HC Deb 21 March 1850 vol 109 cc1209-18

begged to bring forward the Motion of which he had given notice, his object being to call the attention of the House to certain anomalies which exist with respect to the transfer of landed property in cases of intestacy, and to certain effects which still remain, when the causes for those effects have long since disappeared. In consequence of recent changes in their legislation, their attention was peculiarly called to the principles of free trade, the effects of which had been denounced by a very large and influential body in that House, and attempts had been made by that body to induce Parliament to re-enact protection. He would at once admit and deplore the fact, that very great and considerable in-convenience had been experienced by that party. A change, after all, in any system would at all times produce derangement until matters became adjusted; but the complaints that were made, and the demands almost insisted upon, forced upon their attention the necessity of considering what have been the causes of, and what are likely to be the remedy for the present state of things. The complaints had proceeded from a very large and influential body, but they bore only a lamentably small proportion to the rest of the population in this country, compared with other nations. It could not be said, however, that they were inadequately represented, or that their arguments had been unattended to. The House—consisting, as he might presume to say it formerly did, almost entirely of landed proprietors—did its very best to promote the interests of that body. Under its sanction one system of laws of more modern invention was continued with regard to real property; and another, and a totally different one of ancient date was revised with regard to personal property. The modern system, of encouraging a system of incumbrances upon land, had created in this country a body of nominal instead of real possessors, flattered their pride, and introduced with that pride the ordinary accompaniment of poverty, while the tendency of the system had been to increase wealth by the distribution of property in cases of intestacy. No obstacle whatever is placed in the transfer and distinction of personal property, but legislation appeared to have gone out of its way to increase the greater natural difficulties which exist in the transfer of land. In the one case the state acted with perfect justice by distributing the property equally; and in the other, endeavoured to persuade the younger children that it was for their benefit that the whole of the property should go to the elder. If the principle he right in the one case, can it be right in the other? There would be no great difficulty in obtaining an answer by comparing the effects of the two systems. At the present moment the commercial classes of the country were possessed of a large amount of capital. What was the condition of the agricultural classes? If they were to believe all that they heard upon the subject, they were in great want of necessary capital. The soil of the country was capable of producing to an almost unlimited extent; there was abundance of unemployed capital in the coffers of the Bank of England; and there was no doubt but that there was an abundance of labour, so much so indeed that this abundance of labour had almost come to be considered a curse, instead of a blessing. There was an extraordinary anomaly, the landlord starving in the midst of plenty, the soil crying out for capital, labonr requiring employment, and capital seeking investment, In too many of the agricultural districts of England, it would be found that the verse in the Proverbs would most forcibly apply:— I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding, and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof. To the existing monopoly of land, and to laws which tended to disunite capital from land, this state of things owed its origin and continuance. An intelligent American traveller, Mr. Coleman, speaking upon the subject, said— The monopoly of land in the old world is a serious evil. The traveller passes over miles and miles of unoccupied and unimproved land capable of sustaining its thousands and millions in comfort; and upon the borders of those immense tracts of land are found thousands of human beings perishing for want of employment. This tract belongs to the Government. That tract belongs to the Church. This tract is held by some powerful individual, who chooses to keep it in its present state for his game preserves. Another large tract is devoted to some object which, if it had its value centuries before, has now ceased to be of use, The tendency of the present laws, in the opinion of Dr. Arnold, was to place brothers and sisters in a wrong position with respect to each other, unduly exalting one, and making the rest unduly dependent. The origin of this law was to be traced to the feudal times; and if he admitted that the great principles of public utility, combined with the general welfare of the State, were consulted by the regulations then made, he asked the House only to abide by the spirit in which those regulations were then made, and to show the same wisdom now that was evinced by our ancestors. The general interests of society were consulted by the arrangements then made. Great possessions and territories were then a source of wealth and power, but now, without capital, the source of poverty. Sir Samuel Romilly said that these laws were framed rather with a view to the feudal than to any other state, and that it was wrong to continue them in the present altered state of circumstances. He would call the attention of the House to the nature of the division of property among the ancient Britons, the Romans, the Athenians, and the Jews, among none of whom was the same principle recognised with respect to division of property as that upon which the laws of this country were founded. The effect of the subdivision of land in France, he knew, might be probably used as an argument against his Motion. But in France there was no power of devise by will—the division was compulsory. It was not fair to compare France with England, because in France there existed, previous to the revolution, only two classes, a high noblesse and a wretched peasantry, while in England a middle class of society had existed for centuries; but if they were to compare France at the present time with France before the first revolution, a marked improvement would be visible: the value of the whole produce of that country was in 1790, 4,650,000,000l.; while in 1843, that of agriculture alone amounted to 6,000,000,000l. In Belgium, Switzerland, and in Norway, the anomalous state of things which existed in England was not known, and the character of the husbandry of those countries far exceeded that of England. Ireland might also be quoted as a country where Ià grande propriété is ravaging a whole country, and making it resemble what France was. There we find a whole nation sacrificed to the wills of men long since dead. He was aware that one great argument might be brought against him, which was, that the alteration of the law which he was anxious to carry out, would materially affect the position of the aristocracy of the country. Admitting a landed hereditary aristocracy to be essential to the welfare of this country, why should not the present system be confined to that portion of society? Why should 30,000,000 of people be subjected to a barbarous feudal system which violated one of the best principles of our nature? Good order in society no longer required the existence of a body of large landed proprietors. There was one body of persons in that House the members of the legal profession, of whom he confessed he was afraid, and whose objections he dreaded. This Parliament was once compared to a Parliament which existed many years ago, and which went by the name of Parliamentum doctum, so many lawyers having scats in it; but those learned gentlemen, instead of holding up a set of feudal principles that checked social advancement, would do much better if they showed their great abilities in removing the obstructions to the free transfer of landed property, instead of fighting behind barriers which they themselves have created. He agreed in opinion with Sir Samuel Romilly, that an aristocracy ought to owe its position to the virtues of its members, rather than to the operation of unjust laws. He trusted that the Government, seeing the good effects which had already resulted from an interference in the laws relating to landed property in Ireland, would give him its support in endeavouring to augment the number of landed proprietors in this country.

Motion made, and Question put— That, considering the complaints which in many parts of the Kingdom have proceeded from the owners and occupiers of land, and considering also the benefits which have arisen to all other classes from recent legislation promoting free trade; it is expedient now to adopt measures for diminishing the existing restrictions on the free transfer of landed property, and for distributing such property, in cases of intestacy, according to the same rules as prevail in respect of personal property.


said, that he believed the principle of his hon. Friend to be not only theoretically sound, but one which, if adopted, would be attended with great practical benefits to the country at large. He wished it to be clearly understood, that neither he nor his hon. Friend wished to bring about a compulsory division of land. The time in which his hon. Friend had brought forward the Motion was, in his opinion, particularly adapted for the consideration of such a subject; for the time had come when land ought to be considered as any other commodity. It was absurd to suppose that land was not a commercial article as well as others, and equally subordinate to the laws of trade. The only point in which he differed from his hon. Friend was as to the mode in which the subject had been brought before the notice of the House. He considered that the better course would have been to move for a Select Committee to consider the laws of entail, and the laws which regulated the disposition of land in cases of intestacy. But although he was of that opinion, he still considered that the resolution was founded upon justice, and, believing 80, he would give it his most cordial support.


considered that the real tendency of this Motion was an attack upon the laws of primogeniture, and that mode of descent of property upon which the aristocracy of the country, as a body, depended. He believed that the hon. Member for East Surrey was a member of the National Freehold Association, which was but the Anti-Corn-Law League revived, and had been greatly aided by the exertions of that association in multiplying the number of small freeholders in that part of the country which he represented. It might probably be considered by some persons that it would be desirable to have a commercial succeeded by a social revolution, and he could conceive of no better mode of bringing about such a state of things, than by the adoption of the principle embodied in the resolution of the hon. Member for East Surrey. He should also wish to know whether the resolution had not an ulterior object in view, and was to be considered only as the precursor of that future movement of which the hon. Member for the West Riding had given them ample notice, for a complete alteration of the tenure of landed property, a change of the depositaries of public power—in fact, a social revolution.


thought that the hon. Gentleman who last spoke had made a reasonable request when he asked to be informed what the Motion meant. For his own part, he never wished for concealment, and though he could not pretend to interpret the views of the hon. Member who brought forward the Motion, he could state what his own views were in supporting it. Fifteen years ago he had supported a similar Motion, brought forward by his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, who moved for leave to bring in a Bill to make landed property of a person dying intestate equally divisible among his children, in the same manner as personal property. That was a definite step, and one which was involved in the question before the House. The principle of the alteration might be extended to the transfer as well as to the division of landed property; and he was glad that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had given relief to persons of small property by reducing the duties on conveyances. He (Mr. Hume) meant, by supporting this Motion, to intimate his opinion that the law of primogeniture should be altered. In no country in the world were there instances of greater wealth and prosperity, or of greater wretchedness, than in England. There was no country where there were so many men with princely estates, and so many persons living on eleemosynary aid. Why did that happen? He always coupled capital with employment, and employment with wages, and consequently he did not see why that discrepancy should exist. In 1821 the whole amount of landed proprietors in the British isles was only 50,000, while Denmark had 80,000, Prussia 200,000, Austria 650,000, and Switzerland 200,000, being four times as many as were to be found in this country. Spain also had 400,000 landed proprietors. Was he not, then, entitled to infer that the wretchedness existing in England was in some way connected with the remains of the feudal system? Every man who brought a family into the world was bound to provide for that family. It was not natural, not Christian, not humane, but cruel, that a man possessed of 10,000l. a year in land, and probably not of 500l. in money, should give all his land to one individual, and leave the rest of his family destitute. The law which his hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey arraigned, was impolitic and unnatural and disastrous in its effects. The question then was whether the existence of the aristocracy was such a benefit to the country as to induce the House to leave them the privileges arising from the law of primogeniture. He understood the object of the Motion to be an alteration in that law. He was convinced that much expense was occasioned by the aristocracy saddling their younger sons on the public. On a former occasion he had quoted an extract from a nobleman's will in Doctors' Commons, who had three sons Members of that House, bequeathing them 600l a year till they could get employment under Government to a greater amount. Let the House look at the pension list and the dead weight at the present moment. He did not mean to say that the aristocracy alone was to be found there—far from it; but when there were 10,000 officers in the Army, and 7,000 in the Navy, it might easily be seen, by looking at the manner in which promotion was bestowed, that there were a large number of persons who never saw a day's service, or wished to see a day's service. This never would have happened if that House was differently constituted, and if there were not so many Members in it who had an interest in the continuation of the present system. He held in his hand a publication containing nothing but a list of estates which were to be sold in Ireland under the provisions of the Incumbered Estates Act, property which had hitherto descended from father to son, and the sale of which was demanded by the necessities of the country, though nothing but necessity could justify it. He did not propose the introduction of any compulsory Act which would require landed property to be divided against the will of the parent, and he should be very sorry to see land subdivided as it was in Prance. He would allow the parent to make his will as he pleased, but if he died without making one, then he would have it distributed like personal property in cases of intestacy.


thought the importance of the Motion had been much exaggerated. He saw no objection whatever to it; but if the law were altered as the hon. Gentleman proposed, it would be but little operative, because very little landed property passed by descent. But there was a great collateral advantage which would result from this Motion, and that was, that it would tend to abolish the notion which was so prevalent on the Continent, and which so many men encouraged in that House, namely, that there was in this country a law of primogeniture. It was important that it should be well understood that all the conditions of primogeniture rested solely on the habits and manners of the people of this country, and not upon any law whatever. The whole matter was entirely permissive.


did not rise to prolong the discussion, but he wished to ask a question of the hon. Member for Montrose. The hon. Member had stated that the law of primogeniture led to the maintenance of large military and naval establishments, for the purpose of supporting the younger sons of the aristocracy. He wished to ask the hon. Member whether he would be satisfied with an ensign's commission as his only means of support in life?


I am too old.


said, that the Motion of the hon. Member for East Surrey comprehended two subjects: first, facilities for the transfer of landed property; and, secondly, an alteration in the state of the law as to the division of real property. He was not prepared to say that the first object of the Motion was one which ought not to be supported; but hon. Gentlemen would remember that this subject had been referred to the Real Property Commission, from whom a report might soon be expected, and he did not think that at present any great advantage would be derived from the passing of an abstract resolution. With regard to the second part of the Motion, which proposed to alter the distribution of landed property in cases of intestacy, he did not agree with its object. He believed that, on the whole, as his hon. friend the Member for Pontefract had said, there was a general accordance of habits and opinions in this country with the present state of the law, and, therefore, he should feel bound to oppose the Motion.


said, that as had spoken a great deal on the subject of primogeniture outside the walls of the House, he was desirous of saying a few words before the House divided. He was not disposed to conceal the objects which hon. Gentlemen opposite, who were so timid on this question, might suppose the friends of the Motion had in view, but he would assure the hon. Member for North Warwickshire that they would not take a single acre of his property without paying him for it. They were not destroyers of property, as they had been called, but the improvers of it.


explained that what he said was, that during the recess the hon. Member for Manchester had been instructing the public that there ought to be a very large subdivision of landed property in this country.


The Motion did not propose to interfere with the manner in which a man might bequeath his estate, but that when there was no will the law should step in, and do that which was consistent with justice, and which natural affection would dictate. He allowed that the Motion tended in a direction along which he would probably travel further than many Members of that House; but he was sure that with our immense and growing population, the time was not far distant when they would apply to landed property the principles which applied to all other kinds of property—a change which would be attended by great pecuniary advantages to landed proprietors. He believed that freeing land from the restrictions imposed by the present state of the law would add seven or eight years' purchase at least to the value of landed property. In Prussia forty years ago there were estates which were not allowed to be sold to any but those who were of noble families, and the consequence was that there were very few purchasers to be found for those estates, which were almost unsaleable, and when sold were sold at very low prices. This law had been subsequently altered, and the advantages which had been derived from the change had been very great. With regard to the general question of freeing the land from restrictions, he would ask hon. Gentlemen to bear in mind that there was a large labouring population in the rural districts, very ignorant and often much demoralised, but he did not say they were more demoralised than workmen in a town, and he believed that the principal cause of their demoralisation was the hopelessness of their condition. He was obliged to his hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey for bringing forward this Motion, and though there had not been a very animated discussion, and hon. Gentlemen did not seem to be willing to attend to the subject at the present time, he was sure that before long the necessity of the country would force them to amend the law.


did not intend to say anything which would in the slightest degree reflect on the aristocracy. He believed there were no possessors of property in any country who did so much for those on it, and who received so little remuneration from it, as in England. Much good, however, might be effected by facilitating the transfer of landed property. There were 30,000 acres of unimproved land within a short distance of the metropoils, which, if there were facilities for its sale, would furnish employment for several hundred poor labourers in its cultivation. In supporting the Motion before the House, he wished it to be understood that he did not concur in all the grounds urged in favour of it by the hon. Member for Montrose.


said, that as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had referred to the Real Property Commission, he begged to repeat to the right hon. Gentleman a passage from the evidence which a gentleman gave before that commission. The witness said— I was fleeced when I came of ago, again when I was married, again when my son came of age, again when he was married, and when I die I expect that my family will be severely fleeced. The existing law was a remnant of the barbarous policy of feudal times, and its maintenance was disgraceful to civilised society. The Real Property Commission had been appointed in 1832, and had not yet completed their labours, and it was not known when they would. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire alluded to the objects which he (Mr. L. King) had in view in bringing forward his Motion; his objects were that facilities might be afforded to capital to find its way to the soil.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 52; Noes 110: Majority 58.

List of the AYES.
Alcock, T. Mangles, R. D.
Bass, M. T. Melgund, Visct.
Bouverie, hon. E. P. Milnes, R. M.
Bright, J. Nugent, Lord
Brocklehurst, J. O'Brien, Sir T.
Brotherton, J. Pechell, Sir G. B.
Brown, W. Pilkington, J.
Clifford, H. M. Pinney, W.
Colebrooke, Sir T. E. Power, N.
Duncan, G. Robartes, T. J. A.
Ellis, J. Romilly, Col.
Ewart, W. Salwey, Col.
Fergus, J. Smith, J. B.
Gibson, rt. hon. T. M. Stanton, W. H.
Greene, J. Thompson, Col.
Hall, Sir B. Thornely, T.
Hardcastle, J. A. Tollemache, hon. F. J.
Harris, R. Verney, Sir H.
Hastie, A. Villiers, hon. C.
Headlam, T. E. Walmsley, Sir J.
Heathcoat, J. Wawn, J. T.
Henry, A. Williams, J.
Heywood, J. Willyams, H.
Heyworth, L. Wilson, M.
Kershaw, J.
Lacy, H. C. TELLERS.
Lushington, C. King, L.
Meagher, T. Hume, J.