Ulster tenant right system and to the idea of home rule within the empire, and eventually supported land purchase.
He died 13 June 1884 in St Andrews, Scotland, and was survived by his second wife, Mary (née Simpson; m. 29 April 1858), of St Andrews, and by four children from his first marriage and two from his second. Seven years later his journals and pamphlets were edited by the Rev. H. C. White and published as Sixty years experience as an Irish landlord (1891), which helped to consolidate his reputation as an improving landlord. The most striking corroboration of this came from Fr John Doherty, parish priest of Donegal town and a noted critic of landlordism, who wrote at length to the Derry Journal in October 1880 on Hamilton's humane record. The historian J. C. Beckett (qv) calls him ‘a landlord of determined character, impelled by a strong sense of duty . . . who won the affection of his tenants and the approval even of those who were opposed to landlordism’ (Beckett, 95). However, his grandson John Hamilton, in his autobiography My times and other times (1950), blamed him for dissipating the family fortune.