Thursday 10 May 2012

Stannus v. Northern Whig, 1872


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Court of Queen's Bench, December, 1872.

This extraordinary trial came up for hearing before a special jury in Dublin on December 19th, and continued for eight days.

The damages were laid by Mr. Stannus at £10,000, and resulted in a verdict for £100.

The libel consisted in certain statements which appeared in the "Northern Whig," and which Mr. Stannus considered reflected adversely and unfairly on his management of the Hertford Estate, and contributed materially to his loss of the agency.

The defence contended that there was no malice or persona! animus against Mr. Stannus, that the management of so large an estate was legitimate matter for comment, and that certain allegations were true.

Whatever purpose the trial may have served, it has at any rate placed on permanent record a vivid and startling picture, of the conditions under which the tenants on the Hertford Estate lived prior to 1870 -- conditions that supervened on hundreds of other Irish estates before the introduction of the new land laws.

A large number of witnesses were examined, and many lengthy speeches delivered.

The judge charged strongly in favour of the plaintiff. The jury could not agree. It was only after considerable pressure from the judge that the jury finally agreed to a verdict for Mr. Stannus, fixing the damages at £100.

Counsel for Plaintiff -- Notes from Opening.

The libels complained of were published in the "Northern Whig" of 2nd and 3rd August, 1872. For nineteen years Mr. Stannus had been agent of the Hertford Estate, to which he had succeeded on the retirement of his father, Dean Stannus. The estate was about fourteen miles long by ten in breadth, and the town of Lisburn was entirely built upon it. It comprised 54 townlands. There were nearly 3,000 tenants from year to year, occupying distinct holdings, and 1,000 mora holding on lease. Dean Stannus was appointed agent in 1817, and under his management, said counsel, the estate flourished and the tenantry were happy and prosperous. About 75 per cent, of the population on the estate was Protestant, and 25 per cent. Roman Catholic. Dean Stannus continued agent up to the year 1853.

When the plaintiff lost the agency a few months ago, due in some degree to the defendant, whose object seemed to be to write him to death if possible, the Hertford Estate represented nearly £60,000 a year.

In 1870 the fourth Marquis died, and left the whole of his personal estate, which was little short of a million in money and value, to Sir Richard Wallace, and on the construction of a codicil to the will of the Marquis depended the question whether he had revoked the devise of the real estate and given it also to Sir Richard. After three trials a compromise was entered into, and Sir Richard Wallace got the Irish estate absolutely and paid to Sir H. Seymour £200,000 down and £8,000 a year until the payment of a further £200,000.

Counsel referred in detail to the case of Captain Bolton and his ejectment from his school, and exonerated Dean Stannus in his course of action. The defeat of the office candidate, Mr. Inglis, as member of Parliament for Lisburn in 1852, was fully gone into. Lord Hertford was reported as saying in regard to the electors who opposed Mr. Inglis -- "If they chose to be so very independent, he could be so too, and would require them to pay something like the value of their holdings." These and other matters were discussed, to the detriment of Mr. Stannus, in the "Whig."

When Sir R. Wallace succeeded to the Hertford Estate he removed Mr. Walter T. Stannus from the agency, and appointed Mr. Capron, a London lawyer.

Counsel, proceeding, said -- Mr. Stannus was held up to the world by the "Whig" as a person who had played the despot to such an extent that 99 out of every 100 of the tenants over whom he had long tyrannised would, if free, vote against his being continued as agent, and it was represented that he had become an object of hatred and aversion to the tenantry.

Further, it was stated that, having been a tyrant for years, he now, when the agency was in question, was mean enough to send his hireling bailiffs to hawk amongst those very tenants, who hated him, a memorial praying for his continuance in the agency.

Counsel denied that these matters about the Hertford Estate were matters fit for public comment. But even if they were, were they true? The "Whig" kept tapping at Mr. Stannus, and largely contributed to his loss of the agency. The defendant could only produce 35 cases out of 4,000 tenants in 19 years. Counsel went into details regarding various statements which appeared in the "Whig" reflecting on his client and his management of the estate.

Mr. Stannus under Examination.

It is stated in the libel I preferred one gentleman to another, Sir R. Wallace being an adventurer and Papist. I do not believe him to be such, but the reverse. I continued as agent until the decision of the Exchequer Court, and a short time after that I was discontinued as agent, following the compromise with Sir R. Wallace. At this time there was a memorial from the tenants to Sir Richard congratulating him, and expressing a hope I would be continued as the agent. It was prepared by the Rev. R. Hill, rector of Aghalee. I gave orders that no bailiff on the estate should have anything to do with it, nor did I ever ask any tenant to sign it. There was no regular system of fining on the estate, and when inflicted it was very small. Shooting on the estate was reserved for the Marquis and strictly preserved, etc.

Counsel for the Defence.

The attention in this case was whether a public journal was to be restrained by any restraint beyond that which was the restraint acknowledged by the law. He would not ask any jury to permit a public journalist to conceal under the cloak of public writing spleen or malice. The jury should find private malice against defendant before they could find a verdict for Mr. Stannus, and he hoped to satisfy them that the defendant acted without any improper personal feeling towards him. Was not the management of a vast property like the Hertford Estate a legitimate matter for comment? They were dealing with matters of public interest. He contended that the agent's conduct towards the tenants who did not vote in accordance with his wishes had been arbitrary and such as Lord Hertford would not himself have sanctioned.

Mr. Stannus, without any suggestion from Lord Hertford, had, he submitted, dealt unfairly and arbitrary with Mr. Miller because he voted against the office candidate. Remonstrance on the part of Mr. Miller, who had been a tenant for twenty years, was no use, and there was no appeal from the dictum of an independent agent. Mr. Richardson, too, was made to feel the force and pressure of the estate office because he dared to exercise his franchise in an independent manner. Captain Bolton and his school was another victim to the system of oppression, and these are only isolated cases. In the 1857 election the bailiffs admittedly canvassed at the rate of £15 each when Mr. Stannus was expense agent. Yet Mr. Stannus would have the jury believe he did not know they were so acting.

The religious element ought never to have been dragged into the caae. It had, however, been brought in. In the flourishing town of Lisburn there were a considerable number of Presbyterians. At the time there was one small Presbyterian church in the town, a second Presbyterian church was established, and as they were obliged to assemble for Divine worship in the Courthouse, a distinguished Presbyterian clergyman -- Mr. Berkeley, since the Moderator of the General Assembly -- thought proper, humbly and in a proper spirit, to represent to the agent of Lord Hertford that there was a necessity for a site being granted in Lisburn for a new meeting-house. The General Assembly of the Church approved the scheme. Mr. Stannus not only refused the site, but even refused to meet a deputation to discuss it, and cancelled the privilege of using the Courthouse.  At the time -- 1861 -- there were 610 Presbyterian families in Lisburn. The Rev. Mr. Clarke was called to the care of the new and struggling congregation, and found it impossible that he could discharge his functions without some place where his people could assemble. A deputation, consisting of the most eminent members of the General Assembly, sought an interview with Dean Stannus on the subject. The Rev. Dr. Cooke was one of them. What was the reply to the courteous request of the deputation? That the deputation might not wait upon him, as "he would not give one foot of ground from Ballinderry to Dunmurry for the purpose." That was said by Dean Stannus, acting for his son, the agent for the estate.

All these allegations, he (the Attorney-General) would prove, and were they not matters for public criticism and fair comment? He would also be able to establish that a tenant named John Hall, who had a valuable tenant-right interest in his farm, wanted to sell it, and was offered £2,000 by a man named M'Corry, but the office, having found out that the intending purchaser was a Roman Catholic, refused to assent to the sale, and Hall was obliged to sell the farm to another man for £1,500.

It was in proof that a system of fining the tenants of this vast estate was practised by the agent. Was not that a matter fit to be dealt with by a public journalist? No landlord or agent had the right to impose upon the tenant a court unknown to the constitution of the country without agreement by the tenant. It was also in evidence that the power to fine was actually delegated to a clerk in the office. There was evidence that the rents were moderate and the value of the tenant-right high, but what was complained of was that there pervaded the idea, as the substratum on which all rested, that the office was to be looked to, to bo consulted, and whose wishes were to be obeyed irrespective altogether of the religious or political views of the tenantry.

It was a rule of the estate that no dog should be kept by a tenant. Think of that. Over this immense estate of 140 square miles no tenant could keep a dog. In the well-known case of Beatty, the rent would not be taken until the dog was killed and the dead body laid within the office as proof that the agent's will was carried out. The dog was a special favourite of its master, and an offer was made to have it removed from the estate, but nothing less than the death of the dog would be accepted and the head and tail left in a bag at the office.

Then there was the matter of the pressure brought to bear upon tenants to subscribe to the Lisburn and Antrim Railway. Several cases were cited.

Pursuing the course of this arbitrary conduct, they had the case of the Island Spinning Company, in which the agent and a director had a dispute, when strong language on both sides was used, and resulted in the raising of the rent of a bridge from a nominal sum to £10 a year, and despite a written apology for the words used, the increased rent remained till the accession of Sir Richard Wallace.

In 1867 the representatives of Captain Bolton were evicted from the Piper Hill property, Lisburn, because the agent would have an Episcopalian schoolmaster in charge of Captain Bolton's school, and not a Presbyterian, as the captain wished and enjoined. The case of Edward Bell, patron of a national school, who allowed the tenant-farmers of his district to hold meetings in the school, was gone into.

Counsel, proceeding, stated that he had shown interference in religious matters, the arbitrary fining of tenants without jurisdiction or consent, the eviction of tenants for not submitting disputes to the office, the raising of rents, interference in elections, and actual evictions, all proving a system of high-handed management of the estate up to 1870.

Mr. Stannus decided on the 4th May, 1871, to espouse the cause of Sir H. Seymour and act as his agent, notwithstanding that at that time the ownership of the estate was still in doubt. Could it then be said that an agent was libelled because it was said of him that he was bound to use all his influence in the cause he had espoused? One of the statements in the alleged libels was that Mr. Stannus used Sir H. Seymour. Why, even a counsel ia a case was bound to do all he could for his client, and why not the agent of a man who appointed him to the management of his property? That Mr. Stannus backed the wrong horse is quite another matter. Yet it was pressed upon the jury that the alleged libels led to Mr. Stannus's dismissal by Sir Richard Wallace.

Counsel referred to the address or memorial got up by the Rev Mr. Hill to Sir R. Wallace asking for Mr. Stannus's retention as agent, and commented on his relation and action in connection with the same and the methods resorted to in procuring the signature of tenants.

Concluding, counsel said -- Our case in not that the statements are true, but that the comment is a fair one, and the only two allegations of fact we are to prove are that there was a tyrannical system of management on the estate and that there was undue influence exercised Lisburn elections. It would be proved as a fact by tenants that, as stated in the libel, there was a feeling of rejoicing that Mr. Stannus ceased to be agent. He would call tenant after tenant to prove that, and were they not entitled to their opinions, and to publish them, even though unreasonable? The tenants were asked in the address to Sir R. Wallace to say the management of the estate had been satisfactory. Some thought it was, and others thought the contrary. It was true the address was carried round by bailiffs, though Mr. Stannus ordered that they should not do so; but the statement in the libel was not that he caused them to do so, but that it was hawked about by bailiffs. It was no libel to say of a man that he was not liked. Mr. Stannus did appear to have been an irresponsible agent, and cases were cited to show that strong comments in newspapers upon the conduct of individuals were permissible where they were made bona fide and without malice. The defendant acted from a sense of duty to the public and free from malice. In finding a verdict they were to consider that it was not the man that was attacked, but the system.

The speech occupied six hours.

(Next week: The Lisburn Estate.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 10 May 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week for several years. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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