[From Brown's Directory, 1881/2]

[Historical Chapter]

[Port Erin Loan and its Consequences - pt 1]


It will be remembered that we brought down our account of the important works which were being carried on at Port Erin under the direction of Mr Powell, to the granting of £13,000 by the Tynwald Court on the 7th July, 1869, to " complete " the breakwater. We continue our account from that point. At this date the work had been completed to a length of 500 feet, and its end stood in 35 ft. of water at low spring tides. It had at first been intended to make it a mere rubble bank 900 feet long, and its cost had been estimated by Mr Coode at £58,000. But, partly from the stone in the adjoining quarries proving of a softer nature than had been anticipated, and so being unfit for the purpose, and partly because the force of the currents upon the loose rubble forming the embankment had also been miscalculated, it had been found necessary to modify this idea, and to substitute for the upper portion of the rubble bank large concrete blocks each about 17 tons weight This change, while it added to the permanence of the work, largely increased its cost ; and thus, to complete it to a length of 900 feet, would require an additional sum of £13,000 ; to carry it to 1,100 feet, would take a further sum of £8,000; and if it were extended to 1,200 feet, the total supplementary amount required would be £25,000. As before stated, the Court adopted the shorter length as a temporary measure, and voted the sum of £13,000 to carry it out. On the 26th July, a debate, extending over seven hours, took place on a proposal to increase the length of the work to 1,200 feet, at a cost of £15,000 ; but ultimately the proposal was rejected, the Court being unable to agree. On the 6th September, in response to a petition from a number of fishermen, praying for a further extension of the breakwater, the Governor directed the Harbour Board to take evidence upon the point ; and accordingly the Board met at Port Erin on the 19th September, and received the evidence of nearly forty fishermen and others. The great bulk of the evidence favoured the extension of the breakwater for about 400 feet further, leaving an opening of 900 feet between it and Bradda Head ; which, it was stated, would effectually provide shelter for 600 to 1,000 vessels. During the progress of this inquiry a strong opposition to the proposed extension was manifested by the Peel fishermen, who were represented on the occasion by Messrs Corrin, Joughin, Graves, and others, and supported among the Commissioners themselves by Messrs H. J. Moore (High-Bailiff of Peel) and H. B. Noble. This opposition was prompted by the belief that if the extension of the Port Erin breakwater was resolved upon, the claims of Peel to further harbour works would be passed over. On the 3rd October, Mr. R. Corrin was elected for the Sheading of Glanfaba (in which sheading Peel is situated), and on the occasion he spoke strongly against the proposed outlay at Port Erin, and denounced the work as it was being carried out, as not what the fishermen wanted, and opposed to their wishes On the 26th June, 1872, a proposal to construct a low water landing pier at Port Erin was brought before the Tynwald Court ; and, after a warm debate, a vote of £3,500 was granted as a mortgage on the " plant " at that port, and a committee appointed to take evidence on the desirability of the proposed pier. This committee took evidence on the 5th August, and on the 15th November, reported, with one dissentient, Mr Sherwood, in favour of a low water landing pier. On the 18th February, 1873, the question was warmly debated, and resulted in a vote of £6,300 for the construction of the proposed pier.

All parties were now thoroughly wearied with this work, and almost prepared to abandon it to its fate. Its cost had far exceeded the original estimate, while the benefits resulting from its construction had so far been so slight and uncertain, that it was now, generally regarded as a failure. Even the very fishermen, for whose service it had been undertaken, and who, in the first flush of their rejoicing at their success, had, along with few other persons, erected a small memorial tower upon the bold headland at the northern extremity of Port Erin bay to the man whose instrumentality had mainly procured the work for them, now avoided it, thinking the :advantages it offered to them not worth the harbour dues levied for its usage. From being a subject for congratulation it had sunk to be an object of derision ; few ventured to speak favourably of it, many openly assailed it. In reality, the difficulties attending the undertaking had not been sufficiently considered, and in consequence they had been greatly underestimated, and only grew upon the engineers as they had to be successively overcome. Hence the character of the work had to be changed during its construction, and hence, from its increased costliness, its length had to be curtailed, and it was ultimately left in an unfinished state. Only partially protecting the bay from the heavy winds and currents to which it was exposed, it was lightly regarded by the fishermen ; and after the imposition of harbour dues upon vessels using the bay, on the 11th January 1870, they rarely entered Port Erin, unless driven by necessity. To overcome this objection special inducements were offered to the fishermen by the English Government, to whom the Port Erin dues belonged, in the Isle of Man Harbours Bill — an Imperial measure authorising the Insular Legislature to impose harbour dues upon the Manx ports — in which it was ordered that vessels paying dues at Port Erin should be free of dues at all other Manx ports. This proposal, which was manifestly designed to increase the receipts at the quasi-Imperial harbour of Port Erin at the expense of the Manx revenue, excited great dissatisfaction, especially when, contrary to an express agreement with the Governor, the measure containing this proposal was hurried with unusual rapidity through the House of Commons without the Insular Legislature having had an opportunity of considering it. On the 30th April, 1874, the House of Keys protested against the passing of a bill which affected the interests of the Island without their previously having an opportunity of considering it ; and claimed, as their right, that no such bill should again be so passed in the future. On the 5th May, after explanations from the Governor, the Keys, to vindicate this right, rescinded their resolution of the 30th April, 1873, upon which the Harbour Dues Bill had been founded ; but later in the day, after further explanations, the Imperial Bill was adopted by the Tynwald Court after a short consideration. This proposal to levy harbour dues at the Manx ports excited great alarm, especially among the fishing population; and on the 5th July (Tynwald Day) a deputation of their body, accompanied by large detachments from Peel and Port St. Mary, laid a petition before the Tynwald Court protesting strongly against the imposition of harbour dues upon the fishing boats until sufficient harbour accommodation had been provided at their respective ports. Considerable alarm was manifested by the Insular authorities at the prospect of this " march of the fishermen to the Tynwald Hill," and ominous preparations were accordingly made by the Insular Government to repress any attempt at disturbance. Fortunately, no breach of the peace was intended or attempted. Their memorial was quietly presented, and the vast body of fishermen, after promenading the neighbourhood of the Court, marched quietly home again.

The work of completing the Port Erin breakwater to the agreed-on length dragged slowly along, but in 1876 it was at last completed, and a small iron lighthouse placed at its outer extremity. But in the interval, the failure of the expectations which had been raised respecting this work had given rise to another cause of collision with the Imperial Government. Upon the faith of these expectations the English Government had advanced a sum of £58,200 towards the construction of the breakwater, expecting to be reimbursed by the receipts from the harbour dues of the port. These failing, the Treasury fell back upon the Insular Government and sought to make it responsible for the repayment of " The Port Erin Loan," as the advance now began to be called. The first intimation of this unpleasant claim was made in April, 1870, when it transpired at a meeting of the Harbour Board that a demand had been made by the English Government for a sum of money " as interest on this loan." This demand naturally excited great alarm, but it was allayed for the time by the Governor, who informed the Insular Legislature that it had been made under a misapprehension which he would take care to have explained. But, notwithstanding these assurances, the claim was not abandoned ; it was only changed in form, and in a short time again renewed more urgently. A formal demand was made for the repayment of the amount, £58,200, expended by the Imperial Government upon the Port Erin Breakwater. On the 7th May, 1875, Mr. Secretary Smith wrote — The harbour has proved a financial failure, and the Imperial Exchequer is legally liable to bear the burden of the failure. But it is the Insular Government which is morally under an obligation to bear it (and), it must be evident that if the Insular Government has the means of bearing the burden (and of this there is no question), they ought to relieve the Imperial Government of it.

This " moral" claim was founded upon the assertion that the expenditure on Port Erin was incurred for the benefit of the Island. In reply to this the Insular Government maintained that the Port Erin scheme was intended as much, if not more, to meet the Imperial want of a national harbour of refuge, and that, therefore, the expenditure was purely an Imperial one, and the charge ought to be an Imperial one. Unable, directly, to impose this burden upon the Insular revenue, and yet determined to get rid of it if it could be done, the English Government, following the precedent of 1866 of making one concession to obtain another, attempted to induce the Insular Government to accept the liability of the " loan " by offering in return to make certain concessions, the principal of which was an increased payment towards a daily mail, and the rating of Crown lands. The correspondence containing this claim, and its accompanying proposals, was laid before the Tynwald Court on the 15th December, 1875. and on the 16th a committee of the Court, consisting of Deemster Drinkwater, the Attorney-General, and Messrs W. B. Christian, Dumbell, Sherwood, B. J. Moore, and J. T. Clucas, was appointed to consider this correspondence and report to the Court. On the 21st December, the committee presented its report. In it they supported the contention of the Governor, that the Port Erin work having been undertaken for Imperial purposes, and not exclusively for the accommodation of the fishing fleet of the Island, the Insular revenue was not legally liable for the money expended on it ; and they further showed by reference to the history of the work in question, that the Island was equally free from moral responsibility. In conclusion, considering the great importance of the questions at issue, and the value of the concessions offered, they recommended the appointment of a committee to act in conjunction with the Governor either in the way of correspondence or by deputation to the Imperial Government. This report was unanimously adopted, and the same committee was re-appointed to carry out its suggestions. For nearly a year the matter remained in abeyance, the proposed conference with the Treasury being " unavoidably postponed owing to the pressure of Parliamentary business and the succeeding vacation ;" but in November, 1876, it was again revived in connection with a proposal on the part of the Insular Government to grant a guarantee to the Northern Railway. On the 7th November, 1876, the Tynwald Court sanctioned the principle of this guarantee, and requested the Governor to communicate with the Lords Commissioners of her Majesty’s Treasury and obtain their consent to this guarantee being given. On the 9th, accordingly, the Governor transmitted a copy of this resolution to the Lords of the Treasury, and after pointing out that, under the conditions imposed, it was scarcely possible that any call would ever be made upon the guarantee, asked their sanction to the proposed arrangement. On the 25th, a reply was returned enclosing a Minute embodying " the final views of their Lordships with regard to the several subjects which you have brought before them in the course of the correspondence respecting the Port Erin Loan." This Minute, which was dated November 15th, laid down as an essential preliminary to the sanctioning of any future arrangements with the Island that the Insular Government should " undertake the punctual repayment of the principal and interest of the Port Erin Loan." If this burden were satisfactorily taken off the shoulders of the Lords of the Treasury they would be willing to grant in return —first, their sanction to the guarantee to the Northern Railway ; second, liberty to borrow from the Loans Commissioners " such sums as it is already authorised to borrow," at a rate not exceeding 4 per cent. ; third, under certain difficult and onerous conditions " the payment (towards the cost of a daily mail) of 2s 6d per hundred letters, in lieu of the present fixed subsidy ; fourth, an inquiry by the customs " into the alleged loss to the Insular revenue by the import of English duty paid goods, with the view of making good the amount as nearly as it can be ascertained ;" fifth, the Woods and Forests would be authorised to permit the rating of the Crown property in the Island.

This Minute was laid before the Tynwald Court on the 6th December, together with an enclosing communication from the Governor, in which, following the course he had rather hastily adopted at the first mooting of this claim, of accepting it as inevitable, and in consequence striving only to make as good a bargain as possible with the Treasury, he bowed unresistingly to this expression of " the final views " of the Lords of the Treasury, and set himself by a series of elaborate calculations to show the Court that in accepting the responsibility of the " Loan " on the terms named in the Minute, it would be making a good bargain, financially, while it would, at the same time, remove a stumbling block out of the way of future progress. Acting, apparently, upon the assumption that the arguments thus placed before the Court had convinced it of the expediency of adopting his view of the crisis, the Governor proposed that the committee appointed on the 21st December, 1875, should proceed to London to confer with the Treasury, who, he said, were prepared to receive them on the 14th instant. Deemster Drinkwater, however, moved the adjournment of the debate until the following day, and, in connection with the Treasury Minute and the accompanying circular from the Governor, gave notice of the following questions :—Whether the Governor, on further consideration, had any reason to think that the approximate estimates laid by him before the Tynwald Court in June last were erroneous ; whether, in the statement laid before the Court, any provision had been made for the repayment of certain sums named, amounting to about £130,000 ; whether Mr. Terry’s report or any other reports respecting the evasion of tobacco and other duties would be laid before the Court ; whether, in the estimate of 2s 6d per hundred letters, letters only were meant, or if it included newspapers, circulars, and letters ; whether the Governor had received any communication as to the cost of a daily mail which he could lay before the Court; what was the estimated annual rental of the Crown property, and whether such rates would entirely be paid by the Crown, by the Crown and the tenants, or entirely by the tenants ; whether the report of the Port Erin Committee, and especially that part of it by which that committee was appointed, in conjunction with the Governor, to communicate with the Lords of the Treasury on the subject of the loan, and whether it had been suggested to " my lords" before they embodied their " final views " that the committee had not been heard on the subject. After a short statement by the Governor, the Court adjourned to the following day.

On the following day (Dec. 8th), the Governor laid replies to the Deemster’s questions, upon the table —That he had no reason to consider the approximate estimates referred to as erroneous ; that in the sums named, one (the Port Erin Loan) was not included, but that they would be gradually liquidated out of the surplus revenue ; that he had laid Mr Terry’s report upon the table ; that the 2s 6d per hundred, he believed, included newspapers, &c., but not letters, &c., passing only through the Insular post office ; that he had received no communication from any steam-packet company respecting a daily mail ; that he was unable to state the details of the principle upon which the Crown property would be rated, but that he presumed it would be rated upon the same principle as that in force in England ; that he had forwarded a copy of the report of the committee on the 21st December, 1875, and requested that a day might be named to receive a deputation on the subjects named. The Secretary to the Treasury replied to this on the 4th May, 1876, that my lords had deputed their financial secretary to receive the deputation, but that, owing to the great pressure of Parliamentary business, it must be deferred until the autumn. That he had forwarded the resolution passed by the Court on the 7th November, on the 9th. That in the interval between the 4th May and the 9th November, the question of a deputation had not been renewed ; but that he had informed the Secretary verbally that he believed the Court would still desire a conference with the Treasury. In addition to these replies and reports, the Governor read a carefully prepared Minute, in which, after detailing the circumstances which led to the construction of the Port Erin Breakwater, he argued that " the requirements and wants of the fishermen were almost the only considerations which were submitted to, and urged upon, the Government for the construction of a sheltering structure at Port Erin, the convenience of the coasting trade being only passingly alluded to," and that " in the absence of any pressure from the shipping interests of the country," little doubt could exist " that it was only upon the urgent entreaties and representations of the fishermen, and a firm belief in their representation that from 500 to 800 fishing boats alone would frequent the harbour annually, that the Government consented to give the collateral guarantee of £1,600, endorsed as these representations of the fishermen were by the authority of the Tynwald Court." After the reading of this Minute, which may be regarded as the Governor’s defence of his action in so readily accepting and supporting the policy of the English Government towards the Island, Deemster Drinkwater moved that the Court adhere to its resolution of the 21st December, 1875, and that the Governor be requested to forward to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury a second copy of that resolution and of the report upon which it was founded, and also a copy of the present resolution — That, while the Court would always be ready to recognise any claim, legal or moral’ which the Treasury may have against it, until a reply has been received to their former resolution they decline to acknowledge any claim, legal or moral, in respect of the Port Erin Loan ; that, while ready upon this basis to consider any proposition of the Lords of the Treasury for the adoption by the Court of the Port Erin Loan, they consider the present proposals of the Lords Commissioners, containing only offers to give to the Island what it is fairly entitled to receive independently of the question of the Port Erin Loan as based on the supposition that the Court has either no legal or no moral defence to the claim put forward by the Treasury ; that as regards the guarantee for the proposed rail-way, to which the assent of the Lords Commissioners was asked, the Court cannot but think that the Lords Commissioners have not sufficiently considered that they were not asked for any advance of Imperial money, nor to take upon them any risk, and that it would hardly further the satisfactory adjustment of any negotiation if a refusal on the part of the Treasury to assent to an arrangement beneficial to the Island and in no way injurious to the Treasury was held out as a threat or as a means of exacting compliance with a demand for which the Court considers it is in no way responsible. The Tynwald Court would be very unwilling to suppose that such was the intention of the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury.

In support of this motion, his Honour said that when the Treasury talked of a moral claim they could not have considered the subject-matter of the resolution of the 21st December, 1875, as they had actually decided without hearing the committee. He was of opinion, if the Lords of the Treasury wished to receive a deputation from the Tynwald Court, that the committee ought to meet them ; but not until their wish had been distinctly expressed. On a review of the proposals of the Treasury, he concluded, that they were altogether unworthy the serious consideration of the Court as an equivalent for the adoption of the Port Erin Loan. Mr. Sherwood seconded the Deemster’s motion. The Attorney-General moved as an amendment—-

That the Court having, in the exercise of its undoubted rights as an independent legis lative body proposed a scheme for the development of the Island, which met with the general approval of the country, the Treasury has availed itself of this opportunity for making its assent dependent upon the acceptance by the Insular Legislature of certain financial liabilities disputed by this Court. This Court protests in the strongest manner against the authority which is deputed by Act of Parliament to the Lords Commissioners of her Majesty’s Treasury, to be exercised only for the protection of the Insular revenue, being employed as a means of coercing the Insular Legislature into accepting pecuniary liabilities for which the Imperial revenue is at present, by Act of Parliament, responsible. By its appointment of a committee to confer with their lordships this Court has shown its readiness to discuss the various matters in dispute, but their lordships have not afforded the committee an opportunity of doing so. The Tynwald Court, as an independent and responsible legislature, respectfully but firmly maintains its right to discuss the question raised by their lordships free from the feeling of coercion conveyed in their lordships’ letter and minute, and with this object, it is resolved — That the committee appointed on the 21st December, 1875, proceed to London as soon as possible for the purpose of a conference with the Treasury.

In support of his amendment, the Attorney-General said that he was glad this question was coming to a point, for it was doing no good to the Island to have it hanging over their heads, and to have it said to them by the English Government, when they proposed any measure for the advantage of the Island, that they would not do anything for the Isle of Man until they had a settlement of this question. Mr. Dumbell seconded the amendment, which was also supported by Mr. Clucas, the Vicar-General, and Mr. W. Farrant. At this point in the debate the House of Keys claimed, as their ancient right, the liberty of debating the question separately in their own chamber, which, after some discussion, was allowed. On the re-assembling of the Court a division was taken, and the Attorney-General’s amendment was carried by a majority of 12 to 10. A lengthy conversation then ensued as to the duties of the deputation and the Governor’s position ; but at length these points being satisfactorily arranged, it was decided to leave the island on the 11th to proceed to London. On the 14th the deputation, consisting of Deemster Drinkwater. the Attorney-General, and Messrs R. Sherwood, J. T. Clucas, .W. B. Christian, and R. J. Moore, had an interview with Mr. W. H. Smith, the financial secretary to the Treasury, at Whitehall. In reply to their representations, Mr. Smith said that the Treasury had never imputed want of faith to the Insular Government, but that he believed all parties alike had been deceived as to the prospects of revenue from the Port Erin Harbour Dues. The question had been raised by the Public Works Loan Commissioners, who, on being applied to for a loan for Douglas harbour, which the Treasury had sanctioned, had declined on the ground that the Island was in default in respect of the Port Erin Loans. Out of this arose the correspondence of which the Treasury Minute was the final outcome. He (Mr. Smith) had at first objected strongly to the question being made a matter of bargain, but had at last yielded. He still thought it would be for the advantage of the Island to adopt this loan, and although the authority which borrowed it was technically distinct from the Island Government, yet the work was, he considered, a local one, and a default in the payment of the money borrowed for it could not but be damaging to the credit, financially, of the Local Government. Nevertheless, if the Insular Government thought otherwise, he would not press it upon them. He was quite ready, if the Tynwald Court wished it, to leave the question at rest; but they must understand that no further advances would be obtainable from the Public Works Loan Commissioners for any purpose in the Island, and that all the other questions dealt with in the Minute would be dropped. He would, however, consent to reconsider the question of the proposed guarantee to the new railway. Thus ended, in a drawn battle, this stage of the Port Erin Loan question. The Imperial Government was compelled to withdraw from an untenable position which, in justice to its own reputation as well as to the small industrious dependency it was dealing with, it ought never to have occupied ; while the Island, weak in force though strong in right, was compelled to submit to undeserved penalties which threatened to hamper sorely its further progress. It saw the prospect of obtaining a return of the duties paid in England upon goods imported into the Island fade away, the property of the Crown was still to escape paying its share towards the cost of government, while the Crown itself year by year absorbed immense sums of Insular money, and continually became more and more grasping, and above all, the Manx saw themselves condemned still to an infrequent and irregular communication with the outer world, instead of the daily mail they had so long asked for, and which they thought almost within their grasp.


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