[From Manx Quarterly, #4 1908]


Further evidence of the assiduity and :ability of that indefatigable chronicler of matters and events concerning the Isle of Man, Mr A. W. Moore, C.V.O., is forth-coming in the interesting pages of " Extracts from the Journals of the self-elected House of Keys" (Brown & Sons, Limited, Athol-street, Douglas). Mr Moore has edited the extracts, and has performed the work with his accustomed thoroughness. The. extracts and editorial notes occupy 122 pages, and for purposes of convenience, Mr Moore has arranged them in five chapters respectively devoted to (1) introductory remarks and Standing Orders and oatlis of members; (2) constitutional questions; (3) procedure, legislation, etc.: (4) trade, agriculture, fishing, smuggling, custom duties, etc. ; and (5) the House of Keys and its members.

Copies of several of the old Standing Orders are at the outset given, and generally these are applicable to the business of the House at the present day. Even the following rule might within the last twenty years have been profitably enforced:-"If any member of the Keys, during the time they are upon business, shall so far intoxicate himself with liquor as to incapacitate him from giving his vote judiciously, that then and in that case, by the opinion or vote of the majority of the House, such member is to be fined in any sum, not exceeding five shillings." Herein is food for conjecture. It is useless to apply at the " Examiner " Office for a more particular pronouncement - wild horses could not draw details from us. The wording of the oaths which in days gone by were administered to members of the House of Keys brings to mind the fearful and, perchance, justifiable panics which were wont to overtake our forefathers concerning the machinations of Jacobites and the intrigues of adherents of the Old Faith for the return of Britain to the fold of Rome.

The section dealing with Constitutional questions is of great interest to students of Manx Constitutional history. The House of Keys was up to 1866 a self-elected body, but for over three decades ere that year there had been a struggle on the part of the people to have the principle of popular election applied. In the year 1845, the House passed certain resolutions in regard to the agitation for reform, and in the course of them they admitted the great principle of popular election, but advanced a host of objections to the principle being conceded. They allege that the agitation originated with " a few shopkeepers." Verily those were the days when among the lords of the soil it was accounted disgraceful to be connected with trade and commerce. It is further to be gathered from the objections adduced that the Keys were more regardful of property than of the welfare of the people, in the which, some people will be found ready to affirm, the Keys of to-day do not materially differ from their predecessors of 1845. So far as this particular agitation was concerned, the House prevailed against the people, but in 1853 there was another agitation. On this occasion, the self-elected House appear to have been quite willing to assent to reform involving the introduction of the principle of popular election. Indeed, they practically went so far as to say that their demand for the control of the surplus revenue, and that the imposition of taxation should lie with the House, could not logically be sustained the while the House was self-elected. Despite this position, the status of the House remained unaltered for another thirteen years. Very fully does Mr Moore set out the events of 1865 and 1866-the negotiations between Governor Loch and the House of Keys-which resulted in popular election of the House of Keys becoming an accomplished fact, and in the Manx Legislature obtaining control of the surplus revenue. In connection with the negotiations the House endeavoured, but in vain, to secure a voice with regard to Civil List salaries. By the way, on page 28, Mr Moore apparently questions the propriety of the Keys, in a resolution of protest against certain suggested legislation by Imperial Parliament affecting the Common Lands of the Island, alluding to the other " Branches " of the Manx Legislature. But is Mr Moore justified in this attitude? The preamble of all Acts of Tynwald commences "We, your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lieutenant-Governor, Council, Deem-sters, and Keys of the said Isle." Surely the implication is that the Legislature consists of more than two branches. Indeed, to this day the Deemsters sign Acts of Tynwald as Deemsters, and not as members of the Council. The point is a rather nice one for archaeologists and historians, and Mr Moore is just the man to devote more attention to it than he would appear to have done hitherto.

Once upon a time-in 1787 and there-abouts-there was but one Deemster for the Island, but the people were not satisfied with this position of affairs; wherein they differed from a number of Manx reformers of the Twentieth Century. In 1787 the House of Keys petitioned the King for the appointment of a second Deemster, and in the course of their memorial they remark that many residents in the northern portion of the Island are " deprived of the means of coming at justice without the utmost expense and peril of their lives from the distance of their situation and the mountains they have to cross." In these days of railways and good roads, some of us may smile at this wail: but the truth is that until the mountain roads were cut in the 'sixties, communication between some of the northern districts and the South of the Island was both difficult and slow.

Briefly recounted are the incidents which led to the imprisonment for alleged contempt of the House of Keys of the late Mr James Brown, founder of the " Isle of Man Times." Mr Brown was released under writ of habeas corpus, and the members of the House responsible for his incarceration were subsequently cast in substantial damages. It is not mentioned in Mr Moore's book-indeed, Mr Moore's book is not the place for mention-that it was the contempt of the landed gentry for mere traders which indirectly led to the monetary amercement of the House. The Douglas Town Commissioners had caused to be introduced into the House a bill for the consolidation and extension of the Commissioners' powers. The aspirations of the Commissioners met with contemptuous treatment in the House, which in those days was mainly composed of landowners. Ridicule was cast upon the modest proposals contained in the bill, and one member went so far as to ironically suggest that the Commissioners should be hailed as kings and forthwith crowned. It was this conduct on the part of the House that aroused Mr Brown's ire and inspired the article commenting in stinging terms upon the House. Hence the committal of the intrepid journalist for contempt, and the subsequent action for damages.

Much space is properly devoted to the great struggle between the House of Keys and the Duke of Atholl, extending from 1779 to 1825. This struggle undoubtedly had its inception in the determination of the House to protect property owners in the Island from being interfered with by the Duke in the alienation of their estates, but incidentally it involved many important constitutional questions. The Keys bore themselves spiritedly throughout, and, though worsted often, were never dismayed, but returned to the fight with undiminished zeal and determination. The struggle ended in 1825 by arrangements being made for the purchase by the Crown of the Duke's remaining rights in the Isle of Man-arrangements which were subsequently carried out. It must not be imagined that the House had a solid people behind them in their dispute with the Duke. Indeed, much support was forthcoming from the masses of the position taken up by the Lord of the Manor. The House maintained that this support was procured by unscrupulous misrepresentation on the part of the Duke's agents and creatures, and in reference to one petition got up in the Duke's favour the Keys, in the course of representation to the Governor, stated that "the vilest practices had been made use of . . . to seduce and delude the ignorant, illiterate mob, whose names and marks are the disgrace of their petition." Those were the days ere the mob of Paris had, by taking the Bastille, taught the classes that the masses had to be reckoned with.

Another readable chapter is devoted to procedure, legislation, etc., and yet other chapter of interest deals with trade, agriculture, fishing, smuggling. ,custom duties, and so on. It may not be generally known that the Revestment was not all popular in the Isle of Man, for the very good and sufficient reason that it sadly hampered the inhabitants in regard to the prosecution of their staple industry-that of smuggling goods dutiable in England from the Island to England. A petition presented by the House of Keys to the King in 1767 with respect of the adverse operation of what was termed the Mischief Act of 1765-an Act of the Imperial Parliament-stated

" Our young people are destitute of employment, are abandoning their homes, by which our herring and other fisheries must go to decay. Our harbours are becoming ruinous for want of timely reparations. The value of our lands decreasing, the rents of our houses in trading towns have sadly fallen above 15,000 a year, so that this Island, from its nature and situation, capable of affording many advantages to your Majesty's Empire, must, without some seasonable relief, gradually become a desert." Truly a sad condition of things, but one which was eventually remedied. Should what is termed the "visiting industry " from any cause fail us, would the position of the Island in these days be any better than that of almost a century and a half ago? It is to be feared that the value of our lands and the rents of our houses would show a much more serious decrease than that recorded in 1767, were holiday-makers to desert the Isle of Man.

In the year 1796, it is recorded, there were quartered in the Isle of Man 1,200 troops in addition to fencibles. What a gay place must the Island have been in those daysl Wherever the soldiers are, there will festivity be found.

The concluding chapter of the book contains particulars as to the places of meeting of the House of Keys. To judge from some of the descriptions, the House in times gone by must have been very badly housed. There are also given lists of members of the House at various times up to' the year when the system of popular election came into force. Formerly the House of Keys exercised judicial functions, and Mr Moore tells us how the abrogation of these functions was gradually brought about. He, so far as possible, provides a list of the Speakers and secretaries of the House, and otherwise informs us instructively concerning what post-prandial orators in the Isle of Man are wont to term the most ancient Legislative Body in Europe.

The book is well printed and plainly, yet excellently bound. All it lacks is a decent index, and so neatly has Mr Moore marshalled his extracts that the want is, after all, not a very serious one.



Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2002