House of Commons Debate

10 March 1834

Lord Granville Somerset moved the second reading of the Western Rail-road Bill.

The Earl of Kerry, having been requested by the Great Western Railway Company to second the Motion for the Second Reading, would take that opportunity of stating the reason which induced him to support the measure. It was well known that Bristol was the great “entrepot” of the imports from Ireland, and in that respect the railway would be one of great national importance, for by it the best and most wholesome food would be obtained by the labouring classes of this great metropolis more cheaply. It would be of great advantage also to all the western counties, allowing their produce to be brought cheaper than at present to the London market. As to the objection that the advocates of the Bill were supporting a measure which had no body, but merely a head and a tail, it was one that had been argued a considerable time before the Committee. He admitted that it was so, but, in explanation of it he would beg to state how the speculation was got up. It only commenced last August; and every Gentleman who was acquainted with the proceedings must know that, before the end of October, notices were served upon all the persons whose property was likely to be affected by it, as it was necessary that the Company should order a survey of the whole line of the proposed Railway. The evil complained of, therefore, would be remedied in time. He considered this a great national undertaking, and he was sure that the grounds of opposition to it which he had heard frequently out of the House would have no weight in it. He regretted that some opposition was made to this Bill by a learned body, the Provost and Fellows of Eton College; but he had learned that the nearest point to the College at which the Railway touched was a mile and a half distant. Now the governors of Harrow and Rugby, within a quarter of a mile of the first of which the Birmingham Rail-road would pass, had not objected to that, nor did they think that the interests of those establishments would be affected by it. If there were any objections to be made to this Bill, he thought the proper time would be when it was in Committee. Out of 1,368 landowners on the proposed line of road, only 135 had expressed their dissent to it. He did not think it was necessary for him to add any more as he hoped that the House would agree to the Second Reading, and they would then have a full opportunity of discussing it in Committee.

Mr. Robert Palmer rose to oppose the Second Reading. The present was a case of a peculiar nature, and he should not stand forward to oppose it, unless he felt convinced that he had the strongest parliamentary grounds for the position he had taken. Much apprehension, he was aware, existed in the minds of hon. Members upon the subject of this rail-road, and till within the last few days it was not known to hon. Members generally what the Bill before the House really was, for it appeared in the votes of the House as the Second Reading of the Great Western Railway Bill. He was not going to contend that a line of communication from London to Bristol would not be beneficial to the country. But this was not the case; it was not the case of a railway from London to Bristol, but a Bill of a very different nature. Even if it were a railway to Bristol, he contended that no advantage would accrue from it, unless it was completed in the most effectual and least expensive mode. The case he (Mr. Palmer) had to submit to the House, was not that of the London and Bristol Rail-road; it was a very different one. The original proposal was started last summer, he believed; the prospectuses were issued, and subscriptions were set on foot for a railroad between London and Bristol. The House was, perhaps, not aware that the amount of capital necessary to be invested in the proposal was three millions. By the subscription list which he (Mr. Palmer) saw, only one million was made up; it might be forthcoming, but, however, the original plan was abandoned; and a second advertisement appeared for a railway between London and Reading, Bristol and Bath; so that a space of seventy miles intervened, which was not to have the benefit of a railway at all. He did not think he was occupying the time of the House unnecessarily on the subject, when he mentioned the state of opinion on it among the landed interests. The noble Lord said, that the number of those who assented to the Bill was very great; this he (Mr. Palmer) considered a very great error; no doubt it arose from misapprehension, but he was sure the statement could not be verified by facts. That morning he had seen in a newspaper of the county which he had the honour to represent, the project as put forward by the solicitors for carrying on this railway: and taking the opinions of those who assented and dissented from the Bill, it would be found that 217 agreed and 106 disagreed. But what was the amount of property amongst the assenting and dissenting parties? Why, in twenty-one miles of a country through which this road was to pass, the assenting parties had a quantity of land, one mile, one fur long, and 105 yards; the dissenting fifteen miles, five furlongs, and 167 yards; the neuters, three miles, two furlongs, and 195 yards; and adding the neuters to the assents, and taking it in the most favourable light, the dissents would be, in point of property, three to one against the Bill. The petitions which he had presented were most numerously, and, he would add, most respectably signed; and under these circumstances, he thought he had stated a strong case to induce the House to reject the Bill. It appeared that the measure was incomplete even as to the plan, and he feared that very considerable injury would be done to the places through which the railway would be carried, unless the line were completed. In a few years some new line or some better line from Reading to Bristol might be ascertained, or perhaps, in these days of improvement, some new means of locomotion might be discovered, and then, after all the injury had been done, the project would be thrown overboard. He was not able to state precisely what the number of assents and dissents was in the county of Middlesex, but he had every reason to believe that the number of dissents would be found to be much larger than those who assented to the measure. They were not numerically the largest, perhaps, but they possessed most property on the line. He contended, that the parties ought to come down to that House prepared to show that they were in a condition to carry the measure into effect. Whatever personal interest he might have in opposing the Bill (and he could assure the House that it was very small), and whatever interest those persons who had confided their petitions to him for presentation might have, if the parties had come down to that House, and shown that they were prepared to execute the proposed work—or if the subscription-list was in that state to justify the House in supposing that they would be able to carry the measure into effect, he would not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill; but as such was not the case, he must give his negative to the Motion. He regretted that the landed proprietors had not a person better able to advocate the cause which had been confided to him, but upon the grounds which he had stated, he moved that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

The Marquess of Chandos seconded the Motion, and said, there was a very strong feeling in that division of the county of Buckingham which he had the honour to represent, against the Bill. The noble Lord stated, that the dissents in the county of Bucks were as numerous as the assents, while they had a much greater amount of property at stake. The heads of Eton College were against the measure; and the noble Lord read a letter, in which their opposition to the measure was very strongly expressed, as being calculated to do great injury to the property in the neighbourhood. He did not wonder that the merchants residing in Bath, Bristol, or London, having capital at command, should feel disposed to enter into a speculation which they anticipated would turn out to their own advantage; but, at the same time, he could not help remarking that there were other individuals whose interests ought to be respected, and who, if this measure were carried into effect, would suffer such damage that no remuneration could compensate them. In the county which he represented, many farmers would be completely destroyed, as the effect of the tunnels and other works would be, not only to cutoff the particular line of communication, but also to injure the drainage, so that the low lands would become inundated with water. The Bill, in his opinion, instead of being beneficial, would be replete with injuries to the whole neighbourhood through which the railroad was intended to pass.

Mr. Charles Russell said, that many persons, whose names were attached to the petition he had presented in favour of the Bill, possessed property on the proposed line of road. He believed that the inhabitants of towns were not often the holders of large landed property. He did not believe that above five or six persons residing at Reading had any interest in the line of the railway; but, of these, one considerable owner, at least, was neuter upon this question. He certainly thought, that an unreasonable degree of stress had been laid on the circumstance that the whole line of the communication between London and Bristol was not, in the first instance, to be completed. From the observations which the hon. member for Berkshire had made, it might be inferred, that no bonâ fide intention was entertained to complete the Railway. That such could not be the case, was amply proved by the fact, that the proposition emanated not from Reading, nor from any place on the road, but from Bristol itself. The proposition which they now made was specific and simple. They asked for permission to construct a railroad between the Metropolis and Reading, and between Bath and Bristol. They contended, and they were prepared to prove, that the advantages which would be derived from these works were amply sufficient to justify their construction. Certainly they did expect to extend still greater benefits to the public. They did expect to be able to connect the Metropolis, not only with Bristol, and the western parts of England, but with Ireland and Wales, and they, therefore, called their work the Great Western Railway. These expectations, he thought, constituted an additional claim on the part of the projectors, and might fairly be urged by them. But it did seem to him a most paradoxical sort of reasoning and a most extraordinary description of prudence for the opposers of the measure to say, “Here is a specific advantage held out to you; but, take care, for if you do not mind what you are about, you will be entrapped into a better bargain than is now promised to you.” With respect to the arguments of the noble Marquess, the member for Buckinghamshire, which were founded on the injury and inconvenience which, it is asserted, would be sustained by the school at Eton, they appeared to him most preposterous. No man could take a greater pride than be did in such noble institutions as that; but, could it be seriously contended, that they were to stand in the way of a great national work? Were these schools, the ultimate objects of which were to extend some improvement, to become a bar and obstacle to that improvement? Was the end to be sacrificed to the means? Would it not be more reasonable, instead of listening to the fears and complaints of the masters, to exact from them more vigilance and caution? After all, the question at issue was, are the advantages to the public from the construction of this railway sufficient to counterbalance the evils of a partial invasion of private property? These were matters which could only be fairly considered in a Committee, and he should, therefore, unquestionably support the second reading of the Bill.

Mr. O’Connell, in rising to support the Bill, said, that the question was, whether the Committee would sacrifice private interest to public good? Was the measure a public good? Could any one doubt it would have the effect of conveying heavy substances from parts greatly distant from each other in a very short time, and would confer benefits both to this country and Ireland, as the produce of the latter would be conveyed to the former? The progress of civilization had advanced to that state that the facility of transfer had become necessary, as the prosperity of the country depended upon it. Years back the Judge’s had decided that no man could proceed against another for a bill due at Oxford on the preceding day, as it was impossible to go from London to that place in that time. Since that, however, a much greater distance had been accomplished; and he hoped that, in the course of a short period, they would be able to go from London to Edinburgh in one day by the help of railroads. The grave and reverend Seniors of Eton had taken a fancy to opposition in the present case: why did they not oppose the Birmingham rail-road? It was enough to say, that they had not done so; but, he could tell them, that they might repose in their own precincts, and rest satisfied, that if the rail-road came within a mile and a-half of their College, they would have ample compensation. Bristol was a market for that great granary, Ireland, and the speedy transfer of the produce of that country would increase food for the poorer classes. It might, it was true, take away some monopolies, and interfere with some of the landowners between London and Bristol. They might suffer at first in consequence of that monopoly being destroyed; but the poorer classes, who would get food cheaper, would, in every part of the country, offer up their thanks and gratitude to the House for giving its sanction to so great a measure. The chief objections to the measure seemed to be not to its principles, but its details, which he (Mr. O’Connell) considered was more a subject for the Committee than the House.

Mr. Labouchere said, that as his constituents felt the deepest anxiety for the success of the Bill, he begged to make a few observations upon it. It was a Bill which contemplated only the half of a measure, leaving the whole measure to be filled up in a subsequent Bill; but if it were to stop by making a rail-road communication merely from London to Reading, and then from Bath to Bristol, very great advantages would accrue to the public, for there was a good water communication between the intervening places, whereas the water communication from London to Reading by the Thames, it was well known, was a very bad one. Although, therefore, it would be of importance to make a railway on the whole line, yet, if that could not be done at present, it would be of considerable advantage to have it as proposed by the present Bill. He sincerely regretted the opposition which had been manifested to the Bill by the College of Eton. He entertained the most unfeigned respect towards that College; but anything more preposterous than the assertions made in the petition from that College, that it would be detrimental to the morals of the youths educated there, if such a rail-road were within a mile and a-half of them, he never heard, particularly when it was considered where the Harrow and Westminster schools were situated, the scholars of which were as moral as those of Eton.

Sir Thomas Freemantle said, that this Company had come to Parliament under a false pretence; not that he wished to say anything unfavourable towards the proprietors, who were, he believed, highly respectable men. The Bill was stated to be to establish the Great Western Railway, and yet its provisions only went to establish one from London to Reading, and from Bath to Bristol; therefore, the Company might call themselves by any other name as well as by that they now bore. In the Bill there was no guarantee that all the line of railroad would be completed, as there were seventy miles of road left without any provisions. There was nothing by which the Company bound themselves to form a communication on the whole line, except the bare fact, that they chose to call themselves the “Great Western Rail-road Company.” Therefore, it was, that he objected to the second reading. Those who advocated the measure on the principle of the hon. and learned member for Dublin (Mr. O’Connell), asserted, that the Company would be sure to complete the line, in order to forward their own object; but, it might happen, that no other persons would choose to join them; funds for that purpose might not be forthcoming to enable the Company to make the communication, and then in what a situation would they be placed? A new Company might come to Parliament next year prepared with the means of making that line, and they would be stopped, because the Great Western Railroad Company had received the power to make it, although they had only made the two extremes of the line, and, therefore, the intervening space might never be completed. Indeed, they seemed to have contemplated some such an event; for, by the latter part of the Bill, it was provided, that if the line was not completed within three years, the lands were to go back to the original owners. He had next to complain of the immense extent of the schedule to the Bill; the lists of the lands, tenements, houses, &c., that were to be forcibly taken from their owners, in order to carry into effect this half measure, extended over not less than forty-two pages, and, then, but about fifty miles of road would be completed. Upon reference to the London and Birmingham Rail-road Bill, he found that, although the line extended 110 or 120 miles, the schedule comprised only nineteen pages. In the present Bill, he found, of gardens, tenements, and other parcels of property, in the highest degree valuable, which were to be forcibly taken possession of, there were not less than 1,271. He, therefore, would oppose the Bill, because there was a great uncertainty of the whole line ever being completed. The hon. and learned member for Dublin recommended, that all the details should be left to the Committee; but, unless the opponents of the Bill could raise a large subscription, it was impossible they could appear with any advantage before a Committee. He recollected that many thousand pounds had been spent in this way in the Birmingham Railway. He was prepared to show that, if only the two ends of the railway were constructed, it would not be of any great advantage; he was prepared also to contend, that railways were not calculated for the conveyance of heavy goods; he would not say, that they did not occasionally carry such; but the expense was so great for heavy articles, where time was no object, that it was found they could be better conveyed by canals and rivers, than rail-roads. The hon. and learned member for Dublin had condemned the College of Eton for their opposition to this Bill, but if the College considered that the Bill would be injurious to its interests, surely they had a right to come forward and state their objection to it.

Colonel Conolly thought, at that stage, they ought only to take the principles of the Bill into consideration. It was an object of great consideration, not only to the western counties of England, but to the whole of the south of Ireland. There had been strong efforts made to induce the people of Ireland to think that their interests were not attended to in that House. Now, the House had an opportunity of proving the reverse, and, at the same time, of conciliating the people of that country by allowing the construction of this railroad, by which the produce of Ireland would be brought to the best market. He was convinced that it would be of the greatest use to the agriculture, the moral habits, and the population of that country; serving its interests and removing its prejudices. It was apparent, that a strong hostility was calculated upon from the counties contiguous to the metropolis; and this convinced him that they apprehended that the competition of agricultural produce from Ireland, and from the distant parts of the country, would interfere with their interests, and they were, therefore, most anxious to prevent a general and open competition. He addressed them as an Irish Member, as he knew there were hon. Members in that House better able than he was to support the interest of Wiltshire. He could, however, state that the expression of feeling upon this subject in that country, was as strong as in any part of Ireland. As to the Irish part of the question, he would say, that the three counties of Antrim, Louth, and Down, were very superior to any part of Ireland; and why was it so? Because the constant and quick communication between those three counties and England had advanced them in morals and civilization. He, therefore, hoped most earnestly, that feelings would be brought to the question, with a view to the benefit of Ireland, by according to it the great advantages of communication with England. He was not connected with the south of Ireland; but he was most anxious that the benefits arising from the western rail-road, should be afforded it; it would be a satisfactory answer to the complaints made on the score of neglect respecting Irish business. He considered that the great outcry which was made for the separation of the countries, would be stopped, by evincing the desire to give every benefit to Ireland that could be reasonably afforded her. If they desired to retain it as an integral part of the empire, they could not take a more effectual way, than by opening the communication a rail-road would give.

Mr. Gisborne rose to support the Bill. He must condemn the system of canvassing that had been adopted respecting this Bill. He had received a card, inviting him to attend and oppose this Bill. It was a printed card. He would read it; The invitation was to the following effect:—

The Duke of Buckingham, Countess Berkeley; Earls Jersey, Harrington, and Cardigan; Lords Boston, Montague, and Stowell; Lady Carr; Mr. Sloane Stanley, Colonel Gore Langton, R. Palmer, Provost, Fellows, and Masters of Eton College, and the other opponents of this measure,—earnestly entreat the favour of your attendance in the House of Commons, on Monday, the 10th instant, at 12 o’clock on the Motion for the second reading.

34, Parliament-street, March 8, 1834.

With Sir W. H—’s compliments.

Now, that proceeding he considered to be most improper. He certainly complied with that earnest entreaty, but whether in favour or disfavour of that request, his vote on the question would soon tell. It was well known that parliamentary canvassing prevailed to a great degree; but he considered this the most impertinent piece of interference that ever came under his knowledge. He considered it a very proper question for the House to entertain, whether a rail-road should be carried from London to Bristol, and whether Reading and Bath were the fixed points through which the engineers should direct that road. He was convinced of the benefits of rail-roads. A gentleman in the coal trade, informed him, that since the railroad between Manchester and Liverpool had been established, coals could be purchased at 1s. 6d. per ton in the latter place. He did not consider that any case was made out against the second reading of the Bill; it was one which could with propriety be submitted to a Committee.

Sir Richard Vyvyan, having had the honour to attend several meetings on the subject of the Bill before the House, thought it necessary to say a few words. He thought the hon. member for Buckingham had been rather severe upon the promoters of the measure; for, after alluding to the title of the Bill, he held that it was not the great Western Railway Bill, but a Bill for making a railway from London to Reading, and from Bath to Bristol. He had objected to the former being the title of the Bill, because he did not conceive that it answered such a designation; but, so far as the promoters of the measure went, it showed sincerity. He agreed with what had fallen from the hon. and learned member for Dublin, that they ought to confine themselves to the principle of the measure, in discussing the second reading. They had been told that they were engaged in a measure they would be unable to complete; that they had taken two points, and left an intermediate line unsubscribed for. He was convinced the measure would be of the greatest service to South Wales, and to the West of England, to all Ireland, to Bristol, and the metropolis itself, to which it would be the means of affording a speedy communication.

Lord Granville Somerset had heard no objections that were not rather matters for the Committee than arguments against the Bill. That was particularly the case as regarded the number of assents and dissents; and he could assure the House, that, if the results of the Committee were not satisfactory, he would not be the Member to ask the House to proceed with the Bill. He was glad to hear, that no opposition had been offered to the plan for a railway between London and Bristol; and no parties could be more desirous to complete the whole measure, than were the parties to this Bill. With so much property involved in it, and with the improvement of that property that must result from the completion of the railway, it required little or no argument to show that they must be interested in and desirous of seeing the measure perfected. With respect to the resistance offered by Eton College, he could hardly think it was serious.

Sir Charles Burrell, as a trustee to Smith’s Charity, opposed the Bill, because it would injure that Charity.

Captain Dundas thought, if rail-roads were to supersede the coasting trade, they would annihilate the seamen, and injure the country. He should oppose the Bill.

The House divided on the original Motion—Ayes 182; Noes 92: Majority 90. Bill read a second time.

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