HC Deb 22 February 1853 vol 124 cc397-403

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said, it was well known that there was great difficulty experienced at present in carrying on Her Majesty's Opera House, in consequence of the public not adequately supporting it, or because persons could not be found possessed individually of sufficient capital for undertaking such an enterprise. The object, therefore, of this Bill was to vest in a large number of noblemen and gentlemen, who took a deep interest in the promotion of the fine arts, the powers and privileges of a corporate body, to enable them to carry on Her Majesty's Opera House in a conjoint capacity. The necessity of such a course was obvious, for many who were anxious for the sake of art, and not for gain—who were willing to risk a certain sum, hut who were not disposed to peril their whole fortunes—-sought for protection in an ascertained amount of liability. He hoped, therefore, that if any hon. Member objected to the details of the Bill, he would at least allow it to be referred to a Select Committee. In the Address from the Throne at the opening of the Session, Her Majesty recommended Parliament to consider the means of advancing the cause of education and the cultivation of art; and it was in that spirit that he now craved the favourable attention of the House to the present Bill. In other countries the Government took a warm interest in enterprises of this nature -at Madrid, Paris, Naples, Vienna, Milan, and all the other great capitals of the Continent, the Government not only encouraged opera performances, but furnished the necessary funds for carrying them on. In this country, however, private lessees were left entirely to their own resources, and the result was, that they had long been in a state of notorious insolvency. The question, therefore, that the House had to consider was, whether for the interests of all concerned it would not be better to have a body of gentlemen associating together to provide a large paid-up capital for the maintenance of the opera, and entrusted with its administration, than to leave the undertaking to single individuals, with necessarily but a comparatively small capital at command, which capital was likely very soon to be exhausted? From the time of the great Handel, almost all the private lessees of Her Majesty's Opera House, including the names of Mr. Taylor, Mr. Waters, Mr. Monk Mason, Mr. Laporte, Mr. Luniley (to which latter gentleman the public were much indebted for his efforts in the cause of fine art), and others, had either been entirely ruined or had sustained heavy losses in their attempts to carry on this great theatre. Therefore, not only for the sake of their own and the public amsement, but also for the interest of music and art, as well as for the good of the numerous artists who would otherwise remain unemployed, the promoters of this Bill had agreed to subscribe a capital amounting to 198,000l., for the purpose of carrying on this enterprise; and it was to enable them to do so that this measure had been brought forward. He knew that some parties who were interested in other houses might be opposed to this Bill, because its defeat would have the effect of giving them a practical monopoly, and enable them to engage the services of artists at a cheap rate; but that opposition, he was sure, would not have much weight with that House. This Bill would continue that which had been thought to be the appropriate site of the lyrical drama for the last 150 years—an institution which sovereigns had considered important to the cultivation of the fine arts, and intimately connected with the interests of the Royal Academy of Music, which was specially favoured with royal patronage. Another objection to this Bill was, that it involved the principle of limited liability; and no doubt it did involve that principle; but they could not expect gentlemen—in what was not a mere commercial speculation, but an undertaking for the public benefit—to be willing to involve their fortunes to an unlimited extent. Again, there had been two Committees of that House on the subject of the law of partnership, and after their Report he had thought that the principle of limited liability might be regarded as a settled point. But he had two Acts of Parliament before him concerning Drury-lane Theatre, which were precedents for the Bill now before the House. In 1810, Drury-lane Theatre was destroyed by fire, and on the 21st of June, 1810, the Act 50 Geo. III., c. 214, was passed for rebuilding the theatre, of which the Preamble was as follows:— Whereas the existence of well-regulated theatres, substantially built, and capable of affording the best accommodation to be obtained for the public, with respect to the surrounding avenues, passages, and approaches, as well as to their fitness for scenic representation, has always been considered to be a matter worthy both of Royal attention and Legislative protection. That Act conferred upon a corporate body of gentlemen the power to rebuild the theatre, and fit it for scenic representations, and to let it to anybody who wished to hire it. That Act certainly gave no power to the company, or to any sub-committee, to carry on the theatre on the principle of limited liability—the principle of limited liability, according to that Act, only extended to the building of the house, and the adapting it to the purpose of performances; but there was another Act passed, the 52 Geo. III., c. 119, sec. 30, which gave power to a sub-committee to employ actors and others at such salaries and in such manner as they might think fit. Therefore, there was a precedent for giving a theatre now existing in this town the same powers as he asked the House to confer by the present Bill; and he could not understand how any objection based upon this ground could be successfully offered to this measure. At least the same objection would equally apply to the Crystal Palace Company or any other like body. He knew that it was exceedingly difficult to command the attention of the House on a case of this kind; therefore, without trespassing on its time further, he would only ask the House to allow this Bill to be read a second time without pledging itself to the Bill precisely as it stood, but giving its promoters the same courtesy that was granted to every other measure of that character, namely, that of being submitted to a Select Committee, where its provisions might be discussed, and any objections that might be offered to its details might be considered.


said, he would not call in question any of the arguments of the hon. and learned Gentleman who had moved the second reading of this Bill; nor would he express any opinion now upon the soundness of the principle of limited liability. But as the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had informed the House last night that there was about to be a Commission issued by the Government to inquire into the question of limited liability, and as this matter came before the House in the character of an appeal from the decision of the last as well as the present President of the Board of Trade, he thought it would be improper to allow this Bill to be read a second time under the circumstances.


said, he thought the answer to the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume) was, that this was not the Bill of a trading company at all, and was not therefore open to any of the objections which were applicable to the principle of limited liability. Her Majesty's Theatre had brought bankruptcy upon many worthy men, whose capital was not sufficient to carry on that noble institution with success. If anybody could have carried it on singlehanded, it would have been Mr. Lumley, whose energy and enterprise had reflected the greatest credit upon him as a manager; but the question was, whether this magnificent building was to be entirely closed to the public, or whether a number of noblemen and gentlemen of the most unblemished character should be empowered to risk a certain portion of their fortunes for the public amusement, and the promotion of the fine arts. The question was a very simple one, and he could not see how there could be two opinions upon it. He could conceive only one kind of opposition to the Bill, and that must come from persons interested in another theatre, who did not wish to see Her Majesty's Theatre open. The best thing the House could do was to pass the Bill, and allow the two theatres to come into fair competition.


said, he could not regard the association but as a commercial speculation, and thought it would be very unwise to inflict serious damage on others by conferring exclusive privileges on persons with whom they were in competition. He would have perpetrated a job, if possible, in favour of Her Majesty's Theatre; but this Bill was too bold a violation of principle. The competition between the two Italian Opera Houses had led to this, that they never had before such orchestras, scenic decorations, and dramatic and musical talent as had been seen since the opening of Covent-garden, and he thought it would be very unfair to fetter that competition now.


said, he objected to the Bill, because he thought the House should stand by the opinions it had expressed in similar cases, and he called on the right hon. President of the Board of Trade to state his views respecting the Bill.


said, that he had felt naturally reluctant to intrude himself at an earlier part of this discussion, because moving the second reading of this Bill was, perhaps, an appeal against the decision of the Board of Trade, although not against an original decision of his. This subject came before the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley), who so ably transacted the business of his department under the late Administration. It was proposed to the right hon. Gentleman that he should grant a charter of limited liability; that charter the right hon. Gentleman refused. He (Mr. Cardwell) had every reason to suppose the right hon. Gentleman had no doubt on his own mind as to the propriety of the course he pursued; and he considered he was governed both by principle and by the precedents of his department to refuse that application. The case had since been brought before him (Mr. Card-well), and he had felt it his duty to enter most fully into a review of it. Mr. Lumley had a long interview with him, and he paid every attention to the representations of that gentleman; but when he left him he had not the shadow of a doubt that the decision of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Henley) was perfectly consistent with sound principle and all the precedents. But it was said that this was not a trading concern. He hoped that the creditors would find no reason to say hereafter that it was a trading concern. But there was no reason why limited liability was asked for? In the able speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Phinn), he avowed that unfortunately no individual could be found whose means were adequate to meet the demands that were made upon him; and the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. M. Milnes) had said that it was so clear a case that no two men could come to a different opinion upon it. All he (Mr. Cardwell) could say to that was, that the law had cast the responsibility of considering the question upon two men, and they had both arrived, after mature deliberation, at a conclusion exactly opposite to that of the hon. Gentleman. The precedent of the Drury-lane Act had been cited. He had that Act before him, and he asked the House of Commons to bear in mind that they could not agree to a Bill of this kind without establishing a precedent. He admitted that the Drury-lane Act was a precedent, and if they agreed to this Bill it would establish a precedent also. He bad been much pressed with the great respectability of the individuals in whose behalf the charter was asked, and no doubt they were persons of the highest consideration. But the law acknowledged no distinction between one person and another; and he undertook to say that if, by reason of the great respectability of the parties for whom this charter was sought, they acceded to this request, they would be embarking in a course in which they would hereafter be unable upon any intelligible principle to refuse to concede to persons whom they might not consider fit to receive it, the principle of limited liability. He said this without intending to cast the shadow of a shade of disrespect upon the persons who were promoting this Bill. That being so, he believed he would not be doing any one injustice if he said that the one object of this Bill would be to obtain a limited liability; and that it was because the ordinary provisions of the Joint Stock Act would not allow of that limitation that a special Act was asked for. Therefore it was not a question of detail which the House was asked to consider, but a question of principle. Would the House or would it not set the precedent of giving limited liability in this particular case? He thought it, ought not. He said it was contrary to almost all the former precedents, and was one that ought not to be set at this time. The hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced the Bill said, that after the inquiries that had taken place before two Committees of that House, on the propriety of altering the law of partnership in this respect, he would have thought that the principle of limited liability was a settled point. Certainly then the hon. and learned Gentleman must have thought very differently from those Committees themselves, for after two years of painful investigation, they recommended the Crown to issue a Commission further to inquire into the subject, and the Crown was about to issue that Commission. He hoped the result of the labours of the Commission would he the settling of the law, and the laying down upon what principle limited liability was to be given in any case if possible, in order that that extremely difficult and extremely painful duty which the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Henley) had to discharge in this case, and which he (Mr. Cardwell), upon a review of his decision, felt that he had rightly discharged, might be thrown as little as possible upon a public servant. That being the case, he did not think this Bill ought to pass. He had only a right as an individual Member of the House to give his opinion on the principle now at issue, namely, whether there should be limited liability; and if the question were carried to a division, he must vote against it.


, in reply, said, that this was not an appeal against the decision of the Board of Trade. A public department could only decide according to its own usage; but it was the province of Parliament to legislate according to the circumstances of the case.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The House divided:—Ayes 79; Noes 170: Majority 91.

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