§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. CHAPLIN,
in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, that the opposition raised to the measure on a former occasion was based on the fact that a pledge formerly given by the shareholders, through the chairman of the company, had not been carried out. That pledge was, that the company would make the line between Yeovil and Exeter, An understanding was come to when the Bill was formerly under discussion, that he should take the opinion of the shareholders on the subject, and he had now to report the result of the meeting which had been held. A general meeting of the shareholders had accordingly been held, at which the directors and shareholders regretted, in the first place, that the pledge had been given; and, secondly, that it was out of their power to fulfil it. He would not attempt to justify 235 what had taken place, but would endeavour to urge some circumstances in mitigation. When that pledge was given the company's stock stood at 90l., but in November of the same year it fell to 74l., and there has since been great fluctuations both in the price of stock and the dividends which the company was able to declare. The directors at the time would have signed a subscription deed to raise the money required, so confident did they feel in being able to redeem the pledge they gave; and they had since done all they could, but the shareholders had decided, by a great majority, that it was out of their power to construct the line in question. There was only one shareholder present who was favourable to the construction of the line in question, and the directors were unanimously of opinion that it would be in vain to endeavour to stimulate the proprietors to do more at present than was proposed by this Bill. The number of shareholders was about 4,000, giving 60,000 votes, and there was no certainty as to the result of any measure brought before the meetings of the company; and they were decidedly adverse to carrying out the original scheme, seeing that so great a change had taken place in the value of the shares. Not being able to do so in the present depressed state of railway property, he trusted the House would consent to the second reading of the Bill, the object of which was to regulate the share capital, to improve their internal regulations, and to carry out improvements at Salisbury and at the Nine Elms station for the accommodation of the public. He hoped the House would allow the Bill to go into Committee, particularly as the parties opposing had not expressed any wish to throw it out altogether.
§ MR. HILDYARD
said, that he had never heard a speech which had filled him with more astonishment than that which had just been delivered. What had the South-Western Company done? A large district which had been struggling for years to obtain the advantages of railway accommodation could have succeeded two years ago by means of the Great Western and the Bristol and Exeter Companies, but for the conduct of the South-Western Company, who pledged themselves to carry into effect a better project, and that pledge was afterwards sanctioned by the unanimous vote of the shareholders. About tea days afterwards a party agitation was 236 got up to induce the company not to redeem that pledge, and that agitation was successful. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Chaplin) had pleaded the poverty of the company. Now, poverty was a bad excuse for dishonesty; but the company was not entitled to plead that it was in a bad position, for at their last meeting the chairman congratulated the shareholders upon a dividend of 5 per cent, thus placing the company, as he then stated, amongst the first companies in the kingdom. That dividend was made out, in a great measure, by the traffic not having been subtracted by the line which they defeated. The company was therefore in a position to redeem the pledge which had been given. Now, what course did the hon. Gentleman take at the meeting to which he had alluded? Did he say, "You have solemnly pledged yourselves to construct the line, and it is our duty as honest men to do so." No such thing. On the contrary, when asked for his advice, the hon. Gentleman declined to give it, and the result was a determination on the part of the shareholders to leave the matter in the hands of the directors, who were now sustaining the proprietary in their breach of faith. The pledge which had been given was on the records of the House, and the course which he (Mr. Hildyard) recommended the House to take was, to send the Bill to the Committee before whom the pledge was given, and he trusted that Committee would insert a clause binding the company to complete the fifty miles between Yeovil and Exeter, within five years, or, failing to do so, stop their dividends,. The fifty miles could be completed for 700,000l., and supposing that amount to remain wholly unproductive, the only effect would be to reduce the dividend from 5 per cent to 4l. 11s. 6d., or only 8s. 6d. per share. He was sorry to say that the introduction of a clause into an Act of Parliament, fining the South-Western Company while their pledge remained unfulfilled, was the only way, he apprehended, in which it was possible to bind them, and he had no doubt by that means this line of railway, which involved important national interests, would be obtained, while the House of Commons would, at the same time, show that they were determined these great companies should not come to Parliament with professions on their lips without the most distant thoughts of realising them.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
said, he consi- 237 dered the arguments of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Chaplin) on behalf of the South Western Company amounted to this—that what they thought an advantageous bargain when the pledge was given they thought disadvantageous now. He would not enter into the question of what the loss would be. They ought to have considered that before they entered into an engagement with Parliament to construct the line. The House accepted that pledge; the company derived all the benefit they expected from it, and he held it to be a mockery and an insult to be told that, because their dividend would be lowered a half per cent, they were to be absolved from the promise they had given to the House. The speech of the hon. Member was like the speech of a Governor of one of the repudiating States of America, who, addressing the local Legislature, laid down in the strongest manner the importance of adhering to the principles of public honour, but went on to say that no one would think of applying those principles if the result was to be an increase of taxes. He approved the course suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Whitehaven, and he hoped a clause would be inserted in Committee compelling this company to redeem its pledge.
§ MR. BANKES,
after presenting a petition against the Bill, said that both the House and the public had been insultingly treated by the company. The line, respecting which the pledge had been given, had received the sanction of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Commander in Chief, and all parties interested in the defence of the kingdom, and it was a matter of great regret that it had not been constructed,
said, he had not hesitated to tell the shareholders at the last meeting what he thought of their conduct. The directors asked the shareholders what course they should take. The only response was a resolution disrespectful to the House, and to prevent its being passed they agreed to have the question referred back to the board; but no one could doubt that if the board had recommended the shareholders to fulfil the pledge it would have been almost unanimously rejected.
§ MR. DEEDES
said, that it was his intention to move, that in referring the Bill to the Committee of Selection, that the Committee be instructed to refer it to the 238 original Committee to whom the pledge was given, who would be able to deal with it in the fairest manner.
§ Bill read 2°.