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In regard to this fundamental question of land ownership people are so blinded by custom and by the fact that it is sanctioned by the law, that it may be well for a moment to set these entirely on one side, and consider what would have been the proper, the equitable, and the most beneficial mode of dealing with our common and waste lands at the time of the last general Inclosure Act in the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria. Considering, then, that these unenclosed wastes were the last remnant of our country's land over which we, the public, had any opportunity of free passage to breathe pure air and enjoy the beauties of nature; considering that these wastes, although almost worthless agriculturally, were of especial value to the poor of the parishes or manors in which they were situated, not only giving them pasture for their few domestic animals, but in some cases peat for fuel and loppings of trees for fences or garden sticks; considering that an acre or two of such land, when enclosed and cultivated, would give them, in return for the labour of themselves and their families during spare hours, a considerable portion of their subsistence, would enable them to create a home from which they could not be ejected by the will of any landlord or employer, and would thus raise them at once to a condition of comparative independence and security, abolishing the terrible spectre of the workhouse for their old age, which now haunts the peasant or labourer throughout life, and is the fundamental cause of that exodus to the towns about which so much nonsense is talked; considering, further, that just in proportion as men rise in the social scale, these various uses of the waste lands become less and less vitally important, till, when we arrive at the country squire and great landowner, the only use of the enclosed common or moor is either to be used as a breeding ground for game, or to add to some of his farms a few acres of land at an almost nominal rent-considering all these circumstances, and further, that those who perform what is fundamentally the most important and the most beneficial of all work, the production of food, should be able to obtain at least the necessaries of life by that work, and secure a comfortable old age by their own fireside -how would any lover of his country think that such lands ought to be dealt with in the best interests of the whole community ?
Surely, that the very first thing to be done should be to provide that all workers upon the land, either directly or indirectly, should have plots of from one to five acres, in pro. portion to the amount of such waste and the needs of the inhabitants. The land thus allotted to be held by them in perpetuity, from the local authority, at a low rent such as any farmer would give for it as an addition to his farm. In cases where the amount of common land was very great in proportion to the population, some of the most suitable land might be reserved for a common pasture, for wood or fuel, or for recreation, and the remainder allotted to applicants from adjacent parishes where there was no common land.
If it is asked, how are the various landowners and owners of manorial rights to be compensated ? there are two answers, either of which is sufficient. The first is, that they would be fully compensated by the increased well-being of the community around them. Whenever such secure holdings have been given by private owners—as in the cases of Lord Tollemache and Lord Carrington-pauperism has been abolished, and even poverty of any kind greatly diminished. And as landlords pay rates, and diminished rates mean increased value of farm land, and, therefore, increased rents, the landlords would be more than compensated even in money's worth. Again, where it has been fairly tried, the surrounding large farmers, though at first violently opposed to such small holdings on the ground that they would make the labourers too independent, ultimately acknowledge that it greatly benefits them, because it surrounds them with a permanent population of good and experienced labourers, who are always ready at hay and harvest time to work for good wages, and thus save crops and secure them in the best condition when they might otherwise be deteriorated by delay, or totally lost for want of labour at the critical moment during a wet summer. Such a constant supply of labour benefits every farmer, abolishes to a large extent agricultural depression, and thus secures payment of the landlord's rents again increasing the money value of his property.
And if, notwithstanding these demonstrated benefits, landlords still claim their pound of flesh, the money value of public land, which only laws made by their own class have given them, we will make our counterclaim for the landtax at 45. in the pound, “on the full annual value," as solemnly agreed by Parliament when the various services due from landlords to the crown were abolished and the tax fixed at what was then considered a very low rate, in lieu of them. The last valuation made was in 1692, and, notwithstanding the continual increase in land values from that time, as well as the continual decrease in the purchasing power of money, the land-tax continued to be paid on that absurdly low valuation, which in the reign of George III. was made permanent. The arrears of land-tax now equitably due will amount to more than the value of all the agricultural land of our country at the present time, and as when public rights are in question there is no time limit, existing landlords would do well not to be too clamorous for their alleged rights of property, since it may turn out that those "rights” do not exist.
Another thing that should be attended to in all such inclosures of waste land is the preservation for the people at large of rights of way over it in various directions, both to afford ample means of enjoying the beauties of nature and also to given pedestrians short cuts to villages, hamlets, or railway stations. One of the greatest blessings that might be easily attained if the land were resumed by the people to be held for the common good, would be the establishment of ample footpaths along every railway in the kingdom, with sufficient bridges or subways for safe crossing ; and also (and more especially) along the banks of every river or brook, such paths to be diverted around any dwelling-house that may have gardens extending to the water's edge, all such paths to be made and kept in repair by the District Councils. Under the present system old paths are often closed, but we never hear of new ones being made, yet such are now more than ever necessary when most of our roads are rendered dangerous by motor-cars and cycles, and exceedingly disagreeeble and unhealthy to pedestrians by the clouds of gritty dust continually raised by these vehicles.
Returning now to the question of the rights of the people at large to a share in their native land, I would further point out that the inclosure of commons is only one of many acts of robbery that have been perpetrated by or for the landlords. If we go back no further than the reign of Henry VIII. we have the whole vast properties of the abbeys and monasteries confiscated by the king, and mostly given away to personal friends or powerful nobles, without any regard whatever to the rights of the poor. Most of these institutions took the place of our colleges, schools, and workhouses. The poor were relieved by them, and they served as a refuge for the wanderer and the fugitive. No provision was made for the fulfilment of these duties by the new owners, and the poor and needy were thus plundered and oppressed. Under the same king and his successors all the accumulated wealth of the parish churches, in gold and silver vessels, in costly vestments often adorned with jewels, in paintings by great masters, and in illuminated missals which were often priceless works of art, were systematically plundered, court favourites obtaining orders to sequestrate all such “popish ornaments," in a certain number of cases keeping the produce for themselves, while in others they were sold for the king's benefit. The property thus stolen the Rev. A. Jessopp estimates to have been many times greater than the value of all the abbeys and monasteries of the kingdom!
If we consider the nature of this long series of acts of plunder of the people's land and other property, we find in it every circumstance tending to aggravate the crime. It was robbery of the poor by the rich. It was robbery of the weak and helpless by the strong. And it had this worst feature that distinguishes robbery from mere confiscation—the plunder was divided among the robbers themselves. Yet again, it was a form of robbery specially forbidden by the religion of the robbers-a religion for which they professed the deepest reverence and of which they considered themselves the special defenders. They read in what they called The Word of God, “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth !" Yet this is what they were, and are, constantly striving for, not by purchase only, but by open or secret robbery. Again, they read in their holy book, “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is Mine;" and at every fiftieth year all land was to return to the family that had sold it, so that no one could keep land beyond the year of jubilee, the reason being that no man or family should be permanently impoverished by the misdeeds of his ancestors. But this part of the law they never obey.
This all-embracing system of land-robbery, for which nothing is too great and nothing too small; which has absorbed meadow and forest, moor and mountain, which has appropriated most of our rivers and lakes and the fish that live in them; which often claims the very seashore and rocky coasts of our island home, fencing them off from the wayfarer who seeks the solace of their health-giving air and wild beauty, while making the peasant pay for his seaweed manure and the fisherman for his bait of shell-fish ; which has desolated whole counties to replace men by sheep or cattle, and has destroyed fields and cottages to make a wilderness for deer and grouse; which has stolen the commons and filched the roadside wastes; which has driven the labouring poor into the cities, and has thus been the primary and chief cause of the lifelong misery, disease, and early death of thousands who might have lived lives of honest toil and comparative well-being had they been permitted free access to land in their native villages ;—it is the advocates and beneficiaries of this inhuman system who, when a partial restitution of their unholy gains is proposed, are the loudest in their cries of "robbery"!
But all the robbery, all the spoliation, all the legal and illegal filching, has been on their side, and they still hold the stolen property. They made laws to legalize their actions, and, some day, we, the people, will make laws which will not