HC Deb 11 May 1858 vol 150 cc440-55

said, he wished to appeal to the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ricardo), who had a Motion on the paper to move for a Committee to inquire into the allegations of a petition presented from the town of Hanley complaining of the mining operations of the Duchy of Lancaster, to postpone his Motion, for the purpose of enabling the Government to proceed with the Indian Resolutions.


said, he could not comply with the right hon. Gentleman's request, for if he were to postpone his Motion until the Indian Resolutions were disposed of there was very little chance of his ever being able to bring it on. His Motion referred to the conduct of the Duchy of Lancaster—a department which had always been to him a puzzle and an enigma. It was a department for the administration of certain property to the amount of £36,000. And yet for the administration of that amount of property there was a Chancellor, a Vice-Chancellor, two Chief Justices, two puisne Judges, a whole host of counsel, and an army of stewards, collectors, bailiffs, receivers-general, and clerks and other functionaries quite sufficient to ruin any property. There were no less than sixty-four persons employed in the management of that estate, and the sum paid for salaries and retiring allowances amounted to no less than £9,476. He did not see why it was necessary that the Chancellor of the Duchy should be a Member of the Cabinet, and take part in the performance of the duties of the Government of the day; but that being so, he held the Government responsible for the proceedings of that functionary. His present charge against them was, therefore, that for the sake of a revenue of some £2,000 or £3,000, the Duchy of Lancaster had carried on operations which had imperilled the lives and destroyed the property of many of Her Majesty's subjects, and which now threatened ruin and devastation to a town of 30,000 inhabitants and 7,000 houses. The town of Hanley was founded by the celebrated Wedgewood about 100 years ago, with the view of establishing there the manufactory of earthenware, which had since become one of the staple products of the country. One of the conditions of the success of this manufacture was, the presence of an abundance of coal and of a peculiar description of coarse clay near the spot where it was carried on, and this condition was amply fulfilled in the neighbourhood of Hanley. The town, therefore, was built with the knowledge that the coal would be taken from beneath it, and that the clay would be taken from the surrounding neighbourhood. In 1838 it was discovered that ironstone, which was also to be found there in abundance, bore a great value, and the Duchy of Lancaster, taking advantage of that circumstance, immediately countenanced mining operations for the purpose of obtaining ironstone. That mineral formed the prop of the surface of the ground, and immediately it was removed, the surface began to fall in, and great destruction of property, accompanied by terror and alarm, resulted. Upon representations being made to the Duchy of Lancaster they undertook that no extension of the lease which had been granted for obtaining the ironstone should be made without notice to the inhabitants, so as to give them an opportunity of redeeming the surface. The Duchy, however, did not observe their promise; for twelve years before the expiry of the lease it was surreptitiously and mysteriously renewed, and from that moment devastation, havoc, and ruin reigned in Hanley. Shafts were sunk in all directions, galleries were carried under the town, houses fell in, and the appearance presented was that which would follow upon the shock of a violent earthquake. Indeed, there could be no doubt, if these operations should be continued for a few years longer, that the whole town of Hanley, with its 30,000 inhabitants, its numerous institutions, and its industrious population, would disappear from the face of the earth. (The hon. Gentleman then read copies of several letters from individuals corroborative of his general statement, which had been addressed from time to time to the Duchy of Lancaster.) The only answer which these complaints elicited was the stereotyped one of the Duchy, which ran something in this style:—"Sir, I have received your letter complaining of your manufactory being utterly destroyed by mining operations carried on under the Duchy of Lancaster, and I have communicated your complaint to the lessee," which was very much as if a magistrate, on being informed that somebody was going to set a man's House on fire, wrote back and said, "Sir, I have received your letter, and have forwarded it to the gentleman who is going to commit the act of incendiarism referred to." He might be told in answer to the statement which he had just made that some of the facts which lie had advanced were unfounded; but if that were so, it would, he thought, be scarcely consistent with fairness that the Government should refuse to him the means of proving the truth of his statements before the Select Committee which he asked to have appointed. It might also be said on behalf of the Government that the Crown was entitled to commit the depredations to which he now called the attention of the House, and that in the exercise of that right it was determined to persevere, whatever might be the consequences. Such an answer as that might suit the despotic Government of Naples or Russia, but in England, where millions were expended to promote the health and comfort of the humbler classes, he believed it was impossible that it could find expression. If, however, such a declaration were to emanate from the lips of a Minister, it would, he felt assured, find no support in the House of Commons. At all events, he was convinced that the refusal to take the subject into consideration would involve a heavy responsibility, inasmuch as it was more than probable that if things were permitted to go on as they were, some fatal day a grievous casualty would occur.

Motion made and Question proposed,— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations of the Petitions of Manufacturers, Traders, and Inhabitants, and the Mayor and Corporation, of the Borough of Hanley, and to report whether any and what remedy can he afforded to them, should the grievance of which they complain be proved to exist.


seconded the Motion.


said, that having lately had the honour to fill the office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and as there was no hon. Member connected with the Duchy then in the House, he hoped the House would permit him to state a few facts which he thought it material should be borne in mind. If the House, in the result to which it should arrive, should be of opinion that any inquiry ought to be instituted into the conduct of the Duchy of Lancaster during the time that he (Mr. Baines) was Chancellor, so far from deprecating such an inquiry, he would willingly accede to such a proposal. But it was a question whether a Committee of the House or an application to the courts of law was the proper remedy in this case, to which he wished to address himself. It was very material that the House should bear in mind what were the circumstances of these mining districts. The manor of Newcastle-under-Line, in which the town of Hanley was situated, had belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster ever since the origin of the Duchy. So far from its being the fact that the practice of getting iron-stone from these mines was only of recent date, he could assure the hon. Member for Stoke that the records of the Duchy clearly showed that mines of coal and ironstone were worked in this manor as far back as in the reign of Richard II., nearly five centuries ago. The present was a complaint on the part of the copyholders of the manor. Now, nothing was more certain than that any person who held or took a copyhold took it upon the condition that it was to be held subject to the customs of the particular manor in which it was situated. That was an elementary principle of law. It had been found by a jury that there was an immemorial custom affecting the copyholders of this manor, where the minerals are of far greater value than the surface, that the owner or lessee of the minerals had a right of getting the minerals free from any liability on account of injury done to the buildings on the surface. This custom was so notorious that in consequence of this liability to disturbance, all the copyholders purchased their copyholds at a very much smaller price than they would otherwise do. This difference in price was always observed in every transaction between buyer and seller, and for the last forty years, when any person was about to build, distinct notice was served upon him by the lessee of the minerals, that if he was about to raise any heavy building, he would be liable to disturbance in consequence of the right to get the minerals from below. There were two points, therefore—one, that there was an immemorial custom established by the clearest evidence, and affecting all the copyholders; the other, that upon every transaction between vendor and purchaser, the existence of this custom was regularly acknowledged. Having stated the custom of the manor, he would now direct the attention of the House to the mining operations which had been going on, which were not the operations of the Duchy of Lancaster. As far back as the year 1731 the whole of the mines within the manor were leased to the ancestor of the present Earl Granville, and by renewals had remained in that family ever since. The mining operations which had taken place in this district had not been undertaken by the Duchy but by the lessee. In the year 1844 a person named Hilton, brought an action against Earl Granville to try his right of prosecuting mining operations without being liable to damages for the injuries he might cause to the buildings on the surface of the copyholds. This was the commencement of lengthy proceedings, both at law and equity. Upon the application for an injunction in Chancery to stay the working of the mines, the Lord Chancellor Cottenham said, he would not grant the injunction, so as to interfere with mining transactions of such importance, but would give the parties leave to try the question at law. He further said, that if a custom such as that which was asserted to exist in the manor of Newcastle were an immemorial custom, in fact, it would not in itself be bad in law. It was true that the Court of Queen's Bench, in the time of Lord Denman, on certain pleas which did not raise the question of copyhold, expressed an opinion that such a custom would be invalid in point of law; but the Court had since virtually reversed that decision. A special jury found that this custom had existed from time immemorial, in the manor. It was shown when the trial took place that the plaintiff was a person who had occupied a house which had been built by a budding society. This society had run up a complete street, on one of the copyholds, taking the risk, which they knew perfectly well; and when the house gave way the plaintiff brought his action, and the result was what he had stated. It was also proved, that more than half the wages earned by the labouring population of the district were earned in Lord Granville's mines. The hon. Member for Stoke had given no notion of the existence of these facts in his opening address, and he (Mr. Baines) had therefore thought it his duty to bring them before the House. Towards Christmas last year some fifty or sixty letters claiming compensation for damage were addressed to the Duchy of Lancaster. Many of those letters were in the same handwriting, and gave evidence of having proceeded from the same quarter. The Duchy immediately referred to the agent of the lessee, Earl Granville, to consult him with regard to these letters. A Report was received from him; but as it was received only a day before he (Mr. Baines) left the office, he had no opportunity of doing anything in the matter. But he saw enough in the Report to satisfy him that, although undoubtedly there were some cases in which injury had occurred from the falling of houses built in places where no right of building existed, yet, on the whole, there had been great exaggeration. In nineteen cases it was ascertained that no mines had ever been worked at or near the spot where the alleged injuries occurred; and it was shown with reference to some of these nineteen cases that the parties had been excavating marl and clay, that they had filled up the cavities with rubbish and built upon it, and the foundations gave way. [Mr. J. L. RICHARD: From whom did that information come?] From Mr. Wragg, the mineral agent of the lessee. [A laugh.] The hon. Member had stated what the complaint was, and surely he had a right to state what the answer was. He most sincerely commiserated the sufferings of these men, if they had been misled by others to build on those places that were not fit for buildings; but it was his duty to ascertain what the facts were, and he sent the letters to Mr. Wragg, who was a gentleman of high respectability, and told him to ascertain what the facts were. And Mr. Wragg sent him the Report to which he had alluded. He had stated that nineteen of the cases had reference to buildings where there were no mines, eleven of the cases happened twelve or sixteen years ago, and no complaint was made at the time. Then there were two cases in which it appeared the damage, such as it was, took place thirty years ago; and there was one case in which it was proved that the party was distinctly warned that coal had been excavated; but he proceeded to build, and was now one of the complainants. Then the hon. Gentleman said that applications had been made to Earl Granville. He was afraid it was believed that Earl Granville would pay any money. One of the persons who had complained was a Mr. Hamlet Wood. This person, in the year 1857, had told him (Mr. Baines) that he had laid out a sum of £220 on his property, whereas, in 1854, his statement to Earl Granville on applying to him for a gratuity was, that the sum which he had expended was about £100. This only showed the character of the exaggerations which had been made, and which he (Mr. Baines) feared were extended to more important matters. At the same time, there was no doubt that if the custom in question were invalid in point of law, or if the lessee of the minerals had been careless in the mode of working the mines, then he would be liable to any action that might be brought against him. It was for the House to say how far this case was distinguished from other cases which could be tried at law, and whether that was not the proper remedy. He could only say that if he had remained at the head of the Duchy he would have given every assistance, and rendered every information, to put the matter in a train for being tried in the simplest and least expensive manner, and no doubt the noble Duke now at the head of that Department would do the same. His (Mr. Baines's) duty had been to bring these facts before the house, because he believed they were material in the determination of the question whether a Select Committee should be appointed of not.


said, he did not wish to argue the point of law laid down by the right hon. Gentleman, but would ask the House whether it would show its sympathy with the copyholders by driving them into courts of law for redress, a process which had already ruined one person who had been referred to by the right hon. Gentleman? He had been astonished to hear that the complaints made to the Duchy had been sent to the agent of the lessee for verification. Mr. Wragg was undoubtedly a most honourable and upright gentleman, but he had only been there about three or four years, and it would have been fairer to refer the matter to some independent judgment. If the noble Earl would himself inspect the dilapidations and ruin which had been produced in the district lie would be convinced that an end must be put to the present mode of proceeding. He had yet to learn whether it came within any right possessed by the Duchy of Lancaster that land should be so spoilt and deteriorated by the calcining of ironstone. He knew properties of great value, erected long before the mining operations in question began, which had been thereby almost entirely ruined. He held in his hand a photographic sketch of the present state of a property consisting of buildings, which were erected a few years ago at an expense of upwards of £6,000, and formed one of the most complete earthenware manufactories in that district of the Potteries, but which was now utterly destroyed by these mining operations. The place looked as if it had been ravaged by an earthquake. It was built long before any of these mining operations commenced; as a manufactory it was totally valueless, and yet not the least compensation had been given to the tenant. Connected as he (Mr. Alderman Copeland) was with some of the mining interests of the country, and particularly with those in the parts of the country in question, he did not hesitate to say that he never in his life saw such a reckless mode of working mines, or such an apparent determination to destroy if possible that part of the borough of Stoke-upon-Trent in which thousands of people depended on the making of earthen ware for their daily bread. He asked, would the Crown or the advisers of the Crown, for the paltry rental of some £3,000 a year, derived from this lease, suffer a whole district of country to be destroyed, and the lives of a great number of Her Majesty's subjects to be endangered by those operations? He feared the Dunchy of Lancaster would not be induced to do what was right in this matter until some dire and dreadful calamity befell that district, and in his conscience he believed that day was not remote. It was easy to say try the question at law; and no doubt as there were some men of property amongst those persons who had suffered from these operations the question would be tried; but then it must be remembered that the Crown would come to the aid of its lessee; the Attorney General and the Solicitor General would be employed, and the Crown paid no costs. He would put it to the House therefore whether this was not a subject for inquiry by a Committee, as well in the interest of the local population as for the honour of the Crown.


said, if he thought it possible that any advantage could be derived from the proposed inquiry he should not object to it; but he was convinced that no good could come from it, and, besides, the House was asked to delegate to a Committee the decision of a purely legal question, to which he could not consent. He thought the case had not been put quite fairly as regarded the Crown in reference to the damage alleged to have been done and the peril said to be incurred. The truth was that the Crown had no interest whatever in the property in question until the expiration of the existing lease. Therefore all the arguments which had been brought forward in respect of the expense to the country of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the number of officers employed under it, did not bear upon the point which the House of Commons had to decide, and they had been introduced with a view of raising a prejudice with respect to the case. His hon. Friend (Mr. Alderman Copeland) had talked of the ruinous expense of fighting a battle of this kind in a court of law with the Crown, inasmuch as the Crown paid no costs. His hon. Friend knew, however, that when this question was first brought under his (Mr. Walpole's) notice, and after he had given it his consideration, he arrived at the conclusion that for the sake of the people who had been represented as poor copyholders there was a course by which it could be tried and determined with but little expense; that he should be prepared to recommend the Crown to adopt that course, and that he had reason to believe the lessee would also adopt it. He (Mr. Walpole) recommended that a special case should be prepared and submitted to a court of law, subject to a right of appeal either to the Exchequer Chamber or to the House of Lords, if either of the parties felt themselves aggrieved, and that that decision taken on 'behalf of one should bind all the parties and put an end to all litigation on the matter. He believed that was the proper course to adopt, and the best for all parties; but he put it to the House whether they thought it desirable in a case of private property, such as this was, to appoint a Committee to make inquiries which would lead to no result, and to decide a question of law. As far as he could ascertain, the total number of cases which had formed the subject of complaint was fifty-seven; that of the great bulk of the—more than one-half—there was no ground whatever for saying the damage was occasioned by the mining operations; that in others some little damage might have been caused by those operations, but certainly not the whole damage alleged to have been done; that in others, suitable props had been placed in the mines so as to support the roofs; and that in all those cases there was previous notice given to the parties that if they built contrary to the custom they would build at their own peril. In addition to that, these gentlemen had been selling the property to others knowing that it was liable to be undermined, and consequently to be depreciated in value. They had been purchasing and selling, kowing that in consequence of the mining operations the surface of the land was twenty per cent less in value than otherwise it would have been. If, as he was informed, that was the case, these copyholders, not having a right to build on the surface of the land, were not entitled to complain of hardship or to lay claim to property which they had neither paid for nor inherited. These were the simple facts of the case as they had come to his knowledge, and he hoped that the suggestions which he had thrown out would be accepted as the best means of putting an end to litigation and settling the question for the benefit of all parties.


observed, that when Earl Granville took possession of the property, he changed the direction of the mines so as to avoid, if possible, the most populous parts of the town. He could also state that the Earl Granville approved of the course taken by Her Majesty's Government in this case; and would give every facility for having the decision of a court of law obtained on the legal question. He (the Marquess of Hartington) was altogether opposed to making a Committee of the House the sole judge of the law. In his opinion, no case for inquiry had been made out, although Earl Granville would have challenged investigation but for the bad precedent which such a course would have set.


said, he conscientiously believed that this was a fair case for inquiry, and he hoped the House would grant a Select Committee.


said, he would ask for what purpose a Committee was required? If a Committee were appointed, and reported that all the grievances of which they had heard existed in the duchy, what good would thereby be effected? He would ask the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ricardo) to tell him whether the things of which he complained were legal or illegal. If they were legal the House would be establishing a most dangerous precedent by assenting to the Motion. If they were illegal why did not the parties seek a remedy in a court of law? The answer to his question had been given in a manner which he rejoiced to hear by his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who had declared that if they desired to have a speedy termination of the matter in a court of law, every thing should be done to facilitate the accomplishment of that object. That offer was perfectly fair, and as the facts were ascertained, the case might be decided by the courts of law within four or five months from the present time, and at very inconsiderable cost. The fact was, that the qustion was easily resolvable by common sense. There was a great disposition on the part of the inhabitants of this district to run up houses and shops, and let them to people who were employed in the mines. These buildings were raised with the greatest amount of improvidence, want of forethought and care; and if the House of Commons were to interfere in this instance the result would be, that every case of thoughtlessness, inattention to law, and want of prudence and foresight would be brought before them and discussed here. In his opinion, there was no earthly ground whatever, either in a moral or legal point of view, for the interference of the House; and if an inquiry were directed it would only lead to this conclusion, that it would be utterly impossible to determine anything until the legal question had been decided.


said, he thought that the proposition of the Home Secretary was a reasonable one, and he wished that it had been acceded to by his hon. Friend n the part of his constituents. It was said that the copyholders had no right to build, but four Judges had decided that these persons had an unalterable right to the foundations of their buildings.


said, he agreed with his hon. and learned Friend (Sir Richard Bethell) that even if the Committee sat and reported it would literally have done nothing. That of itself, therefore, ought to be a cogent and conclusive reason enough for refusing the Motion of the hon. Gentleman. It would not conduce to the dignity, power, or reputation of any assembly that its forms should be used, or rather abused, for the purpose of obtaining results which were unattainable, and effecting that for which proper tribunals and authorities were provided, and which it was better, therefore, on every consideration, to leave to the decision of those tribunals. If the matter was reagitated, however, a court of law would hold with Lord Cottenham, that if a custom could be established in point of fact, it would be valid in point of law. If a Committee were appointed the witnesses who would be called to make out an ex parte case would have to be paid for by the country, and to this, as a Member of the House of Commons, he must object, especially as there were proper tribunals in existence, before which the parties could proceed at their own expense and peril. The fact was, that this was an attempt to constitute a new, inoperative, inefficacious, and utterly idle tribunal for the purpose, and to get out of the coffers of the State the means of setting on foot an inquiry which must be altogether useless, and so thinking, he should vote against the Motion.


, in reply said, that perhaps he had been a little unwise bringing forward the question before the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for Yorkshire (Lord R. Cecil) had been disposed of; because, amongst the array of officers who were employed in the Duchy he found the name of the hon. and learned Member who had just spoken figuring in the capacity of a Queen's counsel. True, his emoluments were not very extravagant, being only £2 a year; and this the hon. and learned Gentleman had well earned by his speech that evening. The only answer which had been given to his case was, that the facts were not as he had described them; and he held that it was not fair or just to refuse an investigation where the facts were denied. It was not true, as had been represented by so many legal Gentlemen, that he asked for a decision of the House of Commons upon matters which ought to be decided by a legal tribunal. He asked for nothing of the kind. All he required was an investigation, and that a Committee should report whether they saw any means of redress for an evil which had been universally acknowledged by every hon. Gentleman who had spoken to-night.

Question put.

The House divided: — Ayes 63; Noes 128: Majority 65.