[From Manx Soc vol 31]


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IN September, 1791, the British Government issued a Commission for the purpose of investigating and reporting upon certain claims made by the Duke of Atholl, respecting the sovereign and manorial rights which had belonged to his family in the Island, and of inquiring into its legal system and constitution.

The Commissioners were Mr. Spranger, Master in Chancery; Mr. Grant (afterwards Sir Wm. Grant, Master of the Rolls), Barrister-at-law, and Member of Parliament; Mr. Osgoode, also a Barrister, and Chief Judge of Quebec;

Mr. Roe, Commissioner of Customs at London ; and Mr. Reid, Commissioner of Customs at Edinburgh.

The instructions to the Commissioners were contained in the following letter to them from Mr. Secretary Dundas


Gentlemen, —His Majesty being desirous of obtaining the most accurate information upon various points respecting the Isle of Man, it is his Majesty’s pleasure that, with your first convenience, you should proceed to the island, and that, after full inquiry, you should report to me, for his Majesty’s information, upon the state and condition of that Island, from the materials which will be laid before you, and from such others as may occur to yourselves to call for in the progress of your inquiry. It has been alledged by the Duke of Atholl, that the revenues arising to his Grace’s family were not fairly collected, even prior to the revestment ; that his family bad the power of increasing the duties with the consent of the Legislature ; and that that consent, to any reasonable degree, would not have been wanting. He alledges, that some rights unnecessary to be vested in the Crown, for the purpose of preventing illicit practices, have been so vested, while others, meant to be retained, have, by the operation of the Act of 1765, been rendered nugatory by being left in a mutilated and unprotected condition, the protections which they enjoyed under the former Government of the Island having been destroyed, and no new or adequate protection substituted in their room.

If this last allegation should be proved, it is, no doubt, the duty of Government to give their aid and concurrence for removing the grounds of that complaint ; but, it has been stated by some of the inhabitants of the Island, not only that these grievances were exaggerated, but that the remedies which the Duke of Atholl had at any time suggested were incompatible with the quiet and secure enjoyment of the rights and possessions immemorially held by them, and which are equally entitled to the attentive consideration of Government. It is recommended to you, carefully to investigate this subject, and to suggest such observations as may occur to you, with a view of ascertaining the interests of those parties, and placing the rights of both, in time to come, upon a secure and permanent footing. I think it right, however, to apprize you, that in this part of your inquiry you are to proceed on the ground, that the rights and tenures of the Islanders, as established in 1703 and 1704, are inviolable ; this has been admitted on the part of the Duke of Atholl, and care should be taken that nothing be brought forward, in the course of your inquiry, to raise a doubt upon that subject. It having been represented, that notwithstanding the laws now in force for the prevention of illicit practices in the Isle of Man such practices do still exist you are to take that subject into your serious consideration, and receive any propositions, or suggest any remedies, which may appear to you to be fit or proper to be adopted for the counteracting of such practices, or be conducive to the improvement of the revenue of Great Britain or Ireland. It has been suggested, that the revenue of the Isle of Man is not nearly so productive as it ought to be ; you can take proper pains to ascertain the truth of that allegation, and. if true, whether it arises from the duties not being duly collected, or from any error in the system by which the different duties have been laid on. Upon this branch of your inquiry you will of course examine into the expenses of the collection, and the nature of the establishments existing for that purpose.

It has been very confidently stated, that the industry, population, and trade of the Island is unnecessarily cramped by some of the regulations and restrictions which have been imposed, under an idea that these regulations and restrictions were necessary for the prevention of frauds, and the protection of the revenues of Great Britain and Ireland. It must be the care of Government to resist any propositions which tend materially to injure the fair collection of the revenues of Great Britain and Ireland ; and with that view you will attentively weigh every proposition having such a tendency : But if any suggestions are laid before you with a view of contributing, in any degree, to promote the prosperity of the Isle of Man, or the happiness of its inhabitants, and not incompatable with the security of the revenues of Great Britain and Ireland, you will give an attentive consideration to those suggestions, and report your opinion upon them.

Representations have been frequently made by the Duke of Atholl, that laws were passed by the Legislature of the Isle of Man materially affecting his property, without his having any means whatever of knowing the nature of those laws ; and upon that ground caveats have been entered by him against his Majesty’s assent being given to those enactments. Complaints, on the other hand, have been made on the part of the Keys, that in consequence of those interruptions, very inconvenient delays are created, and regulations for the internal Government of the Island prevented. This will form an important branch of your inquiry, with a view to which you will take due pains to inform yourselves of the ancient constitution of the Island, the nature and functions of its Legislature, the courts of civil and criminal jurisdiction, the nature of its magistrates and police, together with its revenues, and mode of collection ; and you will report what variations those different institutions have recently undergone, and in particular, how far the duties of them have been altered, or suspended, by the operation of the Act of 1765, before mentioned. I do not propose to be more minute in the instructions by which you are to regulate your inquiry. It is my intention only to state to you the general objects of it, and you will consider these instructions in the light of general directions for your conduct, and in the prosecution of your inquiry you will omit no object which may suggest itself to your observation, as tending to throw light either on the former or present state of the Isle of Man. The annexed papers, No. 1 , 2, 3, and 4, will point out to you the channels by which you are likely to receive information as to the objects of your inquiry and as you may find it necessary to employ a person to assist you in the capacity of secretary, you are at liberty to fix upon such a person to accompany you in that character as you may conceive to be properly qualified to execute the duties of that station.

I am, &c.,


To the Commissioners of Inquiry, Isle of Man.

In their report, dated the 21st of April, 1792, the Commissioners state that they had proceeded to the Island, and had arrived there on the 21st September preceding. On the second day after their arrival, Lieut. Governor Shaw convened the two branches of the Insular Legislature at Castle Rushen, for the purpose of receiving them. They attended this meeting, at which the Duke of Atholl was also present. The Commissioners having read their instructions, and explained the course which they intended to pursue, the Keys retired to their own house, and appointed a committee to attend the inquiry ; and this committee did accordingly continue their attendance.

From the materials collected on the Island, and others received by them after their departure, the Commissioners framed their report, and in doing so, divided it into four general heads, under the several titles of —

1st. The allegations of the Duke of Atholl.

2nd. The Revenue.

3rd. The Constitution of the Island ; and

4th. Suggestions for the benefit of the Island.

To each of these heads they annexed an appendix of examinations and documents referable to it.

The report of the Commissioners under the two first-named titles contains an immense amount of information respecting the claims and rights of the Dukes of Atholl as Lords of the Island, and respecting its customs system and revenue. As the matters in dispute between the Crown and the Duke were subsequently arranged with the Atholl family, and as the customs and revenue of the Island are now based on legislation passed subsequently to the report, these two items are now interesting chiefly as information for the historian. The portion of the report under the head of "The Constitution " is still exceedingly valuable, and contains more reliable information on that subject than any other document which has hitherto been compiled respecting the Island. A slight examination will, however, show that many changes have been made by recent legislation, but a considerable portion of the report remains still applicable to our constitution and legislature.

The report has always been held in high estimation as an authority. On being referred to in a case heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on appeal from the Island,* their Lordships said :—" We look upon this report as of very great authority. Learned and able persons were members of the Commission — one, Sir William Grant, will always be remembered as one of the most cautious, candid, and well-reasoning lawyers of his own — perhaps of any — age."

I have ventured to add some notes to the work referring to these changes, and to elucidate questions which have arisen respecting points left doubtful in the text.

The report may be said to be almost out of print, there being now only a few copies in existence in the Island. It is too voluminous to reprint in its entirety. My opinion of the value of the work has induced me to suggest to the Committee of the Manx Publication Society the advisability of preserving the most valuable portions of it, by reprinting the constitutional part of the work forming " Part the Third," with the documents referred to in it collected in the Appendix C. annexed to the report.

These, along with a few other papers selected from the other appendices, are the portions which are contained in the following volume.

Douglas, 1st February, 1881.

* Attorney-General v. Cowley 1st July 1859


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