HC Deb 29 April 1856 vol 141 cc1707-18

said, he rose to move for the appointment of a Select Committee to investigate the allegations of a petition from the inhabitants of two parishes in the county of Galway, relative to the wholesale depopulation of the rural districts in Ire- land. It was not his wish to cause any delay in proceeding to the adjourned debate, and he would not have pressed the Motion at that time had not the dwellings of upwards of 500 families depended upon the result. It had been twice postponed last year to meet the requirements of public business, and he feared that those interested would think he was virtually abandoning their cause. He hoped the Government would grant him the Committee he asked for, without his having occasion to trouble the House with any observations that at that moment they might be unwilling to listen to. Not having received any assurance from Her Majesty's Government as to fixing a day for his Motion, he felt that he could not abstain from proceeding, though he did so with great regret, knowing that he might prejudice the case of the petitioners by addressing a House unwilling to hear him—[Cries of "Go on!"]—Well, then, the case was this. On the 25th of March, in the last year, he had presented a petition from the inhabitants of Kilbegnet and Ballynakill in the county of Galway, signed by every respectable person in those parishes. The petition set forth that a gentleman named Allan Pollok, and Margaret his wife, had purchased an estate from the Encumbered Estates Court of about 7414 statute acres, on which were 500 tenants, making a population of 2,500 souls. These tenants were remarkable for their punctuality and sobriety, and for the total absence of agrarian outrage. They did not owe one penny of rent, and came forward voluntarily to offer an advance. Mr. Pollok had talked with these tenants, and had promised that not one of them should be evicted. Notwithstanding this, he almost immediately proceeded against these 500 tenants, including, as he had said, 2,500 persons, without any cause whatever. The petitioners say that they have no protection except in the interference of that House. To destroy and depopulate a whole district in this way was contrary to the general interests of society. Up to the time in which this property had been purchased by Mr. Pollok there had been in the district but five police; these had since been raised to ten; and, on the application of Mr. Pollok, another police station had been appointed in the district, which it appeared was wholly under the control of one of the servants of Mr. Pollok. That was surely an arrangement contrary to the interests of the public service. Yet the district was still free from outrage. It was traversed day and night by Mr. Pollok's servants, who had met with no injury nor molestation up to the present moment. Recently a large body of police, under the command of two chief inspectors, were going about, scattering about processes of ejectment, on behalf of Mr. Pollok, in the most illegal and irregular manner, in some instances by nailing them to the doors of the houses. The petitioners entreated the House to take the matter into consideration; to interpose the shield of its legitimate protection, and save from ruin and certain death so many inoffensive and loyal subjects. Now, this statement of the petitioners was one which could not be contradicted; in fact, the substance of it had been admitted by Mr. Pollok himself. The gentry in all parts of the country detested these proceedings; there was not one who did not regard them with abhorrence. The matter had excited great attention. It had been much discussed in the public journals, upon which a brother of Mr. Pollok's had taken the matter up, and had published a statement, from which he would read some extracts. In the statement Mr. Pollok sets forth that he had purchased the property in the Incumbered Estates Court, under the direct inducement that he was to have possession of the leases on whatever conditions he thought proper. He had founded his calculations, he said, not on the present rental, but on an estimated rental. He found the tenants without capital, and his arrangements required that his tenants should have capital. The system, he contended, which had hitherto prevailed on the property had proved ruinous to it, and if suffered to continue would prove equally ruinous in future, and so he was compelled to alter it. Now that statement said nothing of the fact that the tenantry owed no rent; they were not a poor tenantry—nothing was said about the advances which they had offered—instead of which the gentleman pleaded a set of notions on political economy. By this means he turned his tenants into the poorhouse, and ruined the neighbouring proprietors. Such conduct was altogether indefensible, and he (Mr. M'Mahon) asked the House to grant a Committee of Inquiry to consider if some means could not be adopted to restrain such proceedings. There were few Members on either side of the House who had not condemned the practice of wholesale eviction. He could refer to several authorities, and amongst others to those of Sir Robert Peel and Lord Stanley, to show the mischief of thus turning a population loose over the country, and in support of the opinion that those who thus evicted their tenantry ought in justice to contribute to their maintenance. All those authorities expressed the greatest reprobation of the system. Those opinions were from that (the Opposition) side of the House, but he would cite one from the other side, that of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Ireland, who at that time represented Cockermouth. He (Mr. Horsman), in the debate on the Crime and Outrage Bill had described with feeling the state of those outcasts, who, receiving no protection from the law, took the law into their own hands, and avenged themselves on society in self-defence. If such a system were to be adopted in England, he believed that the country could not be governable for a week. Again, in 1850, upon a Motion for a special Commission to inquire into the state of the Kilrush Union, the right hon. Gentleman said:— He had visited the Union during the recess, and he believed that if any person had travelled through Europe during his whole lifetime, he would never have witnessed so much misery arising from the same cause as he saw concentrated there in the course of a single week.…. It was all very well to speak of the 'rights of property,' but were there no rights of humanity or rights of life? If they went to first principles, who would deny that property was for the benefit of all, not the few? There was no law which told human beings they should die in hundreds. Under the circumstances in which they were placed, then, he thought they were justified in asking whether the cause of such misery as was described, should not be traced."—[3 Hansard, cix. 481, 482.] When, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman was on the Opposition side of the House it was his opinion that these extraordinary circumstances ought to be made the subject of investigation. These statements were his (Mr. M' Mahon's) authority for asking the Secretary for Ireland why inquiry should not be granted. Another authority which he would quote was that of the Devon Commissioners, who spoke with reprobation of those wholesale evictions by the landlords, saying that the great difficulty in dealing with them lay in this, that the law allowed them, and that an abuse of the rights of law could not be remedied by the interference of law. Yet it was possible to point out a remedy for those evils, and not to permit landlords to turn out their tenantry without taking every previous step to obviate the necessity. Mr. Pollok was proceeding still further in this line. He had already depopulated a district of 5,000 inhabitants, and was about to depopulate as many more. He (Mr. M' Mahon) did not found his objection on the exercise of the right of property, but there was no right which allowed any one to clear whole thousands of Her Majesty's subjects. Half-a-dozen such landlords would clear away a whole county, and when land was thus turned into a desert, society was injured; and no one had a right to do it. Those matters of clearances had often been considered already in England. From the time of Henry VI. to that of Elizabeth, the system was increasing of turning arable land and whole villages with it into pasture land; the country was depopulated in consequence; and in the time of Henry VII. a law was promulgated, which, though not put in force, remained unrepealed to the present day. It was a law which might be enforced even now, if the Government thought it their duty to enforce it as a protection to the lives of the people of Ireland. The application of that Act might be usefully employed with regard to Ireland at the present time; it referred to the wilful laying waste of houses by converting land into pasture, by which a few herdsman occupied the ground formerly occupied by many labourers, and thus fewer men were left for the defence of the land against its enemies. In the reign of Henry VII. a Bill was passed against eviction, which was then being carried to as great an extent in England as at the present time in Ireland, and it was followed by other Statutes to the same effect in the reigns of Henry VIII., Mary, and Edward VI. All those statutes had, however, been repealed except that of the 4th of Henry VII., which was, therefore, still applicable to Ireland. It had for centuries been part of the general policy of the country that landlords could not clear off the population for their own special benefit. Sir Mathew Hale declared that diminishing the subjects of the Crown was a capital felony, as being contrary to the general policy of the country, and the same view was taken by Sir Edward Coke. In 1635, when the Judges were going circuit, the Chancellor recommended that the offence of depopulation should be brought under the notice of the grand juries, and that the penalties provided by the law should be strictly enforced. But the system was at last checked in England when the law of settlement was adopted. In the reign of Charles II., if a landlord cleared off his tenantry, the law of settlement obliged him to maintain them at his own expense; and from that time to the present there had been in England no such system of extermination as that which now existed in Ireland. He had no doubt that means might easily be devised to put an end to the practice in Ireland as well as in England. If the English law of settlement were extended to Ireland, and gentlemen like Mr. Allan Pollok, for instance, compelled to provide, by means of a poor-rate, for the maintenance of their evicted tenantry, they would hesitate before resorting to so harsh and cruel a measure. At present, when a district was laid waste, the inhabitants were driven into a distant workhouse, and the evictor did not pay a sixpence of poor-rate; but he could not so escape if some provision were made that a poor-rate should be levied upon the wasted district, whether it contained inhabitants or not, or whether the person who pretended to be the owner was the real proprietor or not. There was another mode by which, the system of extermination might be checked. In England, if a manufacturer required a number of policemen to protect his property, he was obliged to pay for them at his own expense; but in Ireland the police was a military force, maintained out of the national revenue. Why should gentlemen like Mr. Allan Pollok, therefore, not be placed in the same situation as the English manufacturer? Various other means might be devised for putting a stop to evictions. A Committee might assimilate the Irish to the English law, so that if persons wished to exterminate their tenants they should do so at their own expense, and not at that of the public. He trusted, therefore, that the noble Lord at the head of the Government would grant an inquiry for the purpose of ascertaining if the statements of the petitioners were true, and if means could not be devised for checking the abuse of a right which had proved the ruin of a thousand families.


said, he had much pleasure in seconding the Motion; he was induced to do so partly because the petition to which allusion had been made proceeded from a portion of his constituents, and partly because, as an Irish landlord, he was anxious to state the opinions and feelings of the greater number, if not the whole, of his brother proprietors. No one who saw the manner in which Irishmen had conducted themselves during the late war could deny that the success or failure of the Irish people was bound up essentially with the well-being and happiness of this great empire. He rose as much to vindicate the cause of the Irish landlords as to advocate that of the Irish people; because he did not believe that as a rule the landlords acted from any ill-feeling or want of consideration towards the people; but rather from some misconception or other which it was difficult to explain. In the county of Galway one lady, for example, evicted a large number of tenants because she believed them to be guilty of rank Ribandism. Those tenants having been evicted again took forcible possession, and they were sent for trial at the assizes; when the lady declared, owing to the mode in which the proceedings were conducted, that the law officers of the Crown were conniving at Ribandism. Now, if this lady allowed her mind to be so warped with respect to the law officers of the Crown, she might be in equal error with regard to her own tenantry. He hoped his hon. Friend the Attorney General for Ireland would vindicate his late colleague and himself from the charge of Ribandism. Then, again, as to Mr. Pollok, he believed that that gentleman was not so much an ill-conditioned, hard-hearted man as he was the victim, so to speak, of a misconceived passion for evictions, for Mr. Pollok evicted all alike, rich and poor, and not only allowed them the full value of everything upon their land, even to the poultry, but gave them something additional upon quitting. Still he (Mr. Bellew) thought that the system of evictions could be supported by none but such as were ignorant of the resources of the country. All experience was decidedly opposed to such a practice. Greece encouraged the increase of her labouring population, though the helots were to freemen as twenty to one. Rome also, during the period of her greatness, encouraged the growth of her population; and it was surmised by eminent men that one of the causes of her decline was her allowing her own territory to go out of cultivation, and importing corn from other countries. He would also call the attention of the House to the opinion of Sir Thomas More, who, in the reign of Elizabeth, deplored the engrossing of large farms, a system which he said was prejudicial in the highest degree to the welfare of the country, and conducive to the spread of crime. He hoped that there would proceed from both sides of the House such an expression of opinion as would induce the Government to grant the Committee which his hon. Friend asked for. He could not forget the anxious faces of wives and mothers, who had walked twenty or thirty miles to the assize town to obtain a few hours' earlier possession of the fact as to whether they were destitute before heaven, or for six months longer had a roof to cover them. In the name of humanity he appealed to the House and to the Government to grant this inquiry.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed, to investigate the allegations of a Petition from certain inhabitants of the parishes of Kilbegnet and Ballynakill, in the county of Galway, presented on the 26th day of March last year, and to consider the expediency of devising means for restraining the wholesale depopulation of Rural Districts in Ireland.


said, it was not his intention to follow the hon. and learned Gentleman who had brought forward the Motion, and the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, through the details into which they had entered, or the arguments they had advanced, in connection with the Motion that had been put from the chair. Without trespassing at any length on the time of the House, and apologising at the same time to the two hon. Members for his inability to meet their appeal to Her Majesty's Government, he would shortly state that he must feel it his duty to oppose that Motion. He must also say that he did not think it was quite consistent with the usual forms of Parliamentary proceedings, nor, certainly, with the customary forms of that House, for the Government to consent to such a Motion as that brought forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. M' Mahon). He begged, at the same time, to be distinctly understood that he was not disposed, on general principles, to differ much from the views which had been expressed in the speeches the House had just heard. The hon. Gentleman had gone into a great variety of circumstances which, on the one hand, it would be very inconvenient to discuss in the form suggested by them. On the other, it was hard to say what remedy gentlemen who happened to be the holders of estates in Ireland could have against tenants from whom they could obtain no rents, if they were not allowed to take proceedings for the recovery of such rent by proper legal means. But he could not help expressing his conviction that the too frequent resort to this practice of "clearing estates" by Irish landowners, through process of eviction, except under very extreme circumstances, was one ill-calculated indeed to advance the prosperity of their common country, or the feelings and the welfare of the people. To such a species of proceeding he could not give his support; and he hoped that what had passed that evening might have its effect on those who contemplated having recourse to it, and induce them to reconsider their purpose. Having said that much, he hoped the hon. Gentlemen, who made and seconded the Motion, would not think him wanting in courtesy or underrating the interest of the question they had brought before the House, if he moved that the House pass to the Orders of the Day. The importance of the question they were discussing last night, without disparaging the merits of that which had been raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it was impossible to overrate. It was one of extreme interest to that House and to the whole country. He therefore trusted the hon. mover and seconder of the question before the House would excuse him for saying, that he could not consent to any delay or interruption in the resumption of the adjourned debate of the preceding night. His own opinion was, that the House was not, at the present moment, in any temper to give its attention to any other Motion on matters of the nature which had been brought forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman when it was interposed to the progress of the more urgent question he had alluded to. But he thought, moreover, that it would be for the benefit of the discussion in which the hon. Members opposite were so anxious to engage the House, that it should not be brought on at the present time. The House should not allow itself to be turned for one instant from proceeding with a debate of so very great importance as that to which he had alluded. That was a question involving neither more nor less than a direct vote of censure on Her Majesty's Government.


said, the opinion expressed by the noble Lord rendered it utterly unnecessary that he should deliver the speech which he had intended. He thanked the noble Lord for having expressed the opinion which it was desired to elicit from the House of Commons, and he hoped the noble Lord would substitute for his Amendment that the system of wholesale evictions without cause or necessity, alleged to be attempted in some parts of Ireland, was inconsistent with the best interests of the State.


said, he regretted that the Gentleman whose name had been so prominently brought before the House as promoting this system of eviction was a Scotchman, and, further, that that system had long been known in Scotland, and was a curse to the country. He must, however, confess that there was great difficulty in dealing with it, but he thought, at least, that it was a subject entitled to consideration. The attention of the House having been called to those proceedings, and their opinion expressed that they were not justifiable, would be, he trusted, a lesson to the party in question. And he also hoped that the Members for those remote parts of Ireland, in which alone they were likely to take place, would not hesitate on every occasion to denounce in that House by name the authors of such atrocious measures.


said, he quite agreed with the noble Lord at the head of the Government that, considering the importance of the debate which had been adjourned from yesterday to that day, it would be inconvenient that any other subject should intervene and delay the resumption of that adjourned debate. He should have ventured to express that opinion before, had it not been for the peculiar nature of the subject which had been brought before the House by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. M'Mahon), but, as he believed that the catastrophe which the hon. and learned Gentleman wished to avert might ensue next July, and, as the noble Lord could not give the hon. and learned Gentleman a day for bringing the subject before the House, he thought that great indulgence should be shown to the hon. and learned Gentleman in deference to the position in which he was placed. He thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman must have been satisfied at the strong expression of feeling which his statement had called forth from both sides of the House, and that he must also feel that it would be now better to accede to the Motion of the noble Lord, because the present was not an occasion upon which a subject so delicate and so difficult could be calmly and dispassionately considered. The subject was one which he was certain that no one, whatever might be his opinion as to the general law, could have heard the statement of the hon. and learned Gentle- man, or have listened to so painful a history, without arriving at the opinion that the exercise of rights under the law as described was most intolerable in a Christian nation. He had always felt that upon the whole the Incumbered Estates Court had been beneficial, but if there was anything which could raise a prejudice against that court it would be, that it gave to strangers who might even be non-resident the opportunity, if they thought fit, for depopulating large districts. He observed with great pleasure that it was not by a native of Ireland that it was alleged that these outrages upon common feeling had been committed. He did not now pretend to give any opinion as to the specifiec Motion. He had felt it his duty to make these observations, and he hoped that when the opportunity was afforded for discussing the subject it would be approached in a calm and dispassionate spirit. At present, however, he felt that the proper course to pursue would be to agree to the Motion of the noble Lord, and proceed at once with the adjourned debate on the fall of Kars.


said, that with regard to the question which had been put to him by the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Bellow), he would observe that the statement he made was from a letter which had been published in the Morning Advertiser. He (Mr. FitzGerald) had made inquiry into the subject of that letter. The statement made with regard to Mrs. Blake's clearing the tenants from her estates, on the ground that they were Ribandmen, he would pass over, and confine himself to answering the attack on the law officers of the Crown, and he would state that the letter which had appeared did not contain one particle of truth.


said he could not help saying a few words in favour of Mr. Pollok, after the very strong language which had been used that evening against him. Mr. Pollok was a friend of his. He had known him for a long time, and he was a highly honourable man. The language which had been used, not by Irish Members, but by hon. Members who had since addressed the House, was somewhat unfair, because they went upon the presumption that all that had been said was true. He was not aware whether it was true or not, but the petition contained statements which he did not believe to be true.


said, his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. M' Mahon) did not rely upon an ex parte statement. He could only say that this Scotch gentleman might be a very excellent man, but it was clear that he was a very bad landlord.


said, in consequence of the valuable opinions which this subject had elicited from all sides of the House, he should not be doing justice to those who had entrusted him with their case if he persisted in pressing it. He was, therefore, prepared to withdraw his Motion, and he hoped the noble Lord would withdraw his Amendment.


said, it would be more convenient that his Amendment should be adopted by the House.

Whereupon, Resolved, That the House do pass to the Orders of the Day.