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Lord Penrhyn and the Quarrymen (S533: 1897)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter printed in the February 1897 issue of Land and Labour, after it was originally submitted to the Daily Chronicle, which published only part of it. Original pagination (from the Land and Labour source) indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S533.htm

     [[p. 9]] The occasion seems now to have arisen for giving practical effect to a principle, which, though universally admitted, has hitherto never been applied so as to produce any useful result. I refer to the well-known formula--"Property has its duties as well as its rights." Surely, if this principle is ever applicable it is in this case, where not only the well-being and the very means of existence of thousands of hard-working men and their families are endangered and through them the whole community suffers, but the property itself is of a nature which, it is almost universally admitted, ought never to have been allowed to pass into private hands. The working of minerals is not like the ordinary uses of land, since it actually destroys a portion of the wealth of the country, wealth which can never be reproduced. Our land is thus permanently deteriorated for succeeding generations; and when the produce is exported, as much of it usually is, the whole nation is injured in order to increase the wealth of private individuals.

     It is often said that Parliament is omnipotent. Cannot it for once use its unrestricted power in the interest of the community when an irresponsible individual endangers that interest? When a railroad or other work of importance to the public ceases to fulfill its function, owing to the bankruptcy of the owners or from other causes, the Courts appoint a Receiver to work it for the benefit of the creditors. Why should not the Government, in a case like this, appoint a Receiver to work the quarries in the interests of the whole community, on the just grounds that Lord Penrhyn has abused the trust that has been given him, and that he has ignored the "duties" while claiming the most extravagant "rights" of property? We are told again and again that, by the law of England, no man owns land, but only holds it from the Crown, and can be dispossessed of it whenever it is required for public purposes. Why cannot this principle be applied here? Another legal maxim informs us that "public rights are to be preferred to private," and here, surely, the rights of many thousands of innocent persons, and of the community which must, to some extent, suffer with them, is to be preferred to the private right which manifests itself in injustice and contempt of lawful authority.

     If the present Government desires to make itself ever gratefully remembered by the workers, it should, when Parliament meets, at once pass a short Act placing the Penrhyn Quarries in the hands of a Receiver, to be carried on mainly in the interests of the quarrymen and of the public, the surplus profits being paid to Lord Penrhyn during his life. This would serve as a grand precedent and object lesson as to the duties of those who have been permitted to hold and to profit by almost all the land and mineral wealth of the nation, and would probably render it unnecessary to pass a general Act of the same nature, which, however, could be passed whenever desired, but as involving many complicated and disputed questions would take too much time now.

     It would be interesting to know how many members of the present House of Commons would openly oppose such a law as is here suggested, and on what grounds. The interference with private property will not be so great as when a railroad is made across an estate against the wishes of the landlord, while the importance to the local community is far greater and more direct. The five or six thousand persons who will be immediately impoverished, and many of them pauperised, through no [[p. 10]] fault of their own, may well ask what use to them is an all-powerful legislature and a costly Government which is yet unable or unwilling to save them from such cruel and undeserved suffering. Unless the grand maxims of law and policy, which I have here referred to, can in this case be acted upon, it will be advisable to have an authoritative statement that they no longer apply to our existing Society and Government. Let our judges and our legislators declare openly that--"The Rights of Property are absolute," and that it "has no duties which are obligatory"; that--"The land is absolutely the landlord's to deal with as he sees fit"; and that--"Private rights are always to be preferred to Public." We shall thus avoid further hypocrisy, and bring our avowed principles into harmony with our practice.

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