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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 2

Dangers of Entail

page 82

Dangers of Entail.

Dangers Of Entail

But for one feature of entail by family settlements there cannot be a doubt that accumulation would be far greater than it has been. The one counteracting force is that they sometimes tend to defeat their own objects. The effect of the arrangement is to divest the present holder of the property of all real power over it, and to vest the remainder with full power in the eldest son when he shall attain the age of twenty-one and survive his father. If the son should not agree to re-settle the estate, as it is called, when he arrives at the age of twenty-one, or if the father should die before the son reaches this age, the property will ultimately vest in the son to do as he likes with it. The certainty of thus coming into possession of the estate leads not a few eldest sons into early extravagance; they not unfrequently fall a prey to the class of money-lenders who are always on the lookout for them, and who induce them to anticipate their inheritance by borrowing upon their expectations. A young man who begins in this way is speedily brought to the point when he has ruined his property even before he has come into possession of it, and many are the cases where family properties have been sacrificed and sold through anticipations of this kind, favoured, if not created, page 83 by the very arrangements which were intended to

Dangers Of Entail

preserve them intact. The settlor of the property who thought to preserve the family estate for future generations of his family, and who deprived his son of the .full dominion over it and of the power of free bequest, is defeated in his object, through having vested the remainder in an unborn grandson, of whom he could know nothing, and who turns out to be unworthy of the charge.
Another feature of such family arrangements and artificial attempts to maintain property in the family, in successive generations of eldest sons, is the gradually accumulating debt upon the estate. Although the estate is settled on the eldest males in succession, there must be some provision for other members of the family. Widows must be provided with annuities, younger sons and daughters cannot be left without means, portions for them must be charged on the property, in many cases debts must be met by charges on the estate, generally by arrangement between father and son when the property is re-settled; the result is that charges gradually accumulate, and it is well recognised that few except the very largest properties will bear the burthens of this nature for two or three successive generations, unless marriage of the heir brings accession of wealth, of unless the property improves greatly in value from some adventitious circumstance; and it may be doubted whether in the long run more families are not ruined and page 84

Dangers Of Entail

brought down by such arrangements than are perpetuated and enriched by them.

The effect of these accumulating charges upon the condition of the property itself will shortly be alluded to; meanwhile it must be pointed out that the family settlement involves evils of no small magnitude to the family itself. It deprives the parent of the greater part of his parental control over his eldest son; the son is placed in a position independent of his father, almost superior to him, for nothing can be done to the estate without the son's consent; however unworthy he may prove to be, the property must descend to him; the father has no power of selection or veto; and no doubt many a father has had reason to curse the family arrangement under which his property is settled upon one who is unworthy to succeed him.

There are other causes at work which tend to a constant reduction in the number of small owners, and which add to the inducement to persons to enrol themselves in the list of great landowners, and retard their retirement from the rank by sale or otherwise. They are, however, closely allied to that which has been already pointed out, and it is difficult to determine whether they are not effects rather than causes of the system. Chief among them is the great political power which has been, for the last 200 years, conceded to the owners of landed property. One branch of the legislature has been wholly created from their ranks. A large page 85 landed property is admittedly the necessary qualification

Dangers Of Entail

for a peerage; this rank is almost conceded to an owner of over 20,000 acres. The English county representation in the House of Commons is also wholly at the command of the landowners. They rarely look beyond their own ranks or beyond their own county for a representative. The owner of a certain standard number of acres, if of the right side of politics, is almost certain of representing his county. This command over the county representation is mainly secured through the tenant farmers. It is also the passport not only to honours of all kinds, but to political office, and to state patronage. The local government of the rural districts is wholly in the hands of the landowners; the county magistracy is their recognised appanage. The sports of country life are such as almost to necessitate large properties, and could not be so fully indulged in if there were many small proprietors.

The sense of power created by the possession of a large estate in a rural district is also great, and is generally opposed to the existence of small ownerships within its range. Opportunities, therefore, are seldom neglected of buying up smaller properties where they are likely to interfere with this power.

In the neighbourhood of large towns, where land has attained a building value, these forces are counteracted by the personal interest of the owners, tempted by high prices; special facilities have been given to the owners of settled estates page 86

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to avail themselves of this great demand for building land. But in rural districts there is no such counteracting influence.
While then, on the one hand, all these forces promote the creation and increase of large properties, on the other hand the difficulties of title in our most complicated system of land laws, and the consequent expense of transfer, and the cost of our system of mortgage, tell with infinitely greater effect upon small properties than on large, and act as a great discouragement to their purchase or continued existence. This is what Lord Hatherley said on this subject in 1859:—

"Look how the limitations of your law affect the transfer of land. It is only on account of these that you have difficulties in title; because, if it were not for the complexity of limitations, a system of registration would long since have been established, which so far as fraud and rapidity of transfer was concerned would have freed us from any difficulty of title whatever. You have now the combined effect of fraud and the complicated investigations of title which operate in the most serious manner to prevent the free transfer of land in our community; what I wish for, and have long wished for, is a free transfer of land."

All other experience tends to show that a cheap and simple system of registration of title and mortgages is an essential condition of the existence of small properties.

page 87
On the one hand, therefore, we have every

Dangers Of Entail.

encouragement given by law, and by political and social arrangements, to the concentration of land in few hands; and on the other, every discouragement given to its purchase, and to dealing with it in small quantities, and by small people. What wonder then that we should find the number of proprietors continually diminishing, and that England presents an exception so striking to the rest of the civilised world.