William Fowler.

Limited ownership of land : remarks on the report of the Committee of the House of Lords on improvement of land (1873.) (Volume Talbot Collection online

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Online LibraryWilliam FowlerLimited ownership of land : remarks on the report of the Committee of the House of Lords on improvement of land (1873.) (Volume Talbot Collection → online text (page 1 of 5)
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Ix the following pages I have not referred to the
distinction between real and personal estate, and
several other points which I have discussed elsewhere ;
as my object has been not to repeat the whole
argument on this occasion, but merely to consider
the principal points raised in the Report, and in
the evidence appended to it. The text of the Report
will be found in the Appendix,

92, Eaton Place,

« ufuc :







The appointment last session by the House of Lords
of a Select Committee, " to inquire into the facilities
afforded by the existing law to limited owners of
land, for the investment of capital in the improve-
ment of such land ; and to report whether any
alteration of the law is requisite in order further to
encourage such investment," must be regarded as
an important epoch in the history of what is known
as the " Land Question." The appointment of the
Committee was moved by the Marquis of Salisbury,
a typical, or rather the typical, modern Tory — a man
of vast property as well as great intelligence — and
he presided over the Committee during its sittings
with much assiduity. Such a motion by such a man
seems to imply that owners of land are not satisfied
with the law as it stands ; and I propose now to
consider how far the Committee has succeeded in
proposing adequate improvements of the law.

The circumstances under which this appointment
has been made are not, I believe, fully understood
by the public. ]\Iany years since, the position of
limited owners of land was seen to be very hard


inasmuch as they could not raise money for the
purpose of improving their estates, except by
insuring their Hves, or some other extravagant
process ; and first for Scotland and afterwards for
England and Ireland, Acts were passed enabling
such owners, with the consent of the Court of Session,
or the Court of Chancery, or the Enclosure Com-
missioners, to borrow money for the purpose of
improvements, sometimes by creating a permanent
rent-charge to repay interest only, but generally by
creating a charge which is so arranged as to repay
principal and interest within a moderate term. Such
charge has priority over all other charges, so that no
expense is incurred by the lenders in investigating
title. This system has been in full force in England
for several years, and in Scotland for a much longer
period. Companies have been formed under the
Acts, who are empowered to borrow money and lend
it to limited owners on certain terms, which vary in
the different Acts. The Companies charge in general
5 per cent, for allowing the landowner to use the
Act, besides some other charges, and these have to be
added to the principal money, which has to be repaid
with interest. Under the Act of 1864 a landowner
can advance his own money, and keep a charge on
the estate without the aid of a Company.

The Enclosure Commissioners charge about 30s.
per cent., which has also to be added. The result is
thus stated in the Report, Section 3 : — " The interest
" at which the Land Companies lend is usually 4} per
" cent. The sinking fund, calculated to repay the loan
** in twenty-five years, together with the interest and
*' sinking fund on the preliminary expenses, bring up


*' the average payment upon the effective outlay to a
*' Httle more than 7 per cent." "^ But in the cases of

* Mr. Ryder (893) says that the totalannual charge of the
Lands Improvement Company (besides the Commissioners'
charges), including repayment, is ^7 is. per cent, when the
interest is 5 per cent., £6 14s. id. when it is 4^ per cent.,
£6 I OS. 8d. when it is 4X per cent.

Mr. Randell (1,226) mentions a case under the same
Company w^here the rent-charge amounted to " £7 4s. 6d. per
*' cent, on the sum actually laid out on the improvement."

Mr. Ashdown says (3,234), " I think the expenses incurred
" are something like from 10 to 12 per cent, actual loss."

The jMarquis of Bath (p. 15) mentions a case where "the
" sum raised is ;!^2,686 for building ; of that the Company's
"charges are first £12^, then advertisement and stationery
"(again a Company's charge), £2, 15s. ; legal charges, £6 los.
" (again a Company's charge) ; amounting to ^140 5s."

If w'e may judge from a letter which appeared in The
Times of January 9th, 1874, w^hilst these remarks were passing
through the press, Mr. Ryder considers the charge made by
the Companies very moderate; but the next day appeared a
letter from the Marquis of Huntly, which tells a different tale.
It is, so far as relates to this matter, as follows : —


"to the editor of 'the times.'

" Sir, — Mr. Ryder, in his letter of yesterday, assumes that
" because the applications to the Enclosure Commissioners for
"buildings and cottages were more numerous in 1873 than in
*' the previous year, therefore the landowners of this country
*' approve the machinery of the Enclosure Office and the Lands
" Improvement Companies. There cannot be a more false
" argument.

" During the last year or two landowners have felt it their
*' duty to build improved cottages for labourers ; and if they
"wish to charge the cost upon their estates, they are
" obliged to have ' recourse to the Enclosure Office and the
** Companies.'

"But does this prove that the landowners of this country


small loans I per cent, more has to be added, as the
per-centage of the preliminary expenses is very heavy.

"(represented by the 260 applicants in 1873) are satisfied
" with and approve the machinery they have to put in motion ?

" Mr. Ryder frequently attended, and gave evidence before,
" the Lords Committee on the Improvement of Land last
" session ; and doubtless he has perused the evidence given
" before that Committee, which clearly shows that great
" dissatisfaction exists among many landowners at the working
'• of the existing system, under the Enclosure Office and the Land
" Companies.

" Nothing can be found in the Report of the Committee to
** corroborate Mr. Ryder's statement that the clamour against
"the Enclosure Office is 'groundless.'

" I fully agree with Lord Portsmouth that the requirements
" of the Office are ' costly,' and the procedure of the Companies
" far from economical.

" The Enclosure Commissioners are supposed to protect
" the heir-apparent from having to pay for works upon his estate
" that are not bo?id Jide improvements. In four cases out of
" five they fail, either by allowing too extravagant undertakings
" to be carried out, or by refusing applications (say for thorough
'' repairs of buildings, or draining at three feet where an outfall
" cannot be got at a lower level, &c.) which would be beneficial
" to the estate.

" The greater the outlay incurred by the landowner the
" better for the Office and the Companies, as the per-centage on
' the loans supports the Commissioners, and, I believe, leaves
•' a balance in hand at the end of the year, besides enabling
"four or five Companies to pay very handsome dividends,
" keeping up stafts of directors and clerks, and by the fees charged
" maintaining bodies of architects, engineers, surveyors, &c.

" Surely this system could be economised, and some of this
" enormous annual income that is taken from the land be given
"towards its improvement/'

Mr. A. White, in his evidence (Q. 4,035), expresses an
opinion that the Companies' " commission of 5 per cent, is most


See Section 9, Subsection 3, where the Report says
that no great '' zeal for improvement can be looked
" for" in such cases. It is hardly necessary to remark
that the power of borrowing cheaply is even more
important to the small than to the large owner.

It comes, therefore, to this, that an ow^ner in fee
can usually borrow for about 3 per cent, per annum
less than the tenant for life ; because the latter is com-
pelled to repay principal as well as interest year by
year, and can only borrow by a process which involves
heavy preliminary expenses.

Underthe powers thus conferred, the Commissioners
have sanctioned an outlay of about ^10,000,000 —
^8,000,000 in drainage, and ;^2,ooo,ooo in buildings —
but, as the Report says, Section i, "the progress has
" not been so rapid as was desirable, and what has been
** accomplished is only a small fraction of what still
" remains to be done." The Report goes on to quote
(with the qualification that they are " speculative ")
the estimates of Mr. B. Denton, that only 3,000,000
acres in England and Wales have yet been drained,
out of 20,000,000 acres which require it ; and of Mr.
Caird, that only one-fifth of the required improve-
ments of all sorts have yet been effected. The present
position of the question is thus fairly stated in the
Report, Section 2 : — " The case for Parliamentary con-
" sideration lies in this : that the improvement of
" land, in its effect upon the price of food, and upon
" the dwellings of the poor, is a matter of public
" interest ; but that as an investment it is not
"sufficiently lucrative to offer much attraction to
" capital, and that, therefore, even slight difficulties
*' have a powerful influence in arresting it."


Now, it cannot be disputed that the whole
" difficulty," or the main difficulty, which we have
to consider, arises from the fact of the existence of
limited ownerships and their peculiar incidents ; but
the proposal to get rid of these ownerships, as the
cause of our *' difficulties," is dismissed in this Report
in a very summary, not to say perfunctory, manner.
It is not said that this change would not so enlarge
the powers of such owners of land as to enable them
to make improvements without difficulty ; but it is
asserted that a landowner is led to improve his land
** more by solicitude for his descendants than by hope
" of personal gain, but the prohibition of settlements
"would make this solicitude idle. It would therefore
*' remove one of the chief motives by which improve-
" ments of land are now dictated." (Report, Section 7.)

In the passage just quoted are contained two
propositions — (i), that the "chief motive" which
impels men to improve their land is solicitude for
descendants, and not care for their own interest ; and
(2), that an ovvner in fee, without power of entailing
his land, cannot or will not act on the motive so

Now I venture to deny both these propositions, as
utterly opposed to the well-known facts of the case.
It is admitted, in the evidence printed with the Report
of the Committee, and it requires no proof, that no
one improves more freely than the owners in fee who
have purchased their own lands, as well as owners in
fee who have inherited land ; but it is assumed that
they do this for the sake of their descendants, and
that they would not do it if they could not entail the
property on those descendants. But is this credible.


when It is so well known that land when left unim-
proved is the worst possible investment to the present
owner, and that no one is more interested than him-
self in the development of his property ? The Tables
given by Mr. Ryder in the Appendix are sufficient to
prove this, if proof were needed, but the fact is no-
torious.^ A man buys neglected land wath the very
object of so improving it as to get a fair return on the
money laid out, as well as on the money given for
the land. This process is going on every day ; and
then w^e are told by a Committee of the House of
Lords that he does this purely for the sake of his de-
scendants, and from no self-regarding motive. Such
an owner has absolute authority. He may resell, or
he may devise the land to whomsoever he may please.
He has every motive for improving it, even supposing
he may have no *' descendants." To many such men
the mere occupation of '' improvement " is very fas-
cinating. It is not like buying and selling Stocks ;
because the improvement is visible, not merely in
figures in a book, but on the face of the country, and
displays the skill and enterprise of the improver to
the whole neighbourhood, and often to the whole
kingdom. It is said that such improvements are
not a good investment ; but w^hen all things are
taken into account — actual money return, health of

* In forty cases mentioned by Mr. Ryder, involving a total
expenditure of ^194,730, and an average expenditure of ^4,868,
the average increase per cent, on the rental in eight or ten
years, between the " first and the last application," was 26X«
The average is much reduced by the comparatively small
increase arising from new buildings, as com.pared with the large
increase resulting from drainage. (See Appendix to Report.)


body and mind, and social consideration — it may
well be doubted whether the return is not far more
satisfactory than that of many far more " profitable "

Nor is this merely a matter of speculation. In
a well-known case in the last generation, a nobleman,
who was perhaps the greatest improver of his time,
is said to have left his estate to the present holder of
the title in fee, thereby showing very little of that
peculiar kind of " solicitude for descendants " of which
we hear so much. If he had much " solicitude " of
this sort, he would surely have entailed the estate
on his son. It is said that the present peer is very
sensible of the benefit which he has derived from the
existing arrangement. Again, some of the greatest
improvers have had no '* descendants," in the sense
in which the word is commonly used. One of the
most enterprising land-owners of our time has a child-
less daughter as his only descendant ; and yet he buys
and improves continually, to the great benefit of
himself and his country.

But it is said, This may be all true ; but how do
you know that men would do what they now do, if
they were unable to entail their land, and only allowed
to divide it by will as fee-simple estate } Of course,
it is impossible to prove what would happen in a
hypothetical case ; we can only argue from the actual
to the probable. It is most obvious that a man may
have " solicitude for his descendants " or successors,
may desire to leave them well ofT, may wish to leave
them his estate in an " improved " condition ; and yet
not have any anxiety to leave them merely owners
for life with remainders over.


How constantly we see men in commerce slave
for their descendants to their last moments, and
yet leave their property to them entirely free from
settlements, although the law enables them to
settle personal estate for the same period as land !
Why should not a man do the .same in the case of
land ? His anxiety for his children may show Itself
in his labours to improve his estate, but not In a desire
to limit their powers over the land after he is gone.
A man who has been owner In fee, and, therefore, free
to do as he wills, manifests a curious sort of kindness
to his child when he leaves the land he has so
enjoyed not as he had It, but crippled and limited
by the terms of a strict settlement. Solicitude thus
develops Into distrust, to the great Injury of families.
But, as a matter of fact, no one Improves more
heartily than the purchaser of a small property, to
whom the thought of an entail and strict settlement
is quite foreign ; and the cases I have mentioned prove
that even amongst the class to whom entails are
thought to be natural, and amongst whom they are
certainly usual, men may have abundant motives for
improvement without having any desire to "settle"
their property.

It is utterly unproved at present that the pro-
hibition of settlements would make solicitude for
descendants " Idle ;" and It might with more safety be
asserted that an owner in fee is more likely to feel a
solicitude for successors of his own choice than Is
a limited owner, whose successor may be a distant
relation, taking under a settlement made before he
was born, and is often not the successor chosen by
himself, though he may be the person he would


have chosen. It is certainly a most important
observation, that an owner in fee may always choose
those whom he cares for to take his property after
him ; whereas a limited owner has no choice in the
matter, and, in too many cases, has a solicitude rather
to injure than to benefit the next taker.

But supposing, for the sake of the argument, that
the abolition of settlements would in some degree
discourage purchases of land by that class who are
said to buy chiefly with the object of founding
families, and who care little for the improvement of
the land, either as an investment of capital, or as an
object of the greatest national importance ; it may
fairly be questioned whether this result would not be
beneficial to the country. The absence of the intense
competition for land, which is supposed to be caused
by purchasers of this class, Avould, if this argument
is sound, cause a sensible decline in its value,
so that those who buy as a matter of business,
and not for family or social reasons, would be able
to obtain the land on more reasonable terms. If in
this way it should come about that more land should
be held by capable men of business, such a result
could only be regarded with satisfaction by political

But it may well be doubted whether such a class
of purchasers really exists. The motives which
lead men to choose land as an investment are for
the most part mixed motives. Some men may be
bitten with the desire to found families ; but hardly
any man can be found who has this sole motive
for choosing this peculiar investment. The change
in the law here advocated would not affect the


minds of most investors, for it would leave the
security of the inheritance as great as ever ; and
it would neither diminish the social influence of
the owner of land, nor the attractions of land for
purposes of residence or of amusement — attractions
very powerful to most Englishmen, and not least
powerful to those who have won their way in the
pursuits of commerce. In a country so rich and
so populous as ours, and where wealth increases so
rapidly, land is sure to be in great and increasing
demand, and it would be the height of folly to
retain any law of injurious tendency merely for the
purpose of attracting or retaining investors in an
article of such prime necessity. If more land were
sold, and land were more easily saleable by reason
of a more simple law, the price would probably be
increased rather than diminished ; but that increase
would be natural, and the result of an increased
return, and not the consequence of a forced ac-
cumulation in a few hands. Two classes would
compete for the land in the case supposed. First,
many farmers would gladly buy the land they occupy.
Often in Ireland of late years farmers have given
astonishing prices for their farms. Many parts of
the estate of the Marquis of Waterford were, it is
said, recently sold for forty years' purchase, and what
has happened in Ireland would, I believe, happen in
England. The purchase of land on such terms may
seem to be a very bad investment, but it has a great
attraction to this class, who know the real value of
their land, and their competition would often be found
serious by intending purchasers. Secondly, ver}' rich
men will ever find land an attractive investment ;


because, not only is its annual return extremely
secure, but also this security of income is coupled
with a probable advance in the value of the invest-
ment itself The funds are safe as to income, but the
purchaser cannot depend on the return of his principal
intact should he be disposed to sell ; whereas a man
may fairly look for a profit on the purchase of
land. Such men do not buy from '* solicitude for
" descendants," but from solicitude for themselves ;
and they are an important and probably an increasing

The Committee proceeds to say that a "more
" formidable objection " to the abolition of settle-
ments is the fact that the existence of mortgages
is even a greater hindrance to the limited owner
than that of settlements, and that even were settle-
ments abolished mortgages would remain and
increase. It is truly wonderful that such men should
solemnly put forth so illogical an argument. Mortgages
would remain ; but, as the real improvement of the
land would improve the security of the mortgagee,
there would be nothing unjust in giving priority over
the mortgage to a charge created for the purpose
of improvements. This is done by the existing
Acts, and we are told that " many owners in fee
''take advantage of the powers given to the land
" Companies." By all means continue this power to
encumbered owners in fee, so that they may raise
money for the purposes of improvement on the best
possible terms ; but how the need of such a power can
prove that it is also needful to continue the system of
settlements is to me quite incomprehensible. The two
things are entirely unconnected, and the whole sentence


in which this point is stated seems to be one of the
most remarkable instances of confusion of thought
in an important pubHc document which we have seen
for many years. Owners " Hmited by mortgage "
require " facilities " as well as owners ** limited by
" settlement." Let us admit this, and that they will
require the same facilities when settlements shall be
abolished ; but how does it thence follow that the
abolition of settlements would do harm ? It is not
asserted that the abolition of settlements would do
everything required, and the proposal to continue
these facilities to encumbered owners in fee may be
very wise; but, still, the abolition of settlements maybe
an important step in the right direction. If there are
two hindrances to improvement, and you can only get
rid of one, it does not follow that you must retain both
just because you cannot get rid of both at a blow. It
would seem as if noble Lords who can propound such
an argument as is contained in this section of the
Report can have but very small respect for the intellect
of ordinary men.

Having in the way above mentioned disposed, to
their own satisfaction, at any rate, of the proposal to
abolish the system of settlement, the noble Lords
proceed to suggest their own remedies for the ad-
mitted defects of the present law.

The evidence taken by the Committee extends to
371 pages. All sorts of witnesses were examined by
their Lordships, and the utmost diligence displayed in
cross-examining and examining, so that everything
might be extracted from every witness. And what is
the result of all this commendable labour.^ I will
venture to say that a milder Report was never made


by any Committee. It would seem as if limited
ownerships in land were a sacred ark, not to be touched
by any man. As one reads these recommendations,
one feels that the system cannot be mended ; it must
either continue very much as it is, or be swept away
altogether. To those who have been long contending
against this sort of ownership, it is a great satisfaction
that there has been so exhaustive an inquiry with so
slender a result. It has always been vaguely sug-
gested by onlookers that surely something might be
done to improve our present plans, without going so
far as to remove altogether so ancient and respectable
a system. But such a feeling cannot, I think, now pre-
vail. If such a Committee could suggest nothing
more than what is set forth in this Report, it is diffi-
cult to suppose that any other set of men would be
more successful. As one reads the questions and
answers, one perceives a leading thought in the minds
of all parties to the inquiry, viz., that, at all hazards,

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Online LibraryWilliam FowlerLimited ownership of land : remarks on the report of the Committee of the House of Lords on improvement of land (1873.) (Volume Talbot Collection → online text (page 1 of 5)