HC Deb 12 March 1896 vol 38 cc729-41

On the Order for the Second Reading of this Bill,

MR. J. M. PAULTON (Durham, Bishop Auckland)

said, the Bill sought to violate what had been for many years the definite settled and uniform policy of Parliament as declared by a long series of Acts with regard to the enclosure of Metropolitan common lands. His Amendment dealt solely with the question of principle, which was the only ground on which those who had any knowledge of Private Bill Procedure could feel justified in asking the House to oppose the Second Reading of such a Bill. The principle hero involved was a very important one, and the ground of opposition to the Bill was the manner in which it dealt with common lands. So far back as 1845 Parliament recognised the vital importance of metropolitan interests in the preservation of commons, and it adopted a policy which had been confirmed by subsequent legislation; it laid it down as its duty to preserve open spaces and commons within the metropolitan area and in its immediate environs. In 1864 a strong resolution was passed by the House of Commons declaring that it was the duty of the Government to take steps to preserve these commons and open spaces. In the following year a Select Committee went exhaustively into the question, and the outcome of their Inquiry was the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, which expressly exempted metropolitan common lands from being made even the subject of recommendation for enclosure under the Enclosure Act. It further gave the inhabitants of the Metropolis the right to apply for a scheme by which any open space or common might be regulated for their use. In 1876 an Act was passed to provide for cases of enclosure and for the regulation of commons, and metropolitan common lands were expressly exempted from its enclosure provisions. So by a series of public enactments metropolitan common lands had been excluded from the limited power possessed by the Board of Agriculture with regard to rural commons. This was the position of Parliament, and it was a strong position. This Bill was promoted by Lord Dysart's trustees, and the estate they represented was a wealthy one; it consisted partly of lands on the banks of, or adjacent to, the river Thames in the neighbourhood of Petersham, Ham, and Richmond. Some of these lands were freehold, and there were other lands over which the trustees had only manorial rights. In particular there was a piece of land, about 200 acres in extent, known as Ham Common Fields, over which the trustees had manorial rights and which it was the object of this Bill to seek to enclose. These were lammas lands, on which rights could be exercised only for a portion of the year; but that restriction did not make them any the less common lands. He did not labour that point, because he did not suppose there was any question about it; and, indeed, the Act of 1869, which extended and amended the Act of 1866, expressly declared that lammas lands were common lands. If these lands were not common lands, why was a Bill introduced to enable the promoters to enclose and make use of them? They proposed to extinguish common rights over these lands, to seize and enclose them, and to add them to what was already an enormously wealthy estate. It was proposed to give compensation to persons who had common rights, but only if they had exercised their rights within three years. That was an extremely cool proposition. This was an attempt to subvert the settled and declared policy of Parliament in respect of metropolitan common lands, and, moreover, it was an attempt to do so by means of a private Bill promoted by persons who were chiefly interested and concerned in the development and improvement of this estate. No doubt there would be given to the House a glowing account of the benefits to be conferred on the locality in return for the passing of this Bill. It would be said that the Richmond Corporation would have the benefit of a water logged meadow, and that the district council of Ham would receive £15,000 in hard cash and the gift of Ham Common, which for generations had been the subject of conflict, and even of actual physical struggle, between the villagers and the representatives of the estate. It would also be said that in return for the stopping up of a number of footpaths over these lands the promoters were to make certain, other footpaths and carriage roads, which would improve the neighbourhood and possibly make it more convenient for the well-to-do classes. Whenever people desired to get hold of land of this kind it was because they were philanthropic and wanted to confer benefits on a locality—but such pretensions usually meant one for other people and two for themselves. The question was not whether certain ratepayers were going to receive good value for the support they were giving this Measure, but it was whether the House was prepared to go behind the settled policy of Parliament and to allow the enclosure, by a private Bill, of metropolitan common lands. The Bill was petitioned against by the commoners of Ham, by the London County Council, and by the Society for the Preservation of Commons and Open Spaces; and the opponents ought not to be put to the cost of opposing the Bill in Committee. He asked the House to uphold the rights it had affirmed by a long series of public enactments, and he concluded by moving:— That, having regard to the policy of Parliament as declared by the Metropolitan Commons Acts, 1866 and 1869, this House is not prepared to entertain a Bill for the enclosure of metropolitan common lands.

MR. J. BIGWOOD (Middlesex, Brentford),

in seconding the Amendment, said he felt that a principle of great public importance was involved. A report issued that morning described the footpaths threatened as ill-defined and unnecessary tracks and paths by which people roamed all over this estate; and the question was whether Londoners were to be deprived of this privilege. He was sure that Parliament, after having passed a series of Acts for the protection of such lands, would not allow a private bargain, such as the Bill proposed, to deprive Middlesex of one of its few recreation-grounds. ["Hear!"]

MR. T. SKEWES-COX (Surrey, Kingston)

said, he rose on behalf of the promoters of the Bill, to support its Second Reading. He could not understand why this Bill should not be allowed to follow the usual procedure of Private Bills—to be read a Second time by the House and then referred to a Committee upstairs—as there was nothing against its principle. [Cries of "Oh!" and laughter.] It was a most debateable point whether the lands in question were common lands within the Act of 1866. They were not ordinary pasture lands on which lammas rights were enjoyed. They were let to tenants from year to year, and were used as market gardens. But, in any event, lammas rights, such as they were, were recognised by the Bill, and those who were entitled to them would receive just compensation. With regard to the riverside, the trustees had entered into an agreement vesting in the Thames Conservancy enough of the land to enable them to double the width of the towing-path from Richmond to Teddington Lock. The lands between the enclosed lands and the river were 17 acres in extent. Of these no fewer than 14 acres would remain open for the public to walk upon, and on the remainder no buildings were to be erected. For years past questions of dispute in respect to the rights over Ham Common had arisen; and therefore, while the rights of Ham commoners were reserved, the trustees proposed to vest the management of the common in the Ham District Council. That body was young, and was imbued with local patriotism, and had succeeded in getting from the trustees good terms for the benefit of the whole parish. The trustees were to invest £4,000 in the schools.

MR. H. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

Will the hon. Gentleman say whether these schools are not voluntary schools?


said, they were national voluntary schools—[ironical Opposition cheers]—and were the only schools in the parish. [Ministerial cheers.] They were also to invest £2,500 for the benefit of almshouses already erected but poorly endowed; to contribute £5,000 towards the cost of sewering the parish; and to give a site free of consideration for an addition to the parish burial-ground. All these terms represented about 2s. 6d. in the pound on the rateable value of the parish.


Am I right in saying that they are also to give a site for a vicarage?


said that was so, provided the District Council required the present vicarage for their offices. He had not forgotten that, but he did not mention it, as he thought he was wearying the House by demonstrating the generous way in which the trustees were treating the parish of Ham. Then there was the question of footpaths through Petersham Meadow, which was within the boundary of Richmond. There were various paths, some new, some old, and some which led to nowhere from nowhere. For many years the public were allowed to wander at their own free will over the whole of King's Meadow, which was in front of the historic house of Ham. The Richmond Council, therefore, said to the trustees that if they proposed to enclose any of those paths they should supply other paths in places more convenient, and that the trustees were going to do. Petersham meadows were to be conveyed to Richmond, and kept as open spaces; the object was to prevent their being built upon, as they formed the chief feature in the foreground of that celebrated view, and if they were built upon, the beauty of that lovely scenery would be absolutely spoilt. It was said that the meadows were sometimes waterlogged. Only four of the 22 acres were submerged, and by erecting a concrete wall they would be able to render those four acres sound. He denied that the changes proposed by the Bill would affect the view from Richmond Hill. The trustees had looked after the rights of Londoners; and, as there was nothing in the Bill, which had the sanction of the Court of Chancery, to differentiate it from other Private Bills, he hoped the House would give it a Second Reading.

MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)

trusted that the Members of the House of Commons, irrespective of Party or locality, would seriously consider the propositions of this private Bill. For the benefit of Members from provincial constituencies, who did not know the extreme beauty of the locality affected by the Bill, he might say that one standing on Richmond Terrace, and looking away over the river west and north-west, saw a view which had been sung by many poets, and which the average Englishman admired and cherished probably more than any other view within a hundred miles of London. It was proposed by the Bill to concede Petersham Meadow, immediately underneath the terrace, and thereby sacrifice the beauty of that unequalled scene.


I would remind the hon. Gentleman that no part of the lammas land whatever can be seen from the hill.


said that, unfortunately for the hon. Member's contention, he had had the pleasure the other day of walking from Wellington Barracks to Richmond with a battalion of the Cold-stream Guards, to see how their boots wore on the way—[laughter]—and he took the opportunity while the men were resting of looking at this particular view from the terrace. ["Hear, hear!"] He contended that the proposals of the Bill would take away certain lammas rights, and would materially injure the beauty of the view from Richmond Terrace. This Bill sought—under the guise of giving £5,000 for sewage purposes, £4,000 to a school, the site for a vicarage, part of which might be used for local board offices, and relief of rates up to 2s. 6d. in the pound—to take away from the whole of London and Middlesex one of the best views within 20 miles of the Metropolis. They were also told that certain low-lying lands might be conceded to Richmond Corporation; but that was land on which, probably, dwelling-houses would not be allowed to be built. The London County Council, by the Bill of 1894, prevented low-lying lands of this description from being built upon; and, if the Corporation of Richmond attended to the sanitary interests of its locality, it would schedule this land and prevent buildings being erected upon it. The local authorities of Richmond and Ham should, he maintained, have sought to co-operate with the London County Council and the Middlesex County Council in bringing in a Public Bill to compensate the Dysart trustees for injury sustained by them, whilst, at the same time, maintaining the common and lammas rights, that ought to be inalienable, and which this district had enjoyed for generations. He objected to the Bill because it closed public footpaths. It enclosed land, at present unenclosed, which had been reclaimed from the river. This was given to Richmond Corporation as a concession. What was the concession? For the purposes of navigation and pleasure, the Thames Conservancy had been compelled to dredge the river at this particular point, and the sand and ballast that they had taken from the river had been dumped down on the banks. The Dysart trustees were so generous that they were prepared to give the Corporation of Richmond this sand and ballast. The fact was, they should be suspicious of this local authority having been squared by a contribution of £15,000 to concur in this Bill. But what Richmond and Ham got at the spigot, London lost in the beauty of the place at the bunghole. It might be convenient for Richmond and Ham to receive £15,000 for drains, schools, and other purposes; but he believed that if the London County Council, the Middlesex County Council and the City Corporation had been approached, they would have co-operated to buy out the Dysart trustees. As a London boy, who cherished Richmond Park, Petersham Meadows, Epping Forest, and many other parks and open spaces that had been preserved to the people of London by the Metropolitan Public Commons Act, he asked the House to recognise that this Bill was going to destroy the rural and picturesque appearance of the river between Richmond Bridge and Teddington Lock; and it was substituting for the picturesque rusticity of that spot, cheap-and-nasty houses. These houses were to be within 38 feet of the river, and that space was not to be occupied with a towing path, but by a macadamised road. If there was one thing which Morris or Ruskin would plead for in this stretch between Richmond and Teddington, it would be for the preservation of those apparently insignificant waste pieces of land, with a green fringe, that made the River Thames so beautiful at this spot. He hoped County Members would help London Members to retain this beauty-spot by voting against the Bill.


said, the hon. Member who moved the rejection of the Bill had very properly taken the point of principle, but as the Debate proceeded they had condescended to matters of detail. The House would recognise that, constituted as it was, it could not settle such matters as the question of terms. That question could only be decided by a Committee after hearing evidence and, if necessary, examining the spot. Upon the question of principle he thought it was his duty, being partly responsible for the conduct of Private Bill legislation, to say a word. The hon. Member who moved the rejection of the Bill took the general principle that no Metropolitan commons had been enclosed since the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act, and that the House by passing that Act had clearly shown the spirit in which it intended that these lands should be dealtwith. No donbt these lands were technically commons under the Metropolitan Commons Act, but they were not commons in the usual sense of the word. These lands were all market gardens.




Does the hon. Member deny that?




That shows the difficulty of discussing these matters in this House. In Committee the hon. Member could be cross-examined upon oath. [Laughter.]


I am prepared to take an oath now. [Laughter]


I am afraid I am not in a position to administer an oath to the hon. Gentleman. These lands were used as market gardens, and that if the hon. Member went on them he would be a trespasser. The number of persons who held lammas rights over these lands was very small, and he would point out what he considered a very grave danger in the interests of the public. Suppose the lord of the manor were to buy up these lammas rights. They were, he believed attached to particular tenements, and if the Dysart trustees purchased these tenements they would sink these rights in the freehold. Then what would become of the right of the public? It would be gone. The trustees would be able to enclose these lands without giving the public a single acre in exchange. With such a very small number of holders of common rights the rights of the public were in a very dangerous position. He was certain that if the Bill went to a Committee the rights of the public would be fully considered. On the other hand, he thought the public might be damnified if the House were to throw out the Bill, for the Dysart trustees, who were very rich, might then be induced to attempt to make terms with the few holders of these limited rights, and would then become absolute possessors of the land. He had given the matter his most careful consideration, and had come to the conclusion that neither the rights of the lammas holders nor the rights of the public were likely to suffer from a thorough investigation by a Committee, while an opposite result might be arrived at if the Bill was not read a second time.


said, that the case of the opponents of the Bill was that a principle of public law would be invaded by this Bill. Although it was perfectly true that a very small number of persons apparently had rights over these lammas lands, it was equally true that as long as one person would not sell his right over these lands or could not be found, the trustees could not build over them. As these 200 acres consisted of good building land, it might be taken that if the trustees had been able to buy up the rights of the persons referred to they would not have come to that House for a Bill of this kind. ["Hear, hear!"] The London County Council and the Middlesex County Council had petitioned against the Bill in order that they might be represented before the Committee. The inquiry before the Committee would involve a very large expenditure, and hon. Members ought to be sure that no principle of public law was invaded by the Bill before they required the authorities to send money in opposing the Measure. The bargain embodied in the Bill was a thoroughly unfair one and was greatly to the advantage of the trustees. They were told that the towpath was merely a narrow strip of land, but there was a large space between it and the hedge over which a large number of people roamed. He was told that there was so much room between the towpath and the hedge that a legendary ghost chose it for his nightly walk [laughter], and yet by this Bill everybody, as well as the ghost, would be driven off the land. [Renewed laughter.] This was one of the finest walks in the neighbourhood of London, and it would be utterly destroyed if the Bill passed. ["Hear, hear!''] Ham Fields were 22 acres in extent and Petersham Fields were 170 or 180 acres, and, therefore, the proposed bargain would be most advantageous to the Dysart Trustees. The opponents of the Bill spoke as Londoners, and they said that the whole course of modern, legislation was based on the principle of preserving open spaces within a given area round London. In these circumstances, he hoped that the Bill would not be allowed to pass. ["Hear, hear."]

MR. LEONARD COURTNEY (Cornwall, Bodmin)

said that the House ought to emphasise the principle which was laid down in the Act which Parliament had passed some 30 years ago, which prohibited absolutely the enclosure of metropolitan commons. ["Hear, hear!"] The question, therefore, was, Did this Bill propose to decommon a metropolitan common? If it did, the promoters of the Measure were attempting by means of a private Bill to set aside public law. ["Hear, hear."] If the House came to the conclusion that this was a metropolitan common they must reject the Bill at this stage, and in that case he should feel himself compelled to vote against the Measure. He, however, would suggest that it should be an Instruction to the Committee to examine into the question whether the lands proposed to be dealt with by the Bill were common lands within the meaning of the Metropolitan Commons Act, and, if so, to strike out all the clauses applying to such lands. In the absence of such a proposal on the part of the promoters of the Measure, a strong prima facie case having been made out that the lands in question were common lands, he should be compelled to vote against the Bill. ["Hear, hear!'']

MR. ALFRED HOPKINSON (Wilts, Cricklade)

pointed out that it was practically admitted that this was a Metropolitan common, and the Legislature would stultify itself if it were to pass this Bill after having passed an amending Act for the express purpose of bringing lammas lands, such as those now proposed to be dealt with, under the operation of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866. In 1866 a definite proposal was made and carried through the House, which had been acted upon for 30 years, that the Commissioners should not entertain any application for the enclosure of metropolitan commons. It was perfectly clear that Parliament had laid down a definite course of policy for dealing with commons within the metropolitan area. Was it right, then, by private Bill, the discussions on which involved great expense and outlay to those who were willing to put forward public rights and defend them, to interfere with a public Act of Parliament? For these reasons, he submitted that it was right and necessary to pass the Resolution proposed from the other side of the House.


said, that the rejection of a Bill of this character at this stage was an extreme course, to which the House very rarely lent itself. The House had confidence in the competency and impartiality of its Committees upstairs, and it had, moreover, the safeguard of the Third Reading. If the Bill came down from the Committee in such a condition as was not generally satisfactory, it could be rejected at that final stage. Without referring to the details of the Bill, he would point out that there was nothing in it which precluded the scheme being made, in its passage through Committee, satisfactory to all parties, and the interests of the public, and if such a result could be secured, it would be a pity to throw away this chance of gaining it. The opposition to the Bill was founded on the general principle of the policy of the Act of 1866. It was quite true that that Act did prohibit the entertaining of an application for the in closure of any metropolitan common or any part of one; but it was well to remember the particular evils which had to be contended with at the time of the passing of that Act. In 1866, encroachments on metropolitan commons by builders, and their neglected condition as regarded drainage and their want of protection as open spaces for public use and enjoyment, were the special evils which called for remedy; and the vital principle of the Act of 1866 was declared to be the provision of machinery to call forth and organise local effort for the proper protection and management of commons. The interest of the locality was held to be the best guarantee for care and preservation of the commons; and as this Bill contained full provision for control by local authorities, he believed that it might be made to fulfil the purposes of the policy of the Act of 1866.

MR MICHAEL BIDDULPH (Herefordshire, Ross)

said, that although he had no authority to speak on behalf of the promoters, he believed that he was in a position to say that if this Bill were read a second time, they would agree to the Instruction to the Committee, as suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Liskeard. He therefore trusted the House would allow the Bill to be read a second time.

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

The House divided:—Ayes, 118; Noes, 262.—(Division List, No. 42.)

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Resolved,— That, having regard to the policy of Parliament, as declared by the Metropolitan Commons Acts, 1866 and 1869, this House is not prepared to entertain a Bill for the inclosure of Metropolitan common lands.