§ LORD REDESDALE,
in presenting Petitions complaining of Powers of Electric Telegraph Companies and praying for Relief, said, he was anxious to draw the attention of their Lordships to the almost unlimited powers which, in some cases, had been intrusted to Telegraph Companies, and the daring manner in which they had been exercised. His attention had been for some time directed to the subject; and while he admitted that there was a great deal of truth in the complaints that had been made, he was at the same time strongly impressed with the conviction that they must, not interfere unduly with the extension of those telegraphs which were calculated to confer important advantage on the country, or prevent that competition which was necessary to secure anything like moderate charges for the transmission of messages. At the same time, there were great abuses in the mode in which these companies had interfered with public and private rights, that called for correction and amendment. The noble Lord opposite (Lord Stanley of Alderley), who adverted to this matter on a former occasion, appeared to think that it would be advisable to wait a little before steps were taken; but his own opinion was that the subject could not be taken up too soon, because if they were allowed to go on as at present, a greater extent of injury would be committed. There had been placed in his hand eighteen petitions from landholders, trustees of turnpike and district roads, and others, complaining of the mischief which had been done by the manner in which these companies had placed their posts and wires in front of houses, and generally interfering with the enjoyment of private property. In one instance, the posts and wires of a telegraph company had been put up in the centre of the line of an unfinished footpath leading to a church, so as to render its completion impossible. Nobody could be more anxious than he was not unnecessarily to interfere with the rights acquired under private Acts; but if Parliament had acted incautiously or made a mistake in granting those rights, 2091 it would be extremely objectionable if nothing were done to correct the error. The rights of parties ought to be protected, and compensation given if they were interfered with. It would also be most desirable that these matters should be governed by one uniform law.
§ LORD HATHERTON
said, that as living in the centre of England, through which a great number of these lines passed, he took some interest in this subject, which well deserved the attention of their Lordships. A great number of petitions, complaining of the interference of these companies with public and private property, had come from the district with which he was more immediately connected, where, in several instances, poles and wires had been erected in most inconvenient proximity to private houses, without the owners being at all consulted, and without anyone being aware of the existence of the telegraph company or their powers to act in such a manner. He was fully aware of the inconvenience of retrospective legislation; but he thought it highly proper that in all cases parties should have notice, and, where property was interfered with, that compensation should be granted. He thought the subject might safely be left in the hands of the noble Chairman of Committees, who had done so much to secure in the matter of private legislation consistency and uniformity of system.
§ LORD STANLEY of ALDERLEY
said, he was quite ready to admit that the powers given to electric telegraph companies had been most extensive, and had operated, in many instances, most injuriously. Up to a very recent time telegraph companies had been satisfied with laying their wires along railways and canals, giving them the use of a wire for their own convenience, or making some other arrangement for their private advantage; but recently powers had been conferred upon them by Private Bills of which the public were not aware, which had given rise to very great inconvenience, and created a very strong feeling of surprise and animosity on the part of persons whose property had been injured by them. Petitions had been sent to him of the same nature as those which the noble Lord had presented, from persons in the neighbourhood of towns, complaining of the injuries they had sustained by the manner in which telegraphic wires were permitted to be laid. The fact was that the powers given under private Bills had 2092 been extremely varied, and, in some cases, very eccentric, sometimes even giving power to cross private property without the consent of the owners or occupiers, and to pass along roads without the consent of surveyors or trustees. He concurred with his noble Friend, that it would be most desirable to have, if they could, a general measure, laying down some principle which might not deprive the public of the advantage arising from the competition of various companies, and which, at the same time, would not violate or interfere with the rights of property. He would undertake, on the part of the Government, that the matter should be taken into consideration, and he should deem it his duty to consult with persons of experience for the purpose of ascertaining whether a measure to regulate the law on the subject might not be introduced and passed during the present Session, if practicable, with the approval of all parties. One peculiarity in this case was that electric telegraphs, unlike docks, harbours, and railways, had never been placed under the Board of Trade. The consequence was, that Telegraph Bills, if unopposed, were passed without any notice being taken of them, and without the attention of Parliament being called to the extraordinary provisions contained in them.
§ LORD REDESDALE
expressed his satisfaction at the statement of the noble Lord, and trusted that the inquiry about to be instituted would result in something being done.