THE EARL OF SANDWICH
called the attention of the Government to a Return made by the Ecclesiastical Commission on the 11th of April, 1878, and to the injustice which, he said, it showed had been perpetrated on a gentleman in the neighbourhood of Godmanchester. His noble Friend might ask him why he addressed the Government upon this question? but his reply would be that he did so because the Commissioners were bound to make an annual Report to the Secretary of State, who, he supposed, had some control over their proceedings. Not many weeks ago, he put a Question to the Chief Ecclesiastical Commissioner in respect to a gentleman who had been evicted from his farm, after receiving a friendly notice to quit, which was subsequently turned into a hostile notice. The circumstances were stated in a 745 Memorial which he held in his hand. When this gentleman received his notice to quit, he came to him as a friend and neighbour, and asked his advice as to what he ought to do. He thereupon advised him to address a Memorial to the Chief Commissioner, whom he knew as a Member of the House of Lords, and well known for his strict honour and justice. This gentleman—Mr. Charles Armstrong—took his advice, and addressed a Memorial to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, in which, among other things, it was stated that in the year 1864, he hired of David Vesey, Esq., of Castle Hill House, Huntingdon, a farm called West Farm, in the parish of Godmanchester, containing 297 acres, having been selected—his family being well-known agriculturists in Bedfordshire—from numerous applicants. He continued in occupation of the farm till the death of Mr. Vesey, in 1871, having during that time been most punctual in the payment of the rent, as well as having got it into the highest state of cultivation. On the death of Mr. Vesey, his son, the Venerable Archdeacon Vesey, became possessed of it, under whom he continued in the occupation till the year 1877, when, to his great surprise, it, with all the other land in the parish belonging to the Archdeacon, was offered for sale. The gentleman who came down to inspect the farm on behalf of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who were likely to become purchasers of the farm, gave him distinctly to understand that he would be continued in possession; and, on this assurance, Mr. Armstrong's friends did not continue the inquiries they were making in his behalf. A day or two after, however, Mr. Armstrong received from Mr. Smith, the gentleman alluded to, a letter qualifying the promise he had previously made. This was on the eve of the sale, when Mr. Armstrong was obliged to rely, as he did with confidence, on the conviction that the Commissioners would not see any wrong done to him. The farm was, however, afterwards let over Mr. Armstrong's head to Mr. John Topham Gadsby, a large and wealthy cattle dealer and farmer, residing at Godmanchester. He should like to know what private arrangement there was between the land agent and Mr. Gadsby? Such an arrangement would be a most improper thing. In his Memorial, Mr. Armstrong 746 referred to several gentlemen in the neighbourhood who knew him as an agriculturist, among whom were the Duke of Manchester, the Messrs. Howard, of Bedford, Mr. Spiers, of Spiers and Pond, all of whom gave him an excellent character as an agriculturist, and as one who might be relied upon for the payment of his rent. In spite of this, no regard was paid to their representations, and Mr. Armstrong was thrown overboard, and no attention whatever was paid to him. He was treated in a cavalier way by the Messrs. Smith, to whom the question was referred, one of the partners of whose firm was the gentleman who made the arrangement with Mr. Gadsby to turn him out. In their reply to the Secretary's note, Messrs. Smith and Gore said they had considered Mr. Armstrong's Memorial, but it was not Mr. Smith's opinion that Mr. Armstrong wanted; he required the exercise of the independent judgment of the Commissioners in the matter. Of course, the Messrs. Smith were not such fools that they would offer to undo what they had already done. Messrs. Smith went on to say—The notion that either the tenant or the vendor of an estate is entitled to claim or to expect the continuance of the tenant in the tenancy is absolutely without foundation.He dared say legally that might be so; but, under the present circumstances, it was clear that it was not morally so. A friendly notice to quit had been turned into a hostile notice, and Mr. Armstrong had been ejected without any compensation whatever. Messrs. Smith went on to say—A farm is sold with an early vacancy to the best bidder, and if the tenant is damnified, it is for the vendor to give him due compensation.He never heard a more preposterous thing than that. It was surely the most absurd thing ever thought of by any land agent. The land had improved in consequence of the labour of the tenant, and the Commissioners had received the benefit of it. He thought it was manifestly unfair for the Commissioners to take the land themselves, and not to give the tenant any indemnity. The letter proceeded—It is quite true that our Mr. Charles Smith, viewing the property on the 11th July, expressed his expectation that Mr. Armstrong 747 might continue tenant, at the same time cautioning him not to depend on that; but he wrote to Mr. Armstrong early next morning, and sent the letter by special messenger, that he would not have the opportunity of remaining.Mr. Armstrong was everywhere known as a good, practical agriculturist; whereas Mr. Gadsby was a man farming some 400 or 500 acres with other avocations, and he could not be expected to give the same attention to the land that Mr. Armstrong would have done. Why, then, was Mr. Armstrong turned out? What private agreement was there made between Mr. Gadsby and Mr. Smith on which this wicked transaction was based? Mr. Armstrong was ultimately informed that the decision of the Commissioners not to re-consider his case was based uponconsiderations of general policy in relation to the management of this and other property belonging to the Board.What considerations of general policy could have actuated them? He should have thought it would have been good general policy to retain as tenant a man who kept his land in good order, and who regularly paid his rent. If that was the general policy of the Commissioners in the management of their land, he was only sorry that they had chosen the county of Huntingdon to make such large purchases in. It was bad policy to buy land, and not encourage those who were doing well by it. The Commissioners had now in their hands an immense amount of landed property, the expenses of which were as much as £60,000 a-year. If they could re-arrange their property so that a large amount of it was invested in the funds, or some other security, much of this money might be saved to the poor clergy. The investments in land led to jobbery and to other evils; and if all the facts were known, he thought it would be admitted that the administration of the Commissioners wanted looking into. The present was a very hard case, which would never have transpired if the Commissioners themselves had gone properly into the facts. They left too much to their agents. Another complaint against them was that they gave nothing in charity except it was in small doles. Property had its duties as well as its rights; and if these gentlemen chose to become 748 landed proprietors, they ought to be bound by the same rules as other proprietors. In the parish of Godmanchester alone they owned one-fifth of the land, and yet they did not give one farthing to the local charities. With regard to Mr. Armstrong, he thought that a case of great injustice had been made out; and, in reference to Messrs. Smith and Gore, he contended that those gentlemen had no business whatever to control the action or proceedings of the Commissioners by telling them what to do. In conclusion, he earnestly hoped the Government would take care that Mr. Armstrong received some compensation, instead of being left to be ruined by the harsh treatment of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.
§ THE EARL OF CHICHESTER
said, the noble Earl who had just spoken addressed himself to the Government on this subject; and if the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) did not think it worth his while to get up and answer the noble Earl, it was scarcely his duty to do so. At the same time, there were one or two remarks which their Lordships might permit him to offer to the House. Their Lordships had again heard a long story with respect to Mr. Armstrong; but he would remind them that, as regarded that gentleman, he endeavoured, to the best of his power, some weeks ago, to answer the noble Earl. In addition to doing so, he had laid upon the Table of the House the whole Correspondence which had taken place on the subject. The noble Earl had been quite misinformed as to the existence of any treaty or engagement between Mr. Smith, the agent, and the other gentleman, Mr. Gadsby, whom he imagined had the refusal of the farm. As to the quantity of land held by the Commissioners, he made some remarks on that point upon a previous occasion, and he only now desired to add one or two observations, which he hoped the noble Earl would consider. It might be, of course, a question of general policy and economy—and one, also, of considerable public interest—whether Ecclesiastical Corporations should hold a large extent of land. Their Lordships might remember that, in the year 1851, when the Church Estates Act was passed, one great object of that measure was to do away with the system of beneficial leases 749 granted by Ecclesiastical Corporations. That system was found to be very injurious. The land so leased was never properly tenanted or tilled. Subsequently, a large number of the leasehold estates fell into the hands of the Commissioners. They were by far the worst cultivated; the most deficient in buildings; and, altogether, they were in the most disreputable condition of any land which he had ever seen in this country. Whatever might be the opinion of the House or of the noble Earl as to the policy of these Corporations deriving their income from land in their possession, he was sure there could be no difference amongst their Lordships now, any more than there was 25 years ago, as to the old system itself. When the measure to which he had first referred was before Parliament, an estimate was made of the Church's interest in the leasehold estates; and that interest was supposed to be about one-half in reversioners, and one-half in lessors. The effect of the legislation of 1857 had been to reduce the quantity of land possessed by the Commissioners as owners and reversioners; and, it was, therefore, absurd to argue against their having such possessions, when the land which they held was so much less than the Church used to possess. In addition to that, he might state that although the Commissioners could acquire land partly by buying up the interest of leaseholders, and partly by purchasing freehold estates, the balance of their land sale purchase account was £1,000,000 excess of sales. As to contributing to local charities, the Commissioners subscribed largely for the erection and maintenance of schools, and to the building and restoration of churches; but not certainly to some of the smaller local charities.
THE DUKE OF RICHMOND AND GORDON
My Lords, in consequence of the noble Earl (the Earl of Sandwich) having addressed himself to the Government on this subject, I will, with your permission, make a few remarks on the matter to which he has alluded. The Notice placed upon the Paper by the noble Earl stated that he would call attention "to a Return made by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners on the 11th of April, 1878," and that is the Return which is now on the Table of the House, and to which your Lordships can refer. 750 I have made inquiries into this matter, knowing that the attention of the Government was to be called to it; and I have also carefully read the Correspondence which has taken place, and which was presented to my noble Friend the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex (the Earl of Chichester). Having done so, I confess that I cannot see in that Correspondence anything which calls for blame on the part of the Government for the course which the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have taken. My noble Friend who brought forward this question complained of the notice which was given to Mr. Armstrong, and stated that it was wrong to convert what he termed a friendly notice to quit into a hostile notice. I should have thought that any person who proposed to sell his property would naturally, if he wished to get the largest sum possible for it in the market, take care that it was not hampered by any tenants being upon it, in order that when bought the purchaser might do with it what he pleased. Accordingly, as I understand the transaction, to which the attention of the House has been directed, Archdeacon Vesey, who sold the property, gave notice to one of his tenants—a yearly tenant—that he would have to leave his farm; but he did not give a similar notice to the other tenant, for the best of all reasons—that in that case there was a period of four years to run before the expiration of the lease. The object of the Commissioners in purchasing the property was, if I am not misinformed, to put two farms together; and all who are acquainted with landed estates must know that that may be, on some occasions, a very advisable and right course to follow. I am not sufficiently conversant with the details of this case to say whether the arrangement I have indicated was really the most convenient in the circumstances; but I assume that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners thought it convenient, or they would never have adopted it. The two farms which are to be united, and which are the subject-matter of the present discussion, are not at this moment let to anyone; and, therefore, it is entirely in the hands of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to deal with them, when they have been put together, in any manner in which those Gentlemen think fit. My 751 noble Friend (the Earl of Sandwich) has complained of the conduct of Messrs. Smith and Gore in this matter. I happen to have been acquainted with those gentlemen for a good many years; and I believe that many of your Lordships also know them, if not personally, by reputation. I have always regarded them as amongst the most eminent land agents to be found in this country; and I do not believe that being, as they are, honourable men, they would do anything whatever in the nature of sharp practice or ungentlemanly conduct. My noble Friend has complained that Messrs. Smith and Gore are practically the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. That is not the case. On the contrary, I think if my noble Friend reads carefully the Correspondence which has taken place, he will find that they occupy exactly the position which he thinks they should hold—not the position of Commissioners, but that of advisers to the Commissioners. If any of your Lordships wished certain things to be done, you would naturally ask the advice of your agent, or of some person in whom you had confidence; and, having received that advice, you would either follow it or not as you thought best. But, because you acted in that way, was it to be said that the man with whom you took counsel was the manager of your property? I would refer your Lordships to the Correspondence on this subject which is before you; and to the Minutes of the proceedings of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. You will find that at a meeting of the Estates Committee of that body, a communication was read from Mr. Charles Armstrong, and that a resolution was come to by the Commissioners referring that communication to Messrs. Smith and Gore for their observation. Accordingly, the latter gave the document their consideration; and I find that on the 9th of February they wrote what seems to me to be a very proper letter to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. They said—It is quite true that our Mr. Charles Smith, in dealing with the property on 2nd July last, expressed his expectation that Mr. Armstrong might be a tenant; but cautioned him not to depend upon it.That is a very cautious proceeding; and one which does not, I think, give Mr. Armstrong 752 any right to consider that he has been ill-treated by the Commissioners. With regard to the question of the charities, I think my noble Friend was rather hard upon the Commissioners. In my opinion, it would be very unwise if Parliament were to lay down hard-and-fast rules within which those gentlemen were to subscribe to every charity within a county, without giving them any power of consideration as to whether the different charities were such as should be contributed to or not. To do that would be to place the Commissioners in a position very different from that of any other landlords in the country. I do not know that your Lordships would always have subscribed to charities, however good they might be, if you had not been allowed to exercise your own discretion on the subject. I find that the practice of the Commissioners is to contribute as trustee owners would contribute under the sanction of the Court; and that is a very sound rule to follow. While I have deprecated hard-and-fast lines of the nature to which I have just referred, it is obvious that, in the position which they fill, the Commissioners must have general law for their guidance. That general law I have indicated; and, if they were compelled to abandon it, the result might be that they might get into difficulties from which it would not be easy for them to extricate themselves. Take one case as showing what the Commissioners do. I find that out of £2,000 expended in the restoration of Leighton Rimbold Church, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners subscribed £1,500. They also gave a site for a school; contributed £400 out of £684 towards the expense of its erection; and subscribed about £40 a-year towards its maintenance. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners do not neglect the duty which belongs to them; and that duty is exercised and discharged in a manner which does not deserve the description of it that the noble Earl has given.
THE EARL OF SANDWICH
All I have to say, in reply, is that I should like to hear the noble Duke repeat at any farmer's table the sentiments which he has just expressed.
THE DUKE OF RICHMOND AND GORDON
I shall be happy to meet the noble Earl at any farmer's table in the Kingdom.