HC Deb 14 February 1871 vol 204 cc254-6

, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to facilitate gifts of Land for Public Parks, Schools, and Museums, said, the Bill contemplated the same change in the law that was recommended by a Committee of that House which sat in 1852 to inquire into the law of mortmain, and of which Committee he was a Member. That Committee comprised some of the most eminent Members of the House, who were selected as being the representatives of conflicting opinions on the difficult question of mortmain law; and those Gentlemen, though differing among themselves on many of the points submitted to their decision, all agreed that it was expedient to repeal so much of the law of mortmain as presented any obstacle to the formation throughout the country of parks, schools, and museums, or other means of giving education and enjoyment to the people. That was the unanimous resolution of the Committee, and it was reported to the House. Seventeen or 18 years had since passed away, and, unfortunately, no step whatever had been taken in the matter. To show that the conclusion arrived at by the Committee was a sound and well-advised one, he might observe that the Law of Mortmain—as the 9 Geo. II., c. 36, was generally, but he believed erroneously, called — rendered it practically impossible for anyone in this country to leave by will real property, or funds, to be afterwards applied to the acquisition of real property for any public institution, however meritorious or deserving support it might be. That sweeping enactment, so stringent in its character, was justified by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, its promoter, as a measure necessary to prevent the alienation from the general purposes of the country of large landed estates and the consigning them to the grasp of permanent corporations and trusts. Lord Hardwicke enjoyed the highest reputation as a lawyer—indeed, he might, perhaps, be regarded rather as a preeminent lawyer than as a great statesman. He never forgot that there was a period in our history when ecclesiastical corporations held a very large portion of the soil of the country. Lord Hardwicke was too wise to believe that in his day such a mischievous state of things could recur. Still, he apprehended the recurrence of some possible modification of the evil, and he took these extraordinary precautions against it. Now, gifts of such shreds and patches of land as were necessary for carrying out the objects contemplated by the present Bill would hardly involve any appreciable infraction of the legislation of Lord Hardwicke. Even, however, were it otherwise, the House would be bound to weigh and compare the advantages resulting from the alienation of land for such purposes with the presumable evils that might arise on the other side. On that principle they were in the habit of acting in reference to the Private Bills promoted by commercial companies who asked for power to hold land essential to their operations, notwithstanding the prohibitions of the law of mortmain. The House granted such powers to railway, canal, dock, and other companies without scruple or restraint; and surely the education and the improvement of the condition of the people was a question which the House tad as much at heart as the construction of railways. If the law of mortmain was rightly set aside in those cases it was not too much to ask that it should be set aside for such purposes as he proposed. Another view of the matter was that the hardship, the pains and penalties of the restriction fell almost exclusively on the poorer classes of the community. The man who was prohibited by law from leaving a rood of land as a site for a village school was yet permitted by express provision of the Mortmain Act to leave any extent of land or real property to the two great English Universities, to our great public schools, to a number of other great and flourishing institutions which existed in fact for the special benefit of the upper classes. Nobody, he thought, would undertake to defend such a distinction as that. In the memory of some who now heard him, the late Viscount Fitzwilliam bequeathed by will to the University of Cambridge £100,000 for the erection of a museum, for which he had otherwise splendidly provided. That museum was now one of the glories of the University to which he had the honour to belong. But had Lord Fitzwilliam been minded to leave that museum, not to the University of Cambridge, but to the people of Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester, or any one of those great hives of industry where a knowledge of the arts of design and instruction in the principles of taste could be so advantageously disseminated among the artizans, the gift would have been set aside by the inexorable enactments of the mortmain law. He said that was class legislation of a very obnoxious kind. He was sure that the representatives in that House of the great Universities of the land, naturally anxious as they were to promote their prosperity by every legitimate and honourable means, would not wish to maintain a distinction so invidious and so injurious to other classes. He felt convinced that those Gentlemen would say with him— Non tali auxilio nee defensoribus istis Tempus eget. and would lend him their aid in promoting a change in the law. The right hon. Baronet concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to facilitate gifts of Land for Public Parks, Schools, and Museums, ordered to be brought in by Sir WILLIAM HUTT and Sir STAFFORD NORTHCOTE.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 25.]