British land-tenure

Alfred Russell Wallace :
Land Nationalisation
Its necessity and its aims (1882)

The origin and present state of British land-tenure.

Antiquity of our present system causes it to appear a natural one—antiquity of a system no proof of its value—origin of British land tenure—characteristics of the feudal system—growth of modern landlordism—the legal powers exercised by landlords—our land system is a modified feudalism, in which the landlords have thrown their burdens on the people, whose rights in the land they have absorbed.

The present tenure of land in this country is of such antiquity, it has so grown with the progress of society, and has become so interwoven with all the elements of rural, social, and political life, that to many persons the very conception of any other system is difficult, if not impossible. That land should be private property; that it should be bought and sold for pleasure or profit; that any man should be allowed to possess all that he inherits or is able to purchase; that it should be rented out to those who cultivate it; and that the owner should let it subject to whatever restrictions or stipulations he thinks proper—seem, to most people, not only natural but right; and even those who suffer by this state of things—the farmer who is injuriously restricted in his cultivation, or is turned out of his farm because he has voted against his landlord or otherwise offended him; and the labourer who sees the bit of green enclosed on which his father’s donkey and geese used to run, who is liable to be turned out of his home at a week’s notice, and who is obliged to walk three miles to his daily labour because there are no spare cottages in his employer’s parish—rarely trace these evils to the general system of land-tenure, but rather to some deficiency in the character or conduct of their immediate landlords.

Antiquity of a System no Proof of its Value.—It is generally supposed that, when any system or institution has grown up with the growth of society, has persisted notwithstanding vast social and political changes, and has become interwoven with the very texture of a nation’s life, it must necessarily be good in itself and adapted to the conditions under which it flourishes. But this is by no means universally, or even generally, the case; and it often happens that the worst evils inherent in a system may be so disguised by the good qualities of those who administer it that it is borne with long after its ill consequences are, in many cases, admitted. Sooner or later, however, the eyes of the people are opened to its faults; remedies of various kinds are proposed; and when all these remedies are resisted by those who benefit by the institution, a revolution sweeps away the whole, and a new system is introduced which is often far less beneficial or perfect than a carefully considered constitutional reform. Thus, despotic governments, notwithstanding their respectable antiquity, have in time to be modified by representative institutions, or are entirely destroyed in the throes of rebellion or revolution. Thus, too, slavery—the most ancient of all institutions, and one which has formed part of the essential character and social life of many communities—everywhere has to be abolished with advancing civilisation, if not voluntarily and peacefully, then by violence or civil war. So feudalism, with its accompanying remnant of serfdom, has been gradually modified in all civilised countries, while with us some of its essential features persist in the vast landed estates held by private individuals, and in the almost despotic power which the owners are able to exercise (and sometimes do actually exercise) over the population—a power so great that the supreme authority of the State is often unable to protect individuals in the occupation of their ancestral homes, in the right to live among the scenes of their childhood, or even in the possession of property created by their own industry.

Let us, then, see if there is anything in the history of modern landlordism which entitles it to continue to exist for ever, even though it may be shown to be incompatible with freedom, and adverse to the best interests of the people.

Origin of British Land-Tenure.—The actual system of land-tenure and all existing rights of property in land of this country may be said to have originated at the Norman Conquest, when the whole land of the kingdom became vested in the Crown. All the great landed estates were then granted as fiefs by the sovereign, and their holders were obliged to render military and other service proportionate to the extent and population of their lands. These estates were also subject to various fines, on marriage or on transmission to an heir; they were not allowed to be sold or alienated without the permission of the Sovereign; and on the death of the owner without heirs the whole reverted to the Crown. Any breach of fealty, or the commission of any act of felony, also entailed the loss of the estate. The great vassals were usually endowed with civil and criminal jurisdiction over the inhabitants of their estates, and were altogether more in the position of subordinate rulers than mere landlords in the modern sense of the term.

These immediate vassals of the Crown again granted lands in fief, on various payments or services, and in process of time these fiefs were allowed to be divided or sold, and the payment or service to be commuted for fixed sums of money. Military service, too, gradually ceased, and was changed into annual payments, which are now only represented by the small, fixed, land-tax; so that the greater part of the land of the kingdom became “freehold”—implying that it was “held” from the Crown “free” from all military service, dues and fines, and subject only to a fixed annual payment.

Characteristics of the Feudal System.—The system which was thus established was evidently very different from that of landlord and tenant at the present day. The great landlords were actual vassals of the Crown and subordinate rulers. They held their estates subject to military service; and this implied that the population on the land was the first essential, since this was the measure of its power in providing capable men-at-arms. Their tenants, the villeins or cultivators, held their farms subject to certain services, military or otherwise, and to the payment of certain dues; and these farms were held for life, and descended from father to son or other relation on payment of certain fines to the lord, whence, it is believed, arose the copyhold tenures by which so many small estates are held to this day. In those times the land was of less value than the men who lived on it, and the animal or vegetable produce of the land of less importance than the population of hardy villeins, who enhanced the lord’s dignity, increased his revenues, and kept up the supply of his armed followers. The landowner then lived upon his estate, and his own power and influence in the country depended chiefly on the number and the well being of his tenants. Together they formed a little quasi-independent community, bound to each other by mutual interests and ancestral ties; and if the tenants were sometimes oppressed by their lords, they were as often guarded from robbery and plunder by wandering marauders, or saved from complete destruction during baronial feuds or civil wars.

Growth of Modern Landlordism.—During this rude period of our history, when the Central Government was lax and the means of communication imperfect, the feudal system possessed many advantages, and was, in some form or other, almost the only one possible. The “lords of the soil” were the chiefs and protectors of the community which lived on their estates, while every individual, down to the villein and serf, possessed definite rights and privileges in connection with the land, which, though they might be infringed by force or rapine, were fully recognised by custom and law.

But as time rolled on this system became modified in a variety of ways, though always for the benefit of the lord and to the injury of the inferior landholder. As the King obtained more power and the attractions of court life became greater, the nobles and great landowners came to look upon their estates chiefly as sources of revenue to be spent in the capital or in foreign lands. The employment of foreign mercenaries and the rise of standing armies enabled the King to dispense with the military service of his vassals, and by self-made laws this and other burdens on the land were gradually thrown off, and were replaced to a great extent by taxes on the mercantile and landless classes. The ingenuity of lawyers and direct landlord legislation steadily increased the powers of great landowners and encroached upon the rights of the people, till at length the monstrous doctrine arose that a landless Englishman has no right whatever to the enjoyment even of the unenclosed commons and heaths and the mountain and forest wastes of his native country, but is everywhere, in the eye of the law, a trespasser whenever he ventures off a public road or pathway. The Lord of the Manor is said to be the “owner of the soil,” and the surrounding freeholders and copyholders have certain rights of pasture, fern or turf cutting; but the dwellers in the adjacent towns and villages, and all who are mere Englishmen, have no rights whatever, so that if the two former classes agree, the common can be (as hundreds of commons have been) enclosed, and divided among them. It has thus come to pass that at the present day the owners of land, whether acquired by inheritance or purchase, treat it solely as so much property, to be made the most of, quite irrespective of any rights in the people who live upon it. They now claim a power which no government, however despotic, has ever openly claimed—that of treating the land exclusively as a source of personal wealth, to which they have an indefeasible right, even at the sacrifice of all that the people who live upon the land hold most dear; and having rendered the exercise of this power legal by means of self-made laws and customs, they have at length come to look upon acts of oppression and cruelty of the most glaring kind as not only right, but such as are not incompatible with the condition and feelings of a people who pride themselves upon their freedom.

We find, then, neither in the origin of our land-system nor in the causes which have led to its present development, anything to render it sacred or immutable; but, on the contrary, very much to show that a radical change is needed to bring it into harmony with modern ideas, and to render possible the full use and enjoyment of the land of our country by the people who must necessarily inhabit it. Absolute private property in land logically carried out, denies the right of non-landholding Englishmen to live upon their native soil, except by sufferance and under conditions imposed by the will or caprice of the landlords. This power is, on the whole, moderately used, or the institution would have been long ago abolished in the throes of revolution. But it is not unfrequently exercised, and even abused, to the injury of individuals and of the community; and, as the sufferers have no legal redress, the institution itself stands thereby condemned.

The Legal Powers Claimed and Exercised by Modern Landlords.—Before proceeding (in the three following chapters) to exhibit in some detail the influence of landlordism on individuals and on the community at large, a few general observations and illustrative examples may here be given; but before doing so I wish to state, emphatically, that I have no desire to excite any ill-feeling against landowners as a body, or to make any accusation against them personally; still less is it my intention to propose any measure of confiscation as against existing landlords. The law places them in an anomalous position. It tells them that their rights over their land are absolute. They could, if it so pleased them, turn it into a waste given up wholly to wild animals, or might even destroy its surface-soil and convert it into a desert uninhabitable by man or beast. In doing this they might expatriate hundreds of families, and even cause many to die of exposure, want, or grief; and all this time the Government and the Law would stand by with no power to interfere. They would be acting within their legal rights. Public opinion would, no doubt, in such extreme cases condemn them, yet there are many who exercise similar rights to a partial extent; and so deadening is the influence of long custom and legal sanction that, whenever it can be shown that the result is profitable commercially, apologists are to be found who uphold the action as beneficial.

Mr. James Godkin well remarks: “According to this theory of proprietorship, the only one recognised by law, Lord Lansdowne may legally spread desolation over a large part of Kerry; Lord Fitzwilliam may send the ploughshare of ruin through the hearths of half the county Wicklow; Lord Digby, in the King’s County, may restore to the bog of Allen vast tracts reclaimed during many generations by the labour of his tenants; and Lord Hertford may turn into a wilderness the district which the English settlers have converted into the garden of Ulster. If any or all of these noblemen took a fancy, like Colonel Bernard, of Kinnilty, and Mr. Allen, of Pollok, to become graziers and cattle-jobbers on a gigantic scale, the Government would be compelled to place the military power of the State at their disposal, to evict the whole population in the Queen’s name, to drive all the families away from their homes, to demolish their dwellings, and turn them adrift on the highway, without one shilling compensation. Villages, schools, churches would all disappear from the landscape; and when the grouse season arrived, the noble owner might bring over a party of English friends to see his improvements! The right of conquest so cruelly exercised by the Cromwellians, is in this year of grace a legal right; and its exercise is a mere question of expediency and discretion. It is not law or justice, it is not British power that prevents the enactment of Cromwellian scenes of desolation in every county of that unfortunate island. It is self-interest, with humanity in the hearts of good men, and the dread of assassination in the hearts of bad men, that prevent at the present moment the immolation of the Irish people to the Moloch of territorial despotism. It is the effort to render impossible those human sacrifices, those holocausts of Christian households, that the priests of feudal landlordism denounce so frantically with loud cries of ‘confiscation.'” (The Land War in Ireland, p. 210.)[i]

[i]This power still remains to the landlord in England and Scotland though the recent Land Act has abolished it in Ireland.

It may be thought that such cases as are here supposed are altogether imaginary, but it is not so. The Daily News special commissioner, a writer by no means unfavourable to the cause of the landlords, says, writing from Mayo (Oct. 30th, 1880):—”Tradesmen, farmers, and all the less wealthy part of the community still speak sorely of the evictions of thirty and forty years ago, and point out the graveyards which alone mark the sites of thickly-populated hamlets abolished by the crowbar. All over this part of the country people complain bitterly of the loneliness. According to their view, their friends have been swept away and the country reduced to a desert in order that it might be let in blocks of several square miles each to Englishmen and Scotchmen, who employ the land for grazing purposes only, and perhaps a score or two of people where once a thousand lived—after a fashion.” The writer then goes on to explain that this was done in order that the landlords might get their rents more securely and more easily, even though the rents were somewhat less than those paid by the former occupants; and he seems to think that they acted very reasonably and that no one had any right to complain! Mr. Jonathan Pim, in his “Condition and Prospects of Ireland” (1848) says:—”Sometimes ejectments have been effected on a large scale. The inhabitants of whole villages have been turned adrift at once, without a home to go to, without the prospect of employment, or any certain means of subsistence.” And one of the witnesses before the Devon Commission thus describes the condition of many of these poor people and the general results of that “consolidation of farms” which landlords and agents are said to approve so highly:—”It would be impossible for language to convey an idea of the state of distress to which the ejected tenantry have been reduced, or of the disease, misery, and even vice, which they have propagated in the towns wherein they have settled; so that not only they who have been ejected have been rendered miserable, but they have carried with them and propagated that misery. They have increased the stock of labour, they have rendered the habitations of those who received them more crowded, they have given occasion to the dissemination of disease, they have been obliged to resort to theft and all manner of vice and iniquity to procure subsistence; but, what is perhaps the most painful of all, a vast number of them have perished of want.”[ii]

[ii] Parl. Rep. 1845, vol. xix, page 19.

Nor are these cruel evils confined to Ireland. A little more than half a century ago, the estate of the Marquis of Stafford in Sutherland, comprising 800,000 acres, or about two-thirds of the whole county, was forcibly cleared of a population of 15,000 herdsmen and farmers, in order to turn it into enormous sheep farms with a shepherd per square mile. Other landlords have since followed this example, till about 2,000,000 of acres, once crowded with farms and cottages in all the valleys, are now reduced to a vast desert wholly given up to sheep-runs and deer-forests. The amount of misery and destitution, and the various physical and social evils produced by this depopulation of the Highlands will be sketched in another chapter. We here adduce it only as an example of that terrible power over their fellow creatures which absolute property in land gives to individuals who possess large estates; and that this power is actually used with the most unsparing rigour, sometimes to obtain an increased or a more certain rental, sometimes in pursuance of views supposed to be in accordance with the teachings of political economy, sometimes merely to provide an extensive hunting-ground.

Our Land System is a modified Feudalism, in which the Landlords have Thrown their Burdens on the People whose Rights in the Land they have Absorbed.—I have now shown, by a few striking examples, that the land system under which we actually live is an abnormal development of feudalism, in which almost all the customary rights and privileges of the serfs, villeins, or tenants have been encroached upon and finally destroyed, while the great landowners under the Crown have, by means of self-made laws and customs, gradually absorbed the rights of the people, till they have become true land-lords, not only claiming, but actually exercising, such absolute rights of property in the soil that their fellow subjects can only live upon it at all by their gracious permission. And these terrible rights are not only theoretically permitted, but are actually enforced by all the executive power of the State whenever the landlord so wills! It only needs to state these facts to show, that the system which permits so vast and injurious a despotism in the midst of free institutions is radically wrong and cannot much longer be upheld; and if in exposing the evils of the system we are obliged to refer to the general or special results of landlordism, it is simply because the exposure can be made in no other way. The institution itself is necessarily evil—in the present state of society—just as slavery is necessarily evil; and this quite independently of the goodness or badness of individual landlords or slave-owners. But just as the evils of slavery would never have been generally acknowledged in our time if it had not been for the horrors resulting from the unrestrained passions of bad or careless or wealth-seeking slave-owners, so the evils of unrestricted private property in land can be best brought before the public by showing the effects it is calculated to produce, and does actually produce, in the hands of wealth-seeking capitalists and despotic landlords.

To be continued…