The House of Keys and the Lords of Mann

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‘The right of enacting and abrogating laws hath always been vested in and jointly exercised by the Lord, the Governor, the principal officers and the Deemsters (who constitute the Lord’s Council) and by the Commons, represented by their Keys; when this concurrence is obtained, laws are completed…’
Petition of the Keys,1765 (Ref: IOMMM 9191/2/2)

The Keys lost most of their authority after the Manx Rebellion and restoration of the Lords of Mann. The Stanleys and their successors, the Dukes of Atholl, became “absentee landlords,” who left the administration of the Island to a series of Governors and salaried officials.

By 1718, Governor Alexander Horne was engaged in a bitter dispute with the Keys over their claims to speak on behalf of the Manx people and as a result not a single law was passed during his period of office.

A watercolour of Castle Rushen by John 'Warwick'Smith 1795Membership of the House of Keys was reserved for a select few of the Manx population and its exclusive nature was maintained by the members themselves choosing who they wanted as new members. Although being an MHK (Member of the House of Keys) was socially desirable and advantageous, it did carry the very real responsibility of defending the Island and its people from outside political and economic interference from England.

Throughout the 18th century the Keys sat in private session when discussing legislative business. Before 1710 the Keys had no proper home of their own but met infrequently in Castle Rushen. It was not until the middle decades of the 19th century that the public were admitted.

Smugglers beware – Island for sale!

The long-running bitter disputes between the House of Keys and the Duke of Atholl (as Lord of Mann) came to a climax in 1765 when the British Parliament passed the Isle of Man Revesting Act to curb smuggling in the Irish Sea. The Duke of Atholl was ‘persuaded’ to sell his rights to collect customs duties on the Island to the British Crown.

Much of Manx commerce was viewed as illegal smuggling by the British Customs, but as legitimate trade by the Manx merchants. Lower rates of taxes and duties were paid legally to the Lords of Mann on goods entering the Isle of Man, but, if on their subsequent delivery to Britain duties were avoided, this was not seen as being the concern of the Manx authorities.

Sir George Moore, Speaker of the House of Keys (1709-1787) a leading merchant and banker.Indeed, since 1737, the Dukes of Atholl had imposed taxation on the Isle of Man only in agreement with Tynwald. This changed after the 1765 Revestment with the British Government assuming all rights to impose and collect heavier duties on the Island. This left the Island’s authorities with no money with which to improve the roads, harbours or public buildings.

The powerless state of the Keys led to a petition of 800 signatures being collected in 1780. This called for the Keys to be dissolved and to be replaced with an elected body. It was hoped that an elected Parliament could more effectively challenge the British Government in Westminster, which was now ultimately responsible for the Island.

Although the Keys were unable to make any changes that cost money, they were able to bring about important social changes, in particular the repeal in 1777 of regulations and restrictions which obliged Manx workers to take certain jobs for low wages. The system had been abused by the Duke of Atholl’s officials, who had been able to compulsorily obtain cheap labourers and servants by a system known as ‘yarding’.