HC Deb 18 February 1836 vol 31 cc551-62
Mr. Charles Buller

* rose for the purpose of moving that a Select Committee be appointed to *Reprinted from a corrected Report. inquire into the conduct of the Commissioners of Public Records, and into the present state of the Public Records. The hon. Member said, that when he had laid before the House a few of the circumstances connected with the history of the Commission which formed the subject of the present motion, and when he called their attention to the state of the Records of this kingdom, and to the great amount of public money which had been expended by the Commissioners, he felt not the least doubt that the House would agree with him as to the necessity of an immediate and careful investigation of the whole matter; and it therefore might be presumed that the appointment of the Committee for which he sought would, without difficulty, be acceded to.

The Public Records, he presumed it was quite unnecessary for him to remind the House, were, whether they respected private property, or the means of authentic history, of extreme value. Of the first class were all grants, leases, and conveyances by the Crown to individuals or corporate bodies; of the second were ancient records, treaties, and public or national compacts. However carefully these might be treasured up, they were, of course, of perishable materials; and it had been determined by the Legislature that the subject of their preservation, custody, and perpetuation should be referred to Commissioners. The Commission had sat now many years, and was established in consequence of an address from the House of Commons in the year 1800. The annual grants to the Commissioners had varied from 5,000l. to 20,000l. Small as the annual amount was, yet the House would certainly think it a matter worthy of being inquired into, when they found that since the formation of the Commission about 400,000l. had been voted by Parliament towards its expenditure. But that had not been the sole expense the country had been put to on account of the Public Records during that period. The keepers of the principal offices were paid by Government; and it was supposed that, including the expenses of the Irish Commissioners, the whole amount bestowed on the Public Records was not less than 600,000l., or 700,000l. Besides this enormous expenditure, it now appeared that this Commission was actually in debt to the amount of 20,000l. It was obvious to a common observer that a considerable portion of this expense had been unnecessarily, if not blamably, incurred by the Commissioners, who seemed, in most instances, to have lost sight of the objects which had occasioned their appointment. Of one thing they had, however, been very laudably tenacious; and that was, to take all possible pains to render themselves generally known to all the countries, and in almost all the languages, of Europe. A portion of the public money intrusted to the Commissioners had been devoted to publishing in the various languages of Europe an account of the nature of the Commission, and a full detail of the names and titles of the Commissioners. He held in his hand a Portuguese pamphlet on the subject; in which the names of the Commissioners were given, no doubt in the purest Portuguese. The right hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams Wynn) was designated "O muito nobre Carlos Watkins Williams Wynn," The hon. baronet, the Member for Oxford, had a most romantic title, "Sir Roberto Harry Inglis." That was one of the ways in which the public money was spent—making the style and title of the Commissioners known all over Europe, from Lisbon to Hamburgh, Even the Secretary to the Commission is immortalized in the printed proceedings of the Board, as of "Viro illustri, excellentissmo, clarissimo, doctissimo C. P. Coopero equiti Anglo."

The principal objects of the Commission were the care of the Records, their preservation, and perpetuation by means of transcription of such as had become nearly defaced by time or accident. How these objects were provided for he should briefly state to the House. He need scarcely inform the House that the Public Records were of great importance to suitors in the courts of Law and Equity, and were also of great public importance, as forming the genuine materials of the history of England. In this point of view, he should not of course be otherwise than the advocate of liberal expenditure, provided it were directed, and efficiently directed, to the proper objects. The first great object was, that those Records should be kept in a convenient place, in security, and good arrangement; the next that there should be proper calendars and indexes; the third, that all Records which were in any danger of perishing, should be transcribed; and in cases where printing happened to be not too expensive, that such Records should be printed. He had every reason to believe that, if the Committee were granted him, he would make it appear that the Commissioners had neg- lected the principal of those duties. It appeared by the last Parliamentary returns of the Commissioners' expenditure, that only 1,500l. had been spent on what he would call the most important object for which they were appointed, namely, on the arrangement of the Records. What was the present state of those important documents? Considering that the object of the Commission was the preservation of the Records, and the affording easy accessibility to them, the method in which the Records were kept was perfectly scandalous. They were scattered about in eight or ten different offices, in different parts of the town. Those at Somerset-house were in underground vaults, where the light of the sun never penetrated. Fires were lighted in these vaults for the purpose of dispelling the damp; and the result was that the Records were alternately damp and dry, the destructive effects of which changes be need hardly point out: he feared they might have operated extensively already. A very picturesque description had been given in a report of some stalactite found in one of these vaults by the hon. Baronet (Sir R. Inglis); stalactites were interesting objects to the geologist, but a Record-office was an inappropriate place for their growth. Mr. Illingworth, who was very familiar with these Records and their situation, stated in a letter that he was afraid to touch them, on account of their dampness, lest he should catch the rheumatism in his hand. In these same vaults the Records were placed so high on shelves, some sticking out like bottles, that a ladder must be obtained to reach them; and then there was the chance of falling from the top with the roll upon the adventurous individual who made the experiment: no very pleasant predicament. Surely, nothing could be more evident than that the public Records of a nation ought not to be left in such circumstances, but should be placed in commodious and suitable apartments in accessible situations, and under a perfect system of arrangement. As to the miscellaneous Records lately at the Mews, and now at Carlton-ride, the method of keeping them was most ridiculous. They did not talk there of books, and manuscripts, and rolls, like other people but they described the Records by sacks and bushels. They would tell you that they had six hundred and fifty sacks of Records, containing eight bushels each. The Commission had begun some little good here; which, being good, was mysteriously suspended. The papers were sorted by years in sacks; so that if you wanted a document for such a year, you went to such a sack. The Records to which he was now alluding, had previously been kept, as the House might remember, in the temporary sheds which till lately Stood in Westminster-hall.

One of the fittest objects of the Commission would have been to provide a proper repository for the reception of the Records. He had seen a very fair estimate for a building, but no repository had been built. The money spent in temporary buildings and removals would have gone a great way towards realising this object. The sum actually expended in fitting up the vaults of Somerset-house was 16,000l.; and the various migrations of the Records from the old buildings in Westminster-hall to the King's-mews and Carlton-terrace, had cost 12,000l.; so that these two sums, making 28,000l., would have formed a fund sufficient to build a very good Record-office.

Another object, of course, of great importance was, that these Records should be safe. Ever since 1732, it had been reported to the House of Commons that there were a brewhouse and washhouse at the back of the Chapter-house, where the Records were kept, and by which the safety of the Chapter-house was greatly endangered by fire. In 1800 this brewhouse and this washhouse were again reported as dangerous. In 1819 this brewhouse and washhouse again attracted the serious notice of the Commissioners. In 1831 it was thought expedient to send a deputation to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, and to request his Majesty's Surveyor-general to report upon the perils of this brewhouse and washhouse, and endeavor to get the Dean and Chapter to pull them down. But the Dean and Chapter asserted the vested rights of the Church, and no redress was obtained against the brewhouse and washhouse. In 1833 another expedition, headed by the right hon. Baronet opposite, was made to the Chapterhouse, but the right hon. Baronet, desiring not to come into collision with the Church, omitted all mention of the brewhouse and washhouse. And thus the attention of the Commissioners had been constantly directed to this eternal brewhouse and eternal wash-house without any avail. There they still remain as a monument of the inefficiency of the Commissioners, and of the great power and pertinacity of the Church of this country. It seemed, however, to him (Mr. C. Buller) that the hon. Baronet had not consistently exhibited that attachment to the Church which the world gave him credit for, as in 1833 it was reported that the Records in the Augmentation-office (in which the great bulk of the Records relating to the Church were deposited) were in great danger from fire. The praiseworthy efforts of Mr. Protheroe to reform the condition of the Augmentation-office, and especially his representations of the dangers likely to arise from fire, were practically disregarded, though the burning of the Houses of Parliament, which occurred since, bore ample testimony to the value of his suggestions. The result of not attending to his advice was, that the Records at that period were all thrown out of the windows, to be preserved from the ravages of fire by the mire of Palace-yard, and soaked by water from the firemains. He had heard that the Records made admirable rat-traps. It was astonishing the quantity of remains of rats which were found amongst the Records. On one occasion the skeleton of a cat had been found amongst them. Evidence too appeared, that the Public Records had served a better purpose than rat-traps. The Public Records had been boiled down, for glue, and the cleaner and better sort had been converted into jellies by the confectioners. He had heard, too, that the embezzlement of Records had been carried to a serious extent, and that at the sale of a deceased virtuoso a lot of this kind fetched above 600l. They were also to be found, as matters of course, in curiosity-shops through the town. The disorderly course of keeping the Records in large masses scattered on tables, amongst which it was necessary to hunt for any specific document, might perhaps be accounted for by the knowledge of the fact that the searchers were paid by the time spent in these hunting matches. An attempt was made to arrange the Records in the Augmentation-office by the late Secretary, who bound those of similar sizes together without regard to subject or date—leases, grants, and rentals, altogether—of which an index of contents, compiled at the public expense, was kept by the Secretary at Spafields, where it could be consulted on payment of a fee; but, owing to the imperfection of this arrangement, three days had been frequently spent, with the help of this index, hunting for a single class of documents. This was not at all surprising, for he found one volume labelled "Rentals" which contained seventeen sorts of Records, yet not a single one of that class.

The Commissioners were especially expected, to report on the subject of fees, a matter of great import, which still lay quite neglected, though Sir Harris Nicolas had, in his valuable work, exposed the enormity of the prevailing practice It appeared that any one wishing to look at a single record must pay 16s, 8d.; if a transcript were taken, additional fees were required; if a full copy, higher still. A general search cost five guineas; and in the Rolls' Chapel even eight guineas is not an unusual charge. There they would not allow a copy of part of a document to be made or examined by an applicant. A person wanted a few lines of a particular instrument transcribed, and applied to be permitted to copy them himself. He was told he must, to obtain them, order an office-copy of the entire record, the expense of which would be 140 guineas; and this abuse was yet unreformed, Again, if a document was required in a Court of Law, a guinea per day was charged for bringing it from the Tower; if ten records were required at once, ten guineas were charged; and so on. The effect of this might be estimated from the fact that in a single case instituted to try the right to the Barony of Stafford, the charge was eighty guineas. In this case the sum of eighty guineas was paid for taking certain rolls from the Tower to the House of Lords, and, as the House did not sit that day, they went back again, to be produced on other occasions, with other payments of fees.

As he had already said, the great object which the Commissioners ought to hold in view should be to make those Records accessible for purposes connected with the history of the country; to have them well and carefully arranged, with good indexes, so as that all learned men might enjoy easy access to them; to have them so deposited as that there should be no injury from damp, and no danger from fire. But the preservation of the Records seemed to be entirely neglected in the eagerness of the Commissioners to print certain costly works, and in reprinting of essays. Amongst the works of the present Commissioners was a supplement to the "Valor Ecclesiasticus," a work given to the public as completing the previously published volumes. In less than a month after this publication appeared, fresh, supplementary matter was found in sufficient quantity to mate another volume. He held in his hand a volume, entitled "Rotuli Selecti," as a specimen of the accuracy of the present Commission's editorship. The work contained a patent roll twice printed by the present Commission, and other rolls of Henry 3rd, transcripts of which were twice made at the public expense. In this work there were more mistakes than might be expected to occur in proof-sheets sent to an author for correction. Those blunders were not only numerous, but somehow always occurred in the most important words. Thus in one place it ought to have stated that a certain payment was made to the king, but the word "king" was left out, and it therefore became impossible to say to whom the payment was made; then, certain ladies were mentioned who were heiresses of some person, but the word "heiresses" was omitted. In one publication by the old Commission, the transcript called "Testa de Neville", there were 120 variations from the original roll in twenty-two lines. And what made this negligence the more alarming was, the announcement in a printed work of the present Commissioners, that it was intended to apply for an Act to make this correct and authentic copy a sufficient proof in Courts of Law. The Commission was enjoined to print the "more valuable and ancient of the Records." and yet they bad expended 634l. on reprinting Sir Henry Ellis's Introduction to Doomsday;—300l. having been paid for the editorship of the two octavo volumes to that gentleman. Then there was an "Account of the Public Records" printed at the public cost, and appearing as a private work, without the title and dignity of the Commission attached thereto. Another work' printed, and not an "ancient record," was a "Proposal for building a Record-office, and Judges' chambers" Another work, not an "ancient Record," was an Essay reprinted from the Quarterly Review. Another work was a Report on the Chancery Proceedings. Such was the curiosity and value of this work, that it was presented as a beautiful specimen of typography, printed in red and black letter, and the name and style of every Commissioner was printed in his own copy. These items reminded him (Mr. Buller) of the celebrity which the Irish Commission had obtained in printing.

In the Irish Record Commission some surprise was expressed at seeing a charge for the collection of ancient and valuable works in England by Mr. Rowley Lascelles. It appeared, on applying to that gentleman for an explanation, he had (on a quarrel amongst the Irish Commissioners) been deputed to select materials at this side of the water, and certainly he had brought together some "ancient and valuable re- cords," amongst which appeared a pamphlet of Mr. Croker's on the state of Ireland, and Mr. Thomas Moore's "Captain Rock."

Another complaint against the Commission arose from their proceedings on the Continent. He thought the Commissioners had rather gone out of their way in sending to Belgium to procure the copy of a document which was itself a copy of an original Record existing in the Tower of London, and could not understand how they could find occupation for similar embassies in Germany, Portugal, Russia, Italy, &c, except to furnish a justification for expending 5,000l. in mating themselves known. He also saw an item of 1,500l. for books, and was rather surprised that the Commissioners should think it necessary to gratify continental curiosity at such an expensive rate as was indicated by a present sent to one learned individual, Dugdale's "Monasticon,' a work which originally cost above 100 guineas. He thought the system very unwise and dangerous which placed 10,000l. a-year at the entire disposal of a secretary to pay away at his discretion, without any order from the Commissioners; which was the system until lately. Things had gone on in this way for thirty-six years, notwithstanding the representations of Mr. Prothe-roe—a Commissioner to whose exertions for reform the public was much indebted; and it was only when a Parliamentary inquiry was talked of that any reform was perceptible.

He decidedly objected to the constitution of the Commission. It was said, in its defence, that it was composed of men of high honour and respectability; but it was well known that individuals of such character were not so remarkable for conducting business well as for leaving it to be done by others.

In conclusion, this Commission had expended a large portion of the public money, and was now deeply in debt. It could not show that it had done anything towards having the Records of the country well lodged, well housed, or more accessible to the public; it could not show that it had done anything towards reducing the fees; it could not show that it had done anything towards rendering the Records available by means of good calendars or indices; but it could show that their money had been expended in very useless and imperfect works. It was for these reasons that he asked the House for, and it was on these reasons that he thought they would grant, the Select Committee.

Mr. Williams Wynn

said, the publications alluded to by the hon. Member had, under the sanction of Parliament, been distributed to the Members of both Houses, who had been themselves to blame if they suffered the Commissioners to pursue an erroneous system so long, yearly reports of their expenditure and progress having been regularly laid before them. He was himself a member of the Commission, and he knew that the Commissioners had frequently laid before Parliament their opinion of the necessity of building a new Record Office. They had not authority to build any office, or to remove the Records any where. He was prepared to take his share of the responsibility of having a plan made for removing those shelves, and enlarging the building. The hon. Member who brought forward this Motion was wholly misinformed as to the Portuguese work of which he had spoken. He could only say, as one of the Commissioners, that he never saw or heard of such a work; and, as to the book published by Mr. Cooper, that publication took place solely at Mr. Cooper's own expense, and not at the expense of the Commission. The hon. Member should, therefore, have informed himself better on this point before he made his statement. The Commission, he believed, was first suggested many years ago by Lord Bexley, but not carried into effect fully until a much more recent period, under the present Commissioners. Without at all including himself, he believed there were men upon the Commission whose names were a sufficing guarantee for adopting the best means to accomplish the object for which they had been appointed. Sir James Mackintosh, Mr. Hallam, and Mr. Allen were on the Commission, and the late Earl Spencer and Mr. Dundas, the Lord Register of Scotland, were constant attendants at the meetings of the Commissioners. These were Gentlemen who devoted all their attention to the subject, and who could not fail to bring about a very satisfactory result. With respect to the fees charged, the Commissioners had nothing to do with them; but he must say, that he had never heard of any abuse on the part of those who were entitled to those fees.

Mr. Jervis

was glad that his hon. Friend near him had brought this subject before the House, because it was clear that there was something going on of which the Commissioners knew nothing. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Wynn), although he was one of the Commissioners, had that night stated that Mr. Cooper's book was not published at the expense of the Commission, whereas it appeared distinctly, by a return made to that House on the 13th of August, 1833, that the book was published at the sole expense, and under the authority, of the Board of Commissioners. The heavy fees demanded for inspecting those Records were a grievous injustice and oppression on the public. He could name one striking instance of this which came under his own observation at the last assizes at Chester. On a trial, which involved a disputed claim to property, it was necessary to inspect six sides only of a grant of Queen Elizabeth, and in order to do this, the parties were compelled to take a copy of fifty-six sides of folio parchment, containing totally irrelevant matter.

Sir Robert Inglis

said, that it was rather strange that the hon. Member for Liskeard should take so much pains to find fault with a Commission appointed by the present Government, which he so strenuously supported. He himself (Sir R. Inglis) was, he believed, the only Tory on the Commission. The present Speaker was at the head of it, and the Commission, he believed, originated with Lord Brougham. The accounts, too, which had been complained of, were audited by three Gentlemen perfectly competent to such a duty, namely, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. W. Brougham, and Mr. Protheroe. From time to time there had served on the Commission men of all others the best qualified for such an object. The Earl of Aberdeen had been once on the Commission, and so had Earl Spencer, Sir James Mackintosh, Mr. Hallam, and Mr. Allen. These were men likely to know what would best promote the interest of the profession and the public. As to removing the Records, it had been decided by the authority of one of the Judges who attended on the Commission at the Speaker's house, that it was not competent to the Commissioners to remove them without an Act of Parliament.

Mr. Hume

suggested that, as all the old rotten stores were now selling off at the Tower, which would leave plenty of room there, the Records ought to be removed there as the best and safest place for their preservation.

Lord John Russell

thought the House were indebted to the hon. Gentleman for bringing the subject under their notice.

Mr. Baines

would not say that the expenses had not been considerable, but the country was deeply indebted to the facilities which the labours of the Commissioners had given to all persons who were desirous to obtain information, which it would otherwise have been very difficult to procure, on the history, the laws, and the government of the country.

Motion agreed to, and the Committee appointed.