HC Deb 25 June 1847 vol 93 cc910-9

MR. WARD moved the recommittal of the Thames Conservancy Bill. The conflicting jurisdictions, he said, were such, that the efforts to improve the greatest commercial river in the world were entirely obstructed. The Crown, the city, the Trinity House, the Commissioners of Sewers, had all independent jurisdiction. To get rid of the complexity, the present Bill had been introduced. It would cut short a Chancery suit between the Crown and the corporation, during the continuance of which every improvement must he suspended. Further, a new Conservancy Board was proposed. The First Lord of the Admiralty, the First Commissioner of the Woods and Forests, and the President of the Board of Trade, were to form a body which should have a veto upon all the rules passed by the conservators. Under this Bill a duty of a very extensive kind was undertaken by the city of London. The 102nd and 103rd clauses provided for the removal of the shoals which now impeded the navigation of the river; and the city had agreed to charge itself with an outlay of 450,000l., to be expended within a period of six years, for the completion of the improvements which were thought requisite. All parties concurred as to the expediency of some such measure as the present; but the great question and the great difficulty were as to the constitution of the Conservancy Board. As at first proposed, it was to consist of nineteen members, the Lord Mayor, five Aldermen, and thirteen Common Councilmen. The sense of the House, however, was at last so unequivocally expressed in favour of an infusion of fresh blood into the civic management, and the introduction of representatives of other interests, that it was thought proper to modify the Bill as regarded the constitution of the Board, It was then proposed to reduce the number of the Board from nineteen to fifteen; ten of the members to be nominated by the city, and the remaining five by the Crown, not being Aldermen or Common Councilmen. The proposal had not been accepted. He had not had any idea of recommitting the Bill; but the city had wisely, prudently, and properly revised the hasty decision to which it had come. The city had felt the necessity of meeting the views of that House, and a new proposition had accordingly been made, which it was thought desirable to bring before the Committee, that the city should nominate ten of the conservators; and as regarded the five other members, that an unlimited veto and power of removal should reside in the Crown. It was for the House to consider whether, under these circumstances, it would assent to this Motion, that the Thames Conservancy Bill be recommitted.


thought that such an interference with the legislation of that House had scarcely occurred within the memory of man. He could not consent to hand over the rights of the Crown and intrust the interests of commerce to a committee of the Common Council and Aldermen. He did not think them the proper persons to take charge of the river. The Committee of that House had affirmed unanimously that one-third of the proposed Board should be chosen by the Crown from parties interested in the commerce, wharfage, and docks of London; one-half would have been a more just proportion. The city of London, however, rejected the proposition in favour of which the Committee had decided. The question was, whether, because the Common Council at the eleventh hour had agreed to accept the Bill, not as offered by the House, but as framed to please themselves, the House of Commons ought to submit to such a degradation? Were they to authorize a body to expend 400,000l. or 500,000l. (at which the improvements were estimated) without any control on the part of the Crown or community? Every shilling given to the conservators ought to be applied to the removal of obstructions. The whole of these improvements were to be effected by the corporation by means of money to be raised by way of rates and charges on the general imports into the river. Why did not the Government raise the money on the same security, and effect the improvements themselves? The evidence before the Committee showed that many of the impediments in the navigation of the river had been frequently pointed out, and the removal of them recommended; but those recommendations were never attended to. It appeared that the House of Commons was cringing to the city of London, instead of dictating to it. Great public loss was sustained by reason of the river Thames not being navigable in consequence of the shoals and nuisances that were allowed to accumulate. This was well known to the corporation of the city of London; and yet, while that body suffered this evil to exist, they did not hesitate to avail themselves of their power over the river Thames to interfere extensively with the private property that was on the river side. The present Bill would continue to them that right of interference. The amount of revenue raised by the corporation from the public traffic on the Thames was enormous. The metage of corn amounted to between 50,000l. and 60,000l. a year, a great part of which went into the pockets of the cor- poration. He certainly did not conceive it possible to carry this measure, before a very searching inquiry was instituted into the nature and amount of the income of the corporation of the city. He hoped that one of the first duties of the new Parliament would be, to ascertain the extent of the power of taxation exercised by that body. The recommittal of this Bill would be only making another concession to the city of London; while they were already granting it a great boon in affording it the means of expending no less a sum than 400,000l. or 500,000l., which was to be levied on British shipping. In the course he was now pursuing, he could not be said to he taking the city unawares; for from the moment the corporation objected to the constitution of the Conservancy Board as recommended by the Committee, he furnished them with a copy of the Resolution which he intended to submit to the House. He would move as an Amendment— That this House will on Tuesday next resolve itself into a Committee to consider of an humble Address to be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to take immediate measures for carrying into effect the requisite Improvements in the River Thames; and to assure Her Majesty that this House will supply the means for carrying into effect these most necessary improvements.


would he sorry to throw any obstruction in the way of a Bill having for its object the improvement of the river Thames. The state of that river was not merely a scandal to the corporation of the city of London, but to the country at large. But having had the honour to be on the Committee to inquire into the navigation of the river Thames, he was compelled, from the knowledge he had acquired on the subject, to oppose the Motion of the hon. Secretary of the Admiralty, and to give his cordial support to the Amendment of the hon. member for Montrose. He thought the right thing to be done upon this subject was for the country to take it into their own hands, at whatever cost, and to bring in a public measure for the conservancy of the river Thames. The security of the public required it. The corporation of the city of London appeared to be labouring under a great delusion on the subject. They said that they had always had the conservancy of the Thames; and they also claimed a right to the soil of the river. If the corporation had that public spirit which they often professed, there would be no difficulty whatever in effecting an arrangement; because the whole value of the soil was only about 700l. or 800l. a year. But what was this conservancy? It was very true that the corporation, from all time, had been conservators of the river Thames; but what did that mean? Had they ever possessed the powers which that Bill would give them? Had they the power to raise, at once, 100,000l. and 200,000l., or 300,000l, eventually? Nothing of the sort. Had they a right to call upon persons to erect wharfs on the river side, and to tell them, that if they did not, the corporation would do it at their expense? Nothing of the sort. The corporation had always and still contended that they had no power to remove the shoals in the river. Captain Bullock, formerly a member of the Admiralty, stated before the Committee, that the corporation had the right and the power, and that nobody else had the power. The evidence of every person connected with the Admiralty was in favour of transferring the conservancy of the Thames to some active, impartial, and efficient Board—such as the Board of Admiralty—and went to show that the corporation of the city of London had abused their powers; had granted licenses for erection in the water very injurious to the navigation of the river; and had proved by all their acts that their object was not the conservancy of the Thames, but to make out a case to establish their right in the soil of the river. But if the corporation were the conservators of the river, why did they not exercise their conservative authority? Their excuse was, that they had no funds. Was that the fact? The revenue of the corporation of the city of London appeared to be 210,000l. a year; and he found in the corporation report of 1834 a statement of the expenditure of this sum. He would mention two or three items: "Expenses of the Mansion House, 2,956l.; salaries and allowances to the Lord Mayor. &c, 23,000l.;" and then came the item, "Conservancy of the river Thames, 3,374l." That was all that was spent by the corporation out of their enormous revenue towards the improvement of the river Thames. At the time the corporation became the conservators of the Thames, the city constituted the whole of London; but, now, it was only one-ninth part of the metropolis. Was it then to be said, that the whole management of the river Thames, in which, not only the metropolis—not only England, but the whole commercial world, had an interest—was it to be said, that the management of such a river was to be exclusively confided to a close corporation of that description, representing, as he had already stated, only one-ninth of the metropolis in which it locally existed? He entertained a strong opinion that this ought to be a public and not a private Bill.


said, that the hon. member for Montrose appeared tonight in a new character—as the champion of the high prerogative of the Crown—and was seeking to revive the odious privilege founded upon the principle of nullum tempus occurrit regi. But the fact was, that the corporation of the city of London had enjoyed a full and entire right over the soil and bed of the Thames from the time of William the Conqueror down to the present. It was perfectly true that for 50 years—the hon. member might have said 700 years—the corporation had not been able to remove the shoals from the bed of the river; but that arose from their having no funds to appropriate to that purpose. The question now before the House was, whether they would accede to the proposition of the hon. member for Montrose, to form themselves into a Committee of the whole House, and address the Crown to the effect that they were prepared to support Her Majesty in any supply that was necessary to carry out the improvement of the Thames. Why, the improvement of the Thames would cost 500,000l. sterling at least; but if the public took it up, they would have, in addition, to pay a compensation to the frontagers and wharfingers on both sides of the river; and it would be impossible to say whether one or two millions, or what number of millions, would suffice to make good the compensation. What the corporation proposed to do was, to give leave to all the frontagers on the river to advance their frontages to a particular line, which was marked out by Mr. Walker, one of the first engineers of the day; but no sooner did the corporation adopt the scheme of Mr. Walker for the improvement of the river, than in stepped the Crown to take it out of their hands. The city, with a view of setting the disputed matter at rest, had agreed to cede a certain portion of their privileges; and, with respect to the shoals, the corporation were ready to remove them forthwith as soon as the Bill was passed and the means of raising money for the purpose put into their hands. It appeared to him that there never was a fairer proposition made than that which was made by the corporation of the city of London in the present case; and he saw no "degradation" whatever in the House of Commons acceding to it. He thought that, if any party had a right to accuse another, the city had a right to accuse Parliament, and not Parliament the city. He should give his hearty support to the recommitted of the Bill.


said, the noble Lord had stated that there never was a fairer proposition made than that submitted by the city of London. He was not aware that the city had made any proposition at all. The House was called upon to recommit the Bill upon a statement by the Secretary of the Admiralty; that hon. Gentleman had stated, that if the House recommitted the Bill, he expected that the city of London would, in their condescension, make some suggestion to the Committee. Why, what had already occurred regarding the Committee? On the 7th Juno the Committee came to a resolution that the Conservancy Board should consist of fifteen members—ten to be appointed by the city, and five by the Crown. They adjourned until the 11th, in order that the city might be put in possession of the resolution. On the 11th they met, and were informed that the city could not agree to the proposition. The Committee sent another communication to the city, to the effect that perhaps they would have the goodness to make some suggestion of their own, and adjourned till the 15th, when they received a reply from the city that they had no suggestion to other. They would have nothing to do either with the House or the Bill. Under these circumstances the Secretary of the Admiralty said, "We had nothing else left for it but to report to the House; the city is obdurate, and there is no use in going on with the clauses of the Bill." That report was now made. The Secretary of the Admiralty, in moving the recommittal of the Bill, said, he had been told the city had now some proposal to make to the Committee. He thought, but he did not know positively, that this was not a respectful way for the city to approach the House of Commons. They ought to have approached the House by petition; and the House would degrade itself by acceding to the proposition now made to it. He adhered to the opinion that the corporation of London ought to have nothing whatever to do with the conservancy of the Thames; but that it ought to be managed by a public Board, responsible to the Crown, and through the Crown to that House.


said, that the game reason which induced him originally not to withhold his consent from the introduction of the Bill, nor from its subsequent progress, was equally operative upon him now not to withhold his consent to its recommittal. That reason was the strong opinion which had been formed by the Board of Admiralty, acting upon the competent advice upon which they were accustomed to rely, that the Bill as it now stood would effect a speedy and an immense improvement in the navigation of the Thames, which would be indefinitely retarded by the prolongation of the suit in which the Crown and the city were now unfortunately engaged. He was not able entirely to accept the version of the law of the case as laid down by the noble Lord opposite. The Crown rested its claim upon the common law of the land; and the grounds upon which it was made had been acknowledged and sanctioned by the advice of successive law officers of different Governments; but the Government were unwilling that the assertion of right should stand in the way of a manifest public improvement. He was willing to believe, from such information as he had received, that such an improvement would result from the Bill, that the corporation would not merely be content to exercise the powers of conservancy hitherto employed by them; but that they would now act under the control of a superior Board, and subject to the inspection of a competent officer appointed by that Board. They would also be expressly bound to proceed immediately to the removal of the shoals which were complained of. He had been willing, as a member of a Committee, to be a party to the proposition that the city should appoint five members in addition to ten others; which five members should be subject to the veto of the Crown; but of course it must be made a matter of arrangement that the city should not suggest the names of persons whom it was not perfectly fitting for the Crown to adopt, because the Crown would insist that the great mercantile interest and the city interest and the dock interest should be fairly represented. The city, it was true, rejected that proposal. He now understood that they had thought better of it, and were prepared to accede to the proposition. He was therefore not unwilling, having been ready to come to that agreement—to allow them room for penitence. He could not think that the House in doing so were guilty of any act of degradation. The proposition which was now submitted to the House was not brought forward out of deference to the corporation of the city of London, but simply with a view to remove the inconveniences and obstructions which had been described by the hon. member for Montrose. If the Amendment should be substituted for the Motion, no steps could be taken in this matter until next Session; under these circumstances, therefore, he would vote for the recommittal of the Bill, in the hope thereby of seeing improvements in the navigation of the Thames carried into immediate effect.


said, if the Government had acted a decisive part, a satisfactory arrangement would have been the result; but that he did not anticipate now; and the Government, by their vacillating conduct, had placed both themselves and the House in a degraded position. The city of London intended to raise funds for carrying out their part of the arrangement by the sale of the soil on the embankments, which was a most objectionable proceeding. The Bill bore upon its face evidence that the corporation of London had neglected its duty, for no fewer than fourteen shoals were stated to exist in the river, not one of which would have been allowed to form if the corporation had properly discharged its duty.


could assure the House that the corporation represented only the lowest classes in the city; the merchants, bankers, and great traders had nothing to do with it. The noble Lord the member for Lynn was mistaken in supposing that the corporation of London had exercised the rights of conservancy over the Thames since the time of William the Conqueror; but, granting that they had, it was no reason why they should retain it longer. The charters of corporations dating further back than that of the corporation of London, were sot aside a few years back for the public advantage; and on the same ground the exclusive privileges enjoyed by the city of London ought to be abrogated.


said, that although the corporation of London were blamed for not having done this and that, they had nevertheless done all that the present Bill proposed to effect; but they had not the power to compel the removal of encroachments, in consequence of the claim advanced by the Crown to the em- bankments. It had been invidiously remarked that the corporation derived 50,000l. a year from the metage of corn; hut the fact was, the corporation expended that money on 2,500 freemen, constituents of the noble Lord at the head of the Government. Those men wore called fellowship porters, and they worked hard for their money. Then again the coal duties, about which so much was said occasionally, were expended in improving the city of London; and he asked whether there was another town in England which could boast of such improvement as London within the last twenty-five years? He hoped that the House would recommit the Bill, and afford the corporation an opportunity of acceding to the proposition of the Government.

The House divided on the question, that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question:—Ayes 92: Noes 24; Majority 68.

Bill recommitted.