Torrens, William Torrens McCullagh (1813–94), politician and writer, was born 13 October 1813 at Delville, Co. Dublin, as William Torrens McCullagh, eldest son of James McCullagh, merchant, of Delville, and his wife Jane, daughter of Andrew Torrens of Dublin. He entered (1829) TCD, where he was a member and president (November 1832) of the College Historical Society, and established two magazines: the short-lived Dublin University Review, and the Citizen. His friends at Trinity included Thomas Davis (qv), John Blake Dillon (qv), and John Gray (qv), with whom he was particularly close. He graduated BA (1833) and LLB (1842), and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn (October 1832) before being called to the Irish bar (1836) and the English bar (June 1855). He adopted the form ‘William Torrens McCullagh Torrens’ in 1863.
Though a successful lawyer, Torrens is now remembered for his career as a political and social reformer. He supported Irish poor relief, and in 1835 was appointed assistant commissioner to the government special commission on poor relief for Ireland (1833–5), in whose service he toured the country, collecting material for several thorough reports. He collaborated with Sir Robert John Kane (qv) in founding the first Mechanics’ Institute in Dublin (1842), where he delivered a series of lectures on history (published as The use and study of history, 1842). In 1846 he sat on the council of the newly founded Celtic Atheneum, established to encourage the study of Irish history and antiquities. He became increasingly involved in Irish politics, joined the Anti-Corn-Law League (publishing The industrial history of free nations, 1846), served as private secretary in 1846 to Henry Labouchere (qv), chief secretary for Ireland, and actively assisted the Tenant League, joining a delegation to Lord John Russell in 1850 to promote tenant right.
Torrens's long parliamentary career was notable for the robust preservation of his stance as an independent liberal. He held the seats of Dundalk (1847–52), Great Yarmouth (stood unsuccessfully in 1852; elected 1857–65), and the London borough of Finsbury (1865–85). Politically he advocated the extension of suffrage and the abolition of church rates, but became increasingly preoccupied with ameliorating the widespread economic and social deprivation he encountered in London. He supported Disraeli's bill for household suffrage (1867), attaching an amendment to establish a lodger franchise. A year later he introduced, and overcame significant opposition to, the landmark artisans’ dwelling bill, popularly known after its passing as ‘Torrens's act’, by which local authorities replaced overcrowded slums with decent housing for the working classes. He became involved in several causes associated with children, obtained for London boards of guardians the right to board out pauper children (1869), established a school board for London (by means of an amendment to the 1870 education act of William Edward Forster (qv)), and served on the Finsbury school board (1870–72). In 1885 Torrens carried an act ensuring that London water rates were leviable only on the amount of public assessment. He became involved with many political and charitable organisations, including the Liberty and Property Defence League, the Clerkenwell Emigration Club, the National Emigration League, the Jamaica Committee, the Aborigines’ Protection Society, the Association for the Improvement of London Workhouse Infirmaries, the Travelling Tax Abolition Committee, and the Reform Club. Adjacent to his legal and public careers, he published many books (often concerning politics), including Our empire in Asia: how we came by it (1872), a critique of imperialism, Reform of parliamentary procedure (1881), the political memoir Twenty years in parliament (1893), and History of cabinets (1894). He also published political biographies of Richard Lalor Sheil (qv) (1855), Sir James Graham (1863), Lord Melbourne (1878), and Lord Wellesley (1880). Torrens retired from parliament in 1885. He died 26 April 1894 at his daughter's home, 23 Bryanstown Square, London, from injuries received after being knocked down by a hansom cab the previous day.
He married first (1836) Margaret Henrietta, daughter of John Gray of Claremorris, Co. Mayo, and sister of his good friend John Gray; and secondly (1878) Emily, widow of Thomas Russell and daughter of William Harrison of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. His papers are in the BL, and his letters to Disraeli are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.