Constitutional Questions,



The first reference to constitutional questions is in connection with the Revestment in 1735(a). In January of that year a rumour reached the Island that the duke intended to sell it. In consequence of this the Keys applied to the Governor to call them together, but he declined to do so "until His Grace’s Pleasure be further known." A second application was made by them on the 8th of March, when thirteen of the members wrote to their Speaker (George Moore) as follows : " Whereas the affairs of the Island are under the consideration of the Parliament of Great Britain, we think it necessary that we and the rest of the Keys should be convened to "consult what should be done for the good of the community." The Speaker according asked the Governor to issue a precept. The House met thirteen days later, and appointed two of their members—Thomas Moore and Hugh Cosnahan—"to go to London to . . endeavour to protect the Interest and Constitutional Rights of the People . . . and to procure such just and reasonable terms for the good of the community as can possibly be obtained."(b)

In 1787 the Keys agreed to "concur" with the Governor and Council in passing an Act of Tynwald "to render public every new law in its progress before the Legislature."

No such Act was, however, passed. The debates in the Keys were not held in public formally years later, and it was not till quite recently that this was the case as regards the debates.

The next entry of importance is a pronouncement to the effect that it is "contrary to the rules of the House of Keys and the spirit of the Constitution for a Committee of this House to join a Committee " of the Governor and Council to frame laws, the House of Keys being a separate and " distinct part of the Legislature." It is at this time that we find the Governor questioning the right of the Keys to adjourn. This privilege had been in dispute before the Revestment, and was again to be disputed between 1871 and 1880, being ultimately settled in favour of the Keys. On the present occasion the Keys firmly maintained their right to do so, and the Governor gave way. At this time no objection had been raised to the Keys sitting as part of the Court of General Gaol Delivery. In 1814, when they had been summoned to it for the trial of a prisoner, only eleven members attended, and it was, therefore, decided that the trial could not proceed. Four of the members, who had been absent without leave were fined.

Eleven years later they were finally deprived of their right of sitting in the Court(c). Early in 1823 the duke had complained to the Secretary of State that the Keys had been exceeding their powers as members of it, and, after a long and embittered contest, in the course of which both the duke and the Keys appealed to the House of Commons(d), the former, on the 9th of February, 1824, informed the Tynwald Court that the Secretary of State had decided " that the Keys do not form a part of the Court of General Gaol Delivery nor can they interfere with the proceedings of the Court nor have a voice in the sentence or judgment, and that it thereupon follows that it is not necessary that the Keys should be summoned as members of the " Court and the Court will not be imperfect without their attendance."

The Keys, in reply, passed a resolution which, beginning " Whereas by the Laws " and Statutes of this Island the presence of the Keys in each and every Court of General Gaol Delivery . . . hath been and now is necessary and indispensable as well in order to deem the Laws together with the Deemsters when thereunto required and to execute other functions and " duties," ended with a strong protest against their exclusion.

It was at this time that a Committee which had been appointed for "collecting and methodizing the standing orders," remarked as a result of their perusal of the journals, "We cannot close this, our report, without expressing the high gratification afforded us in the perusal of several several spirited, manly, and patriotic re presentations made by our ancestors and predecessors, members of the House of Keys, in times when dangerous encroachments were attempted against the rights and privileges of this House and the people of the Island at large."

From 1826 till 1843 the journals are a blank, and so we have no means of learning the opinion of the Keys on the petitions of the people in 1833 to King William IV., and, in 1834 and 1838, to the Governor, asking for a popularly-elected House(e).

Nor do we learn what were the instructions given to the deputation, partly composed of their members, who, in 1837, informed Lord John Russell, when referring to the proposed changes in the customs(f), that the Isle of Man claimed to be treated in accordance with the principle recognised in 1778, by which the revenues of the North American Colonies were declared to be at the disposal of the colonists. They urged that their case was far stronger than that of the colonists, because the Isle of Man, as being an ancient and independent kingdom, stood on a higher footing, that, by the Manx Constitution, no tax, duty, or custom could be imposed upon them without the consent of the Tynwald Court. It is even more curious that, though there are entries in the Journal between 1843 and 1853, there is no reference to the people’s petition to Her Majesty for the reform of the House of Keys, in November, 1844, and the only reference to petitions to the House from the people asking them for their assistance in obtaining this reform is the following resolution : " That a Committee be appointed to enquire into the manner in which these petitions have been got up and signatures obtained thereto." The Committee reported that many of the signatures were in the handwriting of one person. In January, 1845, the people’s petition was returned from London for the opinion of the Legislature, and we think the reply of the Keys to it is of sufficient interest to justify its reproduction from the printed parliamentary report : —"

House of Keys,

27th January, 1845. The Keys having formed themselves into a Committee of the whole House to consider the present state of the Island: it was resolved,—

(1) That it has come to the knowledge of this House that certain persons in this island have been for some time industriously employed in creating discontent throughout the island, and, by means of false and delusive statements, inducing the inhabitants to apply for a change in the constitution of the country.

( 2) That a variety of unfounded charges have been put forth against this House, with a view to detract from its usefulness and so lessen it in public estimation, by impressing upon the people that the Legislature of this island seeks to tyrannize over the inhabitants, and is regardless of public welfare.

(3) That this system of agitation appears to have originated with a few shopkeepers, to have been adopted by some stranger residents, who, under a plea of reform, desire to subvert the constitution of the country where, for reasons best known to themselves, they have sought an asylum ; and who, by means of false representations, and by holding out advantages not likely to be realized, have induced some landowners to join in the agitation now in question

(4) That this House has understood that these individuals, aided by a few discontented persons, have caused a petition to be addressed to Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen, containing statements in relation to this House entirely without foundation ; that the most absurd and visionary promises have been held out to the inhabitants in order to procure signatures to this petition ; a great portion of the names attached thereto are common labourers, illiterate persons unable to write, but whose names have been subscribed by others; and, out of a population of nearly 50,000, this House has been informed that less than 5,000 signatures have been obtained, and those signatures include several Irish fishermen, who, being found with their boats in one of the ports of the island, were prevailed upon to sign one of the petitions, in order to increase the number of signatures.

(5) That the first alteration proposed to be introduced is popular election of the members of this House ; and amongst other inducements to lead the inhabitants in general to seek for this change, they have been publicly assured that Her Majesty's Government have declared their readiness to grant the elective franchise to this island for the election of members to constitute this House ; and that so soon as the Keys are returned by popular election Her Majesty's Government will piece at the disposal of the House of Keys, so constituted, the surplus revenue of the island, with the accumulations of such surplus for past years, and that the pre sent constitution of the House alone pre vents Her Majesty’s Government from granting the Legislature of this island the disposal and control of such surplus revenue.

(6) That this house deems it essentially requisite that the Keys should, in this emergency, step forward, and by a declaration of their views to Her Majesty’s Government, obtain such information as to the feelings and intentions of the Government as may best direct this House in its course of duty for the public good.

(7) That this House admits the general principle of popular election, but it. believes that the elective franchise would be beneficial to this island : but, on the contrary it would necessarily entail a considerable expense upon the people, and, from the isolated position and very limited extent of the island, would engender a degree of bitter animosity amongst neighbours, highly prejudicial and strongly contrasted to the hitherto peaceable state of society.

(8) That this island, so peculiarly situated, having retained its ancient constitution almost in the centre of the United Kingdom, a constitution which this House considers is altogether admirably adapted to the country, and which has been successfully defended for centuries by the members of the Keys from the continual assaults of the feudal lords.

(9) That the House consists of twenty four members ; and upon a vacancy occurring by the death or resignation of a cc member, two persons are elected by the Keys, one of whom is selected by the Governor to fill the vacant seat.

(10) That, in selecting members, the Keys are ever anxious of procuring those who, from the extent of their property the island, are most deeply interested the welfare and prosperity of the country, and who, from intelligence and education, have had the best opportunity of acquiring an accurate knowledge of the insular laws and customs, in order the better to fit them for the peculiar duties discharged by the Keys in their legislative and judicial capacities.

(11) That, in the election of members, the Keys have not confined themselves to natives of the island, but have frequently elected persons who were not Manxmen, but who, from their property and position in the island, were considered likely to be useful members of the House ; and there are, at the present time, several of the Keys who are not natives of the island ; but this House regrets that they feel called upon to protest against a constant interference in their political affairs by strangers, who seek an asylum in the island, and being often possessed of little or no property in the country, agitate for the mere love of change, heedless of the result.

(12) That the Keys possess no patronage, have no appointments, are not re munerated in any way, nor have they the disposal of any of the public moneys of the Island, with the exception of a sum not amounting to 60£. per annum, arising upon a trifling impost of 1s. 6d. upon each public-house licence, and which sum is applied to meet the current expenses of the House, but is quite inadequate thereto.

(13) That the Keys form the highest court of appeal in civil cases from the common law court:s of this island, and from their decision an appeal lies to Her Majesty in Council ; and the Keys are otherwise engaged in the performance of various judicial duties, from which circumstance it would be impracticable to have the Keys returned by popular election without making other and extensive alterations in the constitution of the island.

(14) That this House protests against such alterations in the constitution of the country, because they conscientiously believe they would be injurious to the best interests of the island, and must, therefore, he particularly so to the members of this House, as having individually so considerable an extent of property therein. But, forasmuch as this House can have no object or desire but to produce the greatest possible advantage to the island at large, they are desirous humbly to represent to Her Majesty’s Government that in case Her Majesty’s Ministers are prepared to recommend to Her Majesty the extending of the elective franchise to this island for the election of the Keys, and that a House of Keys so constituted should, in preference to the present House of Keys, be permitted to control and dispose of the surplus revenue of the island, the Keys most anxiously desire that Her Majesty’s Government will be pleased to intimate the same to this House, in order that the Keys may cordially cooperate in bringing about such changes would be requisite therein : for although this House is well aware of the injury and confusion that would arise from the proposed alterations, the Keys are equally sensible of the still greater benefit which would be conferred upon the island by the expenditure of the surplus revenue upon the internal improvements of the country. If, however, the Goverment are not prepared to confer benefits upon the island throuch a House of Keys which might he elected by the people gr eater than they have hitherto conceded to the House of Keys as now constituted, the House still respectfully request to be informed thereof, in order to enable them to allay the present irritation of the public mind.

(15) That this House firmly denies that any just cause of complaint can in truth be alleged against the Keys ; but if, by any means, her Majesty’s Government are induced to doubt such an assertion, this House most earnestly desires that Her Majesty may be pleased to direct a Commission of Inquiry to be sent over to this island, fully to investigate the matters of grievance alleged, and to examine minutely into the present constitution of this country ; and this House pledges itself to afford every facility in its power to aid the Commissioners in the discovery of every fact they seek to establish, in order to ascertain the true state and condition of the island. Resolved,— That the foregoing resolutions be forwarded, through his Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor, to the Right Honourable Sir J. Graham, and that Sir J. Graham be, and he is hereby, most respectfully solicited to favour the Keys with a reply at his earliest convenience.

By order of the House, (signed) J. GOLDIE-TAUBMAN, Speaker. The Right hon. Sir James Graham, Bart., etc., etc., etc."

In February came the decision of the Home Secretary, who informed the Governor that if reform was wanted it might take the shape of giving the Island representatives in Parliament, but he suggested to the Keys that there were grounds of complaint against them in certain respects (which he specified) that merited careful attention. The Keys replied denying that laws were passed without the knowledge of the people, and that the union of legislative and judicial functions in their body was open to objection in principle (g). In the following April the people replied to the resolutions of the Keys by a memorial, in which they expressed themselves as "indignant at the language in which resolutions are couched." They then proceeded to answer them with, the most part, denials of their truth(h). The Keys appear to have token no notice of the memorial—at least, there is no reference to it in their Journals. Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, wrote to the Governor, Charles Hope, on this question, and he, in reply, said that he could not " recommend any alteration in the Constitution of the of Keys " (i).

In 1853 the question of the reform of the House of Keys came up in connexion with the agitation for changes in the tariff, but references to it are so mixed up with those relating to the tariff that it is difficult to separate them. There are, however, some interesting remarks in the Keys’ correspondence with the Treasury in relation to Constitutional points. Thus, they say :

" The Keys beg respectfully, but most earnestly, to press upon your Lord-ships that it would be unjust and unconstitutional to impose taxes upon the people of the Isle of Man, or to introduce a Bill for that purpose, without previously enabling the Keys, as the only representa tives of the island, to know the object sought to be attained by Her Majesty’s Government, and without enabling the people of the Isle of Man to lay before the Government such information as they and which may be found of the utmost importance in regard to any changes attempted to be made. Your Lordships are perfectly aware that the Isle of Man is not represented in the British Parliament, and that the British Government has, at all times, disclaimed any wish to impose duties upon goods imported into the Isle of Man for any pur pose beyond the necessary protection of the revenue of the United Kingdom. And the people of the Isle of Man, and the House of Keys on their behalf, have, at all times, denied that the Imperial Parliament can legally or justly impose taxes upon this island without the consent of the people, except some extreme case should arise connected with an illicit trade injurious to the revenue of the United Kingdom."




(a) For an account of the chaages at this time see "A History of the Isle of Man" (A. W. Moore), pp 527-9, 794-5, 800, and 803-5.

(b) For account of proceedings of the deputation see post.

(c) "History of the Isle of Man" (A. W. Moore), pp. 801.2.

(d) The Keys’ petition to Parliament was published in 1824. There is a copy of it among the loose papers in the Speaker’ s room.

(e) See "History of the Isle of Man (A. W. Moore), 1). 818.

(f) "History of Isle of Man" (A. W. Moore), p. 818.

(g) "History of the Isle of Man" (A. W. Moore~, pp. 819-20.

(h) Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 2nd February, 1846, pp 1-15.

(i) For correspondence between home Secretary and Governor, see Ibid pp. 15-21.



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