HL Deb 10 June 1947 vol 148 cc385-9

2.35 P.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of the Wellington Museum Bill. This Bill is framed to give effect to a most generous desire by the noble Lord, the Duke of Wellington, that Apsley House in Piccadilly, which is held for the benefit of the Dukes of Wellington, should be presented to the nation and the principal part of it used as a museum where objects associated with the first Duke of Wellington and his times may be exhibited. This is an immensely valuable gift and I am sure we would all wish to join in expressing gratitude to the noble Duke for his generous spirit in making this offer.

Apsley House, well-known as "No I London," is one of the few great old London houses still surviving as a private residence. Externally it is an example of the severely classical architecture of the early 19th Century. Internally, three rooms, including two state rooms on the first floor, retain their Adam decoration while the remainder preserve unaltered their typical decorations and furnishings of a great town house of the age. By accepting this splendid gift, we are, therefore, acquiring for posterity an outstanding historical monument from which may be reconstructed, more vividly than from written records, the atmosphere of a great period in our history, which presents so many striking parallels to that through which we are now passing.

The value of this gift is increased many times by the inclusion of a superb collection of personal objects and relics of great historical and artistic interest. To dwell on these in detail now would take too long, and many of your Lordships will, no doubt, already have seen the illustrations and read the article in the Times of May 24, which gives an excellent appreciation of this veritable treasure house. Suffice it to say that there are 200 pictures, 150 of which belonged to the first Duke, the remainder being the personal property of the noble Lord, the present Duke. In addition, there is a rare collection of plate, porcelain, jewelled orders and decorations belonging to the great Duke. I am confident that all noble Lords will wish that the Government should accept this noble gift.

It may be wondered why legislation is necessary to give effect to the noble Duke's offer. It is required in order to remove certain restrictions on alienation of the property, which were imposed by the Wellington Estate Acts passed between 1812 and 1839 to "express the nation's gratitude to the first Duke by granting substantial sums of money to certain Trustees to purchase estates for him and his successors. These Acts provided that all manors and estates so purchased should be held in trust for the Dukes of Wellington, and that the Dukes should not be able to bar the statutory entail. It is also necessary to amend previous legislation in respect of the gift of the valuable pictures, plate and other objects, which were assigned by the first Duke to the Trustees to descend as heirlooms with a restriction on alienation and disposal similar to that placed on the Wellington Estates. The noble Lord, the Duke of Wellington, will agree with the Government a list of the objects to be used for the Museum, and the effect of the Bill will be to free from restriction such of these articles as were included in the first Duke's assignment.

It is proposed to transfer to the Crown the freehold interest in Apsley House and site, with its garden and forecourt and the collection I have mentioned. The principal part of the House will become the Museum, and may also, with certain safeguards, be used for Government entertainment or for other public purposes, subject to the Duke's consent and consistent with its continued use as a Museum. The remainder of the building, together with the garden, will remain for the use of the Dukes of Wellington as a private residence, free of rent and rates. The Government will be responsible for the ordinary landlord's repairs and the Dukes will assume the responsibility of a normal tenant. The Minister of Works will look after the care of the fabric of the house, while the Minister of Education will control the Museum, through the agency of the Victoria and Albert Museum. By the proposed arrangement, the descendants of the first Duke will continue to be personally associated in a real way with the house in which their illustrious ancestor lived.

In the unhappy event of the Dukedom of Wellington becoming extinct, complete possession of the whole of the House and its site will revert to the Minister of Works. If the house becomes damaged by fire or other accident beyond hope of restoration to its original character, the Minister, after payment to the then Duke of a sum compensating him for his loss of rights under this Bill, may use or dispose of the house and site as he thinks fit. But compensation will not be payable if the damage is due to negligence by the Duke or his servants or agents.

As regard the financial aspects of the arrangements proposed in the Bill, the house with garden is worth about £50,000 so long as the existing restrictions on its disposal apply. The open market value without these restrictions is about £400,000. The artistic and historical treasures to be presented arc worth up to another £400,000. Against these, the cost of adaptation and repair is estimated at £50,000, and the cost of annual maintenance thereafter at £2,200. The expense of running the Museum will be about £5,000 yearly. The annual value of the rent and rates for the flat, which will be retained by the Duke, is an insignificant sum compared with the value of the unique building and its precious contents which will be transferred to the nation. Indeed, the historical and sentimental value of what the nation stands to receive cannot be truly assessed in terms of money. I feel sure, therefore, that all noble Lords will agree with the purpose of this Bill, which will secure to the nation a priceless possession and will at the same time commemorate, far better than any statue or epitaph, the undying glory of the great Iron Duke himself. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Henderson.)

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, the Bill so happily proposed by the noble Lord is one which I am sure everyone in the House will cordially support. As the noble Lord said, it makes effective the public-spirited offer of the Duke of Wellington and its wise acceptance by His Majesty's Government. It is indeed a most generous offer and entitles the present Duke to that charming title which his father bore, by almost universal consent, in his own home— "His Gracious." If St. Paul's is to be dwarfed or rivalled by a bigger and better power station, "No. I, London" will be preserved in all its environment, and I think it is an excellent arrangement in every way. The noble Lord said it was most fitting that the Duke of Wellington should continue to reside in Apsley House. In that way the agreement carries out in its true spirit and intent the trust which the British Parliament and British people created for the first Duke and his successors, and all the historic memories and traditions will be preserved.

Apsley House and its treasures, so many of which bear witness to the part the great Captain played in another fight for freedom, will be enjoyed by the people of London and by visitors to the capital from the Commonwealth and from all over the world. Excellent, too, is the proposal that the great house, with its treasures, shall be used not only as a museum, but shall be available for Government hospitality. We have always been at a disadvantage in this country in comparison with some other countries, France in particular. When the Government entertains, we have none of those wonderful palaces, with their tapestries and furnishings, in which we are entertained whenever we go on a mission to Paris. Apsley House will go a long way to filling that want, and surely no place could be more appropriate for that purpose. Apsley House is in a peculiar sense part of British history. There the crowds so often cheered the great Duke, and once, at any rate, they broke his windows; both he treated with equal disregard. And to that house and its venerable occupant, through the long years of peace that followed his victories, sovereign and subject alike turned, almost as a matter of course, for wise counsel in difficulties great or small. Whether it was the inconvenience of sparrows in the Great Exhibition, or even graver constitutional issues, the great Duke was always the one to be consulted. All these historic memories will be preserved and perpetuated in this felicitous agreement. It is very appropriate and very English.


My Lords, we on these Benches would like to express our support of the Bill. I can say only that we wish to associate ourselves with the appreciation already voiced of the magnificent and roost generous gift made to the nation by the present Duke of Wellington.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed.