HC Deb 24 June 1884 vol 289 cc1224-32

The Prince of Wales's Consent, as Duke of Cornwall, signified.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."—(Sir Charles Forster.)


said, he suspected that very few Gentlemen in that House knew what this Bill was about. It was called "Smith's Trust Estate Bill," and its object was to enable a lease to be granted to Mr. Smith, or rather the extension of an existing lease to be granted to Mr. Smith, of the entire Scilly Islands. Those Islands comprised between 3,000 and 4,000 acres, and there were rather more than 2,000 inhabitants upon them. Some of these inhabitants were employed in raising-vegetables for the London Market; others were employed in matters connected with shipping, and there was not a single stipulation in the whole of the Bill as to how these people were to be treated. The whole of the Islands were to be handed over to Mr. Smith, who was to be called what was known as "the Lord Farmer." This system had been followed in the case of the Smith family since the year 1831. From the year 1570 down to 1831, the Islands were held by members of the Godolphin family under successive leases for varying periods granted by the Dukes of Cornwall, or by the Sovereign. The Grodolphin family appeared to have gained their living by wrecking. The last lease expired in the year 1831, and the then lessee, in whom it was vested, being unable to arrange for a new lease on satisfactory terms, the possession of the Islands reverted to the Duchy of Cornwall. Shortly after the termination of the lease, Mr. Augustus John Smith, an ancestor of the present Mr. Smith, negotiated with the Duchy for a lease of the Islands, which was agreed to on the 20th of November, 1834. He believed that the despotism of the late Mr. Smith was a benevolent despotism; but still it was an absolute despotism, as it was at the present moment. Indeed, there was a clause contained in the Bill —one of the "whereases" of the Bill —which assigned as a reason why the Bill should be passed, that Mr. Smith had reduced the population, and had succeeded in keeping it within the reduced limit. When Mr. Smith took possession of the Scilly Islands, the resident inhabitants were about 2,800 in number; but he reduced them to 2,200, and during the remainder of his life kept it within that limit. Whether Mr. Smith acted upon some Malthusian scheme, whether he prevented marriage altogether, or whether he drove any man who wanted to marry out of the Islands, he (Mr. Labouchere) did not know; but the House was simply asked to put over the Islands, as a sort of hereditary "Lord Farmer," a descendant of this gentleman, and one of the grounds for doing so was that the family rule had succeeded in reducing the population. He had been told that when anybody did not act in accordance with the wishes of Mr. Smith he was banished from his native Island; that Mr. Smith was the absolute master of these Islands; and no sort of condition or stipulation was contained in this Bill as to the manner in which he was to treat his tenants. There was no fixity of tenure; nothing paid for improvements; nothing they had been agitating for in that House; and he was sure that such a Bill, handed to them as "Smith's Trust Estate Bill," and containing such stipulations, would not receive the support of any Radical Member of the House. It was true that the Bill had passed the House of Lords. He was not surprised at that, because the House of Lords was a landlords' Assembly. It had also passed two stages in the House of Commons, simply because nobody knew anything about it; and he thought that no better exemplification could be put forward of the necessity of the plan intended to be proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Mr. Arnold) to-morrow, for insuring that the House should be placed in possession of some facts concerning Bills of this kind when they came down from the House of Lords than the present measure. Upon the present occasion he should not put the House to the trouble of a Division, for the simple reason that he knew he should not get a majority. If, however, hon. Members desired to divide, he was perfectly ready to divide with them; but he did not think it was likely they would have a majority on a Private Bill which had already passed the House of Lords and been confirmed in two stages by the House of Commons. It was scarcely probable that such a measure would be thrown out on the third reading. He had only brought the matter under the notice of the House as an exemplification of the way in which Bills that were termed Private Bills were passed in that House. He wished, however, to express his opinion that a more monstrous, a more mischievous, a more scandalous, or a more iniquitous Bill, had never passed through that House.


said, he very much agreed in principle with the views which had been enunciated by his hon. Friend; but it really seemed to him that the matter the House now had to deal with was a simple and practical one. Before Mr. Augustus Smith, the late proprietor, obtained a lease of these Islands, the Scillonians were destitute and starving wreckers and smugglers, and every year it was found necessary to raise a subscription in order to relieve these discarded people. The late Mr. Augustus Smith, whom many hon. Members knew as a Member of that House went there on a benevolent mission; indeed, it was a most benevolent one. They had heard that he had reduced the population. The real fact was that he found the Islands containing nearly 4,000 acres, upon which a population of nearly 3,000 persons were endeavouring to obtain a livelihood. He reduced the number of acres available for this purpose, first to 8,000, and ultimately to 2,000—he (Mr. Dillwyn) did not think there were more. Mr. Smith found that the Islands were not large enough to support the population, and he induced some of the people to emigrate to the mainland, so that they might find employment and be in a condition to support themselves. In that way Mr. Smith brought about a very useful reform, and succeeded in effecting a vast improvement in the condition of the Islanders. He (Mr. Dillwyn) had himself stayed in these Islands, and he could say that he had never seen a better conducted or a more prosperous set of people. There was now no wrecking or smuggling, and pauperism was unknown in the Islands. When he had seen what benefits had been conferred upon the Islands by a lease like this, he felt that it was desirable to continue it. It was most desirable that in a group of Islands like the Scilly Islands, isolated from the mainland, being more than 40 miles from Penzance, which was the nearest port, there should be some wealthy capitalist to look after their interests. Therefore, although he agreed with the general principle laid down by his hon. Friend, he thought this was altogether an exceptional case, and he could not oppose the Bill.


wished to say, in a few words, why he concurred with the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn). He had known the Scilly Islands for many years. He had paid many visits to them, and it was a matter of notoriety that the condition of the inhabitants had been materially benefited by the action of the present proprietor and of his predecessor, the late Mr. Augustus Smith. It was perfectly true that when Mr. Smith first took over the lease from the Godolphin family that the inhabitants were in a most wretched condition, whereas now they were a prosperous and thriving community. When the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) described the present Bill as a monstrous, scandalous, and iniquitous measure, he (Sir John St. Aubyn) had felt surprise, because he had the honour of representing this community, and he had not had a single complaint from any one of them as to the way in which they were treated. As far as his own personal knowledge went, he believed that the hon. Member for Northampton must have been misinformed, and he thought the House would do well to pass the Bill.


said, he hoped that the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) would be convinced by the testimony of two hon. Members of the House, who were best acquainted with the condition of affairs, that theories were not always consistent with facts. Those who knew anything of the condition of the Western Islands of Scotland could not help wishing that there had been some such care taken of those Islands as had been evinced in the case of the Scilly Islands. The contrast in the condition of the population of the Western Islands of Scotland and in that of the Scilly Islands was extremely striking. The hon. Member for Northampton spoke of tyranny and despotism; but what was this Bill? It was only under peculiar circumstances of tenure that an Act of Parliament was necessary in regard to the making of a lease. Under ordinary circumstances, a lease could be made by the landlord of his own motion. Everybody who knew the Scilly Islands knew that the influence of the proprietor had been used for nothing but good; and it was only the peculiar circumstances of the tenure which required the sanction of Parliament to the lease. No doubt the sanction of Parliament would not be given to a lease, or to anything else, if it were considered to be inexpedient and likely to be detrimental to the population. The present system of leases, as the hon. Member acknowledged, had existed since the year 1570; and therefore what the hon. Member asked the House to do was to reject a system of tenure which had the prescription of three centuries, without any allegation that the slightest evil had resulted from that tenure, and upon grounds which had been controverted by those who knew most about the matter. He hoped that his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, having heard what had been stated by the hon. Member for West Cornwall (Sir John St. Aubyn) and the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), who could not be accused of being adverse to necessary land reforms, would not divide the House.


said, that his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) had denounced this Bill with more than his usual vigour, and had said that a more mischievous, scandalous, and iniquitous Bill had never been brought into the House. [Mr. LABOUCHERE: Hear, hear!] Now, as he (Sir Arthur Otway) was responsible for the measure, he would take the liberty of showing what the real facts of the case were, and how contrary they were to the allegations of his hon. Friend. The Bill had already passed through the House of Lords, where it had received a careful investigation at the hands of Lord Redesdale, the Chairman of Committees in that House. It then came down before him (Sir Arthur Otway), when it again received careful consideration. The hon. Member had talked of tyranny over the population of the Islands; but everyone who was an authority upon the question agreed that Mr. Smith had conducted his estate in the best manner for the good of the population upon it. His hon. Friend stated that the population had been reduced by Mr. Smith from 4,000 to 2,000. The fact was that it had been reduced from under 3,000 to 2,200; but it had not been reduced by any means that were objectionable. Mr. Smith did that which every landowner ought to do; he conducted his estate to the best of his ability, and for the advantage of the people who lived upon it. "When there were no means of subsistence, and the population were in excess of the means of livelihood, he found employment for those who were inclined to emigrate to the mainland. The history of these Islands might be told in a few words. He proposed to make the House acquainted with the real character of the measure, which was very different from the version which had been given by his hon. Friend. Previous to the year 1831 the Islands had been leased by the Godolphin family; but as the lessees were unable to arrange for a new lease on satisfactory terms, the possession of the Islands reverted to the Duchy, and a lease was granted to the late Mr. Augustus Smith in 1834 for a term of 99 years. There was, however, one condition—namely, that he and two others should live for so long a period. For this lease Mr. Smith paid a sum of £20,000, and a yearly rent of £40, in addition to certain stipends for the clergy, school houses, and other things. In 1837, and again in 1864, the original leases were surrendered, and a new one was made. The population, which was 2,800 in 1832, and not 4,000 as stated by his hon. Friend, was then a little over 2,000. The Islands contained about 3,600 acres, of which, however, only 2,000 were suitable for grazing and cultivation. Under the Duchy of Cornwall Act a lease could not be granted for more than 31 years, and the lease had now been surrendered. Upon what terms had it been surrendered? It was upon terms that were highly advantageous to the people inhabiting the Islands. Mr. Augustus Smith spent £80,000 in improving the estate, and the Bill which the House was now asked to sanction had been granted, on the surrender of the original lease, for a term of 31 years dating from March, 1883, not on a rental of £40 a-year, but upon a yearly rental of £740. After the testimony which had been given as to the condition of the Islands, and now that his hon. Friend knew the terms of the lease, he hoped his hon. Friend would not retain the opinion he had expressed that this was the most wicked, mischievous, and scandalous measure ever presented to Parliament. On the contrary, he trusted that his hon. Friend would abstain from carrying his opposition further; but that he would allow the measure, the terms of which were exceedingly reasonable, to pass.


said, he was of opinion, after the two speeches they had heard from the Treasury Bench, that his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) was bound to go to a Division, in order to show that the obsolete principles laid down by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary did not prevail. His hon. Friend did not object to what was done, but to the method of doing it. His objection was entirely one of principle—namely, that at this time of day it should be possible to lease an Island to a single man without any condition whatsoever to secure the rights of the people dwelling upon it. He (Mr. Jesse Collings) said it was not the question what the result of the arrangement might be—whether it would be for the benefit of the people who inhabited these Islands, or not. To hand over these persons without any condition whatever might be a reason for letting the Bill go through the House quietly; but after the defence of the measure they had heard from the Treasury Bench, it became absolutely necessary for some hon. Member to enter a protest against the principle, even although the adoption of the principle, in certain cases, might have had the result of doing good to those who were operated upon. For these reasons he thought his hon. Friend ought to divide the House. As for the defence which had been set up by the hon. Member who represented West Cornwall (Sir John St. Aubyn), there was a tone of innocence about it which was quite charming. The hon. Member said that these men, who were handed over without any condition for the preservation of their rights and liberties, and who were, as a matter of fact, deprived of their liberties by the Bill, had made no complaint. Of course they had made no complaint, and they were not likely to do so. They rarely heard an articulate complaint from any district in England in which such a system obtained. They might hear plenty in private, but not in public. He had had experience of what it was to live under territorial power, and he certainly declined to give to any man power over his fellow-men to this extent. It was all very well to talk of benevolence; but he did not recognize any benevolence in the matter. A man born upon the land had the strongest right to remain upon it if he chose; and it was not for Parliament to say that any one man should have the right of determining whether a district should maintain 2,000, 3,000, or how many persons. That was a decision which ought to be arrived at by some other process more in accordance with modern ideas; and he certainly trusted that as the Bill had been defended on such grounds as it had been, his hon. Friend would go to a Division against it.


said, it was quite refreshing to hear that, in considering the provisions of the present Bill, the care and consideration which Mr. Smith had paid to the estate and the people upon it, during his occupation of the Scilly Islands as "Lord Farmer," was not to be regarded. It was perfectly certain that the effect of this lease had been greatly to raise the character of the population, as well as their intelligence and comfort, and to put an end to practices which were certainly a disgrace to the Islands and to those who lived in them. The hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) had, of his own knowledge, borne testimony to the good effect of the system which now prevailed in these Islands. Was it an obsolete practice and an obsolete principle that a landlord should do his best to improve the condition of the people who lived on the land which he owned? It appeared to him that it would be a grave misfortune to the Islands and to the inhabitants if Parliament were to refuse the sanction that was necessary to complete this arrangement — an arrangement which had hitherto worked well and beneficially to the people themselves, and the refusal of which would remove from these Islands a gentleman who had devoted his life to studying the interests of the inhabitants, and without whose presence among them great loss must ensue. What was the difference be- tween a landlord who devoted himself to the benefit of the people among whom he lived and a gentleman who had a large manufactory, and having erected a number of cottages for the accommodation of his workpeople, insisted that good order should prevail in them. It appeared to him that there was no difference in the exercise of the duties of life in the one case or in the other.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed, without Amendment.

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