HL Deb 16 July 1907 vol 178 cc496-511

moved for a Return of the farms belonging to the Crown Estates which have been or are being converted into small holdings, showing in each case—(1) The acreage of the converted farm, the name of the tenant, and the number of labourers employed upon it; (2) The number of holdings into which the farm is now divided or being divided, with names of occupants, distinguishing between agricultural labourers previously employed upon the farm, agricultural labourers previously employed in the neighbourhood, and tradesmen or artisans.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I very much doubt whether His Majesty's Government, or even the noble Earl him self, are fully acquainted with the grave anxiety that exists in the minds of farm labourers at the present moment in regard to this matter. Ever since the introduction of the Small Holdings Bill into Parliament, I have been at pains to discuss with these farm labourers what their future position will be under the Act, and the result of these discussions demonstrates only too plainly that the future prospects of these labourers are most unfavourable. Notwithstanding all this great uncertainty, the majority of farm labourers do not oppose the principle of the Bill. What they cannot under stand is why they should be turned out of their present occupation to make room for the small holders, and forced to seek employment elsewhere.

My recent investigations into the working of small holdings, extended over some fifty years on one estate, have convinced mo that a comparatively small number of the present farm labourers will be in a position to become the owners of small holdings, for it must be frankly admitted that the small holder of to-day is in a far less prosperous condition than he was fifty or sixty years ago. I would like to refer for a moment to a statement made by a relative of mine in connection with the small holdings on a late estate of my own. He cited some holdings as being in a prosperous condition. That statement by itself is most misleading, for he was not in a position to know how the small holders arrived at that prosperity. Those holdings have been in existence for generations. and the men on them have derived their prosperity, not from what they have made out of the holdings, but from constant employment on the neighbouring largo farms and other resources, such as contracting, road-making, and general work on the estate.

I maintain that the more land that is converted into small holdings the less will be the demand for farm labourers in the present condition of agriculture. By-breaking up large farms into small holdings it stands to reason that one-third of the labourers on the original farm will have to seek employment elsewhere; one-third may remain upon the farm, and the remaining third become owners of the small holdings. I could give the noble Earl many instances to illustrate this, but at this late hour I will not detain the House. I understand that the noble Earl is willing to give a concise statement in reply to my Motion. If that is the case allow me to assure him that it will materially assist the passage of the Small Holdings Bill through Parliament, and I hope it will also remove to a considerable extent the grave anxiety which at present exists among farm labourers. Before sitting down I would like to ask the noble Earl whether he will also state how much rent the farm was let for to the original tenant and how much rent is obtained in respect of it now as small holdings, and what are the expenses of the full equipment of a small holding.

Moved, "That there be laid before the House a Return of the farms belonging to the Crown Estates which have been or are being converted into small holdings, showing in each case—(1) The acreage of the converted farm, the name of the tenant, and the number of labourers employed upon it; (2) The number of holdings into which the farm is now divided or being divided, with names of occupants, distinguishing between agricultural labourers previously employed upon the farm, agricultural labourers previously employed in the neighbourhood, and tradesmen or artisans."—(Viscount Hill.)


My Lords, I desire to intervene in support of the Motion of the noble Viscount, and to say a few words as to the procedure which is now being pursued in creating what I may call an artificial demand for small holdings in the various counties in which the Crown lands exist. I agree with my noble friend Viscount Hill that there is great anxiety among farm labourers with regard to the possible effect of the Small Holdings Bill. I am myself in favour of small holdings so that labourers may rise from the bottom to the top, and should support any properly and well considered Bill. But I strongly disapprove of the spirit in which the inquiries have been carried out by the Crown Commissioners in regard to the Crown lands. The last thing I should wish to do would be to make a personal attack on my noble friend. It is the procedure that I complain of. I think the noble Earl's zeal has rather overrun his discretion, and I am not sure that the noble Earl has always taken good advisers into council. The case to which I wish to refer is not only an object lesson with regard to Crown lands, but one for your Lordships to consider when the Small Holdings Bill comes before you.

The case I wish to bring before you is that of the Crown farm in the parish of Croft. Croft is an urban village in Lincolnshire, and the sole Crown tenant is Mr. John Searby, whose family have occupied the farm since 1817. It is a farm of 211 acres of mixed land. The parish consists of nearly 5,000 acres, including some 200 acres of foreshore, and there are about 630 inhabitants, of whom 100 occupy holdings of various sizes either as freeholders or tenants. Sixty-five of these holdings are under twenty acres, nineteen are over twenty and under fifty, and there are only nine, including Mr. Searby's own, over 100 acres; so that this is a typical small holdings parish. Allowing the usual estimate of five persons to a family, including the wife and children, and for a certain number of single men and women and farm hands, you find that nearly every person who owns a house in that parish is really an occupier of land. Yet this is a parish in which it is thought necessary to hold an inquiry as to whether anybody wants small holdings.

On April 30th last, a letter, signed F. Hellard, was sent by my noble friend, as a Commissioner of Crown Lands, to the chairman of the parish council of Croft, and in consequence of that letter a parish meeting was held on May 24th to inquire whether there were any applications for small holdings. A number were put in. I think the original applications were for 400 acres, but I understand that they have dwindled down on reconsideration to 230 acres. Although the chairman of the parish council was invited to find out who would like to peg out some of Mr. Searby's land, Mr. Searby himself received no intimation in the matter, and bad no knowledge whatever of this Star Chamber inquest. Neither had Messrs. Carter, Jones and Sons, who have been appointed agents to the Crown lands by my noble friend, and on being written to by Mr. Searby they replied that this was the first they had heard of the matter and that they sympathised with Mr. Searby's position. I do not think there can be a clearer case of stimulating an artificial demand for land amongst tradesmen and others, who may probably like to have a little-accommodation land, but who can well afford to get it and pay for it.

We understood that the great cry at the last election against landlords was that they would not let labourers have land. But this is not a question of labourers at all. Not more than one or two were genuine cases of labourers applying, and there was only one application for land under ten acres. The greater portion of the applications were for ten acres of arable and ten acres of grass land combined, and by men who already have land. I think this is such a strong object lesson that I would like to give a description of the class of men who applied on this occasion. The first is a man who had sold his own holding of eleven acres and had gone to live some four or five miles off on a farm of forty acres. The next is a man who occupies twenty acres adjoining the Crown land. Another one has a small farm in the next parish, and the next applicant has thirty-six acres of land. And so on the whole way through. They are from start to finish not agricultural labourers, but tradesmen and well-to-do men who have themselves already got two occupations. I do not grudge them their occupations or their land, but I do say that these are not the men who have any right to come forward and claim the advantages of getting land under the Crown when they have sufficient land of their own, and when it is to be done at the expense of other people. I think your Lordships will agree with me that this is a case of robbing agricultural Peter for the trading Paul's selfish. benefit. In the case of Croft not one single agricultural labourer would be brought back to the land, but there would be a farmer less and his labourers. Therefore I do not think this can be put forward as a case of bringing men back to the land or of enabling agriculturists to hold the land. I should like to ask my noble friend two or three questions. My first question is, "Why was there any inquiry at all in this case?" There was no application from anybody, and, as has been proved, there is not a single labourer who wants land. Secondly, by what authority did my noble friend, acting as a Crown Commissioner, call upon the chairman of the parish council to conduct this inquiry for the purpose of pegging out the land of a farmer who had not himself been given notice to quit and had no knowledge of the proceedings? Thirdly, I should like to ask my noble friend whether this is the spirit in which it is proposed that the Commissioners of Crown Lands and their agents and touts are to act under the proposed powers of Part 1 of the Small Holdings Bill? Again, in what manner will these "agitations" bring back labourers or benefit the present labourers?

I have had considerable experience, extending over forty years, in dealing with small holdings and every kind of holding, for I have never had an agent on my estate. I assert that the best way to advance labourers' interests is by small holdings of from five to fifteen acres, where there is at the same time regular employment for those occupying the holdings. Labourers do not require twenty or thirty acres in addition to regular wage-earning employment, and they cannot live upon such holdings without. When a man has done sufficiently well on his small holding and in wage-earning, and has put by some £300, he can take a small farm of from forty to fifty acres, and he is then absolutely free and independent of all labour, and can get his living on that land with the assistance of his own family. During the forty years that I have managed my own property I have seen one-fourth of the present tenants rise from labourers to fanners, having not only forty or fifty, but in two cases 250 acres of land each; and therefore I think your Lordships will not complain that I have ventured to intrude in calling attention to this question, which I regard as a most serious one in the interests of the labourers themselves. No one would do more than I would to assist my noble friend if I thought it would bring back labourers to the land, and if there was work. The question is a serious one for labourers, and I trust it will be carefully considered in their interests.


My Lords, I hope the noble Viscount will not think me discourteous if I confine myself this afternoon to the Question he has placed on the Paper. I fully recognise the great interest that is being taken by the agricultural labourers in this question, and I believe it is the fact that in every village the question of small holdings is being very earnestly discussed. As far as the Government are concerned, perhaps I might be permitted to say that we are gravely considering whether in the new Bill the interests of the labourers are sufficiently protected, and we are most anxious that no injustice of any description should be done.

The noble Viscount has asked for a good deal of detailed information, and I must ask for the indulgence of the House if I do not answer the questions to everyone's satisfaction, because I have only been entrusted with the responsibility of a Crown Commissioner for six months, and I have had in that time to make a change in the management of the Crown Estates. Consequently, we are only just feeling our feet, and I have not the whole subject yet fully in hand. The total acreage is 62,000 acres, divided into ninety-one farms of from 250 to 1,000 acres, over forty-five farms of from fifty to 250 acres, forty-three small holdings and 283 acres of allotments. The largest areas are in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. In Lincolnshire, in 13,240 acres, there are only five small holdings, and eighty-nine acres of allotments. In 7,000 acres in Yorkshire there are twelve small holdings and no allotments at all; and in Cheshire, where the Crown has 2,630 acres, there are three small holdings and no allotments. Since we have made a change in the management of the Crown Estates five Crown farms have been dealt with.

When I took the matter over, I found 3,494 acres of land in hand, rather a large proportion, and included in that land was a farm at Burwell in Cambridgeshire. That farm comprised 917 acres. In answer to the noble Viscount, I may say that the name of the late tenant was Stevenson. He is the chairman of the Cambridgeshire County Council, and a very fine farmer, I believe. The old rent of these 917 acres was £814, and the present rent is £700. That farm was in hand for two years, and no one could be got to take it. A farm in hand is not a lucrative concern, and the Crown lost practically £350 a year; it got no rent, but the fees had still to be paid for superintending the farm. Now we get £700 a year for the farm, which is let on a twenty-one years' lease to my hon. friend Mr. Charles Rose, the Member for the Newmarket Division of Cambridge. The result has been a clear gain of £1,000 a year to the revenues of the Crown.

On that farm there had been employed thirty-nine labourers, and they, of course, received notice to quit when the farm was let to my hon. friend to be cut up for small holdings. Eight of them had served on the farm for twenty years, two from fifteen to twenty years, four from ten to fifteen years, and five from five to ten years, and thirteen under five years. But when the last tenant—Mr. Stevenson—left the farm two years ago, there was, so far as I know, no question of compensation to be paid to those labourers, though eight of them had worked on the farm for over twenty years. It may, however, be said that these men would have been taken on by an incoming tenant. I am not at all sure that this would be the case, because with a new tenant the amount of the labour bill is of great importance. The tenant would probably have calculated that he would want twenty-six labourers to work that farm. He would bring his own cowman, shepherd, and carter with him, and that would mean the dismissal of fifteen or sixteen labourers on that farm, and they would have gone elsewhere.

I accept as a compliment to the small holdings policy of His Majesty's Government the great interest which has been shown in this particular question, because if this farm had been let to one man I do not think there would have been very much public anxiety to know what had happened to these men or whether the tenant was a farmer or a retired tradesman, so long as he was a solvent farmer and a man who could be properly accepted by the Crown Commissioners. Indeed, a good deal of nonsense has been written to the papers about this Burwell Farm by a gentleman named Ryley. Mr. Ryley is the Unionist or Conservative agent for the Stowmarket Division, and he was in days gone by, I believe, political agent to Mr. Chaplin in the Sleaford Division of Lincolnshire.

I daresay some noble Lords read the bogus manifesto which was published in The Times and in various other papers purporting to be written by these poor, dispossessed labourers. I will not weary your Lordships by referring further to that manifesto, but I should like to be allowed to call the attention of the House to a resolution which was passed at a public meeting held in Burwell some little time ago. The Rev. Mr. Upton, Chairman of the Parish Council, was in the chair, and a resolution was proposed and unanimously passed declaring that— This crowded meeting of inhabitants of Burwell, having considered the manifesto of agricultural labourers which was published in The Times and other newspapers, and knowing all the circumstances of the case, expresses its indignation that such a number of falsehoods and misstatements should have been made public, and strongly condemns the action of Party agents in drawing up the manifesto and securing to it signatures of labourers, many of whom have confessed that they were ignorant of its contents and purpose. This meeting denies that any labourers have been thrown out of employment by the conversion of Crown lands into small holdings, the demand for labour having greatly increased.'' They assure Mr. Rose that his treatment of the labourers who did not wish to take up holdings, in giving them £389 by way of compensation, has been most considerate and most generous.

On this I may say that when my hon. friend thought of taking this farm he came and said that no hardship must be done to the labourers, and he made it a point that the Crown Commissioners should settle the amount of compensation. He gave them to understand that if that was not done he would throw up the whole thing and have nothing to do with it. They gave way, and the matter was settled by the Commissioners, a sum of £389 being paid in compensation to the thirty-nine labourers who had received notice. All of them had land offered to them, but I am informed that they were persuaded from taking it. I sent down an inspector recently and the report I received is very satisfactory. The land has been let to seventy-five tenants, and has been laid out to great advantage; the amount of stock on the farm is good, and the farm is well managed and properly cultivated. I have a description of the tenants of the Crown land at Burwell, their occupations, and where they came from, and I hope the noble Viscount will accept that—it will be published shortly —as part of the information for which he asks in this Return. Before leaving the subject of Burwell, I may say that several suitable applications for small holdings have been received from suitable people in excess of the amount of land available, and to satisfy which I estimate that at least 500 more acres would have been required. I hope to get more land in that neighbourhood, where it is very much wanted, and the first persons who will be accommodated thereon are the Burwell labourers who, acting on the foolish advice of their old manager, would not accept the terms offered to them. This action they now very much regret.

There is a farm of 440 acres in Wiltshire, where the old rent was £131 and the new rent £150. I let that land in ten minutes to the parish council, whose representative came to see me. There is a further application from that neighbourhood for 558 acres. There are sixty applications; fifty-five of these come from applicants in the parish, and all, I am told, are likely to succeed; but I will endeavour to get further information from the parish council. Then there is a farm of 151 acres in Yorkshire. The old rent was £380 and the present rent is £400. That has been let to the Corporation of Scarborough with another farm very close by—a farm of 327 acres, the tenants of which were the Rev. Mr. Marshall and the Rev. Mr. Hawkins. The Scarborough Corporation will get possession of that farm at Michaelmas. They propose to let the two farms to small holders, and as soon as I can get a Return from them I will send it to the noble Viscount. The old rent of this farm was £1,015, and the rent that will be paid by the Scarborough Corporation will be £1,100. I may say, with regard to these two reverend gentlemen, that they were in the habit of sub-letting a portion of their land to farm labourers and others, not entirely at a loss to themselves. That is a proceeding which has been severely knocked on the head, and which I hope will be entirely stamped out from the Crown lands.

The last is a farm in Lincolnshire. It is of 937 acres, and the tenant was an old lady named Mrs. Eastlands. The family have been for a considerable time —sixty or seventy years—on the farm; the old rent was £1,149, and the new rent is £1,349. Five hundred and sixty-nine acres have been let to the South Lincolnshire Syndicate, and 368 acres have been let to Mr. Eastlands, the son of old Mrs. Eastlands, at an increased rent of £115. The increase in the rents of the five farms is £210. Mr. Eastland had before this rushed into print, and there were sensational headlines in a Conservative paper:—"A land grabbing Government. Eviction of a Norfolk farmer. Appeal to the King." Mr. Eastland called to see me and I had an interview with him, taking the precaution of having a shorthand writer sitting behind me so as to have a record of what took place.

Mr. Eastland posed as the evicted tenant; but I had to point out to him that ten years ago Mr. John Clutton, the then agent to the Crown Commissioners, had given his mother notice to quit for farming the land in—well, not a satisfactory condition. These good people received notice to quit and out they went. Then it was discovered that this poor old lady belonged to a family who had been there for sixty or seventy years, and she was then made a yearly tenant. She continued as a yearly tenant, the son being merely in the position of a lodger, and in course of time she went to heaven and the farm became vacant. Mr. Eastland gave himself the airs of the tenant, and I had to point out to him very plainly that the only claim he had on the farm was that he was the son of his mother. I told him that it was the great desire of the Crown to do what all good landlords desire to do, viz., to try and retain families on the farm. He was not in any way a desirable or a satisfactory tenant, but simply for sentimental reasons he was allowed to take 358 acres, which was as much as he could do with, and he seemed very pleased. There he is now a Crown tenant, and so long as he pays his rent and cultivates his land properly he will not be disturbed.

News has arrived this morning from Lincolnshire that a Mr. Crawley has arranged to give up 700 acres, and the 700 acres were yesterday offered to the parish council. I also hear that the Lincolnshire people will have the advantage of a further 73 acres which have been voluntarily offered for the purpose. I am sorry I cannot give the noble Viscount further information.

Lord Heneage told us a most pitiable tale, and I really had a lump in my throat as I listened to the terrible state of things which had been going on at Croft. He said it was an object lesson, and he took great exception to a circular letter which I had sent round to all the parish councils in England.


I do not know anything about a letter to all the authorities. I took exception to this particular letter in the case of Croft, because the tenant concerned had not heard anything about it.


The inquiry in this case was part of a general one addressed to all the local authorities in districts where the Crown lands exist, and there was no attempt whatever to oust anybody in this particular neighbourhood. As to the other questions put to me by Lord Heneage, no land as far as I know has been pegged out, and no farmer has been given notice to quit. The noble Lord may rest assured that the vested interests of the sitting tenant will receive every consideration. The noble Lord surely cannot object to the responsible Minister sending round to the parish councils a circular letter making inquiries.

I have already received applications for 10,000 acres, or one-sixth of the whole Crown lands, from applicants, a great many of whom are very highly spoken of, and by Michaelmas I hope to have 2,000 acres of Crown lands under small holdings without injustice or injury to any sitting tenants. I think your Lordships will see that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was perfectly right when he put this large portion of Crown land under Ministerial control, for any question can be asked as to its administration and nothing can be kept back. I think my noble friend Lord Heneage may give us credit for trying to manage this estate without any harshness. In conclusion, I assure your Lordships that our great object is to deal fairly and honestly with the tenant farmers.


My Lords, we have listened to a very interesting statement from the noble Earl, enlivened by touches of that local colour which no one else knows so well how to apply, and characterised by a most intimate knowledge of the affairs of the estates the management of which rests in his hands. I say a very intimate knowledge, because he apparently knows not only what happens to the tenants of those estates during their lifetime but even where they go to when they are no longer amongst us. But, interesting as my noble friend's statement was, I hope he will forgive me for saying that it fell considerably short of being an answer to my noble friend behind me as to the points on which he desired information.

My noble friend asked for a statement as to the number of occupants who, under the new system, will occupy these sub-divided farms, distinguishing between the old agricultural population and the newcomers, some of whom there is reason to believe do not form part of what may be properly described as the agricultural population, but are rather artisans and tradesmen from the towns. The only one of the five farms in regard to which the noble Earl gave us any precise information was the farm at Burwell, which he discussed at considerable length; and if he will forgive me for saying so, I think the greater part of his speech must have been prepared rather by way of rejoinder to certain attacks in the Press, which have been so conspicuous recently, than as a reply to the specific Questions of my noble friend. I do not know why the noble Earl assumed that if the Burwell Farm had been re-let to another tenant a large number of the thirty-nine labourers previously employed on it would have been turned out of their houses. They might have been replaced by other labourers if they were unsuitable, but I take it that in these cases a farm of a certain size generally employs a certain number of men and that the new tenant at Burwell would probably have employed somewhere about that number.

Evidently my noble friend is not able to give us at present the whole of these details, and I therefore merely rise for the purpose of expressing my hope that he will give us at an early date what the noble Viscount behind me has asked for—a Return showing exactly how the matter stands in regard to each of these farms. My noble friend must be aware that the vigour with which he is prosecuting this new policy is creating a good deal of anxiety in the country. The policy itself is a good one. We are all in favour of it. We all desire to do what can be done to prevent the exodus of labourers and to retain thorn upon the soil under conditions as comfortable and convenient to them as possible. But the danger is that in making this experiment you may inflict an amount of hardship upon those who are now on the soil out of all proportion to the advantage which is occasioned to the new small holders whom you create.

The noble Earl was able to give a satisfactory explanation of the case referred to by my noble friend Lord Heneage—I mean the Croft case. But we cannot be surprised that it should have created some excitement. Here is a parish of some 5,000 acres, of which 200 acres are occupied by the only Crown tenant in the parish, and it is a parish in which there is already an unusually large number of small holders. Naturally, when this unfortunate gentleman became aware that meetings were being held to consider how small holdings were to be carved out of the Crown lands in his parish he knew that he was the only person who could possibly be the victim, and he felt considerable alarm. I think, considering the circumstances, it might perhaps have been wiser if this letter, though it was a circular letter, had been sent only to those local authorities in whose neighbourhood there really was a considerable amount of Crown land available for the purpose of small holdings on the one hand and a known dearth of such holdings on the other. Neither of those conditions was present in the case of Croft, and the noble Earl cannot be surprised that his manifesto should have created a great deal of alarm.


I should like to express the hope that the noble Earl will give us the particulars in respect of the whole of the Crown lands, and not forget to add the statement which he has already promised giving the expense of equipping the farms.


My Lords, the noble Earl told us about a farm at Scarborough which had been in the occupation of two reverend gentlemen, I think at £1,000 a year, and which he has now let to the Scarborough Town Council for £1,015 on the understanding that they are to let it out in small holdings. I should like to know whether the Scarborough Town Council are going to equip the holdings, or whether the individuals who are going to take them will be expected to equip them themselves. If the men are to equip them it really means that it will be artisans and small tradesmen in Scarborough who will take up the small holdings, and not the kind of men on whose behalf this policy—the policy of keeping the old agricultural stock upon the land—is being initiated by His Majesty's Government. I know something of Scarborough, and you may be quite sure that if they gave £15 more than the two reverend gentlemen for this farm and promised the noble Earl that they would let it out in small holdings, they know very well that the people who would take those holdings would not come upon the Scarborough town rates for the equipment of the buildings and the making of fences.


My Lords, I can assure the House that I do not wish to keep anything back, and I will do the best I can to ascertain the information asked for. As regards the Scarborough farm, I am informed that the two reverend gentlemen used to sub-let it at a greatly enhanced rent. The Town Council will be able to let this farm at a considerably lower price than before, which will be a great advantage to the tenant. I regret that I cannot at present give the noble Viscount the information he requires, and for the simple reason that we have only just let off these farms to the local authorities. We have only been running six months, and I have not been able to get the Returns in yet. But when I receive them I shall be only too happy to supply noble Lords with any information they may require. If the noble Viscount will withdraw his Motion I will give him the fullest information at the earliest possible moment.

Motion, by leave of the House, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before Eight o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.