HC Deb 08 May 1861 vol 162 cc1733-46

Order for Second Reading read.


said, that he hoped to carry with him the sympathies of the House while he moved the second reading of this Bill, which was directed to the removal of an evil which had already attracted great attention both in that House and in "another place." The condition of the labouring poor in large towns had engaged the attention of statesmen in the other House of Parliament in connection with the demolition of buildings occupied as dwellings by the lower classes. Public opinion had directed inquiries into their condition, which had already been productive of great benefit; the dens of London had been visited; and where no man with a decent coat could formerly have ventured, where nothing but the most dreadful language was to be heard, amid constant scenes of intoxication and vice, decency was beginning to prevail, and words of comfort were preached; sanitary laws had been passed by the House, and police regulations had been productive of much benefit. Still the evil was great, and he knew not how in crowded cities it was possible to apply an effectual remedy. The evil, however, was not limited to great cities. It was, be was constrained to admit, equally prevalent in the rural districts. This melancholy state of things was in a great measure to be attributed to the overcrowded state of labourers' cottages. He would, as an instance, refer to a case recently tried at the Reading Assizes before Baron Wilde where a labourer, the father of a family, was charged with rape on two of his own daughters. It appeared that the whole family—three little daughters and a boy—slept in the same bed with the prisoner. This state of things existed within a mile or two of the Royal Castle of Windsor. He would also mention another case equally painful, in which, there being only two beds in the cottage, the father and mother occupied one; the children, among whom were a youth of fourteen and a girl of fifteen, slept in the other. The family bore a respectable character; the girl was described by the clergyman whose school she attended as remarkably virtuous and good—yet she gave birth to a child, the fruit of incestuous intercourse with her brother. Thus the records of judicial proceedings and the experience of those who had inquired into this subject proved the necessity for facilities being afforded to landowners by wise laws to improve the dwellings of the labouring classes and to enforce among them something like decency. Not to appear invidious, he would describe a cottage on his own estate in Devonshire, tenanted by a widow of seventy-seven years of age. There was only one living room, 15ft. 5in. by 9ft. 9in. Immediately adjoining was the piggery. In front ran an open sewer, which when he saw it was choked up, and the filth was positively running in at the door of the house. He spoke to the woman and said this was a dreadful state of things; he hoped she would allow him to remove her to a better cottage, where her family might be brought up with more decency. She said she was born in the cottage, and had lived in it ever since; she had brought up a family of twelve children in it—all gone but one daughter, and she was married and had ten children She objected to leave the cottage, and would rather pay 10s. a year than be compelled to remove. The House annually voted large sums for education; throughout the length and breadth of the land the education of the labouring classes was well attended to; in many instances the education of the labouring classes was even superior to that obtained by the sons of farmers. But it was to a great extent in vain that they inculcated lessons of morality at school if their minds were demoralized by the necessary consequences of the crowded state of their dwellings. It was from such homes that our gaols, reformatories, and entire convict system were recruited. Surely, it was better to cut off the evil at the fountain than attempt to dam it up when it became a vast and fetid stream polluting the morals of society, and when it had attained such proportions as rendered it difficult to be assailed. The principle he advocated had already been adopted by the Legislature in the improvement of landed estates; and he did not see why that principle should not be extended to the improvement of labourers' cottages. Mr. Greene, formerly Chairman of Committees, who had taken great interest in this subject, was favourable to the Bill. The object of his Bill was to enable tenants for life to raise money at the least expense, in sums not exceeding £140 each cottage, for the improvement of labourers' dwellings. The application was to be made to the Chairman of Quarter Sessions; and on satisfying that functionary of the desirableness of the proposed expenditure he would receive a certificate from him authorizing the outlay, and he would then be entitled to raise the necessary money, and the mortgage was made a first charge on the estate; there was also provision for taking care that the money so raised was applied solely to the purpose of improving the dwellings of the labourers' on the estate. He could not see that any injustice would be done to the person who would succeed to the property, as the charge upon it would be compensated by having decent cottages for the labouring population employed upon it. With respect to encumbrancers, he proposed to give them an opportunity of appearing before the Court, and stating any objections to the changes; but he thought their interests would not be injured by increasing the value of the property over which they held mortgages. He admitted that this was a difficult subject to deal with, and that many of the details of the Bill might be well improved, and in Committee he should be glad to adopt any suggestions which might be made, and of which the House might approve. Objections had been made to giving the power of allowing charges to the Chairman of Quarter Sessions, and he did not deny there was ground for objection; but he had sought in vain to discover any other tribunal by which the business could be conducted so expeditiously and so cheaply. That, however, was a point which could be considered in Committee, and he hoped the House would allow it to reach that stage. The object which the Bill had in view was an important one—they had to deal with great evils, and the time had come when the consideration of the condition of the labouring classes earnestly demanded the attention of the House. He would remind the House that, although very minute laws had been passed to provide for the comfort and interest of the comparatively rich, nothing had been done for the poor man, whose dwellings remained in many cases in the same condition that they had been one hundred years ago. The hon. Member concluded by moving that the Bill be now read a second time.


said, he thought the House would be agreed upon the general policy of the measure, as far as it sought to give facilities for the construction of labourers' cottages, and to limit any technical difficulty that might present itself to prevent the landowner from raising funds for that purpose. But he thought that the hon. Baronet had somewhat exaggerated the present bad condition of labourers' cottages; for, although many of them were susceptible of vast improvement, yet their character varied in different counties. Certainly his own experience did not coincide with all that had been put forward by the hon. Baronet. In some counties the cottages were in a satisfactory state, while in others less progress had been made, but it might be said that almost universally there had been efforts made by all solvent proprietors to improve the condition of the cottages upon their estates. He did not think that landlords had been governed by any desire to protect themselves against the operation of the law of settlement. It appeared to him that the part of the cottages inhabited by the labourer and his family during the day was generally in a satisfactory and comfortable condition; but the sleeping accommodation certainly was defective, and, therefore, he concurred with the general objects of the Bill. But they had also to consider how it was proposed to carry out those objects; and to some of the proposals he must certainly take exceptions. The Bill proposed to give power to tenants for life, and persons under disabilities, to raise sums not exceeding £140 for each cottage, which should be a first charge upon the property He did not find that there was any limit to the number of cottages that might be so built, and, therefore, the extent of the charge that might be so created could not be foretold. Then the money was to be raised with the sanction of the Chairman of Quarter Sessions, and the hon. Baronet said he had no objection to any other tribunal if a better one could be pointed out. But the Chairman of Quarter Sessions was no tribunal at all, for at present he believed the Chairman of Quarter Sessions exercised no independent authority—he was merely primus inter pares. The proposition to invest that functionary with an entirely new and independent power was one which required grave consideration before it could be adopted. Hon. Gentlemen sometimes complained of the Government as seeking to extend the principle of centralization; but hon. Members themselves readily took that course, as in the present Bill, in which it was proposed that the Secretary of State might prescribe by publication in the London Gazette the requirements of cottages to be built under the operation of this measure. That, he thought, was very questionable policy, and he doubted whether the duty could be satisfactorily performed by the Secretary of State. It was impossible to lay down a plan which would be equally applicable to all cottages built in all parts of the country, and to attempt to do so would lead to many complaints. The matters might, however, be considered in Committee. Although he entertained a belief that if the Bill ever reached the stage of Committee it would require very material alterations, still he did not object to the general object, and therefore should give his vote for the second reading


said, that in cases where a proprietor entered into possession of his estate late in life, with only a life interest, so that the property went to the male heir, and there were several daughters, there was no inducement to spend money, which would bring but small interest, and no direct return for the capital. There could be no doubt that throughout England the cottages were in very bad condition. In many cases they were from 100 to 200 years old; and the landlord would rather pull them down than attempt to repair or improve them; there was also a system on which agents acted when a cottage was pulled down by not building another in its place, but to compel the occupier to seek another home, and thus remove himself from chargeability upon the poor rate of the parish; consequently, the labourers were crowded in the towns, where they paid high rents for insufficient dwellings, and had to walk a long distance to their work. Owing to these circumstances, when the Census returns were published, it would be found that while the population of the agricultural towns had increased from the number of labourers driven away from the rural parishes, the population of the latter had fallen off considerably. With respect to the details of the Bill he certainly thought the Secretary of State should have power to limit the number of cottages to be built; although he did not think there was much fear of over-building cottages under this Act, for though landlords might be anxious that their labourers should dwell near them, there was certainly no inducement to build more cottages than were really necessary. It was already possible to obtain money from certain societies, but it was necessary to pay a very high interest for it, and, therefore, he thought it would be wise to enable landowners to raise money from private parties on reasonable terms for the improvement of the cottages on their property. He did not think the hon. Baronet had at all overstated the evils of the present state of things.


thought the House was indebted to the hon. Baronet for having called attention to this important subject. But there was no worse-paying property in England than cottage property. He should wish to ask the Home Secretary why they should not apply to this subject the same principle that had formerly been adopted with respect to drainage, and for which purpose the Government advanced money at 3 per cent? His objection to the Bill was that it was not sufficiently advantageous to the landlord. There ought to be the strictest regulations to prevent the cottagers from misusing the accommodation afforded by the new cottages. The fact was that, strange as it might seem, the labourers liked the old cottages and did not like the improvements; they regarded it as a positive grievance to be put into a new cottage, and when they got in, and found they had three rooms, they always, unless under strict regulations, let the third room. The matter could not be in better hands than those of the Government.


said, he admired the intentions of the hon. Baronet, but he thought he had mistaken the source of the evil of which he complained, and that, therefore, his Bill would not remove it. He did not agree with him in thinking that there had been no improvement in the condition of labourers' cottages on estates. As a rule bad cottages did not prevail upon landowners' estates; but were to be found in back streets, and lanes of hamlets, and small towns, where small proprietors sought to make the utmost possible amount of profit from their property. Many of these wretched dwellings were built by shopkeepers and beersellers, who found it to their interest to have large numbers of their labourers as their tenants and customers. He thought that our defective law of settlement and of chargeability was more responsible for existing evils than any neglect on the part of landowners. When one or two landlords owned all the property in a parish they could, by excluding the poor from residence within that parish, also exclude them from becoming chargeable to the poor rates of that parish. The poor were, therefore, driven into neighbouring hamlets or small towns, where they were crowded together and rendered chargeable upon the rates of the parish in which the hamlet or village was situated. He feared the Bill would not have the effect which the hon. Baronet expected, and, therefore, regretted that he could not give it his support.


said, he also thought that many clauses of the Bill would be found to be inoperative; but he could not agree that landowners generally discouraged the erection of cottages upon their estates in order to diminish the charge upon the poor rates, and his own experience led him to think that building good cottages was the best method of lessening the poor rates. With respect to the proposal contained in the Bill to give authority to Chairmen of Quarter Sessions to sanction the building of cottages, he did not think they were the proper tribunal, and would suggest that the power should be given to the Court of Quarter Sessions, and not to the Chairman individually. The overcrowding of dwellings in rural districts was very difficult to prevent, even by a resident landlord, and it could only be prevented by constant supervision and the enforcement of stringent regulations.


thought a change in the law of chargeability to the poor rates would effect more good than could be hoped for from this Bill. The measure was, however, a step in the right direction, for which the hon. Baronet was entitled to the thanks of the House; but, as various objections had been raised, he would suggest that the best course would be to send the Bill to a Select Committee. For his own part, he must object to giving advances for building cottages priority over all other charges by retrospective enactment. Such ex post facto legislation would be unjust to the first mortgagee.


said, he feared that if the Bill were sent to a Select Committee little more would be heard of it during this Session. It was generally admitted that the object of the Bill was a good one, and the only question was as to its machinery. He agreed with the House that the power of sanctioning advances should not be given to the Chairman of Quarter Sessions, but he thought that the objection to that course would be sufficiently obviated by enacting that the application should be made to the magistrates sitting in Quarter Sessions generally. But he could not understand why the Enclosure Commissioners should not be intrusted with the power. It had been objected that there would be great expense if those Commissioners were to exercise the power; but in his dealings with those officers he had found the expenses extremely light. It had been suggested that the Exchequer Loan Commissioners should be authorized to advance money to landowners for the purpose of building cot- tages. He was afraid, if that body possessed any accumulation of funds, that in the present state of the finances of the country the Chancellor of the Exchequer might possibly lay his hands on it; but he could not see any objection to such a suggestion being carried into effect, provided the money was advanced on good and sufficient security. It was the province, however, of private proprietors to look to these things themselves rather than to apply to Parliament, and facts were coming out in respect to the recent Census which showed the great value to their estates of the labouring poor. In the district with which he was connected the population was sensibly and rapidly diminishing, though there was no part of the country where the labouring poor man was better or so well requited for his work. This result was produced by emigration. The persons emigrating were better off than the other portion of the labouring poor, and, having a great spirit of independence, they scraped together all the money they could and went off to Australia or America, in the hope of becoming landowners themselves. What was the consequence? The landowners generally recognized the value of the labourer, provided every necessary accommodation for his abode, and he should say that where they pulled down one cottage they built up two. With this diminution of the labouring poor going on, it was the interest as well as the duty of all persons connected with land to do everything in their power to keep them at home, by making them happy and comfortable in their condition, and this was best effected by providing decent and suitable lodgings for the labourers, and thus raising them in their own estimation. He believed that every Gentleman in that House desired to support the proposer of the Bill in the contemplated object, though there might be differences of opinion as to the details of the measure; but he would not recommend the adoption of the suggestion to send the Bill to a Committee upstairs, for such a proceeding would in all probability prevent the House from even hearing anything more of the Bill for the present year. He had not very great hopes of effecting much on this subject by legislation, as such matters were better left to be done by individuals, particularly as it was the general feeling that it was incumbent on all to do their best for those dependent upon them. The question had attracted considerable atten- tion of late, and he believed, notwithstanding the instances quoted, that the cases of degradation in the abodes of the labouiers were not so numerous as many hon. Gentlemen might suppose. To the second reading of the Bill he was ready to give a cordial support.


in answer to the question which had been asked respecting the Drainage Act, said the House would remember that some years ago, a certain sum was set aside, by a Bill brought in by Sir Robert Peel, to be advanced to landowners by the Inclosure Commissioners for the purposes of drainage. A large part was taken by the Scotch landowners, and the fund was altogether exhausted or nearly so. Early in this year the Inclosure Commissioners brought the subject under the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, representing that it was desirable that this loan should be replenished; and, so far from the Chancellor of the Exchequer having laid his hands on the balances, the fund had been exhausted in the legitimate way. The subject of replenishing the fund was still under consideration, and he was sanguine in the expectation that it might be possible to advance additional sums for the purposes of drainage.


gave his hearty concurrence to the principle of the present Bill, and hoped the hon. Mover would persevere with it, undeterred by the objections that had been made to details. With respect to the Drainage Loan Act, there could be no doubt of the great advantages that that had been the means of effecting in the way of advancing improvements. His Scotch friends had taken early advantage of that loan, and he had availed himself of it to some extent in his own district. He was convinced in the case of property strictly entailed that it would be a great advantage to enable the tenant for life to saddle some portion of the expense on his successor of the erection of comfortable cottages for the humbler classes, which would prove a permanent benefit to the estate, by lessening the poor rates and diminishing crime. He had seen numbers of industrious, working Englishmen, during a late tour he made through the United States, and he was happy to say that since their arrival on the other side of the Atlantic, they had become possessed of bits of land, and were now landowners.


did not suppose that any one would disagree with the prin- ciple stated by the hon. Gentleman, that it would be desirable to enable a person having a limited estate in property, to borrow money for the purpose of improving the property, and the condition, likewise, of the poorer people on it. The Bill, however, was not confined to persons of limited estate, for it would give to any landowner, whatever his interest, the power of making use of its provisions as he pleased. It was true that each cottage built must not be worth more than £140; yet a man having the fee simple of an estate so incumbered that he could not borrow one shilling further upon it might, under the present Bill, build any number of cottages not above £140 in value for each, and charge the expense on the estate, to the exclusion of all previous incumbrancers. He had no doubt that that was not intended, but the House had a right to complain that somewhat more care was not shown in drawing the provisions of the Bill. It had been justly observed that these buildings ought to be permanent improvements; but there was no provision in the Bill for that purpose. At present a man could not borrow a shilling from the Inclosure Commissioners for draining his estate, unless it was shown upon investigation that the estate would be improved to the amount of the money laid out; and it was a capital defect in the present Bill that it contained no provision of that kind. Under the Drainage Act the money was laid out after careful inquiry, and the estate was proportionably improved. No hardship was then done to the mortgagee; but without some such provision actual spoliation might take place under the present Bill. No doubt there were a vast number of cottages everywhere very different from the condition required by modern opinion; and, no doubt, the feeling of the poor themselves, as evinced in the instance given by the hon. Mover of the Bill, was quite as strong, though not exactly of the same kind, on this subject as that of those above them. Nevertheless, every one must acknowledge that there had been gradually going on a great improvement in respect to cottages. The old style of cottages had no room upstairs at all; but a better class of buildings had come into existence. Some alteration in the law of settlement had been alluded to; but at present he was not aware that residents in cottages paying less than £10 a year rent threw any burden on the estate. That question, however, had nothing to do with the present Bill. The simple question now was whether the Bill ought to furnish persons having a limited estate in property with the power to borrow money for the purposes of building cottages, charging the expense on the estate. If proper machinery was provided to guard against excessive expenditure on this head, and if the charge was not made a first charge before that of all prior incumbrances, unless the annual value of the estate were improved thereby, he should be glad to see the Bill, when confined to such principles, pass. As so much had already been said with respect to the tribunal, he would only observe that he agreed with those who thought that the Chairman of Quarter Sessions did not constitute the proper judge in this case, nor did he think that the Quarter Sessions would be a proper tribunal, even if the matter was referred to them. This business was out of the jurisdiction of the magistrates at Quarter Sessions as conservators of the peace, and ought not to be forced on them in any way. He had the good—or ill—fortune to be Chairman of a Board of Quarter Sessions, and he could conceive what an endless affair it would be before the Court, with an array of surveyors swearing on each side, and learned counsel cross examining the witnesses. It was a sort of question that the Inclosure Commissioners or some authority of that kind were best fitted to deal with. If he might make a suggestion to the hon. Mover of the Bill, as there was very little difference of opinion as to what ought to be done, he should say it would be better than sending the Bill to a Select Committee to commit it pro formâ for the purpose of having it drawn in a different shape, so that advantage might be taken of the various suggestions which had been made, and unnecessary details might be struck out. In this way a short Bill might be easily passed in the present Session of Parliament.


as connected with a society for improving the dwellings of the poor said, the only question involving a difficulty in connection with the subject was how landowners, many of whom were merely tenants for life, were to raise money for the improvement of their cottages, and by so doing improve their estate? But if the principle which had already been applied to farm buildings and drainage, which had been productive of so much advantage, were applied to the building of cottages the difficulty would be met. He objected to a reference to a Select Committee; for the House was in possession of all the information on the subject which was necessary for legislation. He should recommend the hon. Mover to take the advice of the right hon. Member for Oxfordshire, and thoroughly revise the Bill, and by that means a measure might be prepared which the House would be willing to pass.


said, he believed that many landowners who were tenants for life were willing that powers should be granted to enable them to raise money to build cottages; but he was not prepared to consent that estates, many of which were mortgaged up to the hilt, should be dealt with without the consent of the mortgagee. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) that questions of property of this nature were not such as should be sent for settlement to the Quarter Sessions, whose proper business was the conservation of the peace. He was opposed to sending the Bill to a Select Committee, because it involved principles which should be discussed publicly in the House, and he thought it would have to be altered in every clause before it would meet with general approbation.


observed that the vital part of the Bill was the amount of percentage at which the Bill gave the power of raising money. The Bill stated that the money should be raised at a rate of interest not exceeding 4 per cent. Now, having had some experience in his county in raising money for the erection of gaols and so forth, to be repaid by instalments, he could say that they found that they could not raise money to be repaid by instalments at less than 5 per cent. and they had difficulty in doing that. Another matter which must be regarded when they went into Committee was as to proprietors of small estates. Many large landowners would be glad to make improvements to pay 3 per cent. or loss. This was not the case with the proprietors of small estates, who sometimes laid out their money to receive 16 per cent. building cottages at £30 each, and letting them for £5 a year. Under the present Bill a person might borrow money to build these cottages at 4 per cent. and then borrow at 5 per cent to pay off the first loan; so that the 16 per cent on the cottages would still leave him with a handsome percentage; but the reversioner, when he came into the estate, would find it incumbered with a great number of cottages which he would rather not see on it. This was an evil that ought to be, and might be prevented. He thought also that a provision should be made that not more than a certain number of cottages should be built on a certain quantity of ground. He thought the Bill would require considerable alteration.


stated, that he believed his hon. Friend the Mover of the Bill would readily adopt the suggestions that had been made. He was willing to alter the tribunal, to which objection had been taken, and to substitute in its place the Inclosure Commissioners; it would be his desire in framing the provisions by which the new tribunal would be brought into play to make them very much in accordance with the provisions which had already received the sanction of Parliament in reference to drainage and other improvements on estates. His hon. Friend would fix the Bill for some not distant day, on which he would ask the House to allow it to he passed through Committee pro formâ, so that it might be reprinted with the Amendments; and he hoped then that a measure which promised to be so beneficial would be allowed to pass into law.

Bill read 2o, and committed for Monday next.