Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909

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Land Purchase Acts of 1903 and 1909

The 1903 and 1909 Land Purchase Acts, also known as the Wyndham and Birrell Acts respectively (after successive chief secretaries for Ireland), provided the means by which most Irish tenant farmers became owneroccupiers of their land. This legislation radically extended the existing limited provision for tenant purchase, and for the first time created procedures and incentives to ensure the sale of estates as a whole to the occupying tenants.

Under the 1903 land act, tenants received from the government an advance to purchase the land, which was to be repaid through annuities (yearly installments) over a period of 68.5 years. The rate of interest was 3.75 percent. The landlords were compensated in cash that was raised by government issue of guaranteed land stock yielding a dividend of 2.75 percent. The purchase price of the land was calculated in terms of rent years (the previous rent multiplied by a specified number of years). The number of years varied: For first-term judicial rents (rents already reduced once under the fairrent provisions of the 1881 land act), the price agreed could range only from 18.5 to 24.5 years; for second-term rents (rents that had been twice reduced), the range was 21.5 to 27.5 years. Within these ranges it was left to the landlords and tenants to agree upon a price. In the case of nonjudicial rents (rent that had not been previously reduced), the price agreed had to be approved by the Estates Commissioners, a body set up under the 1903 act to implement its provisions. Under these arrangements the average price received by the landlords was 22 years' purchase and the annuities paid by the tenants were significantly less than their previous rents. The landlords were further compensated by a 12 percent bonus if they were willing to sell their entire tenanted estates.

Unfortunately, the depreciation of land stock after 1903 meant that not enough money was raised to finance land purchase. The 1909 land act was designed to rectify this by compensating landlords in the future not with cash but with guaranteed 3 percent land stock. The average price for holdings was reduced to 19 years' purchase and the repayment period was changed to 66 years, with the rate of interest increased to 3.5 percent.

Under the 1903 and 1909 land acts, Estates Commissioners and the Congested Districts Board were for the first time given power to acquire land for the purpose of relieving congestion by enlarging and rearranging small and impoverished farms, especially in the west. To a limited extent, such powers for the first time could be exercised on a compulsory basis under the 1909 act. In cases of compulsory acquisition the landlords were entitled to compensation in cash rather than in land stock. Under these two acts, just under 11 million acres in the 32 counties of Ireland were sold, involving over 320,000 holdings (60% of the total number of holdings). In achieving a transfer of land on this scale, these acts were major steps in addressing the widespread land agitation in the Irish countryside during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. In so doing, they also contributed to the erosion of the social and economic status of the landlord class in Ireland.

SEE ALSO Congested Districts Board; Land Questions; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; United Irish League Campaigns


Bull, Philip. Land, Politics, and Nationalism: A Study of the Irish Land Question. 1996.

Hooker, Elizabeth R. Readjustments of Agricultural Tenure in Ireland. 1938.

Jones, David Seth. Graziers, Land Reform, and Political Conflict in Ireland. 1995.

Kolbert, Colin Francis, and T. O'Brien. Land Reform in Ireland: A Legal History of the Irish Land Problem and its Settlement. 1975.

David Seth Jones