Exploring the 9,000 year lease of Arthur Guinness

Ryan Coffey
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Usually, this blog is about Nanaimo real estate but every once in a while I put up something that is real estate related but a little outside of the box for the sake of variety. Today, thanks to the good people at The Guinness Archive of Diageo Group, Ireland, I have received a transcript of the famous lease where on December 31, 1759, Arthur Guinness signed  a 9,000 year lease for use of the James’s gate brewery in Dublin, Ireland. You can find it at the bottom of this post and I recommend having a look at it whether you intend to really read it or not. It’s quite the collection of words.

I recently came across the story of the lease online. In am aware of various leases in my country and others where the lease term is for many decades but 9,000 years is rather extraordinary especially when you consider that all of recorded human history only goes back about 10,000 years or so. Upon reading about it I wanted to find out more about the contract. After all, I am someone whose profession deals with modern real estate contracts on a daily basis. The lease term is an extraodinary number but in the world of contracts, it is just one of the many details that are agreed upon when a contract is created. I wanted to read the contract and see what has changed over the centuries and what has not. Those of you who are Canadian will certainly know that we have gradually branched off from our European roots over the centuries and gradually developed our own ways and methods but there are certain fundamental roots to our systems and conventions of law and business that are shared. So, after spending some time looking around online for a clear image where I could see the text of the document, it was to no avail. I found images of it on display in a protective case in the brewery and another image where you could see a closeup of the signature but other than the odd tidbit of interesting info like how the cost of the lease is forty five pounds per year for this four acre area, there was little to glean.

I eventually wrote to the brewery in Dublin asking if I could do such a post about the contract and I was provided with a transcript of it. What follows is my general observations of how such a contract looks to modern me, Realtor at large. Other professionals, such as Lawyers and Historians will presumably have a different take on things which is just fine by me. I would like to add though, that the part of the process that is most interesting to me as a Realtor is not the contract itself but rather the dynamic of negotiations that leads to it. The personalities and the financial situations and benefits expected on both sides. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when  the idea of 9,000 years was first proposed. Was it the idea of Mr. Guinness? How did Mr. Ransford react? Did such a long term make him nearly laugh off the offer or was it such an appealing idea that he felt it was an extraordinary opportunity for him and his future kin? What if it was only for 100 years? Would that have greatly affected what either side was willing to pay or accept in rents? I also wonder if the idea of such an extraordinary lease term was in some part a marketing idea to get people talking about him and his company. I can only speculate whether great artistry of negotiations went on, or whether they were doing it this way more for the sake of novelty than gain. Likely both.

Before I got into real estate I, like so many others, saw legalese as a form of convoluted semi gibberish that was meant to confuse people by obfuscating the meaning and intent of the document. I now see it as the exact opposite. It is about making sure that there is no room for ambiguity. Ambiguity would lead to misunderstandings either real or contrived and those misunderstandings can lead to larger disagreements which could become court cases or worse. Depending on how the laws in and conventions in your area work, how you avoid ambiguity will mean that the length of wording and details of wording will vary to fit. I remember, for example, how my English students in Japan (many of whom were Lawyers and Judges) would tell me about how long and specific American contracts were, but other English speaking countries not as much and then Japanese ones were very short by comparison for the same sorts of agreements.

Reading the text itself

Although this famous lease is in English and I understand the words it is immediately clear that it is of a different era. It starts off with stating the date “the thirty first day of December in the year of our Lord God one thousand seven hundred and fifty nine” which is a style people haven’t used in quite some time.  Personally, I’ve only come across it in the journals of world explorers of yesteryear and in a local Hudson’s Bay company contract from sometime in the mid 1800’s. I’m not sure when it fell out of fashion though I’m sure a Historian would know.

The wording itself reads like what it is; old legalese. It is something that is mostly familiar with a taste of very old nostalgia and hints to the notion that legalese is part of a tradition that has been evolving since the beginning of record keeping. The larger impression made is that reading this document makes me wish my head had more RAM in it. The lease is presented as one giant sentence that spans four pages. There is no punctuation. In fact, the closest thing to punctuation is the occasional ‘And’. That’s quite the run on sentence and it’s impossible to reconcile the idea of a sentence as one coherent thought with the expanse of details contained within. The contracts I deal with in my work will have clauses that are a single sentence that goes on for about the length of a paragraph, and each clause will be clearly separated and even numbered and have descriptive words in bold if it is part of the standardized body of the contract.  There are dozens of clauses and there is a certain, albeit loose, logic in how they are organized. The effect this way of writing has on the mind is more like having a list of things to keep in order that combine to a larger task rather than to  have one huge sprawling mass of information.

In the contract, I see a variety of familiar things. After the date it names the parties of the lease. Mark Ransford is the Lessor and Arthur Guinness is the Lessee.  It makes very specific references to the boundaries of the property which are quite interestingly marked not by address and lot/property lines like we do here and now but instead the locations of other buildings and streets nearby. It also talks about “Ingress, Egress and Regress” with regards to where horse carts and carriages pass through which is not so different from the rights of way we have on so many properties here in Nanaimo, B.C. and presumably in so many other places around the world.

A variety of questions about how things were organized in those days comes to mind. For example, it does leave me wondering what sort of system they had for declaring and proving ownership of a property and its boundaries at the time. The current, reasonably modern, system we use in B.C. has the rights to the property and a detailed description that refers to surveyed measurements kept on record in the land titles office. This way, there is no deed or what have you to steal or otherwise have problems with. In this lease there is the sentence collection of words “bounding on the North to ground formerly in the Possession of the said John Espinasse” which make me wonder how they would have kept track of which property that referred to in old times. It’s sort of like giving someone driving directions to “go past the orange bridge” but it hasn’t been painted orange for twenty years and fewer and fewer people remember it as orange as each year goes by. I would imagine that keeping these details straight isn’t so hard in a famous location like the James’s gate brewery, but if this practice were common there must have been a lot of confusion over exactly who owned what. I can imagine situations where the neighbouring families have moved on and no one really remembers which property once belonged to John Doe or exactly where the property line was because the tree, rock or outbuilding they were measuring things by has moved on as well. Lots of room for confusion and disputes there.

One of the more interesting parts to me is “yearly and every year during the residue of the said Term of nine Thousand Years unto the said Mark Ransford his heirs Executors Administrators or assigns the rent of forty five pounts sterling Lawfull Money of Great Britain by even and equall half yearly payments”. So, Mark Ransford and whoever he has passed ownership of the land on to will receive two payments a year that will add up to what is nowadays enough for a trip to the grocery store. In those days I imagine it was a pretty good sum of money. Perhaps Mr. Ransford should have considered adding reference to inflation and how the payments will grow in accordance with that. We’re only 253 years into this 9,000 year contract and in century or so forty five pounds might be roughly the amount of change people have in their pocket or pay for a coffee.

Also appealing to my nerdy sensibilities is the lease within the lease. That is, the mention that some of the brewing equipment was at the time being leased by Mr. Ransford from ‘the Lord Mayor Sheriff Commons and Citizen of the City of Dublin”. I do wonder why a title like  ‘Mayor’ just wasn’t enough for a title and include a mention of his actual name. I suppose this is another custom that has changed.

There is something that keeps being repeated. Who is paying who rent and the mention of heirs and the like is repeated multiple times throughout the contract. It makes me wonder if the Lawyers who wrote it up felt a bit of “Wow, 9,000 years?! We’re really really going to have to emphasize who gets the money in future generations and write it out a bunch of ways so that no future Lawyers will be able to interpret it in other ways.”

At the end is the part that will probably interest those of you who are into brewing or if you are some sort of industrial or brewing Historian. A list of the equipment that is part of the “annexed Lease” with the man with the extraordinary title I mention above:

The Schedule to which the annexed Lease referrs:

Three Marble Chimney Pieces; One Kitchen Grate Rack and Shelves; Two
small fixed Grates; Eleven Troughs; One Float very bad; One Kieve very bad and two
Brass Cocks; One underbank quite decayed; One Copper; seventy Barrels with a large
brass Cock; Two Underbank pumps; Two old coolers quite decayed; One Tunn; Six
Oars; One Shute; One Horse Mill one Hopper and pair of Stoves; Box of Drawers and
Desk in the Office 

(Minor point: The images I can find online suggest that this schedule is, as commonly done, on a separate piece of paper than the main body of the lease.)

And finally, here is the transcription of the lease to which I refer:

Guinness 9,000 year lease 1759 – Transcription

Ryan Coffey