HL Deb 28 July 1835 vol 29 cc1125-32
The Earl of Falmouth

presented a Petition from Truro, against the Corporation Reform Bill, and would take that opportunity of correcting a misrepresentation of what had fallen from him yesterday as to the borough of Weymouth and Meleombe Regis. He found it stated in the public prints that he had said that the Corporation of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis had the administration of funds amounting to 30,000l. a year. He wondered how the mistake could have been made, for he had read the statements from a printed paper. He should now beg leave to read it again. The noble Earl read a statement which in substance set forth that the Corporators were the Trustees of several charitable funds, some of which had been managed by themselves, and some by other persons for more than two hundred years, that the Bill was about to interfere with this trust property, which could not properly be done unless with the consent of the representatives of the donors. He had said nothing whatever about 30,000l. a year. He had pointed out. the mistake of the Commissioners, which in charity he hoped was unintentional, as to the election of Mayor of the borough. It was stated by the Commissioners, that the election was made by thirty-six corporators from four persons presented by the Aldermen. Now, the fact was, that the election was made by the Aldermen from four persons presented to the Corporation by the 1,500 householders and inhabitants of the borough.

The Earl of Radnor

said, that the statement of yesterday as to Melcombe Regis and Weymouth having been this day repeated by the noble Earl, he begged leave to take that opportunity of showing that the noble Earl himself was under a mistake as to what the Commissioners said on the subject of that borough. The noble Earl had stated that the Report of the Commissioners misrepresented the mode of the election of the Mayor of Weymouth. Having heard that statement, he had the curiosity to refer to the Report, and there he found the noble Earl's mistake. The Report stated, that the election was by the Corporation from four names presented to the Mayor and Aldermen, and by reference to the account of the Corporation itself it appeared that the. Corporation consisted of the Mayor and Aldermen, and burgesses and inhabitants, so that in fact, the Report stated that which the noble Earl now declared the fact.

The Earl of Falmouth

said, that he. had looked into the Report, and that having looked into it, he was saved from saying any thing of the trash it contained—and much trash it did contain; but his attention had been particularly called to a statement of the mismanagement of certain trust estates at Truro by the Corporation of that town. He found it stated in the Report, under the head of charities, that the members of the Corporation were the trustees for several charitable funds, the total income of which was 125l. 19s. 4d. and that a portion of the property was let on leases for terms of years. This was the statement. Then came the "Observations," which were to the effect, that it appeared that the amount of the reserved rent for the charities was 6l. 9s. 3d., but the amount of the rents received was 334l. 10s.; that the Corporation had paid the amount of the reserved rent to these charities, but that they had applied the rents otherwise received to other purposes. Now the fact was, that they were not trustees for several charities, but for one charity. That trust was erected in 1792, for the maintenance of an hospital, in which ten poor widows were to be maintained from that time forward. The lands for the support of this hospital had been let on lease; the trustees might run out the existing leases, but then they must have starved the poor widows, and therefore they continued those leases in existence. The whole reserved rents amounted to 125l.; from other sources about 12l. more were derived, making the whole a sum of 137l. 19s. 4d. The cost of the ten widows had been about 124l. which, with some other small charges, left a balance of 12l. 15s. and some odd pence. The necessary repairs of the hospital had cost a sum of 20l., so that the Corporation was rather in advance than otherwise, and there was no charge whatever made for the management of the funds. The hospital was extremely well kept so as to be an object with the best class of poor widows. These were the facts of the case, and he asked their Lordships whether twenty-four men of fortune and of high character, such as were the members of the Corporation of Truro, whether they were to submit to go down to posterity in a record of this nature as persons who mismanaged a charitable trust. He hoped that this calumniated body of Gentlemen would have an opportunity of being heard at their Lordships' Bar in their own defence.

Viscount Strangford

rose in pursuance of notice to present a Petition from the Mayor, Bailiffs, and commonalty of the city of Coventry, under their common seal, praying to be heard by Counsel against the Bill for regulating Municipal Corporations in England and Wales. He would not trouble their Lordships with any expression of his own sentiments respecting either the principle or the provisions of the Bill. He would confine himself to a brief statement of the grounds on which the Corporation of Coventry claimed that which he thought their Lordships could hardly deny them—an opportunity of showing how grievously their rights, privileges, and property, were affected by its enactments. It was mainly a question of property, and it was not their Lordships' practice to dispose of such questions without affording a fair hearing to those whose interests were concerned in them. The Petitioners were seized in fee-simple of large estates, of which a great portion had been acquired by purchase. These possessions, together with certain rights, privileges, and immunities, were secured to them by a long series of charters from the Crown. They also held very extensive estates on trust for purposes of charity and education, and for the maintenance and support of the Established religion, which had been vested in them, from time to time, by members of their own body, or others, and secured to them by an Act of Parliament, by various decrees of Courts of Equity, and by a decision of that very House of Parliament, acting in its judicial capacity. Their administration of these estates, had elicited the most honourable testimony from the Commissioners of public charities, after an inquiry of several months, although that testimony was singularly—he would say suspiciously—suppressed in the Report of the Municipal Commissioners, one half of that Report being neither more nor less than a transcript of the previous Report made by the Commissioners of public charities. Now, by the Bill before the House, all the rights and privileges growing out of the possession and occupation of these estates, and solemnly guaranteed to the petitioners, in the manner which he had described, were to be swept away, without any previous proceeding having been instituted in any one of his Majesty's Courts of Law, for any malversation in the discharge of their corporate duties, or in the exercise of their corporate rights. The Aldermen and members of the Council of Coventry, were, moreover, elected for life; and under the foundation deed, and under the sanction of a decree of that House, they were entitled during life to certain annual payments for their management of the trust estates. They were also Justices of the Peace for life, ex officio, for the county and city of Coventry; and of this property and of these honours they were to be despoiled by the Bill before the House, in violation of that immutable maxim of law which says, that no degradation or ouster from office or estate, corporate or private, can take place without process, founded on inquiry, in some one of his Majesty's superior Courts of Law. The Petitioners held their chartered rights, dignities, and privileges by a tenure precisely analogous to that by which their Lordships' held their own rights and privileges, and enjoyed their own titles and honours. The Bill before the House went absolutely to confiscate every species of property held by the Corporation of Coventry. It despoiled them of the estates which they held in fee-simple, and without condition; and with respect to the estates which they held in trust for charitable and religious purposes, and for the sole and exclusive benefit of the freemen, it diverted that property into other hands, to whom the donors never meant to confide it, and that too, without a scintilla of proof of violated trust, and, what was more without the concurrence, and even without the knowledge of the parties to whom such estates would pass by operation of law, whenever the class of persons for whose benefit the trusts had been created should cease to exist. He would not then enter at length into the case of another description of persons whose privileges were invaded, in truth, annihilated, by this Bill. He meant the freemen of Coventry. They certainly did not appear by this petition, but their rights were so involved in, and derived from those of the Corporation from which the petition proceeded, that he must take that opportunity of stating that, by the provisions of the Bill, the important right of acquiring the freedom of Coventry would hereafter be utterly extinguished and abolished, to the manifest injury of upwards of 2,000 young men, who were then serving under indentures of apprenticeship, and who had contracted the engagements by which they were bound on the faith that, at the expiration of their term of servitude, their diligent, and in their humble station, their honourable exertions, would earn for them not only a participation in those valuable rights of property to which he had already referred, but also the, to them, still dearer and prouder privilege of the elective franchise in their native city. Such was the regard shown by the Bill to the principle of that celebrated "fixed settlement," called the Reform Act, that its inevitable operation would be, that when the existing race of freemen should cease to be, the number of electors for Coventry would be reduced from 3,600 to something under 1,500. So much for the boasted principle of the Reform Bill, as aided, and brought, forth, and extended to the provisions of the Bill for regulating Corporations in England and Wales. He had endeavoured to confine his observations on this petition as much as possible to the mere question of property, because he was sensible that it was upon that ground that its claim to their Lordships' attention was principally founded. There was, however, another point of a somewhat different nature, to which, in justice to the case of the petitioners, he was bound to advert. They had placed him in a condition to show their Lordships, and they were themselves prepared to prove at the Bar, that the evidence on which the House was proceeding to consider that Bill of pains and penalties against them—the Bill which robbed them of their property, and their fellow-citizens of their dearest and most precious rights—was, to use the least offensive terms that he could devise, mutilated, imperfect, and founded on biased, unfair, distorted and partial statements. He would add no more, hoping that he had said enough, to induce their Lordships to abide by constant practice and precedent, and to grant to the petitioners a fair, full, and candid hearing, against a measure which subverted all their rights of property, of which their Lordships had ever been the faithful, and he trusted ever would be the fearless protectors.

Lord Brougham

said, I know not whether my noble Friend intends or not to follow up the petition with a Motion at this moment that the petitioners be heard by counsel against the Bill, but he must allow me to tell him that if he will look at the 67th section of the Bill, he will see sufficient to show him that these petitioners have quite misunderstood the measure against which they call on your Lordships to allow them to be heard by counsel. One part of the complaint of these petitioners is, that all their property is to be confiscated —that is, it is to be treated exactly as your Lordships treated the property of all the Scotch boroughs, without a division on the matter, just two years ago. [The Earl of Haddington: not without opposition,] Ay, I know that the noble Lord was not gratified by what then took place; but I speak to your Lordships, not to the noble Lord alone; I am not using an argumentum ad hominem, much as I esteem the man. It is easy to say, but the abler his resistance was, and the stronger his case, the worse did your Lordships treat the Scotch boroughs, for your Lordships I did not even take the trouble to divide on the Question. The petitioners call this confiscation, I say it is restoration and the confiscation which your Lordships are charged with committing when you passed the Bill in 1833 is the same sort of confiscation which your Lordships are in the habit of committing every time that you sit as Judges in this House, when one man by fraud gets possession of property, and you take it from him and give it to the rightful owner. It is the same sort of confiscation which my noble and learned Friend (turning to Lord Plunket) commits in like cases in the Court of Chancery in Ireland—it is the same sort of confiscation which I was in the habit of committing for four years, wanting one day, in the Court of Chancery in England, and it is the same sort of confiscation which my right hon. and learned Friend, the Vice-Chancellor—to whom I might appeal as he is here, but that I am sorry to say, though here, he has not the privilege of answering my appeal—it is the same sort of fraud which his Honour the Vice-Chancellor is in the habit of committing when upon an information for the abuse of charitable funds, he pronounces a decree, declaring the true and proper uses of the trust property. The petitioners call this the confiscation of the property—we call it, in equity, the restoration of the property to the right owners. I should have said nothing about this matter at present, but should have reserved my observations for the discussion of the Bill itself, but that this is a grave charge thus to be brought against the Bill by the petitioners. They state, that they are now the holders of a large property, left by pious individuals for charitable uses, and that this Bill is now proceeding to lay hands upon it to confiscate it, and to apply it to different uses from those to which it was originally destined. Now, let my noble Friend, and your Lordships, hear the sixty-seventh Clause. The noble and learned Lord here read the Clause, to the following effect;—"And be it enacted in every borough in which the body corporate or any one or more of the members now stands seised or possessed for any estate interest whatsoever of and in any hereditament, the council of such borough shall nominate from among the burgesses persons of whom the Mayor for the time being shall be one, who shall be charitable trustees for such borough, and shall be one body corporate, shall have perpetual succession, and shall stand seised and possessed of the said hereditaments, sums of money, and securities for money, and other personal estates, for such uses and trusts respectively as they were subject to before the passing of this Act." I am one of those who think that in this part of the measure some further guards may possibly be necessary, and I have given the best proof that I think so by having brought in a Bill which now stands for a second reading in your Lordships' House, and which the noble Lord in the other House has said, might, with his consent, go on step by step with the present measure, and with reference to which I will venture to say, with the utmost positiveness, that it will prevent in future the happening of one-twentieth of those abuses which have before now happened under the old Corporations and the old Corporation management.

The Petition was laid on the table.

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