HC Deb 13 February 1849 vol 102 cc648-56

rose to move— For a Select Committee to inquire into the present state of the Inland Fisheries and Navigation of Ireland, and the obstructions which hinder the enjoyment of the same, and the best means of removing such obstructions; and to report their opinion thereupon to the House. He said, that when, late last Session, the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for Ireland brought in a Bill, which passed into a law, for the amendment of the Irish fisheries, he intimated his intention, at an early period of the present Session, to bring this question before the House. The Bill of the right hon. Baronet (Sir W. Somerville), he admitted, effected several amendments, especially one which allowed parties who lived above the tidal move of a river to take fish for a limited period after close time had taken place with regard to those who lived below. Still he thought there was much room for the present Motion. And here he would address himself to those English Gentlemen who might, perhaps, have adopted the opinion of Sir C. Trevelyan in these matters. That gentleman stated, when examined before the Committee on the Miscellaneous Estimates, that Government was obliged to take charge of many duties in Ireland which in England and Scotland were usually discharged by private gentlemen; he instanced this very case of the Irish fisheries. But he (Mr. C. Anstey) would show that the cases were totally different. Generally in England, he believed universally in Scotland, the fisheries were private property, and in legal phraseology they were termed "several fisheries," and were therefore very properly left to the management of their owners. But the state of the law in Ireland—and he had taken some pains to inform himself of the fact—was very different. There was scarcely a fishery in Ireland which was a private property, or a "several fishery." The fisheries in every navigable river, as far up as the smallest skiff could be navigated, were as free to the public as the waters of the ocean into which they ran, and he (Mr. C. Anstey) contended that so far did the public right of fishery extend; and further, that no right could be acquired by private individuals, except by Act of Parliament, or by prescriptive right dated as far back as Henry II.; and therefore the Government, as the trustees for the public, were bound to watch over and preserve this valuable public right. He believed there was not a case in which the law was otherwise; certainly not in the river Shannon, where the corporation of Limerick had lately let some fisheries on lease, to their own advantage he supposed, as well as of those who had taken them, but to the great detriment and prejudice of the public interest. Still it was not his intention, if the Committee were granted, to attempt to destroy the quasi rights of those particular claimants. He merely wished to make out a case which should entitle him to obtain the Committee, by means of which he hoped to simplify the law, and provide equitably for every interest. The monopolists of those obstructions had proceeded further and further in their usurpations of rights which should belong to the poor, until, in a country watered by rivers of the largest amount, both in number and extent, filled with the finest fish, in quantities sufficient not merely for home supply but for the markets of Great Britain, not a single fish was taken in many rivers, and not one would in a few years be taken in any river above the weirs themselves, except by the permission and connivance of those who claimed the special rights. And those obstructions were specially noticeable in those districts in Ireland where famine was most rife and rampant. He should trouble the House with a few details in illustration of his assertion. He had culled them from various papers upon the subject, which had from time to time been printed by order of the House. Beginning with the county of Meath, and proceeding to Louth—in which the fishery of the river Boyne was monopolised under a local patent granted to the corporation of Drogheda, but really monopolised by two or three private individuals, all the rivers were usurped. In Antrim nearly all the rivers and the coast were claimed under patent. Lough Beg and Neagh, the river Ban, from Coleraine to Lough Neagh, and the entire coast, from Innishowen Head to the Giants' Causeway, were similarly monopolised. In the county Donegal, several rivers and the coast were likewise claimed. The same was the case with the river Erne, from Lough Erne to the sea, and with the Glendore and seven other rivers. And here he should beg to observe, that all the patents under which these claims were made were no older than the date of Elizabeth. In Leitrim, Mayo, and Galway, in Clare and Limerick, nearly every river was monopolised. The Shannon was obstructed by a weir at a place where the river was three quarters of a mile wide, and the gap left for the salmon to ascend was only twenty-one feet broad, or one fifty-eighth part of the whole width. Yet, whether the commissioners of the Shannon navigation had exercised their powers, or rather fulfilled the duties imposed upon them by statute in every other instance, they had not attempted to touch that weir. In the county Kerry, all the rivers were monopolised. In Cork, only the Bandon and the Lee were claimed under patent; the remainder were monopolised without any such right being shown. In Waterford, the Blackwater, the Barrow, the Suir, and the Nore, were held without patent. In Wicklow, the Bray river and all the others were held under patent; and in Dublin the Liffey was held under a patent, which, however, related only to a portion of its course. By the direct operation of these obstructions the people of Ireland were defrauded of 600,000l. annually, the value of the fish; and to that mischief should be added another, and a consequential injury, arising from the damaged one through the want of police to guard the upper portions of the rivers. None of the gentlemen whose properties lay along the upper portions of rivers could possibly think it worth their while to prevent poaching, when the entire advantage of that interference and care would fall to the river owners in the lower parts. And the result was, that poaching was universal. In the river Black water alone it was computed that 1,000 female fish annually were destroyed when coming up to spawn, each of which fish was estimated to produce 15,000 ova, of which 800 would have come to maturity. So that the destruction thus effected (taking the low average of eight pounds weight for every one of those 800 fish, and the low price of sixpence a pound) was equal to a loss of three tons of fish and 160l. annually for every spawning salmon destroyed in that one river, or 160,000l. in all. Such was the case he had to present to the House, as his ground for asking for the Committee. If it were granted to him, and he had reason to believe the Government would not refuse, he would suggest his remedies. He was content to take the law as it stood. He would even clothe with the sanction of the law those encroachments which had equity in their favour, and were not of modern origin. But the law, as it at present stood, was altogether ineffective. The gentlemen of Cork, Clare, and other counties, who had requested him to take the matter in hand, had not done so until they had proved the utter inefficiency of the present law. Whenever they had attacked the monopolists, some man of straw had been put forward to bear the brunt of the proceedings, and the judge before whom the case was tried had generally inflicted the minimum fine; and in every case, he believed, the judge directed the sheriffs of the counties to see that the obnoxious weir was removed, and if it were taken away, the fine was not to be estreated into Her Majesty's Exchequer. As to the courts of quarter-session and petty session, there was no such thing as satisfaction to be had from them. The majority of the magistrates on the bench were generally weir-owners themselves, and they refused to convict. The mode of provision by the Legislature, which he (Mr. C. Anstey) would propose, would be, that immediately upon a conviction being obtained before any existing tribunal, or before any tribunal which might be hereafter established, the duty of prostration of the weir should become a matter of police. The weir should be thrown down by the police, and if another were erected, it should be also thrown down at once, without any further prosecution. And although that would be by no means sufficient to satisfy all the requirements of the case, it yet would go a great way. If the Committee were granted him, it was not his intention, in the present state of the public finances to ask for power to send for witnesses. If witnesses should volunteer, he would ask the Committee to examine them. But there was abundance of evidence already before the House. There were reports of evidence of witnesses taken before the Board of Works. Most of these had been examined by Mr. Mulvany, who was rather obnoxious to the very gentlemen on whose behalf he (Mr. Anstey) was then speaking; and yet with those reports and with that evidence he would be satisfied. The Minutes were admitted not to have been taken verbatim, but only by way of extracts from the evidence. Nevertheless, he would assume them to be true and correct, so far as they went, and he would be satisfied with them. He should also ask for the correspondence which had been carried on last year between Her Majesty's Government and those persons who were interested in the fisheries, which correspondence showed the great difficulty of obtaining convictions under the law as it stood. This would be quite sufficient for all the purposes of justice. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the present state of the inland fisheries and navigation of Ireland, &c.


seconded the Motion, and suggested the propriety of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Anstey) adding to his Motion words which would include the deep-sea fisheries of Ireland. The deep-sea fisheries formed a question of the utmost importance, and it was one which Parliament had neglected to a most culpable extent. It presented an inexhaustible fund of wealth and employment, and yet it had been impossible to induce Parliament to look to it. The Scotch fishermen had been carefully instructed in the best methods of catching and curing fish, under the auspices of a board that was established in Edinburgh in the year 1800. That board had done incalculable good in improving the Scotch fisheries. Since its appointment by the Government the Scotch fisheries had extended beyond any example ever known before. The Government had fostered and improved the Scotch fisheries; and it was a melancholy fact, that Scotch fishermen sent into the Irish markets annually 15,000l. worth of fish caught actually upon the Irish coast. That matter had been pressed upon the Government and upon Parliament year after year by the Irish Members; but it had, up to the present moment, been as constantly neglected. He (Sir H. W. Barron) had himself brought it forward in 1835, again in 1839, and again in 1847. Upon each occasion there had been fair promises given that something should be done; but these promises proved to be vox et preterea nihil. All sides of the House agreed as to the beneficial results that might be expected from encouraging and fostering the deep-sea fisheries of Ireland. Promises were given in plenty; but, up to the present hour, not one had been performed; and the poor Irish fishermen were still suffering and starving upon their coasts, with abundance of fish in sight of them, but without the requisite machinery for their take. No practical help had been given to these poor men to enable them to work that mine of wealth. It was not fair, nor true, nor just, to charge the Irish Members with having neglected so important a subject. They had long been vainly endeavouring to force it upon the attention of Parliament. He (Sir H. W. Barron) trusted it was not yet too late. The welfare of 350,000 or 400,000 individuals was dependent upon the fisheries; and had they been attended to in time, the poor people of Connemara, of Mayo, and of Galway, would not now be starving. Had they been fostered and attended to forty years ago, as the Scotch had been, the Government would not have now to come down and ask a grant from Parliament to keep the poor Irish fishermen from dying of starvation. He, therefore, implored of the House, as a matter of economy, if not of humanity and common sense, to place the Irish fisheries upon the same footing as the Scotch. He (Sir H. W. Barron) could bring before the Committee five or six witnesses to show the necessity of inquiry touching those fisheries, and the necessity of teaching the poor fishermen the art of taking and curing their fish. But, as a preliminary measure, there was nothing wanted so much as a superintending board, such as there was in Scotland.


said, he had intended to have seconded the Motion of his hon. Friend (Mr. Anstey), and he rejoiced that he had been anticipated in that intention by the hon. Baronet the Member for Waterford (Sir H. W. Barron). He begged to confirm all that had been said by his hon. Friends. In the parts with which he was connected, he could assure the House there were thousands of men in a state of destitution in consequence of the total absence of the means of obtaining subsistence for themselves and others. Had the Irish deep-sea fishery been attended to and encouraged, the Irish people would have been in comparative case, because the fishery would have given employment to the men on the coast. He believed, however, it would be better for his hon. Friend (Sir W. Barron) to allow the Committee to be named, and then the hon. Baronet might move an instruction to the Committee to include this branch of the question.


said, it was not his intention to object to the appointment of the Committee asked for by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Anstey). But as to the suggestion of his hon. Friend behind him (Sir H. W. Barron), it referred to a totally and entirely different subject. Indeed he (Sir W. Somerville) did not see how anything in the Motion of the hon. Member for, Youghal (Mr. Anstey) could be made to apply to the subject of the deep-sea fisheries. The hon. Member for Youghal had correctly stated the present condition of the law. He believed the hon. Gentleman had directed his attention very carefully to the state of the law upon the subject in Ireland, and he had correctly stated both its condition and the objects which he (Sir W. Somerville) had in view in proposing the measure of last year. Several Acts of Parliament had been passed for the purpose of regulating the fisheries in Ireland. There were general complaints from all parts of the country as to the condition of those laws, and allegations that they were inoperative, because there was no police to carry them out. The Bill of last Session was therefore enacted, to give power to the parties interested to meet together and arrange methods by which they could be their own conservators, and to increase the anxiety of gentlemen whose properties lay up the rivers to protect the spawning fish. He (Sir W. Somerville) admitted it was an experiment which had not as yet been fairly tried; but the Bill placed in the hands of the parties interested the power of protecting their own rights. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Anstey) was also quite right in stating that the law was defective. He (Sir W. Somerville) recollected that in the course of the discussion last Session the hon. Gentleman had said that it would not do that for which it was intended—that it would not give power to remove illegal obstructions. He quite agreed with the hon. Gentleman that the salmon fisheries of Ireland had been greatly neglected, and that there was in them a mine of wealth which had not been as yet sufficiently explored. But he did not see what good the Committee upon such a subject could effect in the case of the deep-sea fisheries, as suggested by the hon. Baronet the Member for Waterford (Sir H. W. Barron). In the course of last year a good deal had been done under the superintendence of the Government Board of Works, by the establishing of fishing stations in some localities. Some of them had worked extremely well, whilst others had not turned out so well; but he hoped that a great deal had been done, and that some information had been imparted to the poor fishermen. The Government would, he thought, leave these matters, as respected the fishing-stations, in future to private enterprise. He perfectly understood what was the object of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Anstey), and he hoped the result of these inquiries would be to improve the stock of the fisheries.


said, that the Bill of last year had been rendered inoperative from the size of the districts into which the country was divided. They were so large as to render anything like co-operation impossible.


supported the Motion. He said that instead of 15,000l., 60,000l. was paid annually by Ireland for foreign fish. He was present during the discussion of last year, and was willing to take his share of the responsibility of the Act passed upon that occasion; but it was due to himself to state that he then concurred in the propriety of passing that Act, for the reason assigned by those interested in the fisheries of Ireland, namely, that the system of poaching was carried on to such an extent that if the Bill were not carried, all the fish would be destroyed. It was then stated that the fish destroyed in the Black water river alone in one year amounted to 160,000l., that the police would be a sufficient protection to the fisheries, and that the only mode by which the police guarding the fisheries could be remunerated was by means of an assessment. Now, Lord Stuart De Decies had stated at Waterford that it was impossible to obtain a sufficiency of police for the purpose; but it certainly was to obtain such a force of constabulary as would protect the fisheries efficiently, that the Bill of last year bad been obtained by the Government. One of the chief objections to that Bill, was the imposition on the poor fishermen of a tax which they were unable to pay. It appeared that from Cappoquin to Youghal, there were 200 fishermen who subsisted on the earnings they realised by the fish they caught; and so wretched were these men at present, that they could neither pay the 20s. tax, nor give their families a meal a day. In the Cork river the poor fishermen who supported themselves at one time by catching salmon, were now cut off from that means of support; and therefore, if there were no other inducements than these for supporting the Motion before the House, he would be glad to give it his cordial vote.


said, that he had no objection to the Motion, but he feared that the appointment of the Committee would only lead to the usual result—namely, that no legislative enactment could supply that defect in the Irish fisheries which could alone be adequately met by well-directed private enterprise. He believed that had capital and industry been applied by Irishmen to those fisheries in past times, they would be now in a most flourishing condition. He believed also that it had been already clearly proved that rights to several of the fisheries existed in Ireland to a much greater extent than many supposed, and that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Anstey) who made the present Motion would find himself mistaken if he fancied that by the appointment of this Committee he could set those rights aside. He was aware that the owners had, in several instances, surrendered rights which they had claimed for half a century, and accepted a compromise; but still costly litigation would be produced, if there was any general interference attempted with private rights, many of which were supported by legal opinions of the highest eminence.

Motion agreed to.

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