Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisation
Chapter XII: Landlords and Farmers
The landlord, in return for rent abatements, expects a certain amount of deference and compliance in various matters from his tenant. Not only does the farmer meet him half-way on questions of shooting rights, and allow free passage to the hunt, but his political support of the landlord is not unfrequently reckoned on with as much confidence as the performance of the covenants and conditions of the tenancy itself. In the case of holdings from year to year it may be not unfairly said that being of the landlord’s political party is often a tacit condition of the tenancy.
Sir Frederick Pollock, English Land Laws
It is still not unusual to insert in leases many clauses and covenants which are inconvenient to the tenant and useless to the landlord. They arc not observed, but they have the mischievous effect of giving the landlord too much power over his tenant. This is not peculiar to Ireland. I have seen copies of English leases which would make it very difficult for a tenant to manage his farm with profit if he did everything which by the terms of his lease he was bound to do.
Then there is the question of the game laws. I cannot believe it possible that any Parliament freely elected by the whole people will tolerate the continuance of this anomalous – I would even say of tins barbarous – legislation, which is intended to protect the sports of the well-to-do.
Joseph Chamberlain, Speech at Warrington,
September 8, 1885.
The fox-hunting spirit is so strong among us that we shall carry it on whatever happens. If fox-hunting goes down, in my opinion down will go the British empire with it.
The Earl of Pembroke,
Speech at annual puppy show of the Wilton Hunt, July 1, 1910.
Though I am unable to take any active part in the coming election in North Dorset, I should wish the very good feeling which has always existed between my family and yourself to be further maintained by your support of Sir Randolf Baker, the Conservative candidate.
Lord Alington, letter to each of his tenants, in January 1905.
[The obvious inference is that “the very good feeling” would be endangered
if the tenants voted contrary to Lord Alington’s wishes.]
WHENEVER the system of private property in land is criticised, its defenders always say that it is absolutely necessary because of the security it confers and the incentives to industry, which it offers. When it is urged that the State ought to be the sole landowner, they reply that private ownership of the land is imperatively necessary if a man is to make the best use of it.
But the system which is defended by such arguments affords no such security, and offers no such incentives to the actual users of land. For the main business of improving the land is now carried on, as it has been for centuries, not by owners but by tenants. And the great majority of them have not even the temporary protection of a lease, but are tenants-at-will, subject to, at most, a year’s notice to quit. For the mass of the people there is now no hope that they can ever attain a greater interest in land than a tenancy.
When, therefore, the defenders of landlordism aver that tenancy is necessarily inferior to ownership, they implicitly condemn the system which is now in existence and which denies to the overwhelming majority of the nation any chance of occupying land at all except as tenants of the minority who own it.
This new-born preference for ownership is, of course, perfectly understandable, and it will deceive no one who takes the trouble to learn the facts. So long as no serious attack was made upon landlordism, most of those who are now loudest in their advocacy of small ownerships were quite content with things as they were. It was not until some change was seen to be inevitable that they had anything but praise for the existing order of things. Until then the system of landlord and tenant was the best of all possible arrangements in the best of all possible worlds. But, seeing that the old order of things must at last fall by its own weight, they naturally prefer that, at any rate, its central principle, private ownership in land, should be maintained.
The truth of the matter is that the great monopolists of land desire to strengthen their position. They realise that they are too few in numbers to withstand successfully the onward march of modern democratic ideas, and they welcome the proposal to create a numerous body of small landowners, who may be relied upon to resist any further encroachments on the privileges which they have hitherto possessed unchallenged.
Therefore, partly because of recent and prospective land legislation, and partly because of the higher prices which landed property in the country now realises, they are very willing to part with at least some of their great estates, and are anxious that the State itself should step in and advance the purchase money which the farmers could not themselves command. But always provided that there is no compulsion, and that compensation shall be on the very liberal scale which has always characterised such transactions in the past.
The landlords and farmers, however, are not the only ones to be considered in this matter. The question of how the land is to be held rests, not with them only, but with the whole nation. The artisans of the towns and the labourers of the villages have as much right in the matter as they have, and it is their duty to insist that, when the land changes hands, it shall become the inalienable property of the community. For, apart from the fact that the natural resources of every country ought to be common property, it is to the interest of all classes that they should be held under a system that will provide the best results in the production and distribution of the wealth, which they yield. And the best results are not obtainable under private property in land, whether the ownerships are large or small.
When the unjust steward, in the Scripture parable, saw that he was likely to be called to account, he proceeded to make friends among his master’s debtors by handing over to them his master’s property. The possessors of the nation’s land, seeing many signs that the nation is likely, ere long, to demand its own, seek to ward off the evil day by dividing up some of the land among their tenants. It is a very astute move, and, if it were to succeed, the masses of the people would be kept out of their rightful inheritance for generations to come.
We have already seen how the enormous powers, which the ownership of land confers upon landlords have been used by them in many ways for their own aggrandisement, and to the hurt of the people. In their dealings with the users of agricultural land they have been governed by exactly the same principles as in the case of urban land, but the procedure has often been tempered in the former case with a consideration that is rarely shown in the latter.
In this respect the farmers of England and Scotland have been more fortunate than the farmers of Ireland have been. For their landlords are of the same race as themselves, and are generally resident upon their country estates, for at least a part of the year; both of which conditions have been absent in Ireland. Consequently they have more sympathy with, and a better understanding of, farmers’ needs. They are often actuated by a spirit of noblesse oblige; they recognise, to a certain limited extent, that property has its duties as well as its rights; and they have shouldered the duty, which Irish landlords habitually shirked, of constructing the main permanent improvements of their farms.
Landlordism has therefore been seen at its very best in England. Yet, when all is said in its favour that can be said, the results are such that they cannot but condemn it in the mind of any man who is not blinded by the glamour which surrounds and preserves most ancient institutions, however defective they may be.
As agriculture (broadly interpreted) is the oldest industry, so also is it still the largest, and its prosperity is of fundamental importance to all the rest. For, in common with mining, which is the other great primary industry, it is concerned with the extraction of the raw materials from the earth, and all the secondary industries are dependent upon them. Upon the harvest of the earth, of the field, the forest, and the mine, rests the whole trade of the country. Not merely the food and the clothing and the houses of the people, but their whole employment and purchasing power also depend upon these two fundamental land industries. The whole of the textile industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire are fed by the fields either of this or other kinds, the whole of the furnaces and foundries and engineering trades are fed by the mines, and the whole of the manifold trades of the wood-workers are fed by the forest. If the raw material runs short all the manufacturing trades are starved. And both the great industries which produce the raw material are at present hampered by the grip of landlordism.
The fact that we derive so large a proportion of our food and raw material from other countries is apt to make men underestimate the importance of the productions of our own land. Yet it is only by means of the productions of our own land that those of other lands could in the first instance be obtained. Our power to get cotton from America to feed the mills of Lancashire, wool from Australia to feed the mills of Yorkshire, timber from Norway and Sweden, and so on with the thousand-and-one foreign products which pour into our ports from abroad, is solely traceable, in the first instance, to the export either of our own raw materials or of the manufactured articles which our craftsmen made from them. For we can only acquire the things we cannot (or do not) produce for ourselves by exchanging the things we can and do. And even the imports that come in payment of interest on our foreign investments, or as the earnings of our world-wide carrying trade, are the fruits, in the first case, of our own produce and our own work upon it.
The prosperity of the farming industry (mining has already been dealt with) is, therefore, a matter which so closely affects the well-being of the whole people that it can never be allowed to be dealt with by those who are actually engaged in it as if it concerned them alone. And, particularly, as the farmers have shown themselves completely unable to secure from their landlords, by their own action, the conditions which are essential to its success. For instance, no other businessmen in the world would tolerate the insecurity of tenure which has always been the leading characteristic of agricultural tenancies, or the confiscation of their improvements, or the interference with them in the conduct of their business, or the pressure brought to bear upon them for political or other reasons that have no connection with farming at all.
It seems almost incredible that the great majority of farmers, who are shrewd enough in the bargaining of the market, have never been able to win for themselves any deeper interest in the land they cultivate than a tenure terminable at the will of the landlord on a year’s notice to quit, and that, until the Legislature came to their aid in 1883, they could be evicted on a six months’ notice to quit. On the face of it, it is obvious that the best results are impossible under a tenure so precarious. Even when the crops can be gathered within a few months of the sowing, the uncertainty of such a tenure is utterly inadequate to offer any inducement to a farmer to make the best use of the land, and for crops, such as fruit trees, that require a longer time to ripen, it offers no inducement at all.
Further, until the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1875 was passed, farmers had no right at all to any compensation for any improvements, which, notwithstanding the uncertainty of their position, they might have been tempted to make. The result was that they did as little as possible. And, even when that Act was passed, it did little good, inasmuch as it was permissive in its operation. The principle of compensation was admitted, and no more. For landlords were empowered to contract out of the liability to which they were in theory subject. Nearly all of them did so, including even the promoter of the Act, and it became a dead letter. And the farmers continued to be robbed of their improvements on the old and pernicious principle that everything, which is placed on the land becomes the property of the landlord. The confiscation was bad enough, but the extent of the evil was not to be measured by the improvements, which the landlords seized so much as by the improvements, which they prevented.
When, therefore, the landlords take credit to themselves (as many of them may reasonably do) for the good they have accomplished in the improvement of agriculture, it must be remembered against them that the ill they have done in other ways has far outweighed the good. For they tied the farmers hand and foot, rigidly restricted them to certain courses of cropping, and deprived them of the power of initiative which is essential to success in all departments of life.
Until recent times, whenever the Legislature regulated the relations between landlord and farmer it was always to strengthen the landlord’s position. By various Acts of Parliament, commencing with the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1883, and ending with the comprehensive consolidating Act of 1908, the landlord’s rights have been gradually circumscribed and brought into closer harmony with justice. But whatever benefits the farmer now enjoys have come to him, not as the freewill offering of the landlord, and not as the result of his own bargaining, but by the action of the State for his protection. And it is also noteworthy that they have come, in the main, not from the political party, which the farmers have generally supported, and which always poses as the farmers’ friend, but from the party which they have generally opposed.
Considering the way in which they have been consistently treated for generations, the political devotion of farmers to the landlord’s party is at first sight an enigma. But it is no enigma when the position is examined. For the farmer is absolutely dependent on the goodwill of the owner of the soil. Whether he shall have permission to carry out certain improvements (not all), and receive compensation for them if he leaves them behind, depends on the landlord’s consent. Whether some necessary relaxation of the stringent terms of his agreement is to be allowed is for his landlord to decide. Whether he is to receive a temporary abatement in his rent if the season has been a bad one, rests with the landlord alone. And, apart from the influence which the latter exercises, owing to his power to withhold an advantage or a favour, there is the further power to inflict a positive disadvantage, as by a notice to quit, or by an increase in the rent.
Bearing these facts in mind, it is not to be wondered at that the farmers are passive where they ought to be restive, and apparently contented when they ought to be openly discontented. How otherwise could their blind political allegiance to the landed interest be explained?
For the heavy hand of landlordism has been laid upon agriculture, and only by the action of the State has its pressure been relieved. Until the Act of 1883 was passed the landlord had power to turn the farmer out on a six months’ notice (it is now twelve); to distrain for rent in arrear for six years (he is now limited to one year); to confiscate every improvement made by the farmer himself; to seize for rent the machinery which the farmer might have hired from another, or the horses or cattle which had been taken in to graze, and even the horses or cattle belonging to other men which might have strayed through a gap in the fences upon the land of a tenant who had not paid his rent; and, where the farmer might have broken (even if inadvertently) the terms of the agreement, to impose penal rents which were often far greater than the damage actually done.
The Irish farmer, since 1881, the Scotch Crofter, since 1886, and the Scotch small-holder, since 1911, have enjoyed the advantage of having their rents revised by statutory courts, and, judging by the reductions made by them, the tillers of the soil have been systematically robbed and impoverished by the conscienceless exactions of the landlords in the past. But it is generally taken for granted that, at any rate in England, the landlords are as lenient as in the other cases they have been clearly proved to be oppressive. For reasons already given it is probable that rack-renting is not so universal in England as in the other cases, but, even here, Fair Rent Courts are urgently needed for the protection of the farmer, and to assist in the ascertainment of the basis upon which the land may safely and advantageously be taken out of the control of private landlords and placed under public ownership.
Stress is always laid by landlords and their friends upon certain cases, exceptional in their character, where the expenditure of the landlord has absorbed a very great part of his receipts.
The Thorney and Woburn Estates of the Duke of Bedford are the leading examples of this. In 1897 the Duke published The Story of a Great Estate, giving the receipts and expenditure on those estates from 1816 to 1895, and he said, “It will be seen that at the present time an annual loss of more than £7,000 a year is entailed on their owner.”
Now it is quite obvious that there must be some special circumstances in a case of this kind. For either an undue and unnecessary amount of money was spent in buildings and management, or a proper commercial rent was not charged, or there was a combination of both these factors to produce such a result. That the farmers were paying less than the commercial rent is proved by the following fact:
A few years ago the Duke of Bedford decided to sell the Thorney Estate, and the Board of Agriculture offered to buy it for the purpose of meeting the demand for smallholdings, the land being very suitable for them. The Board offered £750,000, as the fair capitalisation of the true rental value of the estate, but, as the then rents did not cover even a moderate interest on that sum, the Board naturally declined to incur the odium of raising them, and asked that the Duke should himself do so. For he would himself have received a sum, which was based upon what the tenants were in a position to afford. He refused to sell on those conditions, and the negotiations fell through. But he afterwards sold the estate to the farmers for a larger sum, and they are now paying in interest a much higher rent than they formerly paid. But to argue, from a case like this, that landlords as a rule charge less than the full rent, is to argue that one swallow makes a summer. The assertion that they generally exact the full rent, or more than the full rent, is not disproved by the citation of a few cases where they do not. It is as illogical as the reasoning of the country Justice of the Peace, who acquitted a prisoner of the charge of committing an alleged offence, on the ground that, while only two people saw him do it, a dozen witnesses swore that they did not.
The reason why the Dukes of Bedford have been able to act in an exceptional manner towards their fanning tenants is, as one of them once put it, that they happen to be the owners of “a few lodging-houses in Bloomsbury.” With an enormous rent coming in from their town tenants they can thus afford to be very tender with their farmers. And the town tenants, at any rate have to pay full commercial rents, if the farmers do not. The former are, in fact, made to pay for the privileges of the latter.
That there is a real need for the establishment of Rent Courts is proved to the hilt by the evidence that was brought before the last Royal Commission on Agriculture. From that evidence the following particulars are taken:
On a large and well-managed farm of 827 acres, on Salisbury Plain, the labourers received on an average £774 and the landlord £956, for the ten years from 1868 to 1878. In the next fifteen years the landlord took £10,814 in rents, and the tenant lost £1,381. “But for the private means which my father and I possessed,” said the tenant, “we could not have lived on the returns of the farm.”
Mr. Wilson Fox, a Sub-Commissioner, examined the accounts of a number of representative farmers who farmed high. “Consequently,” he said, “these accounts can only be regarded as the best samples, and do not represent those of a more struggling class, handicapped by want of capital.” Among these “best samples” are the following:
From 1883 to 1893 a Lincolnshire farmer, on a farm of 474 acres, paid £452 a year in wages, and £478 a year in rent. His own average profit was £15 a year, to cover wages of superintendence and interest on his capital of £3,055. The landlord took 20s. an acre, and the farmer took 8d.
On a farm of 320 acres, from 1885 to 1894, the landlord took over £2,000. The farmer received no interest on his capital of £2,309, and no wages of management, and he actually lost £465 in the ten years.
On a farm of 491 acres, the labourers received £499 a year, the landlord £645 a year, and the farmer lost 10 per cent. of his capital of £3,400.
On a farm of 1,200 acres, the labourers received £1,249 a year, the landlord £1,579, and the farmer lost £400 of his capital in ten years. A reduction of l0s. an acre in the rent would have given the farmer a profit of £300 a year, for management and interest on his £7,400 of capital. But the reduction was withheld.
“A splendid farm, ably managed, and in prime condition,” 837 acres, paid the landlord £13,887 in fifteen years, and the total profit to the farmer, who had invested over £10,000 in the farm, was £55, or an average of £3 13s. 8d. per annum.
A Norfolk farm of 750 acres paid the landlord £7,964 in ten years, and the total profit to the farmer was £225 in that time.
A well-worked fen farm of 565 acres in Cambridgeshire paid the landlord £3,690 in five years, and the tenant lost £1,676.
A farm of 869 acres paid the landlord £2,629 in two years, and the tenant lost £83.
A Lincolnshire farm of 1,600 acres paid to the landlord £1,700 in rent, and the tenant lost £232.
Another farm of 812 acres paid the landlord £1,017 in rent, and the tenant lost £302.
Another of the Sub-Commissioners, Mr. Pringle, reported that “with the exception of two or three cases even the more favourable balance sheets do not give the farmers anything like a fair commercial return.” For instance, where a farmer made a profit of £168 he paid £603 in rent. Another had a profit of £101, and paid £344 in rent. And another lost £152 and paid £543 in rent.
By the friends of landlordism the utmost is always made of the landlords’ abatements, but all the facts go to prove that such abatements are not adequate and are not given in time. Farmers pay rent out of capital long before they get a reduction, and, when it is made, it usually takes the form, not of a permanent reduction, but of a temporary remission, which can at any time be withdrawn. A revision of rent by a Fair Rent Court is obviously preferable to a system of voluntary abatements which are uncertain, intermittent, capricious, and savour too much of charity.
Further, it must always be remembered that, although rents were reduced at length, after many farmers had been ruined, they had been steadily screwed up before that, and that the better a man farmed the more he was penalised.
Mr. James Howard, M.P., chairman of the Farmers’ Alliance, told a Royal Commission in 1881, “I have been told times out of mind by tenants that they dare not farm any better for fear of having their rents raised. I know one estate on which the rents were raised three times within twenty years.”
The next year, Sir James Caird showed that agricultural rents had been increased, between 1867 and 1877, by 11½ per cent. in England and Wales, by 101/3 per cent. in Scotland, and by 7½ per cent. in Ireland.
The rise in agricultural rents is further shown by the following extract from Professor Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890), page 352:
“It seems that the agricultural (money) rent of England doubled between 1795 and 1815, and then fell by a third till 1822; after that time it has been alternately rising and falling, and it is now about 45 or 50 millions as against 50 or 55 millions about the year 1873, when it was at its highest. It was about 30 millions in 1810, 16 millions in 1770, and 6 millions in 1600. But the rental of urban land in England is now rather greater than the rent of agricultural land; and in order to estimate the full gain of the landlords from the expansion of population and general progress, we must reckon in the values of the land on which there are now railroads, mines, docks, etc. Taken all together, the money rental of England’s soil is probably twice as high, and its real rental three or four times as high, as it was when the Corn Laws were repealed.”
But, beyond the fact that the rents are very generally excessive, the landlords have taken good care, as legislators, to put themselves into a preferential position to collect them. Whereas all the rest of the farmer’s creditors can only sue in the courts, the landlords have the summary process of distress. The position is thus stated in The Laws of England, by the Earl of Halsbury:
“Distress may be made when rent is in arrear, that is, on the day after it becomes due. And if by the custom of the country any rent is payable by the tenant upon entering his holding, it may be distrained for the next day.”
The existence of such a power as that throws a flood of light upon the way in which the landlords have entrenched themselves with privileges during their long reign of power as law-makers and governors of the soil.
Giving evidence on this point before the Welsh Land Commission, Mr. John Smith, Inspector-General in Bankruptcy, said:
“I rather think it has a tendency to protect the landlord and the farmer against the creditors of the latter. Therefore it has a tendency to encourage’ the landlord to take an impecunious tenant, knowing he can protect himself at the expense of the tenant’s creditors, by seizing the stock which remains upon the farm when that tenant becomes bankrupt. … I think it is detrimental to all concerned; it is demoralising because it is unjust.”
Another witness, Mr. Thomas Davies, of Fedwlwyd, Bala, speaking on behalf of several tenant-farmers, said: “The preferential claim for rent always means that the landlord gets what is due to him in full, and generally in good time. In times of depression the effect of this is that tradesmen suffer greatly, as tenants are unable to meet all their creditors, but they have always to be careful to see their landlord paid. … In many cases the fear of distress compels farmers to borrow money for the purpose of paying the rent.”
A tenant-farmer in Anglesey said: “Small dealers often suffer severely on account of the preferential claim for rent. The Welsh people are so attached to their homes that they will pay the rents, lest they might receive notice to quit, even if they have to leave every other possible claim unpaid.”
Mr. James Jenkins, County Councillor and tenant farmer, of Wolf’s Castle, stated that he thought the landlord’s preferential claim for rent a very bad thing. He knew of scores of cases in which the ironmonger, the manure merchant, and others had had to give their goods for nothing, while the landlord had his money in full.
A resolution, passed by a meeting of farmers, was handed in asking for the amendment of the law of distress, and urging that in cases of insolvency the landlord should be on the same basis as other creditors. “Then landlords and land agents would let land, not to the highest bidders, but to the best tenants.”
Besides the gross unfairness of the landlord being enabled to get the money due to him, even though the other creditors, whose moral claim to be paid is not less than his, are compelled to take less, its effect is bad because it encourages rack-renting, and weakens the credit of the farmers.
That rent is a tribute is shown by the old customary service rents, or rents in kind, which still linger as remnants of the old feudal relations between landlords and tenants. Many cases like the following were given before the Welsh Land Commission:
A clause in the agreements on one estate stipulated that the tenants had “to deliver annually at Cilgwyn at Michaelmas two fat turkeys or two fat geese.”
On another estate they had to deliver at the Hall, fowls, or ducks, or eggs, and loads of coal. In another case they had to deliver coal, lime, and poultry, and to grind all their corn at the estate mills.
While, however, food rents are now rare, service rents are still kept up on most Welsh estates. They chiefly consist of the duty of carting to the landlord’s mansion, and the Commission condemned the practice inasmuch as it not only partook of the character of servility, but also encouraged farmers to keep more horses than they really needed for their own work.
The evil results of harsh and unbending restrictive covenants, to which reference has already been made, have been very serious. For, while it is right and necessary that farmers should not be allowed to impoverish the land, and should return to the soil the equivalent of what they take; from it, they were often grievously hampered by absurd and unnecessary restrictions. Mr. James Howard, MP., himself a famer of eminence and a recognised authority on farming, gave in evidence before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, in 1881, the following statement:
“I met, at the Kilburn Show, in 1879, a Warwickshire farmer, a very enterprising man, who has four steam engines on his place for his own use. His covenants were against growing artificial grasses. He was not allowed to sell any hay or clover for the Birmingham market.
“When barley was the most profitable corn-crop that could be grown, the farmers in my own county (Bedfordshire) were prevented from growing barley after wheat. When I was making £15 per acre of my barley crop, grown after wheat, they were prevented from growing it. And those are the terms of the covenants upon the whole of the Duke of Bedford’s estate.” And he added, “Many of the estates are managed by London lawyers who know nothing about agriculture.”
The Game Laws
Then, again, there is the burden imposed upon agriculture by landlords by the excessive preservation of game for their sport, and by the laws, which they have made to maintain it. For a country estate is regarded by them rather as a pleasure-ground for themselves than as a treasure-house of the people.
The squire looks out in the morning across his park, and says, “It is a fine day; let us sally forth and kill something.” It may be that, in the good time that is coming, men will cease to take a pleasure in taking life, and that, where it must be taken, it will be only as a regrettable necessity, not a sport; for there is something inhuman in taking joy in inflicting death. The following passage is written from the humanitarian standpoint. It is from a pamphlet entitled Sport, by Mr. G. G. Greenwood, M.P., published by the Animal’s Friend Society:
“And what a curse to our country is this selfish mania for the preservation of game – preservation for the purpose of destruction! For this are the country-folk warned off from the quiet woodland ways; for this are the children prohibited from entering the copses to gather wild flowers; for this are enclosures made, barbed-wire fences erected, footpaths and commons filched from the public, and the landless still further excluded from the land; for this must temptation be constantly set before the eyes of the labourer; for this must the offender against the game laws be called up for sentence before a tribunal of game-preservers; for this must the woods and the country-side be denuded of their most delightful inhabitants – the jay and the magpie, with their lustrous plumage and wild cries; the squirrel, embodiment of life and graceful activity, with his curious winning ways; the quaint, harmless, and interesting little hedgehog; the owl, with its long-drawn melancholy note, as it hawks in the summer moonlight – for this must wood-sides be disfigured by impudent notice-boards, telling us, in the arrogant language of the rich Philistine, that ‘all trespassers will be prosecuted, all dogs destroyed’; for this must millions of innocent creatures be pitilessly condemned to shocking mutilations and atrocious agonies, long drawn out. Such is ‘Merrie England’ under the rule of the game-preserver.
‘Strange that where Nature loved to trace,
As if for gods a dwelling-place,
There man, enamoured of distress.
Should mar it into wilderness.’ ”
Few things so clearly demonstrate the enormous power which the private ownership of land confers upon men as the way in which landlords put their own pleasure before the interests of their farming tenants. It would be impossible to calculate the tremendous damage, which the game laws have inflicted upon agriculture, but it is quite certain that it far exceeds the improvements in agricultural methods, which may be rightly placed to the credit of those landlords who have employed their capital and knowledge to those ends.
By the common law of the land all the wild animals on a farm are the property of the tenant, but it has always been the practice of landlords to insert clauses in their agreements reserving the game to themselves, and this has completely nullified the common-law right of the tenant.
Parliament appointed Committees of Inquiry, in 1845, 1846, and 1872, into the grievances of farmers and others on account of the preservation of game, and the loss it caused them. Nothing, however, was done until the Ground Game Act of 1880 was passed, which gave to the tenants a statutory right to kill hares and rabbits on their farms. But, as will presently be shown, the power of the landlord is so great, either in the withholding of an advantage or the infliction of a disadvantage, that many thousands of farmers still dare not do what the law distinctly allows them to do. Under the old Saxon law every freeholder had the full liberty of sporting over his land, provided he respected the King’s right in the royal forests. But, at the Norman Conquest, the right of taking all beasts of chase, or venery, was claimed by the King alone.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1087 says that “the King made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. As he forbade killing the deer, so also the boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father. He also appointed concerning the hares that they should go free. The rich complained, the poor murmured; but he was so sturdy that he recked nought of them. They must will all that the King willed, if they would live or would keep their lands, or would hold their possessions, or be maintained in their rights.”
The cruel forest laws were relaxed in the thirteenth century, so that “no man from henceforth shall lose either life or limb for killing our deer.” But a “grievous line” was inflicted, or imprisonment for a year and a day, and then the poacher must find sureties for his future behaviour, or, failing that, “he shall abjure the realm of England.”
Of the King’s grace henceforth “every freeman may without hindrance make in his own wood or on his own land which he hath in the forest, a mill, a fish pond, a pool, a marl pit, a dike, etc. Every freeman may have in his own woods, ayries of hawks, sparrow-hawks, faulcons, eagles, and herons, and shall also have the honey that may be found in his own woods.”
But it was still held that no right of chase or free warren could be created without the sanction of the Crown, and many grants were made to nobles, which covered not only the demesne lands of the feudal lords, but also the freehold and copyhold lands in the manors.
This right of free warren exists to-day, and the following is a case in point. William Clarkson was a copyholder on Lord Carnarvon’s estate in Hampshire, and he was naturally under the impression that the Ground Game Act of 1880 gave him the right to keep down the hares and rabbits which infested his farm and ate his crops. He was warned not to do so, as Lord Carnarvon held an ancient Franchise of Free Warren, and in the end he succumbed to the threat of legal proceedings, and was compelled to insert the following humble apology in the Newbury News and Andovcr Times:
“To the Right Honourable the Earl of Carnarvon.
“I beg to apologise to your lordship for having in the month of August last, while reaping corn, killed with my sheep-dogs hares and rabbits on land at Highclere which I rent of Hayman’s Trustees, I being at the time under the impression that I was within my right by virtue of the Ground Game Act, 1880, which I now admit was not the case, and that my act was an infringement of your Lordship’s Franchise of Free Warren and Free Chase over the said land.
(Signed) “William Clarkson.
“October 22, 1894.’
It must be remembered that the land in question did not belong to Lord Carnarvon. If it had he could not have legally prevented Mr. Clarkson from acting as he did. But his musty right of Free Warren gave him power even over land that belonged to others.
Referring to the wickedly cruel forest laws, of which the above is a survival, Blackstone says: “From this root has sprung a bastard slip, known by the name of the Game Law, now arrived at a wantoning in its highest vigour, both founded on the same unreasonable notion of permanent property in wild creatures, and both productive of the same tyranny to the Commons, but with this difference, that, while the forest laws established a mighty hunter throughout the land, the game laws have raised a little Nimrod in every manor.”
An Act was passed in the time of Richard II. as follows:
“Forasmuch as divers artificers, labourers, and servants and grooms keep greyhounds and other dogs, and on Holy days when good Christian people” (mark the landlords’ zeal for the spiritual welfare of their tenants) “be at church hearing Divine Service, they go hunting in Parks, Warrens, etc.,” therefore “no manner of artificer, labourer, nor any other layman which hath not lands or tenements to the value of £40 by year, nor any priest nor other clerk if he be not advanced to the value of £10 by year, shall have or keep from henceforth any greyhound, hound, nor other dog to hunt … under pain of one year’s imprisonment.” That law was enacted in 1390. Over five hundred years have since elapsed, and in this year of grace 1913 there are many game-preserving districts where tenants are prohibited by their landlords from keeping dogs under pain of losing their homes.
By an Act of Edward I. “foresters, porters, and their assistants should not be troubled if trespassers are killed by them within their liberty in cases of resistance.” A good many poachers have been killed within living memory, and the presumption always was that the gamekeepers were not to be blamed on that account. For no property was held in such respect as game is, and the worst severities of the law were exercised for its protection. Mantraps and spring guns are no longer allowed by the law, but, even now, in the eyes of rural magistrates, few offences are so serious as offences against the game laws, and few are punished with such harshness.
The Committee of 1872-3 reported: “It is said (by witnesses) that it is not right to treat as a crime the taking of that which the law does not declare to be property, that many of those who fall within the meshes of the law are persons of general good character as to honesty, and that, after having been treated as criminals, especially when they have been sent to gaol in default of paying their fines, and there associated with felons, they often lose all self-respect, are degraded in society, and eventually take to dishonest means of livelihood.”
In all ordinary cases of breach of agreement, landlords had the remedy of imposing penal rents or fines, or of eviction. But the taking of game, which the agreement had reserved to the landlord, as it practically always did, was treated by the law (made by landlords themselves) as a crime, and was punishable as such. The Committee examined scores of farmers and others who testified to the damage done to growing crops by the reckless and selfish preservation of game, and Mr. Fox Maule, afterwards Lord Dalhousie, presented a petition from a number of farmers putting the case in a nutshell:
“When we consider the state of the times, as far as agricultural interests are concerned, when we know that it is only by the greatest energy, enterprise, and skill that the farmer can meet the high rent which he is called upon to pay, it does appear monstrous that the seed which he commits to the ground, that the growing crop on which his existence depends, should be devoured before his eyes, without his having the slightest power either to destroy the animals that prey upon him, or to obtain redress for the damage they occasion.”
But the Committee’s recommendation that farmers should have the right to kill ground game was absolutely ignored by the Conservative party when it came into power in 1874. Posing always as the friends of the farmers, they did nothing to remove the grievances, which were so manifest and so serious, although they had command of both Houses of Parliament and could easily have done so if they had wished. Not until they went out of power, in 1880, was the above recommendation put upon the Statute Book.
Nearly fifteen years after that a mass of valuable evidence on the game laws was collected by the Welsh Land Commission in the course of an inquiry which was unparalleled for thoroughness. Farmer after farmer reported that the landlords have gone on with their old mischievous practice of excessive game preservation, and that they dare not use the rights, which the law had given them, for fear of the consequences.
The Commission reported that “the principal complaints in regard to the operation of the game laws came from tenant-farmers and witnesses on their behalf, who alleged that game preservation and the exercise of sporting rights did great damage to crops, and in many ways hindered cultivation, while the arbitrary conduct of gamekeepers, the selfish and careless conduct of sporting tenants, and in some cases of the landlord and his friends, was a perpetual source of friction between landlord and tenant.”
Mr. R. Pughe Jones, late agent for the Madryn Estates, said: “Game-preserving, where carried on to any considerable extent, inflicts great injury to crops; and, even when compensation is made to the tenant, the amount is fixed by the landlord according to his good pleasure, and not by any calculation which pretends to ascertain an approximate return of the loss inflicted.”
Mr. T. E. Ellis, M.P. for Merionethshire, said: “During the last thirty years there has raged amongst some landlords a veritable fever for game-preserving. The whole paraphernalia of game-preserving have been set up–a hierarchy of gamekeepers, strict sporting clauses in agreements, covers, rabbit warrens, pheasantries, and the killing of dogs and cats, the pursuit of poachers, and the confiscation of guns and nets. … I cannot describe the repugnance and loathing to the game-preserving system engendered by the overbearing conduct and petty tyranny of many of these gamekeepers, by the monstrous increase of rabbits and pheasants, and by the immense losses occasioned by depredations of game on the crops of struggling tenants. What compensation can there be for the agony and irritation of the tenant at seeing his crops eaten and destroyed by game, while gamekeepers are prowling about to see that not a feather of the sacred birds is ruffled? ”
Lieut.-Colonel H. R. Hughes, head agent to the Wynnstay Estates, consisting of 137,000 acres, said: “To preserve game to an unreasonable extent by the spoliation of the farmer’s property is, in my opinion, neither right, just, nor honest. I have known properties where so much game was kept that farmers have been obliged to take up their root crops and stow them away before they were matured.”
A tenant on the Edwinsford Estate, Carmarthenshire, said he had planted a field of six acres of wheat. He had hauled £11 0s. 11d. worth of lime from fifteen miles away on to the field, he had hauled £5 worth of nitrate of soda from nine miles away, and had carted on to the land 311 loads of earth. He had sowed eighteen bushels of wheat, and, as a practical farmer, he reasonably expected 180 bushels of wheat, with six tons of straw. But the crop was so eaten by the pheasants, 1,000 being preserved in the plantations within 400 yards of the field, that it only yielded 30 bushels of wheat and hardly a ton of very weak straw. He calculated he had lost £50 on that one field alone because of the pheasants, but the landlord’s agent thought that £5 was adequate compensation.
Farmer after farmer testified to the same kind of damage, and that they dare not even carry a gun for fear of being suspected by the gamekeepers.
Nearly twenty years have elapsed, and the evil still goes on. Where there were 9,000 gamekeepers there are now 22,000, and the blight of the game-preserver is over all the land.
A small-holdings experiment was made a few years ago in Suffolk, which was ruined by the depredations of game.
Sir Richard Winfrey, M.P. for South-west Norfolk, recently said (vide Daily Chronicle, September 12, 1913):
“The other day I had an opportunity of examining one of the tenant’s agreements on a large estate not one hundred miles from here. One of the clauses was that the lessee’s (that is the farmer’s) name was to be used in all prosecutions for trespass. Another clause reserved to the landlord the right to object in writing to any person appointed to kill ground game or vermin, and another clause laid it down that the farmer should summarily dismiss any labourer or other servant who should be convicted of any offence against the Game Laws, and a further clause, which would stagger people in some parts of the country, provided that the tenant should not cut or allow to be cut any border grass between May 1 and July 15. In other words, he could not, at any slack time, clean out his ditches and cut his hedges.
“One tenant within the last two or three years spoke to me of a field of barley of sixty-seven acres on which he had sixteen men at work. He brought two greyhounds to help him kill the hares and rabbits, and in two days, whilst the men were cutting the barley, they killed 500 hares without reckoning rabbits. The men took all they could carry home with them; they loaded a cart, and could not even give them away in the neighbourhood, there was such a glut. We may well ask, what did it cost to feed such an army as that, to make no mention of the winged game, which does immense damage not only to the corn-crops but to the sainfoin and clover?
“I am looking at this question from the national point of view. This excessive game-preserving kills the farmer’s desire to farm well; consequently he employs as few hands as he can to get through the work, and produces half the quantity that he otherwise would.
“We must have complete security of tenure; farmers must have larger powers to destroy ground game, and it must be made illegal to reserve sporting rights and let them to sporting tenants.”
At every point the farmer is hampered by the present system of private property in land. So far from the landlord being his best friend, he is his worst enemy. His improvements have been unscrupulously confiscated for centuries past, and, consequently, he has been persistently discouraged from putting his best efforts into his business or applying his capital to it to the best advantage. Harsh and unnecessary covenants have been imposed upon him, and, besides interfering with him in the conduct of his business, the landlords have constantly brought undue pressure to bear upon him for political or religious reasons. He has been crushed with high rents, tempered only with abatements, which have not only been inadequate and belated, but have savoured of charity rather than of justice.
As a consequence of the landlord system, large farms, inefficiently cultivated, with insufficient capital, have been preferred, and intensive cultivation has been discouraged or prevented. All this has been the natural and inevitable result of the nation permitting its natural resources to be held under the mastership of irresponsible private individuals whose interests are antagonistic to those of the actual cultivators of land as well as to those of the general community, which depends upon it for its sustenance.
The soil of
this country is inferior to none. Taking all things into account, its climate
is admirably adapted for a very high standard of production, and we have the
finest markets in the world. But, until we safeguard the interests of the
cultivators with a perfect system of tenant right, ensure (by Fair Rent Courts)
that the rent shall represent the value of the land alone, and shall be
revisable only as that value rises or falls, and until we make rent payable
into the public exchequer and devote it to the public good rather than to
private purposes, we can never develop our resources as they should be, and so
lessen our present dangerous dependence for our food supplies upon foreign
private-landlord system rests like an incubus upon the agricultural industry.
It puts the pleasures, power, and profit of the few before the general welfare.
It impoverishes the farmer, degrades the labourer, and injures the whole
nation. Whatever else be done, or remain undone, the complete abolition of
landlordism is the one thing above all others which must be achieved.