Jones, William Bence- (1812–82), improving landlord and essayist, was born 5 October 1812 in Beccles, Suffolk, eldest son of William Jones (1776–1843), lieutenant-colonel, 5th Dragoon Guards, and his wife Matilda (d. 1869), daughter of the Rev. Bence Bence of Thorington Hall, Suffolk. Educated at Harrow School in the later 1820s, he matriculated (31 March 1829) at Balliol College, Oxford, and graduated BA (1834) and MA (1836). He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1837 and for some months worked the home circuit. In 1838 he was asked to look into the management of a 2,000-acre family estate at Lisselan, near Clonakilty, Co. Cork, after long-standing peculation by the local agent came to light. The estate had been purchased by his grandfather c.1800, after which the agency had been left to its own devices. He later related that the estate (largely under lease) was less impoverished than many in the district: the average size of farm was twenty-five acres and the rental unencumbered. But there were pockets of great squalor and he was taken aback by the crudity of agricultural practice on farms. After a two-week consultation with the renowned land agent William Blacker (qv), he initiated a thorough overhaul of estate administration, dismissing the former agent and most of the bailiffs. Arrears of rent were waived but tenants were put on notice to pay their rent in two portions in July and December, on pain of immediate eviction, though on the understanding that their rents should not be changed during their lifetimes; the sale of tenant right was eradicated. A Scottish grieve was appointed to teach methods of draining and enhanced green cultivation. The holding of the first tenant who failed to pay on time was turned into a small model farm. Holdings were consolidated piecemeal as land came out of lease or was given up, and departing tenants were assisted to emigrate.
There was little novel about these improvements, but the successful transformation of the estate in this case derived from Bence-Jones's pugnacity and colossal energy allied to a narrow but unswerving adherence to the absolute dictum that ‘every man should fulfill whatever contract he had made’ (Life's work, 99). This was always the formula that penetrated, to his satisfaction, the alien cultural mores present on his Irish property. By 1843, when he came into his inheritance, the number of stock on the estate had doubled. Taking up full-time residence that year, he constructed Lisselan House, dismissed the last of the under-agents, and commenced a demesne farm, shrewdly aware of peasant derision of ‘gentlemen's farming’. In this instance he was anxious to demonstrate that the landowner was more than capable of taking over and recouping considerable profits from land which he could not set at the rents demanded. During the great famine he set up a local fever hospital. He approved of whig management of the crisis in 1846–7, though he likened that winter to a nightmare. Close to half of the poorer tenants emigrated (there is no admission in his autobiographical writings that any died). Repossession of this land enlarged the demesne to about 800 acres. Livestock, at first mainly sheep, was acquired cheaply in the later 1840s and labourers’ cottages built.
Despite expenditure of £700–800 annually on guano and bones, and careful turnip and clover cultivation, returns were initially slow. But by the mid 1860s the advantages of livestock farming, and dairying in particular, were apparent. Bence-Jones introduced the discipline of contemporary German dairying methods into the south of Ireland, making up rolled butter for export to London retailers. Stressing the climatic constraints of a wet maritime environment, he championed the expansion of pasture as the only profitable recourse for Irish agriculture, a message ideologically unpalatable to contemporary tenant politics. Between 1855 and 1865 he purchased about 2,000 acres in the encumbered estates court. Strict maximisation of rent for each acre ‘made constant exertion and self-reliance almost compulsory and thus tended to correct a weakness of national character’ (Life's work, 14).
When he began to write about his experiences in 1865, however, a deceptive atmosphere of social equilibrium dulled his anxieties. These were first fanned by the prospect of church disestablishment in 1868–9, when he characteristically inveighed against the indolence of protestant clergymen in occupation of empty parishes, complained of the uneconomic price at which landlords were expected to sell tithe rent-charge, and pleaded that the different denominations ‘would even look on each other as erring Christians’ (Bell, 67). He suggested concurrent endowment of all the churches. At the general convention of the Church of Ireland (February and October 1870) he protested against the preponderant influence of the northern dioceses and put forward a detailed proposal for the renovation of church government. Between 1868 and 1875 he published three works on the Church of Ireland.
Though in 1868 he insisted on the futility of providing leases to tenants who were, by and large, not solvent enough to bear prosecution for default, as soon as the land act of 1870 was passed he furiously required all forty remaining tenants on his estate to accept extraordinarily elaborate leases, designed to circumvent the compensation clauses in the act. Seeing clearly which way the wind was blowing, he set out – in repetitive but plainly written articles in journals such as the Contemporary Review, Nineteenth Century, and Macmillan's Magazine – the elements of a sturdy case for the landed interest. Irish tenants needed to be disabused of the notion that their holdings were possessed ‘as an inheritance, not as a business’ (Life's work, 19) together with ‘indefinable ideas of rights, which break down before definite facts’ (ibid., 79). In this and other senses the nub of the tenant problem was ‘moral’ though the requisite skills were also uncommon. Outside Connacht, he claimed that most Irish farmers were affluent and did best under the pressure of legitimate market rents, which ought to be well in excess of the government land valuation. Treatment of labourers by the typical Irish farmer was ‘of the very closest and hardest kind’ (ibid., 36). The bulk of improvements since the famine had been carried out by landlords. The appearance of agrarian crisis was myopically exploited for political gain. A peasant proprietary might be economically valuable, if there were numbers of good tenants around. The imposition of tenant right crippled tenant investment in land improvement. The only cure for social and agricultural distress was to act upon ‘the true principle of free trade . . . the natural liberty Providence gives of buying and selling and dealing with what belongs to any man’ (Life's work, 218).
Though Bence-Jones cogently opposed the Land League and fortified the landed argument, his views and personality were too maverick to allow easily for participation in party politics. Tenant disaffection erupted on the Lisselan estate in early 1880, shortly after he evicted a tenant. By November that year most of his tenants had joined the Clonakilty Land League branch, and were determined to offer solely the Griffith valuation in rent on gale day. Threatening notices to wavering tenants and to the ‘big house’ were underlined by the excavation of a symbolical grave outside his front door on 3 December 1880. The sale of his farm produce and livestock was boycotted, and demesne labourers were intimidated out of his employment. Though he received the aid of twenty-two loyal workers from Bandon and Cavan, under police protection, and evicted most of the errant demesne labourers from their estate cottages, the agitation held firm until resolved broadly in the tenants’ favour at the Cork land courts of April 1882, where the exorbitant leases were overturned. Residence on his estate having become a burden, he had moved to London in late 1881. He died 22 June 1882 in 34 Elvaston Place, London, of a recurrent kidney disorder.
He married (6 July 1843) Caroline (d. 1886), daughter of William Dickinson, MP, of Kingweston, Somerset. They had two sons and six daughters.