THE LATE MR. COBDEN ON THE LAND QUESTION.
fTo THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR."] SIR,—Allow me to express the pleasure I felt on reading, and to thank you for the very able article which appeared in a late impression of your paper on " The Irish Land Question," and, as from the necessity of the case, it is at the present moment attract- ing such universal interest, it seems to me well to send you an extract from a letter on this subject from the late Mr. Cobden, now having a melancholy interest :— "Medhurst, December 5, 1863.
"DEAR Snt,—I am much obliged by your offer to send meyour MSS. upon the subject of small landed properties. It is much to be regretted that you could not carry out your plan of forcing a Company for the purchasing and retaining of estates in Ireland. I have no doubt but it would have been useful and profitable. I am a trustee to the British Land Company, which has bought and distributed an immense amount of building land.
"I sometimes think it might extend its operations with advantage to agricultural land. I do not expect any beneficial legislation. There never was a time in our history when the proprietary class was so powerful as at present. Look at the passage of the Poaching Bill. The farmers and middle-class of the rural districts are quite powerless. The large owners rule through the tenants-at-will, and the small freeholders have almost disappeared. It is difficult to see how this tendency to monopoly in land is to be checked.—I remain truly yours,
"R. B. Jones, Esq., Temple." "R. COBDMI.
Perhaps it might be well to state that in my letter to which the above was a reply, I alluded to numerous opinions in favour of a small proprietary given by many eminent men of various ages, countries, and politics. I also sent Mr. Cobden, who in another letter expresses himself much interested in it, an extract from a report of the Commission appointed in 1844 to inquire into the state of landed property in Ireland, which I feel will at the present time, when the land question is being again agitated, be of much interest to the public, supported as it is by so great an authority. This extract states :—" We [Commissioners], be- lieve that there are a large number of persons in Ireland possessing a small amount of capital, which they would gladly employ in the purchase and cultivation of land, and a still larger number resi- dent in different parts of the country, and holding land for uncer- tain or limited terms at a rent, who would most cheerfully embrace the opportunity of becoming proprietors. The gradual introduction of such a class of men would be a great improvement in the social condition of Ireland. A much larger proportion than at present would become personally interested in the pre- servation of peace and good order, and the prospect of gaining admission into the class of small owners would often stimulate
the renting farmer to increased and persevering industry." The- report continued to state that the proprietors of the Government Three and a Half per Cent. Stock in Ireland were 22,000 persons, and of these more than one-half were proprietors of sums of 2001- and under; that it was well known that a very large proportion of these were tenant-farmers, many of whom, though apparently in indigence (I shall give one instance out of numbers I could' adduce in support of this opinion of the Commissioners, viz., some apparently poor farmers in Clare County purchased the farms they held at thirty-nine and a half years' purchase, with a head rent of 16s. and 17s. per acre ; the lands were suited merely- for sheep, with little arable land attached) possess, besides their- investment, in the Government Funds, considerable sums lodged in• savings' banks ; that it was notorious that many of these would prefer an investmest of their money in the purchase of the fee of the lands on which they were tenants. If any evidence of the truth of this were wanted, it was supplied by the fact that large sums were now paid for the good-will (i.e., tenant-right) of farms, though only held at will, which this report shows to reach. frequently an amount greater than the value of the fee-simple.
At this time an almost insuperable difficulty existed as to their- purchase and sale in the want of clear titles to lands, but this- deficiency was afterwards supplied by the passing of the Encum- bered Estates' Act, which gave a new root to the titles of all lands passing through the Court then established. This Act had the effect of throwing numerous estates suddenly on the market ; and forced sales, in the then fearfully depressed state of the country did,. as was easily foreseen, reduce extremely the price of land, particu- larly as estates were sold in large lots, which precluded from pur- chasing all but the largest capitalists, and quite excluded from profitable investments the universal amount of money held by the smaller capitalists, thereby greatly injuring all parties in- terested in the sale of lands, both mortgagors, mortgagees, and after- claimants. This also prevented the general diffusion of property- and the employment of capital and labour then so much needed.
To supply this great deficiency I, at that time, tried to form the- Company alluded to by Mr. Cobden, and had the entire approval of one of his oldest friends, Mr. C. Walker, of Rochdale, a gentleman, well known in political circles, the originator and worker out of the freehold movement which had so great an effect in carrying out the corn-law repeal, and which, with various modifications, has since ramified through the land. Believing (contrary to the- opinions then generally held, but which I, unfortunately, found' impossible to overcome) that land in Ireland would in a few years as it actually did, sell for as high a value as it ever did before, I considered that a Company formed for the purpose of the pur- chase and retailing of lands would, by uniting the three great elements of success which then particularly existed, viz., idle land, idle hands, and idle money, not only• realize a large profit for- themselves, but would confer more lasting and incalculable bene- fits, both materially and socially, on Ireland and on the Empire- generally, through the peace and prosperity resulting therefrom,. than could be obtained by any amount of mere political agitation..