Hill, Lord George (1801–79), landlord, was born 9 December 1801, fifth son of Arthur Hill (qv) 2nd marquess of Downshire, and his wife, Mary, daughter of Col. Martin Sandys (1729–68), brother of the baron of Ombersley. He was born three months after his father's suicide. The family was extremely wealthy; at his death his father was the richest landlord in Ireland and also owned extensive estates in England; his mother, already a great heiress, was created Baroness Sandys in 1802 on the death of her uncle, with remainder to her second and third sons. Lord George had, however, no inheritance. He entered the army and achieved the rank of major before sitting briefly as MP for Carrickfergus (1831–2). After living in Dublin as comptroller of the household, he bought, with family money, 23,000 acres in Gweedore, Co. Donegal, in 1838, and lived there for the rest of his life.
Gweedore was then among the most desolate, underdeveloped regions in Ireland. The first road for wheeled vehicles was not built until 1834. When Hill bought the land, the only institutions were a catholic chapel, a poorly staffed police barracks, and a national school. There were no stores and the nearest post office was ten miles (16 km) away. Motivated by a combination of the profit motive and philanthropy, Hill embarked on a large-scale construction and modernisation programme. In 1839 he built a quay and a corn store, and the following year established a shop, whose sales increased annually. Cash-only dealings were conducted to monetise an economy that had depended on barter. A flax-mill, sawmill, corn-mill, bakery, and licensed tavern were opened over the next five years, owned by Hill and businessmen from east Ulster and Scotland, whom he brought into the parish. Markets were sought for local seafood, knitwear, poultry, and dairy products. He erected St Patrick's Church of Ireland church, which served also as a school, and in 1842 opened the Gweedore Hotel. Together with his newly appointed agent, Francis Forster, he simultaneously sought to overhaul the local tenant and agricultural practices. Characterising the rundale system – where land was held in common among several households – as primitive, inefficient, and a cause for dissent and non-payment of rents, Hill set about dividing the land into individual plots: 12,000 acres of the highlands – over half of the estate – were designated for his private use and he threatened to impound cattle grazing there. These changes met with inevitable opposition, but did not originally provoke violent antagonism, probably because they were implemented slowly. Although he raised rents, he erected few fences in the 1840s and owners were not always fined for animals trespassing on Hill's share. The famine contributed to his tendency to proceed slowly, and he seems to have helped tenants through the bad years, drawing directly on his own savings and securing the help of charitable institutions, such as the Society of Friends. His efforts, and those of other landlords, meant that the population of Gweedore increased by 300 people between 1841 and 1851.
Hill's Facts from Gweedore, a self-congratulatory pamphlet about his modernising programme, was first published in 1845, ran into numerous editions, and brought him widespread praise, especially in England. In the commons (26 April 1846), Sir Robert Peel (qv) lauded him as a public benefactor to his country, and Thomas Carlyle, visiting Gweedore in 1849, called him ‘excellent, polite, pious-hearted, healthy … speaks kindly, some words in Irish, to every one of [his tenants]’ (Carlyle, 236), although he also noted the extreme poverty of the area. Even the Nation wrote of Hill's ‘western oasis’ (24 Apr. 1846). However, in the 1850s his determination finally to end rundale, and to recoup losses incurred during the famine, led to a popular agitation, known as the ‘Gweedore sheep war’, which captured international attention.
In 1855 Hill let portions of his private land to Scottish graziers, who imported large numbers of black-faced Scottish sheep. In the following years many hundreds of these sheep were stolen or killed – an estimated 1,130 were lost in 1857 alone. The authorities responded by bringing extra police officers to the area and by levying a ‘sheep tax’ on the entire population of Gweedore to compensate the farmers. The incensed local catholic priest, Fr Doherty, drew up a petition to parliament in June 1857, complaining that ‘the fine old Celtic race is being crushed to make room for Scotch and English sheep’ (Estyn Evans, 105) and that the poverty was already such that further taxes would make the people destitute. Parliament rejected the petition, as Doherty had signed for his parishioners. The case became a cause célèbre, dividing the nationalist and conservative papers along predictable lines. Denis Holland (1826–72), the editor of the nationalist Ulsterman, toured north-west Donegal in winter 1857 and published a series of articles, serialised in other Irish papers and republished as a pamphlet, The landlord in Donegal: pictures from the wild (1858), in which he characterised Hill as a pretentious philanthrope and proselytiser who had impoverished his smallholders. The Nation (26 December 1857) in a Christmas editorial wrote of the ‘houseless, homeless, shelterless, naked, cold and starving … the once happy and warmhearted people of Donegal’. The Dublin University Magazine warned that the controversy could shake the rights of property and defy British law. A relief fund was opened and money poured in from catholic communities worldwide. Seminaries in France and Spain made donations, as did Irish emigrants in America and Australia; £5,725 was raised in Victoria alone.
Efforts to stamp out the agitation were successful; key arrests demoralised perpetrators and Fr Doherty was replaced by a moderate priest. A select committee of the commons (July 1858) found complaints of poverty much exaggerated, and advocated emigration as a solution. By winter 1858 the sheep war was effectively over; it had resulted in two of the three Scottish sheep-farmers leaving the area. Hill had ridden out the storm with relative equanimity and in 1868 felt able to claim, in the fourth edition of his Facts from Gweedore, that peaceable and orderly behaviour had prevailed in the district since he began his improvements. He died in Ballygar, Co. Donegal, on 6 April 1879 and was buried in Letterkenny. A memorial tablet in his local church lauds him as a self-denying Christian. Strongly opposing accounts of him abounded in Gweedore after his death. The ultra-nationalist strand in nineteenth-century Ireland castigated him for destroying the idyllic communal life of one of the country's last Gaeltachts. Subsequent historians give him recognition for the undeniable improvements he brought to the area, but emphasise that the rundale system he was so keen to destroy encouraged communality and gregariousness.
Hill married first (21 October 1834) Cassandra Jane (d. March 1842), youngest daughter of Edward Knight of Kent; they had four children. He married secondly (11 May 1847) her sister Louisa (d. 29 July 1889), with whom he had another son. His eldest son, Arthur Blundell George Sandys Hill (1837–1923) also entered the army and saw service in India, as a captain, in the battle of Cawnpore and the siege of Lucknow. He was subsequently inspector of prisons in Ireland. Succeeding his father as landlord in Gweedore, he too faced popular unrest led by Fr James MacFadden (qv).