HC Deb 08 May 1866 vol 183 cc598-610

rose to call the attention of the House to the recommendations contained in the Report (1854) by the right hon. Henry Labouchere, Sir John Patteson, and George Cornewall Lewis, Esq., Commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of the Corporation of the City of London, namely— We recommend that the Irish Society he dissolved, and its charter be repealed by Act of Parliament; and that its property be vested in a new set of trustees, whose number and character should be defined in the Act. We recommend, farther, that the trustees be appointed by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and that he have power to fill up vacancies as they occur from time to time. A general scheme for the guidance of the trustees in the management of the property ought, as we have already stated, to be laid down by the Act. but as it may be difficult to define once for all every portion of a scheme of this kind, and as it may be desirable, as circumstances alter, to alter the provisions of the scheme to meet them, power should be given to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland to modify or vary the provisions of the scheme within certain limits. The hon. Gentleman alluded briefly to the history of the Irish Society which had its origin in the plantation scheme of James I., who in 1609 negotiated with the London Corporation for conveying to the Irish Society the whole of the county of Londondery including Coleraine and Derry with extensive fisheries. This arrangement was confirmed by charter in 1613, and the Irish Society continued to hold and manage the estates vested in it. This Society consisted of a Governor, who was the only member of it who continued in office for more than two years, a deputy Governor and twenty-four assistants elected by the Court of Common Council from the freemen of London. He argued that the constitution of the Society precluded the possibility of a useful or uniform management of the property of which the society were trustees. The Lon-d6n Corporation had no beneficial interest in the estate, and their duties in connection with the society were limited to the election of its members. The property to which the Motion referred was what is known as the Indivisible Estate, and was distinct from that divided in 1614 between the twelve London companies and assigned to them in fee. From the earliest times the management by the Irish Society was called into question, As early as 1615 James I. complained of the slow progress of the plantation; and in the reign of Charles I., the charter of the Society was withdrawn in consequence of its disputes with the Crown. The Society, however, obtained a new charter in 1662 which re-conveyed the Indivisible Estate, consisting of the city of Londonderry, the town of Coleraine, certain lands and fisheries, all producing, in 1854, an annual rent of about £10,000. Grave abuses crept into the management of this property—the bare cost of which amounted to nearly half the income. The great grievance, however, was the withholding of suitable building leases. Originally, the Society granted leases renewable in perpetuity of the property within the walls of Londonderry, but leases of property outside the walls were restricted to a term of sixty-one or seventy-eight, and latterly of eighty years; but on a condition in operation until ten years ago to the effect that no lease should be renewed until three years of its expiration, a condition which, of itself, was sufficient to account for the backward state of Derry and its comparative want of progress in improvement. Several inquiries had been made into the management of the Irish Society, and all the reports were adverse. The Municipal Corporation of England Commissioners said they knew of no pretext for continuing the municipal supremacy of the Irish Society. The Irish Corporation Commissioners reported they had been unable to obtain the necessary information from the Irish Society, but that it appeared from the evidence of the Secretary given before the House of Commons Committee in 1824, that while the society had an income of £7,000 a year from Derry and Coleraine, their expenditure for public purposes was only £500. The Commissioners who last reported on the Society were the right hon. Henry Labouchere, Sir John Patteson, and Mr. George Cornewall Lewis, and after hearing full evidence they reported that the Irish Society should be dissolved, and its trusts declared by Act of Parliament; and that new trustees be appointed by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He (Mr. Kennedy) trusted that those views expressed by men so eminent would command the respect of the House, even if they failed to command that of the Society; one of whose Governors (Alderman Humphrey) admitted that the Society found "Englishmen were not the best people to manage Irishmen." What he had already stated would, he felt, be sufficient for the object of his Motion; but he might fairly contrast the past and present condition of Belfast and Londonderry. Of these towns Derry originally had the advantage. Its port was superior to that of Belfast, but the latter town has completely outstripped it in commerce and population; Belfast being at present a population of 149,500, while that of Derry is only 23,375. And there could be no doubt that the difference was attributable to the fact that in Belfast suitable building leases were granted, and its trade fostered by those who had its management in their hands. In making his Motion he had a second object in view, and that was to elicit an expression of opinion from Irish Members opposite, who resided in the neighbourhood of Derry, and were conversant with the management of the Irish Society. The hon. Member concluded by moving for the Return of papers of which he had given notice.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that as the re-presentive of a large body of the people who were affected by the management of the Irish Society, he would ask how the Society had performed the duties which they were expressly instituted to fulfil, and which were expressly set forth in their charter of incorporation? He believed they had directly violated their trust in not laying to the city of Derry and borough of Coleraine lands intended by the charter for them, by the misappropriation of the revenues to the twelve London companies, of which they are themselves members, by payment to themselves as trustees, and by an unnecessary and extravagant expenditure which they termed "management." With regard to the retention of the lands by the Society, that was a subject so wrapped up in legal difficulties that he did not wish to enter upon it; but it had been a lasting grievance in the minds of the corporation of Derry, because the effect was to withhold from them the revenues to which they were entitled, and thus driving them to contract loans for public works, resulting in a heavy debt, which still hung over the city. The conduct of the Society towards the corporation of Derry had been oppressive and arbitrary. By the charter of incorporation it was generally understood that the income derived by the Society from the lands was to be applied to public purposes and not to mere private gain. Up to the year 1831 the Irish Society were in the habit of finding themselves in possession of a surplus, which they constantly divided among the twelve London companies. Mr. Alderman Humphrey, before the Royal Commission of 1854, said that instead of devoting their revenues to the improvement of Derry and Coleraine, the Society unfortunately found a sum of money at their banker's, which they divided among the twelve London companies, giving £500 to each. Lord Langdale and the House of Lords declared that this was illegal, and added that if the Society were to do their duty they never could have a surplus. The constitution of the Society could not be defended, one great objection to it being that members remained so short a time in office as to take little interest in the affairs of the Society, and were replaced by new men, who know nothing of them. The corporation of Londonderry had introduced a Bill to provide for the longer continuance of the members of the Society in office, but they were opposed by the corporation of London, and that of Londonderry being the weaker of the two it was beaten. A deputation from the Society was required by the charter to pay an annual visit of a month to Ireland to look to the management of their estates; and they did devote a week to the accounts; but the remainder of the month they devoted to a tour through Ireland, and little was heard during the week after their return to London than the grandeur of the Giant's Causeway, the splendour or the squalor of certain streets of Dublin, and the unrivalled beauties of the Lakes of Killarney. From 1824 to 1832, there was a single item in their accounts amounting to £3,779 for tavern expenses—namely, costly banquets and entertainments at the expense of the citizens of Derry. Through these and other extravagancies the expenses of management for years had exceeded half their receipts. Then as to the mode in which the Society granted their leases it was most unjust, and was a complete barrier to improvements and investment of capital in Derry. In the year 1847 a Standing Order was passed that no determinable leases should be renewed till within three years of their expiration; and that no leases should be granted in perpetuity. He understood, however, that these Orders were now rescinded, but as an instance of their present mode of dealing with their tenants he would give the House one specimen. A Mr. Stewart Gordon applied to the Society to grant him a lease of some land which he had reclaimed at Derry, and they consented on condition that he should build four house B on it. Well, he built three, and died, and the Lord Chancellor ordered his representatives to finish the fourth. At last they obtained the draft of the lease, and one of the clauses provided that the lessee should not assign or sublet any one of these four houses, so that he must clearly occupy all four. Another covenant was, that should the lessee become insolvent or bankrupt the lease should be null and void. In other words, that the outlay for the houses should go into the pockets of the Society. Well, this draft lease was sent back to the solicitor of the Society, who was asked whether he had not made a mistake, and his answer was that the lease was in the invariable form of leases granted by the Society. This took place in the year 1863. The Society refused to grant an equitable lease, and the consequence was that the representative of Mr. Gordon took the case to the Court of Chancery, and it was in the Court of Chancery at the present moment. These were a few in- stances in which the Irish Society had abused their power and broken their trust. He trusted that the facts stated and the papers asked for would induce Her Majesty's Government to take the matter in hand. The recommendation of the Royal Commissioners was that the Society should he dissolved, new trusts prepared, and that the trustees should be nominated by the Lord Chancellor. This would place unlimited political power in the hands of the Government, a power which, looking at their proceedings with regard to the dockyard labourers, they would be sure not to exercise. The question, therefore, was how was this property to be settled? As one of the "boys" in Parliament, if he might suggest a course to the Government, he would say, "Follow the first two of the recommendations of the Royal Commission as regarded annulling the Society and revoking the charter; sell the property, and apply the money to the purpose of liquidating the public debts of Derry and Coleraine. At present there was a harbour debt of £150,000; pay that, and make Derry a free port for the benefit of the whole north-west of Ireland. There was a bridge debt of £90,000; pay that, and let Derry have a free bridge. There was a corporation debt of £100,000; pay that, and so free the citizens from the heavy rates now imposed upon them. He trusted that the Motion would be the means of drawing the attention of the Government to the subject, and that they would deal with it in such a manner as to confer a great boon on 35,000 of Her Majesty's subjects.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That there be laid before this House, Statements of the Receipts and Expenditure of the Honourable the Irish Society for twenty years, from February 1845 to February 1865, in following tabular form [which is there given], and other Papers."—(Mr. Kennedy.)


said, that great misapprehension prevailed respecting the constitution of the Irish Society, the benefits which it had conferred upon Ireland, and its present position. The Irish Society was established by the Corporation of the City of London at the request of James I., who desired them to take the management of certain devastated lands which had previously belonged to the O'Neills, and other powerful Irish families. The Livery companies of London were called into council by the corpora- tion, and advanced the money which was required to bring those estates into cultivation, and the controlling authority was placed in the hands of a body who had full power to carry out their operations. He maintained that the prosperous condition of Ulster, as compared with the other provinces of Ireland, was mainly due to the operations of the Society. The noble Lord the Member for Londonderry had complained that the Society had violated their trust, and had misappropriated the funds committed to their management. But who were the parties complaining? No such complaints had ever been made by the tenants, or by the corporation, or by the Harbour Commissioners of Londonderry; on the contrary, they had repeatedly agreed to resolutions thanking the Society for the benefits which they had received from it. The noble Lord also charged the Society with arbitrary and oppressive management, and said that everything connected with it was in an unsatisfactory state. Now, if anyone had a grievance he could bring it before the corporation of the City of London or the Crown; to whom, and to whom alone, the Irish Society were responsible. This was not a Motion simply to obtain particulars and papers, but was an attempt to confiscate the property of the Irish Society. That was what the speech of the noble Lord the Seconder of the Motion amounted to. He said, "Abolish the trustees, sell the property, and pay the debts which the inhabitants of Londonderry have incurred." That was the principle of the Fenians, which it appeared had now extended as far North as Londonderry. He thought it would be most extraordinary if the House should put itself in motion with the view of obtaining information to facilitate the confiscation of the estates of the Society. The Livery Companies of the City of London having advanced the money which was needed by the Society, the estates were after a time divided amongst them; and some of them, amongst others, the Goldsmith's and Haberdasher's Companies, disposed of their shares; and although the lands in Londonderry and Coleraine were not divided, they were just as much the property of the Companies as were those which had been apportioned amongst them, and to which they obtained indefeasible titles. The noble Lord had cited the judgment of Lord Langdale in the case of the Skinner's Company v. the Irish Society, but he had omitted to notice the remarks which were made by Lord Lyndhurst in the same case when it was carried to the House of Lords. Lord Lyndhurst refused to say that the purposes of the trust were so vast and considerable that they could never be satisfied; and he declared that the Society were bound to carry out the purposes of their charter, and that they were themselves the judges of what those purposes were. They might spend the whole of their income upon the improvement of their lands, or might divide it amongst the companies of the City of London. No one could call them to account except the corporation of London, or the Crown. The Irish Society, instead of endeavouring to accumulate profits to divide among the Livery Companies, had been in the habit of expending annually considerable sums upon the improvement of the towns, the assistance of educational establishments, and other measures for the promotion of the comfort and well-being of the inhabitants of Londonderry and Coleraine. At Londonderry they had subscribed £2,100 to the Water Company which supplied the inhabitants with water free of expense, and they had contributed largely to the cost of the bridge, and had established a sinking fund, which in a few years would make it free. The Society had induced the Government to relieve them from the payment of £200 a year to the Governor of Culmore Fort to abolish that sinecure office, and to give up to them the lands attached to that fortress; and although they had to pay £12,000 to the Government, they had devoted all the money saved, and all the profits received from the land to public improvements. A large sum of money had been spent in legal expenses in protecting the salmon fisheries of the rivers Foyle and Bann, but the proceedings which had been undertaken were absolutely necessary in order to protect the rights of the Society. It had divided its benefits impartially amongst the various conflicting interests, which were all anxious to monopolize its grants. Any one who knew Londonderry and Coleraine twenty or thirty years ago would be surprised at the enormous improvements which had since taken place. There were steam-boats running to Liverpool and Glasgow almost daily, and the Transatlantic steam ships called at the mouth of the river. The hon. Member for Louth, the Mover of the Resolution, had compared Londonderry to Belfast, and asked why had not the former progressed as fast, and become as large, as populous, and as wealthy as the latter city; but the hon. Gentleman had not considered that the geographical position of the one gave it great advantages over the other, and Belfast was only 158 miles from Liverpool, whereas Londonderry was 245 miles distant. He looked upon the present Motion as one for a roving sort of Commission, and believed that it was levelled at the destruction of the Society, and the prevention of any further improvements in the two places. The real object of this Motion was to get possession of the property of the Society, and divide it among certain bodies in Londonderry. It was tenant-right under a new form, an attempt to seize the property of the landlords, and divide it among the tenants. The promoters of the Motion desired to obtain information which they had no right to ask for—such as the terms on which the leases were held, and when they expired. It was not likely that the tenants would desire to make their holdings public, and it was not fair to call upon them to make such disclosures. It had been stated that the members of the deputation which annually visited Ireland spent one week on business, and three weeks on pleasure. It was true, that after the business was finished, many spent a few weeks among the Lakes of Killarney, but that was not done at the expense of the Society; all who did so paid their own expenses, and so Ireland derived some pecuniary benefit from their visits. The Irish Society had found it impossible to manage their property so as to give satisfaction to everybody; but that was equally the case with regard to landlords in England where such peculiarities did not exist, as were to be found in Ireland. The Society had done its utmost to promote the interests of the country, and he trusted that the House would not, by assenting to this Motion, give any encouragement to those who sought to cast a censure upon its management, and to deprive it of the property which bad been intrusted to its care.


said, he believed the Irish Society to consist of gentlemen of high honour, who were anxious to discharge their duty in a proper manner. They were, however, unacquainted with the management of large landed property in Ireland, and they fell into the error of dribbling away their funds in small donations which did more harm than good to the recipients. He found that during the course of last year their donations were 165 in number, varying from £1 to £200. A great deal of good might be done if this money, instead of being dribbled away in small sums, was applied in a more useful manner. He was glad that the subject had been discussed in that House, and it was right that the Irish Society, who had nothing to conceal, should know that the complaints of the inhabitants of Derry and Coleraine were founded on the conditions in the leases granted by the Society. Their complaints were that the tenure of the holdings was not sufficiently long, that the conditions on which leases were granted were onerous, that the trustees as a body had not sufficient local knowledge, and that they were appointed for too short a period. He thought, however, the good folks of Londonderry would laugh at the statement of the hon. Member for London (Mr. Alderman Lawrence) of the great things the Irish Society had done for the improvement of their city. They did not owe these things to the Society, but to their own industry and enterprize.


did not rise to enter into the merits of the controversy between the Irish Society and their tenants, but merely to observe that he understood that the Irish Society had ever desire to give as much information as possible respecting the receipts and expenditure, and some important parts of the Return which his hon. Colleague in the representation of Louth (Mr. Kennedy) had given notice of his intention to move for would be produced, but the Society naturally objected to give the case of every particular tenant, and of the grants and renewals of leases. He hoped the hon. Member would agree to accept the information offered, for when it was in their possession they would be better able to judge of the question before them.


thought that the hon. Member for London (Mr. Alderman Lawrence) had made a mistake in saying that the property of the Irish Society was private property with which the country had no right to interfere. He agreed with the Chief Secretary that there was something inquisitorial in the part of the Return to which he referred, but he was glad that the remainder was to be given. He could not admit that the Irish Society had made the improvements with respect to the supply of water referred to by the hon. Member for London. He had himself been one of a deputation to the Society on that subject, when their request was not only refused, but they were received in a manner rather discourteous. The complaint of the people of the North was not as to the charities of the Society, but as to the manner in which the estates were managed. He fearlessly asserted that the management of the estates of the Irish Society was not satisfactory, and was not in accordance with usage in Ulster. Though the Society held their estates in trust only, they did not deal with their tenants in the same liberal spirit that would be shown even by private individuals.


said, that in the main part of the Motion he fully concurred. The revenue of the Society amounted to £14,000, and was mainly held by the Society as trustees for local improvements. He did not think that in the management of their estates the Society had given sufficient encouragement to building leases in Londonderry. Another complaint had reference to the Society as a governing body, as there were only two of its officers who were permanent—one was the Governor, elected for life, and the clerk, who held office during pleasure. None of the other officers remained in office for more than two years. This part of the question was, some years ago, brought under the consideration of the corporation of London; but they positively refused to re-construct the Society on a more permanent basis with respect to its officers. He could confirm the statement that a great deal of irritation prevailed in the North of Ireland as to the management of the Society's estates. From his knowledge of the locality, he could endorse most of the recommendations of the Commissioners of 1854, although he must express his dissent from that part of those recommendations by which the transfer of the trust to the hands of the Lord Chancellor for Ireland was proposed, a functionary who from his position must necessarily be a strong political partizan.


understood the substantial portion of the Motion would not be objected to, omitting that portion referring to the particular tenants and the tenure under which they held. The Motion might, therefore, be put in the amended form.


said, that the Irish Society were anxious to afford every particular in their power with reference to the nature of their trust and the manner in which their powers had been exercised. That information would, he believed, be fully contained in the particulars relating to their receipts and expenditure, pointing out how much had been expended for the benefit of Ireland, how much for the expenses of management, and the particular items of that expenditure. The standing orders of the Court might also be given from time to time. He thought, however, that a great misapprehension existed as to the nature of the trust. Reference had been made to a suit carried on for many years, and decided first by the Master of the Rolls, and afterwards carried into the House of Lords, and from those decisions it was inferred that the Irish Society were the trustees for the benefit of a particular part of the North of Ireland. That was not the case. They were trustees for the Livery Companies by whom the money was originally advanced, coupled with this condition—that before applying any portion of the funds for the benefit of the Companies, they should apply such part of the funds as they thought fit for the benefit of those parts of Ireland in which they held property. It was distinctly laid down by the Master of the Rolls that the Society had an absolute discretion as to what the amount so to be applied should be. The ultimate trust was for the Livery Companies, by whom, 'in the reign of James I., the sum of £60,000 had been advanced. It would be a violation of the trust to apply the funds for the purpose of paying off the debts which certain towns had incurred. He did not propose to enter into the question of the general management of the estates of the Irish Society. He merely wished to set the House right as to the nature of the trust vested in that Society, and at the same time to express in its behalf a desire to furnish the fullest information as to that trust and the manner in which it had been exercised.


said, that after having given the subject the most careful consideration, he felt satisfied the original object of the trust had not been duly carried into effect.

Motion agreed to. Statement ordered, "of the Receipts and Expenditure of the Honourable the Irish Society for twenty years, from February 1845 to February 1865, in following tabular form [which is there given], and other Papers. And Copy of all Standing Orders of the Court from time to time made, from 1845 down to the present time, which cither have or had any refer- ence to the granting or withholding the grant of leases or renewals of leases, with the date at which each such order was made."—(Mr. Kennedy.)