Trench, Richard Steuart (‘William Steuart Trench’) (1808–72), land agent, was born at Bellegrove (later Rathdare), Ballybrittas, Queen's Co. (Laois), eighth and youngest son of the Very Rev. Thomas Trench, Church of Ireland dean of Kildare, and his wife Mary, daughter of Robert Weldon of Rahinderry, Queen's Co., landowner. The family also included six daughters. The Trenches claimed huguenot ancestry but were probably of Scottish planter stock. William was educated at the Royal School, Armagh, and TCD, which he entered in 1826 but left without taking a degree. He appears subsequently to have worked as an occasional assistant land agent. In 1841 he became agent of the Shirley estate in Co. Monaghan, but resigned (1845) when the owner refused to implement reforms intended to create a more humane environment and efficient administration. Early in 1850 he was appointed agent of the Lansdowne estate in Co. Kerry. In 1851 he also accepted the agency of the Bath estate in Co. Monaghan, and in 1857 that of the Digby estate in King's Co. (Offaly). These appointments he retained till his death.
In December 1850, in order to reduce pauperism on the Lansdowne estate, he commenced a scheme of assisted emigration, and within eighteen months shipped well over 3,000 people to New York, Boston, and Quebec. In his memoirs he claimed that the emigrants were well provided for. In fact, many were sent off starving and in rags, and his scheme was denounced for its inhumanity by sections of the Irish and American press. Despite wild claims by his critics concerning mortality among the emigrants, most survived, and many found better lives in America. As agent, Trench sent in all some 4,600 people from Kerry to America.
In Kerry he also introduced a code of estate rules, one of which forbade tenants on pain of fine or eviction to marry without permission. Similar penalties applied to tenants harbouring unauthorised guests. The enforcement of such rules, intended to curb pauperism, gave rise to some shocking instances of inhumanity. Near Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, in 1851, a starving 12-year-old boy, seeking shelter, was beaten to death by his aunt and her husband, who feared breaching Trench's hospitality rule. At Geashill, King's Co., on the Digby estate, Trench had a 79-year-old woman committed to prison (where she later died) on Christmas Eve 1861, for begging. In Kerry he was accused of using his position as agent to further his own financial interests. His agencies elsewhere, though less publicised, appear to have been similarly controversial. He is loathed equally in the folklore of Monaghan and Kerry, while his grave at Donaghmoyne, near Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, has been repeatedly vandalised.
From 1853 he had as an assistant in Kerry his younger son, John Townsend Trench (1834–1909). Together they sought to improve local agriculture and fisheries, built roads and piers, beautified the estate through afforestation, and transformed Kenmare into a pleasing modern town, where their residence was Lansdowne Lodge. During the distress of the early 1860s their vigorous relief measures saved many from starvation. Trench was an innovative and highly efficient administrator, introducing annual estate reports and new methods of accounting. In order to counter adverse publicity he organised high-profile visits to their estates by the absentee Lansdowne and Bath proprietors. Despite his folk reputation, he also privately exercised an amount of unpublicised local charity. At the same time his efforts to thwart Archdeacon John O'Sullivan of Kenmare in building a church and convent, and his promotion of non-denominational primary education, led to bitter clashes between the two.
In 1868 he published his memoirs, Realities of Irish life, graphically illustrated by his son, Townsend. The work displays considerable literary ability. As historical record, however, it is self-regarding, vainglorious, and unreliable. It achieved, nonetheless, a spectacular success, running to five editions in a year, and won extravagant praise from Henry Reeve in the Edinburgh Review. In 1871 Trench published a romantic novel, Ierne: a tale. Set in Kerry during the Fenian rising, it is not devoid of interest, but proved a failure.
Trench died in August 1872 at Essex Castle, Carrickmacross, his residence on the Bath estate; his demise was reported, but not dated, in the Kerry Evening Post (21 August 1872) and Tralee Chronicle (27 August 1872). It was probably hastened by what the Kerry Evening Post termed his ‘arduous and useful life’. Much of the popular dislike of him arose from his arrogant, bullying, and vainglorious disposition. He was, nonetheless, a man of great ability, energy, and enterprise, whose impact on the estates which he controlled has proved, for better or for worse, both lasting and significant.
He married (1832) Elizabeth, daughter of J. Sealy Townsend, master in chancery; they had two sons and a daughter. A portrait and two photographs are held by his great-granddaughter, Leonore (Mrs Denis) Powell. No papers have been traced.