HC Deb 01 April 1833 vol 16 cc1333-43
Mr. Cobbett

said, he had a Petition to present against Soane's Museum Bill, which it was proposed to have read a third time that day. The petition was from Mr. George Soane, the only surviving son of Sir John Soane. The petitioner, after stating that the passing of the Bill would be to sanction a violation of those laws by which the society was held together, and that his father must have been improperly importuned and persuaded at the ninth hour before he could have been induced to alienate so large a portion of his property, since, if he had contemplated such an act for any lime previously, he must have made up his mind to take the necessary steps before he had arrived at a period of a natural decay. The petitioner prayed to be heard in person, or by Counsel or agent, at the Bar of that House against the passing of the Bill, or that the House would take such other steps as it might deem meet to prevent the object of the Bill. If the House agreed to the Bill, they would reverse the fundamental laws of hereditary succession, and of testamentary law. He thought it necessary to observe to the House, that he had never either seen Sir John Soane or his son until four days ago, when the latter gave him that petition to present. When the third reading of the Bill was proposed by the hon. Member who brought it in, it was his (Mr. Cobbett's) intention to move an Amendment. He was informed, that upon the marriage of Sir John Soane, he received 30,000l. with his wife, and that George Soane, the petitioner, had several children, all of whom with their father were in distress. He admitted, that the son might have given the father great cause for offence, but he (Mr. Cobbett) considered that the offence of the son ought not to be visited on the poor grandchildren. Hon. Members knew that the law compelled a man not only to support his children, but his grandchildren, and his great grandchildren; and he thought the House could not justly sanction an appropriation of property, by which the grandchildren of Sir John Soane must suffer, and which would be the case, if the present Bill passed into a law. Besides, the Apostle Paul said, if a man take not care of his own house, he has denied the faith, and is worse than a heathen. He therefore hoped, that the House would pause a little before it sanctioned the third reading of the Bill.

Mr. Hume

trusted, that the House would not be led away by the statements of the hon. member for Oldham, that the Bill would do the most serious injury. He fully agreed with that hon. Member in; his observation, that the Scriptures required that we should provide for our children I and the law enforced the obligation even; to our grandchildren; but there was one allegation which the hon. Member had: made, to which he wished to call the) particular attention of the House. From, the hon. member for Oldham's statement, it would appear, that the children of the; petitioner, Mr. George Soane, after his I death, would be the heirs of Sir John, and that the petitioner was the only son Sir) John Soane ever had. That was not the case; but the fact was, that the children of the elder son, who was now dead, would; be the heirs-at-law of Sir John Soane; and if Sir John were to die to-morrow, 2 the whole of his property would go to, those children, and the petitioner and his children would not be entitled to a farthing. However the case might be—whether the petitioner was entitled or not—whatever rights he had, there was a clause in the Bill reserving to him and all other persons the right of sueing the same, as if the Bill had not passed; and all that the present Bill did was, to enable Sir John Soane to transfer the right he held in his own person to two dwelling-houses, of making them the places where the Museum was to be placed. There was a clause in the Bill reserving to George Soane, the petitioner, and to all persons whatever, every right and title, exactly in the same state in which they now possessed it. The Committee who had sat upon the Bill had heard Mr. George Soane against its different clauses, they had entered most fully into all the circumstances connected with the case, and were unanimously of opinion, that there was no act of injustice committed by the Bill to any individual whatever. He therefore trusted, that he should be allowed to carry forward the Bill, and that the House would not entertain for a moment the idea of postponing the consideration of the third reading, after the question had been so fully gone into in the House of Lords, who were so strict about rights of this description, and by the Committee which had been appointed to inquire into the merits of the Bill.

Mr. Briscoe

trusted that the House would postpone the consideration of the third reading of the Bill, as he had been enabled to make himself master of very few of its provisions; but from what little he had heard of the subject, he considered it a case of extreme hardship and great moral injustice. If the objects of art left by. Sir J. Soane were sent to the British Museum, it would be of more use to the public, and a large sum would be thus saved for the grand-children. He suggested that it would be proper to delay the third reading of the Bill until hon. Gentlemen should have made themselves more fully acquainted with its object.

Sir Robert Peel

said, in the present instance a gentleman of great eminence in art had devoted his own money to the accumulation of most valuable relics. He had done so by denying himself indulgence which other persons in an equal station of life generally enjoyed; and he proposed to present that valuable collection—a most liberal act, indeed, on his part—to the public; and all that he now asked for was an Act of Parliament to put an end to all questions as to the validity of that gift. As to the gift itself, he thought that the House and the country ought to receive it with the greatest thankfulness, and in the most gracious manner. With respect to the suggestion which had been thrown out by the hon. member for Surrey, as to the property being placed in the British Museum, he meant to propose a clause on the third reading of the Bill, the object of which would be to place the property in the British Museum, thereby saving the expenditure of a great deal of money upon a separate establishment.

Lord John Russell

hoped that the clause which the right hon. Baronet had to propose would answer all the purposes contemplated by the hon. member for Surrey. He trusted, however, that that clause would leave it to the discretion of Sir John Soane.

Sir Samuel Whalley

said, that Sir John Soane only exercised a power vested in him by the common law of England, and that there was no claim on the part of the petitioner, either in law or equity, or any substantial reason why the third reading of the Bill should be postponed.

Mr. Hume moved that the Bill be read a third time.

Mr. Cobbett

knew nothing of the law as it related to the disposition of property, and perhaps in that point of view Sir John Soane had the law on his side, but he considered it, and he thought the House should consider it, as a question of morality, He knew, however, that the law and the precepts of morality, as far as he understood them, required man, as far as as possible, to protect and give every necessary sustenance to his children and grandchildren; but by this Bill the House was called upon to aid and assist in withholding from the donor's grandchildren that sustenance to which they were entitled, and which they needed. Would that House be party to a withdrawal from this gentleman's grandchildren of their rights of sustenance? Would it countenance so unnatural an act? He hoped not, and that the House would not agree to the third reading of the Bill. It appeared that Mrs. Soane (Sir John's wife) brought him 30,000l., but he alleged there had been no settlement. Who was to say how much of celebrity and renown arose to Sir John Soane from the possession of that 30,000l? Perhaps it had been the occasion of the whole of his celebrity and property; and he held (as he was sure every other Member of that House would), that if a man received money by his wife, he had no right to dispose of it, although there was no settlement binding him. He had no moral right, at any rate, to dispose of it in any way whatever, otherwise than in the way the wife agreed to have it disposed of. By this Act, however, the donor was taking a maintenance from the wife's grandchildren, for they were her grandchildren as well as his. Let any man, he would say, lay his hand to his heart and say if such an act could be considered a just proceeding on the part of the grandfather. He should, therefore, give his opposition to the Bill, in order to show, by the records of the House, that there was at least one Member who had felt it his duty to protest against this unnatural proceeding. The hon. Member concluded by moving—"That Soane's Museum Act be referred to a Select Committee, or to the Judges, for them to report their opinion to the House, how far an Act of Parliament, declaratory of the intentions of a certain individual therein named, can be taken to be a conveyance in fee of an estate in trust to be hereafter created by his wilt, supposing he should omit to complete the same by his will, or should direct his will to be drawn, when by subsequent evidence he may be proved to have been incapable of dictating or proving of the same."

Mr. J. Feilden

seconded the Amendment.

An Hon. Member

considered it to be most ungrateful to insult an individual who had so liberally come forward to present so munificent a gift to the nation, and refuse to accept such a gift but upon certain terms. The hon. member for Oldham appeared to assume that the property in question was purchased with the money of the petitioner. If it were not so, the argument of the hon. Member must fall to the ground. It was most monstrous to suppose, that in a free country, like England, a man had not a right to dispose of his property as he pleased. What greater tyranny could be committed, than preventing, by legislative interference, a man from disposing of his own property? He considered the proceeding, and the line of argument adopted by the hon. member for Oldham, as most extraordinary.

Mr. Hume

hoped the public would not be misled, or imagine for one moment that the House would commit an injustice towards any individual by agreeing to the wishes of a Gentleman who had come forward in the handsome and liberal manner that Sir John Soane had. What were the facts of the case? It was stated that Sir John Soane had derived a great portion of his property from his wife, and that he had left his money to other branches of his family, omitting all mention of the son who petitioned that House; but the House should be put into possession of this important fact—the father had settled 20,000l. upon the children of an elder son (who was the heir-at-law), and that the younger son, the petitioner, had received from Sir John Soane more than that sum already. It would be a gross injustice, if the House were to step in and say to Sir John Soane he should not dispose of his property as he pleased. He greatly regretted the family differences which existed between the father and the son; but the House must see, that such differences ought not to prevent Sir John Soane from disposing of his valuable and magnificent collection according to his own feelings. In the Committee which had been sitting up-stairs, it was asked the petitioner if he had any claim upon the property at law; the petitioner answered "No." "But," said the petitioner, "he might change his mind before he died, and feel disposed to leave me some portion of the property in question, which the Bill now under consideration would deprive him of the power of doing." Sir John Soane had other large means at his command. This Museum was but a part of that large fortune which he had acquired by his unwearied industry and splendid talents. If the House were to cast any stain upon Sir John Soane, he considered it would be most ungrateful, He was happy to hear of the proposition for depositing the bequest in the British Museum; that was undoubtedly the best place for it, if that plan met Sir John Soane's approbation.

Mr. Hodges

was upon the Committee on the Bill, and could say, that all the Members were unanimous in their Report. Valuing the bequest highly, and conceiving that no injustice was done to any one, he should give his support to the Bill.

Mr. Baring

begged to observe, that the present mode of proceeding was of a most novel character. When individuals had formerly presented property to the British Museum, or to any other national institution, was it ever inquired of them if they had the power so to dispose of it? He had no doubt but that the hon. member for Oldham was actuated by good motives. The House had only to consider whether it would receive the splendid gift in a gracious or an ungracious manner. There were no possible grounds for any further delay taking place in the passing-of the Bill.

Amendment negatived; Bill read a third time.

Sir Robert Peel

said, he had a clause to propose, which might, perhaps, answer the objections of the hon. member for Oldham. The effect of the clause would be to enable Sir John Soane, at any time after the passing of the Act, to bequeath all his valuable relics to the British Museum, instead of placing them in two houses, the property of Sir John Soane, in Lincoln's Inn-fields. Those two houses, by the clause, would thereby be placed again in his absolute power and control, and also so much of the Bill as related to the money; he would have the whole control of disposing of the 30,000l. and the two houses as he pleased. The expense of keeping-up two establishments was unnecessary, and by the proposed clause, the expense of a separate establishment would be saved. There were abundant reasons why the public should not derive any benefit from the large sum of money which Sir John Soane had proposed to place at its disposal. Let the public restore to Sir John Soane the whole power over that money. So far from discouraging such splendid gifts he was for receiving them, and acknowledging them in the fullest and most handsome manner, and he hoped that Sir John Soane would consider whether he would not better promote the object he had in view by placing the relics in the British Museum, and having the collection called by his own name, than by placing them in a separate establishment.

The Clause read a first time,

On the Motion that it be read a second time,

Mr. Hume

said, he highly approved of it, and he hoped the hon. member for Oldham would see that it accomplished the object for which he had contended. He (Mr. Hume) could not, however, help thinking, that Sir John Soane might still find it tend to the advancement of science, if he added to the valuable collection by endowing it with 500l. a-year, or any portion of the 1,100l.

Sir Samuel Whalley

was of opinion, that great facility would be afforded for inspecting the collection, if it were removed to the British Museum. He must, however, complain that it was not continually open. He had been disappointed of seeing the British Museum on two or three occasions, in consequence of having mistaken the days of exhibition, and he would, therefore, suggest that more trouble should be taken to apprise the public when the exhibition was open, and when closed, which might be done by occasional advertisements in the daily papers.

Mr. Baring

stated, that if the public were admitted every day, as on the days of public admission, when there were generally more than 2,000 visitors passing through the rooms, it would be impossible for the officers to perform their duties. He would assure the hon. Member (Sir Samuel Whalley) that there would be no difficulty in his admission on any of the six days of the week. [The hon. Member dissented by saying that he had found difficulty.] If such then had been the case, it must have been because the hon. Member went as a casual visitor, and had not made a particular application to the librarian, who he (Mr. Baring) was convinced would admit any gentleman who came there for any purpose connected with science or art. The question of holidays—of reducing the two months' holidays to one—was now in course of consideration; but he begged to assure hon. Members, that even during these holidays, no foreigner or any person decently attired in pursuit of particular information was ever refused admittance.

Mr. Morrison

was aware that it had been stated that there were 123 days in the course of each year on which the public were admitted, and supposed therefore his own applications must have been peculiarly unfortunate. Within the last two years, however, he had made at least a dozen attempts to obtain admission, but had always called upon a wrong day. He thought that there was another class of the community deserving of equal attention with artists, and those were the manufacturers. At this season of the year, a vast number of persons interested in manufactures of the country came to the metropolis for the purpose of obtaining information, and on their account he would, if possible, have the British Museum opened every day in the week during the months of April, May, and June. It was not enough that upon application to the public officers of the establishment those persons might obtain admission, because all persons who know anything of the institutions of this country must have experienced how repulsive it was to make applications to public officers when any difficulty could be thrown in the way of granting the required favour. He could not permit himself to lose this opportunity of expressing how extremely grateful he felt to the gentleman who presented to his country a collection of which it stood so much in need. This country was very deficient in the means of teaching the higher branches of art, and much needed some institutions similar to those which were found on the Continent. He doubted whether the public money could be expended so beneficially in any other way as by establishing schools for teaching art and science.

Mr. Cobbett

remarked, that the hon. member for Essex had said, that if the British Museum were open for a greater number of days than at present, there would require more attendants than were now engaged. Now, upon that, he would only remark, that out of the 16,000l. expended in support of the Museum, the sum of 10,000l., within a fraction, was expended for attendance. That was all he would say upon that point. And then, the hon. Member had said, that if any person in a decent dress (the hon. Member had not defined what he meant by a decent dress)—but he had said, that if any person with a decent dress applied for admission when the Museum was shut, he would obtain it. Now, he (Mr. Cobbett) thought it right to observe, that those who had not decent dresses were required to pay for the maintenance of the Museum. The chop-stick in the country, as well as the poor man who mended the pavement in town, had to pay for the support of this place; and, if they derived no benefit from it, they ought not to be compelled to pay for it. It happened, too, that the hours during which it was open were just such as were most inconvenient to the labourer and the tradesman. What were those hours? Why, from ten in the morning till four in the afternoon; just the time when persons engaged in business were the most actively employed. It should be open, in summer, at all events, from six in the morning till ten at night, if it were intended for general utility. But if it were only intended for idlers and loungers, then it could not be better managed than it was at present. It was shut up during two months in the year also, exclusive of the other holidays. And what were those months? Why, September and October. The long vacation; when all the lawyers and parsons, and lords and loungers, were out in the country enjoying shooting. It was then that the Museum was shut up; and yet they were told that it was intended that the people should have the benefit of the institution.

Mr. Roebuck

trusted, that something would be done for the purpose of having the British Museum opened on those holidays, and those days when the working-classes were able only to attend it, such as Christmas-day, Good Friday, and even on Sundays [No, no.] He begged to remind hon. Members, that such exhibitions were always kept open on Sundays on the Continent.

Mr. Pryme

thought, that if such exhibitions were kept open to a later hour, to a period after the mechanic had left his work, every purpose would be answered without resorting to the extreme expedient of keeping it open on Sundays.

Sir Robert Peel

was of opinion, that immense advantage would accrue, if the most public notice possible was given of the hours and days on which the Museum was open. He knew that many persons coining from the country, who were extremely desirous of seeing the British Museum, were disappointed because they happened to go there on a day on which it was not open.

Mr. Baring

agreed with the right hon. Baronet opposite, that it would be most desirable that a distinct and general notice should be given to the public of the days and hours on which they could get access to the Museum; but not only during the holidays would any person applying for admission, either for scientific purposes or any known artists, be admitted; but any person from the country, stating, that he was obliged to leave town the next day would find ready access given. As to keeping the Museum open on Sundays, Good Fridays, and days of that description, he must confess, though he was no extreme puritan, he should be very sorry to see the Legislature go that length, and he was quite sure that the sense of the country would be against any such proposition.

The Clause agreed to, and the Bill passed.