HL Deb 12 May 1862 vol 166 cc1542-56

presented Petitions from various places in the West of Ireland, praying for Inquiry into the Causes of the great and frequent Inundations of the River Shannon and its Tributaries, and into the Effects of the Works constructed by the Shannon Commissioners of 1839, and said, he had given notice of his intention to move for a Select Committee to inquire into this subject. The noble Marquess said he regretted to say that he had received a notification from the noble Earl the President of the Council to the effect that his Motion would be opposed, and he was therefore compelled to go at some length into the subject. He was afraid that the Government had not a due appreciation of the importance of the matter, or of the case of justice involved. He was sure they had not given proper attention to the subject, but had simply taken the statements laid before them by the Irish Board of Works—statements which, he regretted to say, were fallacious in every respect, and audacious in some respects; and he would undertake to prove what he asserted, if a Committee were appointed. He did not want to inquire too narrowly into past errors, but merely to seek a remedy for existing evils; and that remedy might be provided without one shilling cost to the State, except for the inquiry itself. The Board of Works had, indeed, offered an inquiry, but it was of so limited a nature and so clogged by conditions, that it could not be accepted. The great body of water caused by the overflow of the Shannon and the lakes from which it arose, slowly making its way to the sea, had produced a state of things which every traveller in Ireland had noticed as the greatest disgrace to the country. The land along the Shannon from Limerick to Lough Allen, a distance of 150 miles, might be called a bog. In the last century several Acts had been passed by the Irish Parliament, with a view to improve the navigation of the river, and from time to time since then various improvements had been made with the same object. In the year 1831, under the Government of Earl Grey, certain works were projected, which were afterwards so badly executed that at present they were a positive nuisance; and when the landowners who were affected applied for a remedy, the objection of the Board of Works was that they were necessary for navigation. The Board stated that since the works had been made with a view to navigation solely, the landowners were out of court, because the river could not be improved without injuring the navigation. The Board laid it down very distinctly, that it was futile to expect "perfect drainage combined with navigation, the first principles of each system being in direct opposition." Anything more absurd and untrue never was uttered. The first thing that was wanted with a view to navigation and for drainage was, to get the command of the river; and the first step towards that object was to deepen and widen the channel. The noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby), when Secretary for Ireland in 1831, gave such instructions to Colonel Burgoyne with respect to the improvement of navigation and the reclaiming of vast tracts of land which were periodically inundated, as showed that he was of a very different opinion from the Board of Works. Under Sir John Burgoyne, Mr. Rhodes made a survey, and suggested a plan which, if it had been properly carried out, would have given complete command over the waters of the river and prevented the calamities that had since occurred. Then came the Act of 1836, the fourth section of which provided, that the Commissioners appointed under the Act should, while providing for the improvement of the navigation, make out a plan and estimates of the works proper to be executed for otherwise improving the river, for confining its waters, and for preventing the inundation of the contiguous lands. The Act also suggested that the taxation to be levied should be proportioned to the benefit to be derived by the respective landowners. The Commissioners made a Report in 1837, and another in 1838. In the latter they asserted that the landowners would be amply repaid for the local taxation that might be levied, partly by the improvement in the navigation, and partly by the improvement of their land. About ten years afterwards, the powers of the Acts of Parliament having been meanwhile transferred to the Board of Works, a Report was presented, in which it was asserted that the low lands were then rarely flooded. He did not hesitate to declare that this representation was entirely untrue. He did not deny that some good had been done, but he asserted that the particular lands to which the Commissioners adverted wore injured, and not benefited; and, moreover, that the inundations were not less but more frequent. If their Lordships would give him a Committee, he undertook to prove this, and to show that a great amount of property was sacrificed in the most wanton and unnecessary manner. It was often asserted that Irish proprietors would not drain and improve their land. But in this case they wanted to lay out their money hi draining the land. The Government, however, had the key of the drainage of the whole country, and the Board of Works would not allow the question to be investigated, because they knew how much incapacity and misconduct would thereby be exposed. The allegation that the Board of Works had nothing to do with the Shannon previously to 1850 was not true; for though the formal transfer, under the Acts for Improvement of the Shannon from the Commissioners to the Board of Works only took place in that year, an Act passed in 1846 gave the Board in reality that power which was subsequently made the subject of a formal but unnecessary transfer. The question now was as to the remedy which ought to be applied to an admitted evil. The Board stated that all the crops ought to be removed from the land before October —as if there were no floods before October; the fact being that the land was now often covered with water in spring, summer, and autumn; and one day's rain last week or the week before was sufficient to cover with water the lands contiguous to the Shannon and the Suck. He did not mean to say that none of the works executed on the Shannon had effected any general benefit; but he did allege that as regarded some portions of the country these works had been productive of positive mischief, owing to the manner in which they had been executed. The subject was connected with the peace of the country, for the people in some districts exposed to the inundations were not inclined to bear their calamity very quietly when they saw that a remedy might easily be applied by their own hands. If the landlords and clergymen had not interfered, it was highly probable that the peasantry would have carried some of the dams away. No doubt that would have been a malum prohibitum, but he must say that in his conscientious opinion it would not have been a malum per se, because the removal of those dams would have been a benefit to the country. The cry of the Board of Works was, "Oh, you are going to injure the navigation." He denied that assertion. He and those who acted with him were desirous of effecting that improvement in the navigation which, in many places, was now imperatively required. It was only a few weeks ago that a boat loaded with provisions for the people in the west was stopped because it could not pass through the canal of Lough Allen. The original plans had been so botched by the Board that in some places the navigation was even dangerous. With the disgraceful condition of public works in the district to which he was inviting their Lordships' attention, it was almost impossible to believe that there could be a Board of Works and a Lord Lieutenant in the country; and the talk about promoting useful works and extending drainage on private properties sounded like an absurdity and a mockery. The authorities boasted that there were 232 miles of navigation open; but were they on that account to leave the centre of Ireland for ever a swamp? At the very time when the Commissioners were pleading their inability to erect flood-gates, or to make any improvements whatever, they had balances in their hands, as shown by the Parliamentary Returns, of from £8,000 to £10,000. It was true that, with regard to the accounts of the Board, he had not the ability to understand them. It was a great exaggeration to say there was anything like famine in Ireland; but there was, undoubtedly, great distress and want of employment in these very districts. What he asked was a fair and impartial inquiry into a state of things which reflected discredit on the Government and the country. He defied the Government to contradict what he had stated. He pledged himself to prove all he had advanced if a Parliamentary inquiry were granted. The noble Marquess concluded by moving— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Causes of the great and frequent Inundations of the River Shannon and its Tributaries, and into the Effects of the Works constructed by the Shannon Commissioners of 1839 upon the Navigation and upon the Drainage of the Country; and how far such Works were in accordance with the Plans referred to in the Statute under which they were undertaken.


said, that this was a question in which the people of the district referred to were most deeply concerned, and he therefore wished to say a few words in support of the Motion of the noble Marquess. No doubt the objects of the Legislature in passing the Shannon Improvement Act were twofold—to promote the thorough drainage of that part of the country, and to render the river available for navigation. In both these objects the Commissioners had thoroughly failed. The present state of the Shannon was a permanent impediment to the arterial drainage of the country, for by the present arrangements the waters of the Shannon were brought back to swell the tributaries, and to flood the whole country; for, with a want of foresight difficult to account for, the Commissioners made their calculations without reference to the development of the arterial drainage, and without reflecting that waters which used to take, perhaps, two or three days in getting to the Shannon would, owing to the new system of drainage, reach that river in so many hours. The lands near the river were let for a very high rent, but owing to the recent inundations, by which a pernicious sediment was deposited, they were useless for fodder, and only grew a considerable crop of rushes. The damage done last year was not less in amount than £100,000; and at one time 300 acres of his lands were under water. The noble Lord, having read letters from Colonel Greville, M.P., from the Treasurer of the County of Leitrim, and others, detailing local grievances, proceeded to say that it was found impossible to obtain any redress from the Board of Works, and it was therefore felt necessary to come to their Lordships and see what could be done by way of a Parliamentary inquiry. Unless the people of the country saw some prospect of their wrongs being remedied, he greatly feared some act of violence would be committed which might seriously endanger the public works on the Shannon. An attempt of this sort was made last year at Rootkey on the 16th September, the papers relative to which were laid on the table, which was only prevented by the meritorious efforts of Captain Hawley, a local justice of the peace, residing in the neighbourhood. Then as to the much vaunted navigation of the river, it was a complete failure. In the first place, no vessel drawing six feet of water could make use of the river; and no two of the locks were of the same length. To show the wisdom of the proceedings of the Commissioners, at one place they had blown up nine feet of rock, only to be replaced by nine feet of wall. After having borne taxation to the amount of £300,000, the proprietors and inhabitants had now put up with nine years of useless remonstrance; they had memorialized every one whom they could memorialize; but the only replies they received were, that the matter was "receiving best attention," that it was "under consideration," and that sort of thing. They had accordingly taken confidence and appealed to their Lordships to relieve them from the intolerable evils under which, they were suffering. He thought, if the inquiry were granted, the Shannon might be made what it ought to be—useful to the country—instead of continuing a bad imitation of the Nile without its fertilizing influence.


said, he thought the patience of the noble Earl, which had lasted nine years, must have been exhausted during this debate. The noble Marquess had indulged in language which, if not un parliamentary, it was, he thought, most undesirable and most unfair to use against public servants who had not seats in that House. The noble Marquess had accused the Board of Works of being fallacious in their statements, and completely ignorant of their business. When he (Earl Granville) remembered that amongst the persons so assailed were Sir John Burgoyne, General Jones, and the present respected chief of the Commission, Sir Richard Griffiths, who from his (Earl Granville's) personal knowledge when he visited Ireland last year, was a most popular and highly respected person, he felt that whilst the language used by the noble Marquess could not injure the Commissioners, it showed that his noble Friend did not feel much confidence in the strength of his cause. He also thought that the noble Earl (the Earl of Granard), whom he was happy to hear speak with so much facility, would do well to avoid, in dealing with local matters, attempting to influence the Government with threats of popular disturbance. With respect to the state of the case—by the Act of Parliament passed for the improvement of the Shannon it was provided that the works, when completed, should be handed over to the Board of Works; and in pursuance of that provision the works, having been declared complete, were handed over to the Board some twelve years ago. He thought it hardly reasonable that their Lordships should be called upon to re-open an inquiry into the execution of works which were completed when they were handed over. No doubt, some alterations had been since made, but not one without the sanction of successive Governments. They were supposed to be improvements, and what additional expense had been incurred had been thrown on the general taxpayers, and not on the adjoining counties. Her Majesty's Government felt bound to rely on the statements of their own officers, and from them it appeared that that average rise of the river was three feet less than it formerly was. It must be remembered, also, that improvements in drainage increased the liability of rivers to flood, until a channel was made by the action of the river. As to the navigation, Her Majesty's Government received indisputable proofs that it was highly prized and was greatly on the increase. After the large expenditure that had already taken place on the Shannon, they were of opinion that it was not desirable that more public money should be spent on the navigation of the river or in the drainage of the surrounding country. But Her Majesty's Government were ready, if the lords-lieutenants of counties would engage to assist, to join in an inquiry as to what measures might be taken to improve the drainage of the land or to prevent its being flooded by the river. But the inquiry must not take place under one engineer only, who would be supposed to be under Government influence. One engineer must be appointed by the residents and another by the Government, and thus an inquiry both useful and economical might be carried out. He trusted, under these circumstances, his noble Friend would not persevere with his Motion.


said, it appeared to him that the points of difference between the noble Marquess and the Government lay in a very narrow compass. His knowledge of the subject extended to thirty years back, he (the Earl of Derby) having been the first to give instructions for a Commission to inquire into the navigation of the Shannon and its tributaries. No doubt, very largo sums had been spent on this double object of the improvement of the drainage and the navigation, and it was now a matter of complaint that the evil, instead of being abolished, had been increased. That, no doubt, was a matter of fact which their Lordships might inquire into. Now, the noble Earl (Earl Granville) said the Government were quite willing to institute an inquiry by two scientific persons. He (the Earl of Derby) believed that the noble Marquess would admit, that if such an inquiry could be had, it would be more advantageous than a Committee of the House. He understood, however, that the Lords of the Treasury accompanied their offer with certain conditions, one of which was that the half of the expenses of the preliminary inquiry should be defrayed by the proprietors; another that the measures recommended by them to be adopted should be carried out at the whole expense of the proprietors, under the superintendence and control of the Board of Works. To that he imagined there would be no objection. But it was further provided that no measure should be proposed which was injurious to the navigation of the river. He thought that this clause might prohibit scientific persons from bringing forward effectual schemes for draining the lands, lest they should propose anything injurious to the navigation; whereas it might be that decided improvements in the drainage might be carried out with very slight injury to the navigation. Her Majesty's Government might, he thought, still reserve to themselves the right of withholding their sanction to any scheme that might be proposed, and thus sufficiently preserve the interests of the navigation. If this clause were with drawn, he should not object to the inquiry as proposed by the noble Earl. He thought that this was a subject for inquiry; but if the noble Earl insisted on the conditions he had mentioned, he (the Earl of Derby) should be disposed to vote in favour of the noble Marquess's Motion.


entirely concurred that it would be far more satisfactory that an inquiry should be made; and he thought the expense would be so small as to make it a matter entirely unworthy of consideration that it should be levied on the landowners. He thought, if there was to be an inquiry, it would be far better that the scientific persons employed should not be fettered by any conditions.


said, he did not think it desirable to depart from the arrangement that the Government should bear one part of the expense of the inquiry, and the parties interested the other. He was quite ready to assent to the suggestions made by the noble Earl opposite, to the effect that the inquiry made by the two persons appointed in the way which he had mentioned should be unfettered. It would, of course, afterwards be open to the Government to take any course which they might deem right.


said: My Lords, I am glad that, although at the eleventh hour, Her Majesty's Government have seen fit to concede to the demand for a scientific inquiry into the state of the River Shannon, and the effect of the navigation works upon the drainage of the adjacent lands. My noble Friend who introduced the Motion for a Select Committee has been reproached for the very strong terms in which he animadverted upon the conduct of the Board of Works. My Lords, I think it right to remark to your Lordships, that my noble Friend did no more than give expression to the feelings of indignation with which the sufferers in general from the Shannon floods view the injury done to their lands by the blundering manner in which the navigation works were planned and carried out by that Board—feelings greatly aggravated by the refusal on the part of the Government to allow of the wrong complained of being even inquired into. It was, in fact, as much as to declare than an acknowledged evil should remain unabated; that the whole of that great area of land in the west and centre of Ireland, injuriously affected by the pent-up waters of the Shannon, should so for ever continue, precluding the development of the resources of the soil; and that notwithstanding the heavy assessments to which, under the Act for improving the Shannon navigation, the adjacent counties had been subjected for the purpose, as the Act required, of opening and clearing the course of the river from its source to the sea, and so confining its waters within their natural channel as to prevent any future inundations, the cesspayers must rest satisfied with knowing that their money had been expended in such entire disregard of those salutary provisions of the Act, that the current of the river had been artificially obstructed, and that their lands were, in consequence, in some places more than ever flooded. No application was made for the expenditure of any public money; no favour of any kind was looked for; no private interest sought to be served at the expense of another, still less at the expense of the public. The Shannon proprietors only demanded what, upon every principle of justice and sound policy, the Government ought at once to have granted—they demanded that the impartial and scientific inquiry, now so tardily conceded, should be instituted, and to be empowered to have at their own cost such works executed as might be recommended, consistently with navigation of the river, for the drainage and reclamation of the adjacent lands. Their memorial, when presented to the Lord Lieutenant, was received by his Excellency with much apparent favour, in presence of the Chief Secretary, Sir. Robert Peel, and of the Chairman of the Board of Works, Sir R. Griffith. The most flattering assurances were given, and it was stated that a general measure for arterial drainage would be brought in. The deputation, in fact, retired, feeling satisfied that their memorial would be favourably considered; that at a very early period there would be a large amount of profitable employment given, that would afford relief to a considerable extent in the prevailing distress; and with a conviction that this appeal to Parliament would not have become necessary. I certainly failed to gather from the speech of the Lord President of the Council for what reason the Lords of the Treasury thought proper to disavow the conduct of the Irish Government, and to return that most ungracious answer to the memorial which is now upon the table of the House. Let me, for a moment, call your Lordships' attention to it. Their Lordships, though individually most respectable, do not, be it remembered, number among them a single Irish representative, and, I am sorry to say, have in this case manifested very little concern about the interests of Ireland. How do they deal with the Irish memorial? After noticing the large expenditure that had been made upon the Shannon navigation works, they say, that "having regard to the time which has elapsed since the works were certified by the Shannon Commissioners as being completed, their Lordships decline to sanction an inquiry being now made into the question, whether the Shannon Commissioners did, or did not, carry out all the works which may have been in contemplation at the time they were authorized to proceed with the Shannon navigation improvement." From hence it would appear that because, for upwards of ten years, the Government have refused to pay any attention to the representations and complaints made regarding the injury to property arising from the Shannon works, and the total disregard by the Shannon Commissioners of the provisions of the Act of Parliament as to the drainage of the river, the injury done is to be perpetuated, and all question of a remedy for a grievous wrong forbidden. It appears to me, on the contrary, that each succeeding year, by adding loss to loss, was but an aggravation of wrong that called loudly for redress. The minute then proceeds— Their Lordships further distinctly decline to hold out any expectation that any further grant can be made from Imperial funds towards these works. This, my Lords, was a most gratuitous refusal of what was not asked, but, on the contrary, in the terms of the memorial, very distinctly disclaimed: it was an expression of illiberality where it ought not to have found place. Their Lordships may, perhaps, have apprehended, that inasmuch as Ireland is now taxed to nearly double the amount she was ten years ago, there might have existed an expectation of some benefit in return from public expenditure; or, more likely, they felt that the injured might, with undeniable justice, demand that they should not be specially taxed anew to repair the blunders of the Government engineers. But the memorialists put forward no such claim. They viewed the evil of the obstructions in the course of the River Shannon as one the removal of which would confer great benefit upon the adjacent lands, and were satisfied that, in proportion to benefit conferred, those lands should pay for it. Their Lordships then proceeded to say that, "as regards the flooding of the lands adjoining the river, they have no reason to believe, from the information they have obtained, that any lands near the river are more liable to flooding now than formerly." In saying this their Lordships seem altogether to have ignored the fact that the memorialists, the owners, and the occupiers of the lands in question, had made a very different representation to them, and certainly they were as trustworthy and more competent informants than any subordinate officers of the Government. But what does the information afforded to their Lordships amount to? "That no lands are more liable to flooding than formerly." Why, it was expressly set forth in the Shannon Improvement Act that the river should be opened and cleared, and the waters confined within their natural channel, so as to relieve the contiguous lands from inundations; and was it reasonable to expect that the occupiers of those lands, after the district had been heavily taxed for the Shannon improvement, should be satisfied because their Lordships had been informed that no lands near the river were more liable to floods than formerly? Their Lordships, however, then proceed to state that, under certain conditions, they are willing to consent to an inquiry by two engineers — one to be appointed by the Government, the other by the Shannon proprietors; but such were the conditions and restrictions upon the inquiry, that the offer could not be, and, probably, was not intended to be, accepted. The discussion this evening has, however, led to the abandonment of those restrictions which would have rendered the inquiry of no value whatever, and to a substantial, though ungracious, concession to the demand as originally made, not quite, however, to the full extent, as all the works are to be executed under the superintendence and control of the Board of Works. I have some doubts whether the parties interested will be satisfied to have the works placed under that sole control. A very strong feeling exists that the Board of Works, when acting as Shannon Commissioners, were either totally incompetent or had wilfully thrown away, upon works worse than useless, the enormous sums that were intrusted to them. For my own part, I have no doubt that they did make a great and very costly blunder in their management of the undertaking. But I have too high a respect for the character of the Chairman of the Board, Sir Richard Griffith, to believe that he would sanction or concur in anything he did not believe to be right, or that his associates could be altogether unworthy of confidence. I believe, that if the nature of the work to be done is clearly defined, there would be as good security for its being well and economically executed under the superintendence of those Gentlemen as of any engineer, however eminent, that the Shannon proprietors might appoint. The evils arising to the country from want of drainage through the Shannon as the main artery are such that all minor considerations should yield to the great object of having it accomplished through the deepening and clearing of the river channel. I would even say that if the maintenance of the navigation were inconsistent with such a work, its value is not to be compared with the importance of increasing very largely the productive powers of the country, improving its sanitary condition, and providing permanent and beneficial employment to a peasantry whose holdings are now rendered unimprovable, the fruits of whose industry are always deteriorated and often swept away by untimely floods, and whose dwellings are rendered damp, comfortless, and unwholesome by the exhalations arising from the pent-up waters. The navigation, it is true, has cost above half a million, but what is it worth? Why, the tolls do not even cover the expense of maintenance. It is not, however, sought or desired to do away with it, but only to have it provided, as Parliament originally contemplated, by deepening and clearing the river course, instead of throwing back the waters and raising the levels by artificial dams. Be it recollected, too, that by increasing the productive powers of the land, the inland navigation, as well as railways, would obtain the support of increased traffic, and the community at large the benefit of the development of the national resources. I am glad the Government has given way to the legitimate demands of the Shannon proprietors, although some advantages, especially in the investigation of matters of account, might have arisen from the inquiry by a Select Committee. All I will further say is, that the subject has been brought forward and pressed on public grounds, and on public grounds only; and I trust that the concession just now made, though due rather to the intervention of the two noble Earls who lately addressed the House than to the free will of the Government, may conduce to the attainment of the important object for which the Motion for a Select Committee was made.


said, that if there was a man to whom the people of Ireland owed the deepest obligations for carrying into effect local improvements, it was Sir Richard Griffith. He rejoiced that an arrangement had been acquiesced in for carrying on an inquiry by scientific persons, as Parliament could not thereby be precluded from exercising its judgment on the subject afterwards.


said, he also wished to bear his testimony to the zeal and ability of Sir Richard Griffith, and to the benefits produced by the works that had been executed by the Board of which he was the head on the navigation and drainage of the Shannon. He trusted that his noble Friend would not assent to any work which would affect the navigation of the Shannon, which had been materially improved of late years. He contended that the drainage of the country had been also improved by the works that had been executed. It appeared to him that it was hardly fair to argue from what occurred during the last two years, which were remarkable for a most unusual fall of rain, that those inundations of the Shannon were of common occurrence. He did not think that any works which could be made would totally prevent floods.


said, he understood that one engineer was to be appointed by the Board of Works and the other by the landowners on the banks of the Shannon. If that were so, the consequences would probably be that they would differ in their reports. He did not know whether the noble Earl the President of the Council would be satisfied with the report from each engineer, but he thought they ought to have power to appoint an arbitrator.


said, he was satisfied with what had taken place, and had no objection to an inquiry according to the terms proposed by the noble Earl the President of the Council. He would repeat that never were such barbarous works executed as those upon the Shannon. Not a single dam had been erected according to the original plan, from Limerick to Killaloe. The strong fact of his case was that false levels had been taken, and mistakes made, that no ingenuity could explain away.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


moved for Copies of Memorials to the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury from the Chamber of Commerce of Limerick and the Grand Canal Company of Ireland, respecting navigation of the River Shannon.

Motion agreed to.