Vere Foster was born in Copenhagen of an Irish-born father and worked in the British Diplomatic Corps. Foster visited his family estate in County Louth, Ireland during the height of the Great Famine in 1847. When his father died in 1848, Vere Foster underwent a crisis in his life, and he dedicated himself to philanthropic work in Ireland.
With his own capital, in 1852 he established the Irish Female Emigration Fund dedicated to supporting emigrants on the condition that they sent financial support back to their families. Foster made three voyages to the U.S. as a steerage passenger on emigrant ships. Appalled by the exploitative treatment of emigrants he lobbied successfully for an improvement in conditions. Following unfounded reports that he was selling girls into prostitution or corrupting their faith he located emigrants of whom this was alleged, arranged to have their daguerreotype portraits taken, and their personal story written down. On one occasion in Ardee, Co. Louth, it is said that he silently displayed their photographs and recent history, with letters of confirmation. In 1858 he considered it best to shut down the fund.
Vere Foster helped to found and became the first President of the Irish National Teachers Organisation. He was responsible for the construction or upgrading of around 2000 national schools throughout the country. He devised cheap, popular but effective school books, donating the proceeds towards the cost of the construction of the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. Vere Foster died penniless in Belfast in 1900.
Image courtesy NLI Duggan Collection