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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 2

Effect of Entails on Number of Landowners

page 77

Effect of Entails on Number of Landowners.

It would be most interesting to trace the number

Effect of Entails on number of Landowners

of landowners through these periods, and to show the effect of these various changes upon the distribution of land. Unfortunately, however, from the Domesday Book till the return of four years ago we have no certain facts and no reliable statistics whatever. It has been already shown that at a very early period there was a very large number of small proprietor's. It is probable that in the time of the Edwards their number was very much greater than at the present time, notwithstanding that the area of cultivated land has been greatly increased in the interval by the inclosure of commons and the clearing of forests. There is every reason to believe that a large majority of farmers were yeomen, that is, were owners of the land they farmed; and that a very large number of the labouring class were also owners of cottages and small plots of land. The records of copyhold manors give abundant proof of this; and all the testimony of early writers is to the same effect. How far this number was reduced or affected by the prevalence of entails between 1285 and 1470 we cannot tell, nor whether the greater freedom of the next period either tended to increase their page 78

Effect of Entails on number of Landowners

number or to stem the reduction which had been taking place. It is certain, however, that in the time of the civil war the number of freeholders in rural districts was considerable. It is matter of history that 6,000 freeholders rode up from Buckinghamshire to Westminster to petition Parliament against the arbitrary acts of Charles I., from which Clarendon dates the commencement of the civil war. It was from the yeomen that Cromwell mainly drew his forces. It was the county freeholders that formed the main support of the parliamentary party.

Lord Macaulay, speaking of the yeomen class of 200 years ago, says that they were "an eminently manly and true-hearted race. These small proprietors who cultivated their own fields, and enjoyed a modest competence, without affecting to have escutcheons or crests, or aspiring to sit on the bench of justice, then formed a much more important part of the nation than at present. If we may trust the best statistical writers of that age, not less than 160,000 proprietors, who with their families made up more than a seventh of the whole population, derived their subsistence from small freehold estates . . . . .It was computed that the number of persons who occupied their own land was far greater than of those who farmed the land for others. Great," he adds, "has since been the change in the rural life of England."

There are also in most parts of rural England page 79 indications that in times not very remote the

Effect of Entails on number of Landowners

small squires and yeomen were much more numerous than at the present time. Great numbers of existing farmhouses have the appearance and tradition of having been the residences of owners and not of tenants. It is admitted that the yeomen class has all but disappeared from most parts of England, and that the labouring class has almost ceased to have any permanent interest in or connection with the soil of their native land. The number of squires has been also so reduced, that in large districts there are very few resident gentlemen, except the clergy. Inquiry on this point has shown that in the counties of Berkshire and Dorsetshire more than half the parishes have no gentlemen of the landowning class resident within them. Of the county of Nottingham it was reported that of 245 parishes in the eastern division only sixty-five have resident squires; and it was added, "the bankruptcy of one duke and the eccentricity of another have caused great depression in this part of the county." Everything, therefore, points to the reduction of the number of landowners of all classes, whether of the squire class, or of the yeomen class, or of the agricultural labourer.
A careful examination of the list of landowners will tend to the same conclusions. Of the 955 landowners of upwards of 10,000 acres each, and averaging 30,000 acres, about sixty appear to have page 80

Effect of Entails on number of Landowners

come into this category during the last thirty years; some few of their owners have bought out other large proprietors, but the greater part of them have been created by the extinction of many small proprietors; and probably an examination of the list of proprietors in the next rank would show a somewhat similar result. Of those who have existed more than thirty years a certain number have from one cause or other been compelled to sell portions of their properties, yet a greater number have increased their properties, either by marriage or by purchase; and the general result of an examination of the list must be the conviction that the number of large proprietors is steadily increasing at the expense of the smaller proprietors, and that the average holdings of land by these large owners is also increasing. It may be worthy of notice, that in the list of those who have risen into the first grade of landowners within the last thirty years by purchase, and not by marriage, there is not a single name distinguished for any great service to the State or to the public. The days when statesmen, like the Cecils or Walpoles, or when great lawyers like the Howards, the Cokes, or the Bridgemans, or great generals such as the Marlboroughs and Wellingtons, could acquire great properties of land and could found families in the first rank of landowners, seems to be past. The list consists almost wholly of successful merchants, manufacturers, brewers, coalowners, page 81 ironmasters, or tradesmen; it is from these classes

Effect of Entails on number of Landowners

that families are now being founded, which it is hoped by means of entails to maintain for a long future among the landed magnates. Without wishing to depreciate the merits of such persons, or the services which they have rendered to the industry and commerce of the country while building up their own fortunes, it may be permitted to express a doubt whether society is much interested in affording them the machinery for securing that their names shall be escorted by landed property in perpetuity.

It will not be denied, however, that if of this class a certain number are continually pressing into the ranks of landowners, and if an equivalent number is not dropping off the list by the dispersion or division of the property, by will or by sale, the list of large owners must be continually increasing, and the number of small owners continually diminishing in greater proportion; and the time must come when the ideal of such a system will be reached, when the country will be divided among a comparatively few of the largest owners, and when small proprietors will have ceased to exist in rural districts or beyond the immediate neighbourhood of large towns.