Vere Henry Lewis Foster was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 25 April 1819. His father, a county Antrim man, was the British minister in the city. The Foster family were members of the Church of Ireland. Vere himself eschewed politics throughout his life. Neither a unionist or a nationalist, he was however very much an Irishman who devoted most of his life towards helping the poor and downtrodden.
Following a thoroughly anglicised education at Eton and Oxford, he entered the British diplomatic service and was assigned to South American embassies in the period 1842-1847. The inheritance of large family legacies, however, made him a very rich man and ensured that from 1847 onwards, he no longer had to work for a living. In the same year, at the age of twenty eight, he visited Ireland, his parent’s country, for the first time. This was the worst year of the Great Famine. Foster witnessed the sad spectacle of men, women and children dying in their thousands. He was utterly appalled by what he saw and horrified by stories he heard of people dying on American bound famine ships. He decided to remain and help to alleviate the plight of its people. He made three passages to America on emigrant ships in order to obtain first hand knowledge of the conditions endured by Irish passengers.
Based on these findings, much of which were horrific, his evidence to parliamentary committees led to the passing of reforming legislations.Thanks to this, the notorious American bound ships were replaced by more humanely conducted vessels.
Vere Foster’s next reforming work was in the field of education. A very wealthy man, one might say a millionaire, he had hundreds of schools built throughout the land, from his own financial resources and from Government grants which he managed to obtain.
Teachers in Ireland then worked under crippling restrictions and were often badly treated. Vere Foster helped to set up a teachers’ union which time became the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).
One of the most significant educational achievements was the devising of a series of copy books giving instructions in handwriting, drawing and water colouring. The first of these were published in 1868. Many other editions followed. Vere Foster believed that a good copper plate hand was the first and most important educational attribute of a child. These copy books remained in use until the late 1920s.
Most of Vere Foster’s life in Ireland was spent in Dublin. Some years before his death, however, he went to live permanently in Belfast. He never married, and in his final years in Belfast, Vere Foster did Trojan work for the poor, sick and under-privileged. He made absolutely no distinction between Catholic and Protestant poor.
A vigorous opponent of bigotry and sectarianism, his sole concern was for the marginalised sections of society. Yet, sadly, when he died on 21 December 1900 at the age of 81, scarcely a single newspaper awarded him an obituary notice. In 1966 his descendants installed a nameplate on our newly constructed school and requested that it be named in his honour.
Vere Foster deserves to be remembered in Ireland.