HC Deb 03 June 1864 vol 175 cc1199-209

said, he rose to ask the Secretary to the Treasury, Whether Her Majesty's Government intend to take any steps to carry out, completely or partially, the recommendations contained in the Report of the Select Committee on Royal Forests in Essex of last Session; whether any encroachments or enclosures have been reported to have been made within the forests since the date of that Report; and, if so, whether they have taken place on portions of the forest wherein the rights of the Crown had been sold or not? He begged to remind the House that in 1862 they addressed the Crown with a view to prevent further steps being taken to facilitate the legalization of the encroachments in Epping Forest. It appeared from a Return which had been presented, that the Crown rights over 5,000 acres within the forest had been sold for the paltry sum of £18,000 to various individuals, some of whom claimed to be lords of manors; but the greater number of the purchasers of the Crown rights made no such claim; and, on the strength of these purchases, the buyers of the Crown rights proceeded to enclose right and left wholly disregardless of the rights of the commoners and of the public. By the evidence before the Select Committee which considered this subject, the mode was disclosed in which such bargains were made. Persons first of all were allowed to encroach illegally upon the property of the Crown, and then they were invited by a circular letter or notice from the Department of Woods and Forests to purchase the rights of the Crown under a threat of legal proceedings. The Select Committee had strongly animadverted upon the notices thus issued by the Department. That proceeding was explained on the ground that it was desirable to avoid the expenses of a litigation, as the only court in which the rights of the commoners could be tried was the Court of Exchequer; and one witness had stated that the expense of such a suit would be at least £1,500. Formerly there was the Verderer's Court which tried such questions, but that had fallen into abeyance; and although the Royal Commission appointed by Act of Parliament in 1850 had recommended the establishment of some tribunal for the disposal of questions arising out of the Crown forests, yet no substitute for the Verderer's Court had been provided. Hence arose all the illegal enclosures and oppressive acts of which the commoners and the inhabitants of the eastern parts of London, who have been debarred from healthy recreation in the forest, so justly complained. The Junior Commissioner of Woods and Forests was generally believed to have the management of Epping Forest, and that Gentleman had stated before the Committee that his Department could take no notice of the wants of the public as it was only a Revenue department, and, further, that he thought the Crown should dispose of the land without regard to the convenience and enjoyment of the people. He (Mr. Torrens) could not help expressing great astonishment at such a doctrine, enunciated by a servant of the public, paid from the money of the people, whose interests it was his bounden duty to attend to. It was desirable to hear from the right hon. Gentleman what the views of the Government really were with regard to carrying out the recommendations of the Select Committee of last Session.

Amendment proposed, To leave oat from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "there be laid before this House, a Copy of any Orders or Correspondence regarding inclosures in the Royal Forests in Essex since, or in consequence of, the Report of the Select Committee of last Session,"—(Mr. Torrens,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, the Committee of last Session had fully ascertained the nature of the Crown interest in Epping Forest; and it was of importance that the nature of that interest should be fully understood. The Crown had no property either in the soil or the timber. The forest belonged wholly to private persons, the lords of the manors, copyholders and others, subject only to the Crown's forestal right, and the right of the commoners to turn out their cows and horses upon the wastes. The forestal right of the Crown was merely the right of keeping deer in the forest, but as there were no deer in the forest and could not be, because the forest was intersected by railways and near a crowded population, the right of the Crown simply amounted to the right of preventing fences being put up, and so keeping the forest an unenclosed waste. As there was no means of producing any revenue, and it was not consistent with the original purpose for which the right was created, nor fair to the lords of manors and other owners of property, to convert it into an instrument for making the forest a sort of park, a Royal Commission some years ago recommended that the Crown rights should be sold. Subsequently, and about ten years ago, the Law Officers of the Crown having been consulted upon the propriety of instituting legal proceedings to prevent certain encroachments, also advised that those rights should be sold, and the Treasury adopted that advice. Sales accordingly were made from time to time until the beginning of last year, when there remained only about 3,000 acres over which the Crown possessed the bare forestal rights in question. At that time the House agreed to an Address to Her Majesty to preserve the open spaces in the forest for the use of the people, and since then no rights had been sold, and no negotiations carried on, except in cases in which the purchase-money had been already paid. Shortly after a Committee was appointed for the purpose of considering the subject, and they agreed to a Report and made certain recommendations to which the hon. Gentleman had called attention with a view to ascertain how far the Government were prepared to act upon them. The Committee in the first instance stated that they did not consider it just that those forestal rights should be maintained for the purpose of preventing enclosures by the owners of the soil; and they recommended that a Bill should be introduced with the object of enclosing the whole of the forest, with the exception of certain spaces which were to be reserved under the general provisions of the Enclosure Act as places of recreation for the people, and that those spaces should be enlarged by the purchase of adjacent pieces of ground. They likewise recommended that any encroachments which had taken place upon the wastes of the forest, where the right of the Crown had not been purchased or redeemed, should be abated, and that legal proceedings, if necessary, should be taken for that purpose. As far as he knew, no enclosures or encroachments had been reported to have taken place since that time. But a very considerable encroachment to the extent of 300 acres was made some time ago by a gentleman who had not purchased the rights of the Crown, and he had more than, once been made acquainted that the Crown might take proceedings for the purpose of securing proper consideration of its rights. The question whether such proceedings should be taken was referred to the Law Officers of the Crown; but they were of opinion that those proceedings would be attended with very considerable expense, and they called attention to the Address to the Crown last Session, having for its object to prevent the sale of forestal rights, and to the fact that even if the rights of the Crown were vindicated at great expense they would be of no use for purposes of revenue, because, according to that Address, they were to continue unsold. He thought it would be desirable if the opinion of the House as expressed in the Address of last year should be held to be superseded by the recommendation of the Committee, to the effect that the rights of the Crown should not be maintained for the purpose of preventing enclosures in the forest. It was hardly consistent with the principles of the Land Revenue Act, or the Act passed when the separation was made between the Offices of Woods and Works, that the revenue of the Crown lands should be used for the purpose of providing public parks. The principle of the Land Revenue Acts was that the Woods and Forests was a department of Revenue only, and they were not authorized to spend any of the revenues of the Crown lands except for the purpose of maintaining the property and paying the expenses of the collection and management of its revenue. Another recommendation of the Committee was that supposing the forests to be enclosed and spaces set apart for the recreation of the people, those spaces should be increased by the purchase of other spaces, but they did not show whence the money was to come. They neither recommended that the money raised by the sale of the rights of the Crown should be applied to the purchase of such recreation grounds, nor that a public grant should be obtained from the House for the purpose. He did not know whether it was contemplated that such a fund should be provided by the Metropolitan Board of Works by means of a tax levied upon the metropolis. But if those difficulties could be got rid of—if the address of the House should be considered no longer applicable after the Report of the Committee, and if funds should be provided either by a metropolitan rate, or in any other manner, for the purpose of making a public park, there would be no obstacle in the way of carrying out the recommendations of the Committee of last Session. He did not feel justified at present in producing the correspondence asked for by the hon. Gentleman.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had somewhat underrated the importance of the rights of the Crown in Epping Forest. They carried with them a much greater importance than the right hon. Gentleman had stated, because upon the preservation of those rights depended the preservation of open spaces in the neighbourhood of this crowded metropolis, for the recreation of its inhabitants. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman that the Commissioners of Woods and Forests were not to be blamed for the way in which they administered their trusts. That House alone was to be blamed. The responsibility of preserving spots for the recreation of the inhabitants of the metropolis rested solely with the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman had not quite correctly quoted the Report of the Committee. The Committee stated that there were two courses which might be pursued — the one was to discontinue the sale of the forestal rights of the Crown, vigilantly to preserve those rights without regard to cost, and to keep the forest in its present wild and unenclosed condition; the other was to ascertain the rights of the several parties interested, and to make provision, partly by these means and partly by purchase, to secure an adequate portion of the forest for purposes of health and recreation. It was not the intention of the Committee that the forestal rights should be discontinued, unless the second course was adopted. And, therefore, when the right hon. Gentleman stated that the Address of the House ought to be considered as overridden by the recommendation of the Committee, he was not justified in coming to that conclusion, for it was only, on the express condition that Her Majesty's Government should entertain the recommendations contained in the Report — a course to which Her Majesty's Government were not prepared to accede — that the vote of the House might be considered as overborne. The Committee was appointed on the Motion of the hon. Member for Carrickfergus (Mr. Torrens), but it so happened that the selection of the Members rested with the Attorney General, and the recommendation relied on by the right hon. Gentleman was carried in the Committee so constituted upon a division, by a vote of seven to five, and in the majority was one Gentleman who voted under a misapprehension. Therefore, when the right hon. Gentleman said that that recommendation of the Committee should be considered to have set aside the Vote of the House, he totally misapprehended the duty of Her Majesty's Government as well as of the Committee. The right of the Crown in 4,000 acres of Epping Forest had been sold, 3,000 acres still remained unenclosed, and 2,000 acres had been enclosed without purchase. With respect to those 2,000 acres the Committee had recommended that in those cases where enclosures had taken place without purchasing the rights of the Crown, immediate steps should be taken to assert those rights; and he wished to know whether the Government were prepared to carry that recommendation into effect. The Government appeared to be signally misinformed on the subject, for the right hon. Gentleman had stated that no further in-closure had taken place since the Report of the Committee. About a fortnight ago he rode into Epping Forest, and found enclosures taking place close to Woodford Wells, a very favourite spot for picnic parties, of which he had a visible illustration, for no fewer than from twenty to thirty families were there and then enjoying themselves. The Question was at present in a most unsatisfactory position. It was one moreover that ought not to be left in the hands of private Members. It was the duty of the Government to take the subject into their immediate consideration. A Committee upstairs could not know the nature of the localities, and it would be well if a Commission were sent down to the spot to select those portions of the forest most eligible for purposes of recreation, and the freehold of those portions should be purchased. There was a pressing necessity that these spaces for recreation, which were gradually disappearing from the neighbourhood of London, should be preserved.


said, he could not altogether concur in casting blame on the Government, but he thought that a Commission should be issued to inquire as to the best vacant sites for recreation purposes, and, where rights existed, how they could be compensated, so that suitable spaces for popular amusement might be maintained. The population at the east end of London, and that portion of Essex which he had the honour to represent, derived great enjoyment and benefit from occasional visits to Epping Forest, and to prevent the restriction of that enjoyment by the enclosures which, legally or illegally, were taking place in the district, it was necessary to adopt the course suggested by the hon. Member for Maldon. The population in the east of London was rapidly increasing. In one parish, West Ham, the population which in 1851 was only 15,000, had, in 1861, more than doubled. It was 38,000. They had evidence before the Committee that the forest was used by all classes of the people. It was a place of favourite public resort during the whole summer; and, on every day in the week, large schools were being constantly taken down in vans. On one occasion, as a witness stated, he had taken down sixty vans, containing 1,000 adults. It would be a great loss to the people to be deprived of such healthful resorts, and it was incumbent on the Government to take the proper steps to preserve at once the rights of the Crown and the means of recreation for the people. The Government were not blameless in the matter, for in the Forest of Hainault 2,000 acres of Crown land had been enclosed and all the timber swept away, the whole being now a large sweep of arable land, without a single acre being reserved for the recreation and enjoyment of the people. Something should be done to prevent further encroachment.


said, he would congratulate the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down on his change of opinion on the subject. Lately, when the people of Finsbury were endeavouring to keep the forest for ever open for their recreation and health, the hon. Gentleman was a strong opponent of that course; but now that he found the population of West Ham was rapidly increasing and required the forest for recreation, he joined with those who exclaimed against forest enclosure. The position in which the question stood was this. The Crown was entitled to certain rights over the forests of Hainault and Epping, and if the Crown claimed those rights, the lands would be left very much in their present condition. But, for the last fifteen years, the Crown had sadly neglected its duty. Its rights were allowed to be encroached upon and their money value to be filched by parties residing in those districts. The Committee which sat last year came to certain Resolutions, but these Resolutions might be said to express the opinions of the Chairman only, for the Committee divided six to six on every Resolution, and, as Chairman, he was called to give the casting vote. The Government ought to take action in the matter, for since the Report of the Committee, enclosures had taken place and were taking place; and if things went on so, in two or three years the people would be entirely shut out of their favourite places of recreation and enjoyment. The Government should stop the sale of all forestal rights in that forest, or appoint a Commission of Inquiry, for he claimed an indefeasible right on the part of the public to the use and enjoyment of a great part of the forest.


said, that there was one proposition in respect to which they were all pretty much agreed, and that was, that the question was in a very unsatisfactory state; but he marvelled much that some hon. Gentlemen, the promoters of the Address of last year, should cast on the Government the responsibility for that unsatisfactory condition of the question, for he maintained that it was in a great degree owing to them and to the Address which they induced the House to adopt. The hon. Gentleman who had just sat down called on the Government to act on the recommendation of the minority of the Committee and against that of the majority. [Mr. COX: Act on one or on the other, but act.] He wished the House to observe what the recommendation of the majority of the Committee was. They advised that the sanction of Parliament should be given to the enclosure of a main portion of the forest; that the rights of interested parties should be ascertained, and that provision should be made by these means and partly by purchase for securing a part of the forest for the recreation of the public. But where there was a purchase, there must be purchase money, and hon. Gentlemen had been very shy of that part of the question. Was the purchase money to come from the Consolidated Fund? The Government thought proper, from respect to a Resolution of that House, to discontinue the sale of forestal rights, but by so doing they inflicted injury on the corpus of the estate of the Crown, of which they were only the life tenants. The estate of the Crown was only in their hands for the life of the Sovereign, and it was the duty of the department of Woods and Forests to administer the estate as other landlords administered theirs—in an enlightened spirit, no doubt, but for the interest of those to whom the estate belonged. Now, it was not the duty of a landlord to reserve open spaces for the public. As for fresh air the people of London were not the only persons for whom that was good; and if the claim then made were admitted, the inhabitants of other parts of England, living in crowded houses and narrow streets, would be equally entitled to apply to the Consolidated Fund. Let hon. Members consider what enormous sums had been expended on the parks, and the grants of money which had been given during their own lifetime for the creation of new parks. That expenditure had been made with great liberality until the House began to consider that there must be some limit to the practice, and determined to provide other machinery, by which London, the most wealthy town in relation to its population, might be able to provide for its wants. The Metropolitan Board of Works was consequently constituted; and an Act was introduced to enable that Board to provide parks and places of recreation by means of rates. [Mr. COX: This forest is beyond their jurisdiction.] It was beyond their jurisdiction for the purpose of levying rates, but not for the purpose of purchase and devoting the place to the enjoyment of the people. The consequence of the Government being prevented from selling forestal rights had been, that those who were desirous of getting the land occupied it without permission, and legal proceedings to dispossess them would only cause a further expense — and for what purpose? Not to make use of the land for the benefit of the proprietor, but for the purpose of keeping it open and unoccupied. The Committee reported that the employment of forestal rights as a means of obstructing enclosure was a course of doubtful justice, and might fail in securing the desired object; but the House, on the other hand, said, "Do not make a sale of forestal rights." He admitted that the question was in an embarrassing position, but he was not prepared to say that the Government were responsible for it, because they did their best to prevent the House coming to the Resolution which had been referred to. It was now said that a Commission should be appointed, but he did not think that the Government were ever justified in appointing a Commission to get rid of responsibility, and they ought not to appoint a Commission unless they were prepared to give instructions for a definite object. No doubt the ground was very much wanted. On that he quite agreed. But it was doubtful whether it was the duty of the Government to inquire what ground should be reserved. It came much more within the province of the Metropolitan Board, to which, under the sanction of law, the duty of providing recreation grounds for the recreation of the people of London belonged. The Government would not be justified in acting contrary to law, and in taking into its hands the function and duty which a statute had assigned to another body. He should be glad if any mode could be discovered for dealing with the question, but so long as the Metropolitan Board existed, it would not be the duty of the Government to find new places of recreation for the people of London, and even should the statute which constituted the board be repealed, it would not become the Government to provide out of the Consolidated Fund such places for the inhabitants of the metropolis until they had carefully considered whether they were prepared to act on the same principle in the case of other large towns.


said, bethought that the right hon. Gentleman was incorrect in what he had said regarding the powers of the Metropolitan Board. That Board, he fully believed, had no authority under the Metropolis Local Management Act to buy any land beyond their jurisdiction for the recreation of the people. If the Metropolitan Board really had such a power, he would be the first to advocate their exercising it for the benefit of the public. He understood that all that was now desired of the Government was that they should simply prevent any encroachment upon the forest. Considering the miles of bricks and mortar that were constantly springing up in the metropolis, he did not think it was fair to turn round upon its inhabitants, who now paid for many things of which the country at large had the benefit, and accuse them of wanting to draw upon the Consolidated Fund for their own purposes.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.