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The Atholl Papers: The Revestment

Posted on 31.03.2022

I make no claims of being well-versed in Manx history. But I do know that the Atholl-era witnessed one of the Isle of Man’s defining moments; the first step upon a path that would eventually lead to the island’s current status as a self-governing nation. I am talking about the Revestment; when in 1765 the 3rd Duke and Duchess of Atholl were forced into selling their rights as Lord Proprietor over the isle to the British Crown. This constitutional change came about because the British government had finally had enough of the island being a major entrepôt in the British Isles’ smuggling trade (see fifth blog).

The beginning of this story does not reside within the 3rd Duke’s period, nor that of the 2nd Duke’s, but goes back to when the 10th Earl of Derby was the Lord of Mann. The illicit trade had been flourishing since the end of the seventeenth century, and had reached such heights by the mid-1720s that an Act was passed in 1726, granting the British Treasury permission to treat with Lord Derby for the absolute purchase of the Isle of Man. The same Act also banned the importation of goods to Britain and Ireland from the isle (except those items grown, produced or manufactured there), along with the removal of drawback on tobacco and other foreign goods exported to the island. But it appears that the Earl dodged any attempts made to negotiate with him for the sale of his property, and the issue went dormant until the 2nd Duke of Atholl became Lord of Mann in 1736.

Extract from a copy of an Act for the improvement of His Majesty’s revenues of customs, excise and inland duties (MS 09707/1/6) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Though it is not represented within the Atholl Papers, except in passing within later documents, the British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, apparently approached the 2nd Duke about purchasing the Isle of Man, shortly after his inheritance, but these talks came to nought. I suspect this was in part due to the ownership of the island being contested by the 11th Earl of Derby, and the potential mess that could have arisen if a sale went through. By 1752, however, possession of the isle was firmly established in the hands of the Duke. No doubt spurred on by the altercation between Manx officials and the British revenue captain, George Dow, in the summer of 1750 (see fifth blog), the British Treasury made fresh overtures towards Lord Atholl. Once again, there is little within the papers regarding any negotiations that took place. A letter to the Duke from Governor Cochrane, in November 1752 (MS 09707/2/395), talks about rumours being spread by Sir James Lowther and Colonel John Stevenson that the island was to be sold, or control over its customs were to be leased for £6000 per annum (around £700,000 today). In a response from Lord Atholl (MS 09707/2/400), Cochrane is informed that he can ‘safely contradict Sir James Lowther’s news,’ given that Parliament was now in session and no mention had been made of purchasing the isle or leasing its customs. However, it is revealed within documents from 1754 and 1759 that the Duke did send confidential proposals to the Lords of the Treasury in November 1752, which while not resulting in any purchase, does demonstrate that by this point Lord Atholl was open to a sale.

In August 1754, the Isle of Man’s role within the British Isles’ smuggling trade was brought under the spotlight by an article in The Public Advertiser (MS 09707/2/453), which called for the island to be annexed to the British Crown. Described as a ‘great storehouse’ for the French and other nations to deposit ‘prodigious quantities’ of wines, brandies and East India goods (e.g. teas, silks); the author of the article suggested the isle be purchased, and for the Duke to be also given an annuity out of the English revenue. As Britain and France were perennial enemies in this period, the author focused heavily on how allowing the island to remain independent did nothing but strengthen France, financially, and described the isle as a ‘fortress in the hands of our enemies, draining us of our specie.’

This article appears to have brought the Isle of Man back to the attention of the British Treasury, which requested the Commissioners of the Customs to obtain reports from their various outposts regarding the illicit trade. This request also led to the merchants and ship-owners of Whitehaven submitting a memorial to the Commissioners, which funnily enough quoted parts of the article from The Public Advertiser, concerning the island being a ‘great storehouse,’ whose role in the running trade contributed to a loss of £200,000 per annum (around £23 million today) to the British revenue. Armed with these reports, the Treasury solicited the Duke of Atholl to send proposals for the sale of the isle. But even though the island was filled with rumours in late 1754 and early 1755 regarding a potential purchase, just like it had been in 1752, ultimately nothing came to pass. It is interesting to note, however, that in 1756 a new deed of feoffment was settled that assigned the isle, the lordship and various rights to trustees, whom were given the power to sell the Isle of Man and the rights attached upon the Duke’s death. By this document, it would seem that the 2nd Duke knew that the sale of the island was inevitable; it was just a question of when. The British Treasury did try again in 1759, but this attempt also fizzled out.

Letter from James West to James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, accompanied by a copy of a memorial from the merchants of Whitehaven, 22 November 1754 (MS 09707/2/469) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Technically, when the 2nd Duke of Atholl died in January 1764, his daughter, Charlotte, became the new Lord of Mann, though her rights were assumed by her husband, John Murray, who became the 3rd Duke of Atholl. But neither would have the opportunity to enjoy possession of the island.

John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl (courtesy of National Library of Scotland) and Charlotte Murray, Baroness of Strange and wife of the 3rd Duke of Atholl (courtesy of National Library of Scotland) [Click images to enlarge.]

In February 1764, the British Treasury received news that officials in Liverpool had failed to seize a number of Swedish vessels that had unloaded cargos of tea on the Isle of Man, and subsequently sailed to the city to collect goods for their return journeys to the continent. As an investigation began into this matter, the Lords of the Treasury also sent orders to the Commissioners of the Customs to obtain reports from their outposts in Lancaster, Liverpool and Whitehaven, regarding the goods being imported to the island and the duties being paid. At the beginning of July, the Commissioners sent their response with reports enclosed from the outposts (MS 09707/6/317). One from the Riding Surveyor of Liverpool and Lancaster, Arthur Onslow, is particularly interesting as it contains detailed information taken from a book of rates, which were obtained from a ‘trusty friend’ on the isle. Another report by the Surveyor General and Supervisor of Cumberland, Charles Lutwidge, estimates the Duke’s and Duchess’ income from the island’s customs duties to be £7500 per annum (around £770,000 today), at a cost of £300,000 per annum (around £31 million today) to the British revenue.

Report of Arthur Onslow (taken from MS 09707/6/317) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Perhaps the Lords of the Treasury had finally had enough of the Manx smuggling trade and its impact on the British revenue, or maybe they just hoped that the inexperienced Duke and Duchess would be open to selling a property that had only just come into their possession. Either way, the Treasury sent the Duke a letter on 25th July 1764 (MS 09707/6/329), informing His Grace that they were ready to receive proposals from him for the purchase of the Isle of Man, or parts of the island’s rights that would allow them to prevent the ‘pernicious and illicit trade.’ But unlike previous attempts, the Treasury’s offer to treat also came with a threat that if the Duke was not willing to negotiate, other methods to combat the smuggling would be pursued.

Before the Duke of Atholl could respond, and perhaps demonstrating the British government’s resolve that prevarication on this matter would no longer be tolerated, an Order of Council was issued on 17th August, declaring cruisers and cutters would be stationed in the Manx harbours and around the isle’s coasts, and previous Acts concerning the smuggling would be rigidly enforced. As you might expect, this greatly alarmed the merchants involved in the illicit trade, who regarded such action as an infringement upon the Lord of Mann’s rights on the island and its surrounding seas, and thus a serious threat to their livelihoods. Therefore, once British ships started boarding and searching vessels in October for tea and other prohibited East India goods, the merchants began raising a subscription to legally challenge any potential seizures.

Letter from William Murray, Baron Mansfield to John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl, 12 August 1764 (MS 09707/6/333) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

On 20th August, upon the advice of Baron Mansfield, the Duke sent a private letter to the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, George Grenville, stating his willingness to treat with ‘frankness and confidence.’ Enclosed with that letter was a second one addressed to the other Lords of the Treasury, responding to theirs from July, declaring that he had no proposals to give at that time, as he was uninformed as to the Isle of Man’s value considering he had only recently taken possession of it, but he welcomed proposals from the Treasury (MS 09707/6/334). Unimpressed, the Lords of the Treasury responded with a request for a ‘true and precise state’ of the island’s various branches of revenue, in order for them to fix a price on either the full value of the isle or the rights they might want to purchase. Their request also came with another threat that failure to do as they asked could result in Parliament enacting laws to prevent the smuggling trade. The Duke, wary of both the Treasury’s haste to negotiate and the island’s accounts potentially being made public in the House of Commons, decided to delay entering any further talks with the Lords until he had had the opportunity to visit London to seek counsel. I suspect that was the wrong move.

As intimated in the Lords of the Treasury’s previous letter, and no doubt in response to both the Duke of Atholl’s silence and also events surrounding a British cutter stationed at the Isle of Man (I will leave that latter part for you to discover), a Bill was introduced to the House of Commons, on 21st January 1765, which would eventually become the ‘Mischief Act.’ On 13th February, a petition by the Duke and Duchess was presented in the Commons, which declared the Bill an ’Act of Resumption’ that would deprive Their Graces of the island’s revenues without compensation. Essentially, the Bill granted the King’s customs and excise officers the authority to not only board and search vessels in Manx waters and make seizures, but also go onshore and search warehouses and shops for what they regarded as prohibited goods. As technically the royal writ did not extend to the island, both actions would infringe on the Lord of Mann’s rights as Lord Proprietor.

In a letter to Governor Wood, dated 5th February, the Duke voiced his doubts that the petition would succeed, declaring it ‘a hopeless war’ (MS 09707/6/292), and he was correct. In another letter to the Governor, in early March, Lord Atholl also revealed that following the failure to have the Bill thrown out or modified, he was made aware that Parliament intended to enact another law compelling him and the Duchess to sell parts of their rights to the island that would help combat the illicit trade (MS 09707/6/21). Therefore, following the petition’s failure to stop the Bill, the Duke ‘willingly’ began negotiations with the British Treasury. Initially, Lord Atholl hoped to sell all the rights for the sum of £299,773 (around £30 million today). But after a three-hour meeting with George Grenville on 28th February, it was announced that the Duke and Duchess would sell the lord proprietary rights and control over the customs for £70,000 (around £7 million today), and also receive an annuity of £2000 (around £200,000 today) from the Irish revenue for the remainder of both their lives. Their Graces, however, would retain the landed estates, manorial rights and the ecclesiastical patronage held on the isle.

Copy letter from John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl to Governor John Wood, 6 March 1765 (MS 09707/6/21) [Click on images to enlarge & read.]

From then on, the ‘Mischief’ Bill and another to purchase the lord proprietary rights and customs made their way through the Houses of Parliament. The Isle of Man Purchase Act 1765, also known as the Act of Revestment, was given royal assent on 10th May. On 17th May, the £70,000 was handed over, at which time both Charlotte’s and the Atholls’ brief reign as the Lords of Mann came to an end, and control over the island was vested into the British Crown. In order to allow merchants the opportunity to put their affairs in order (hide the contraband!), a royal proclamation announcing the isle’s transfer to the Crown was not issued until 21st June. The proclamation would be read in public at Castletown, in Manx, on 11th July, at which time the island’s flag, flown above Castle Rushen, was lowered and the King’s Colours were raised in its stead.

The Revestment, along with the ‘Mischief Act,’ which came into effect from 1st June 1765, would have wide-ranging consequences for both the 3rd Duke of Atholl and the general Manx inhabitants, and this will be covered in the next instalment of this blog, which will be released at the end of May.

Read The Atholl Papers Blog:

The Atholl Papers: Project Update
The Atholl Papers: Captain Dow and the Dutch Dogger
The Atholl Papers: The Jacobite Rising of 1745
The Atholl Papers: The Case of Carolina Elinora Mahon
The 2nd Duke of Atholl’s Inheritance of the Isle of Man
The Atholl Papers: An Introduction to the Project

Gareth Pugh
Manx National Heritage Project Archivist (The Atholl Papers)
email: gareth.pugh@mnh.im

Further Reading

Gell, James (ed.). (1867) An Abstract of the Laws, Customs, and Ordinances of the Isle of Man. The Manx Sun Office.

Moore, A. W. (1992) A History of the Isle of Man Volumes 1 and 2. Manx National Heritage.

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