Another unpopular figure was the landlord's agent, and here again the picture is mixed. One agent described his duty as that of a hen gathering her chickens. In 1763 one of Lord Dacre's correspondents emphasised that an agent was not merely a rent collector:
That I think is the least business of an agent. The chief matter is to know the tenants, the bounds of each denomination and to prevent disputes. Your present agent I have known many years ... He is a calm, sensible man, a useful man in his country in preventing [law] suits.275
The need for this intimate knowledge lay behind the custom of employing multiple agents on a great estate, with or without the overall supervision of a chief agent. Multiple agents also acted as a check on each other. Intense local clannishness could, and frequently did, effectively restrict a landlord's choice of agent to either a local figure or a member of his own family, and these local appointments did not always work to the benefit of either the tenants or the landlord.
Another major abuse was the exaction of lease money. Wakefield recorded an extreme example of this form of maladministration: 'the leases of an estate of £10,000 per annum being expired,' he declared, 'the agent on the renewal exacted a year's rent from each tenant, by way of lease money, and thus put at once into his pocket £10,000.' Undoubtedly some agents were disreputable characters, but, as Wakefield pointed out: 'in that country there are many most respectable agents; honourable men who would as little take a bribe from the hand of a tenant as they would pilfer a guinea from a banker's drawer.'276 Probably the tenants who fared best were those of a resident and paternalistic landlord such as R. L. Edgeworth, or those of a great landlord such as Lord Abercorn, who, although an absentee, was accustomed to running his many estates along businesslike but compassionate lines.
Agents were paid either a percentage on the rents they received or an agreed salary. For most of the eighteenth century the percentage system was probably the more usual method. In May 1757 Nisbitt declared to Lord Abercorn that:
The common allowance for agents in this country is 12d in the £; whatever less is given by agreement, according as the circumstances of things may be; I have several times computed what I had for your Lordship's money, and I never cou'd make it 9d in the £, the fees or nominy penny inclusive, paid by the tenants, for I never trusted them so as to let it swell.
Thus the tenant usually paid the agent 5 per cent of the rent that the latter collected. In addition the agent was entitled to the nominy penny, which was 5 per cent paid on the return of goods distrained for non-payment of rents. He was also entitled to fees related to other estate business, such as the preparation of a lease. The latter type of fee was subject to individual arrangement. For instance, in 1756 when Lord Abercorn was anxious to get his tenants to sign leases, Nisbitt wrote to him that 'I wou'd be glad your Lordship wou'd settle what fees I am to get, for though I pretend to be as modest as any man of my profession, yet, your Lordship concludes that there's something due for my trouble.'277 On a previous occasion he had found that 'they let the leases lie in my hands and would give me nothing for my trouble.' This may have been partly due to the leases on that occasion being offered for 3, 7 and 21 years instead of the usual 31 years and 3 lives. But it may also have reflected a degree of confidence between landlord and tenant.
On the whole, Lord Abercorn appears to have been served by conscientious and reliable men. Perhaps having a group of agents was useful in this respect. Nathaniel Nisbitt pointed out to his master the activities of his fellow agents McClintock and Colhoun, reporting that they:
had little bargains of land which I never had, and other little dealings among the people which I thought below me, chusing always to keep within the law, well knowing that the Lord Chancellor's allowance to an Agent was 12d in the £ on a sequestered estate; indeed in most estates in this country the 12d in £ is paid by the tenants, by covenant as receiver's fees if the rent was paid in 21 days after due.278
Where the agent was paid by percentage the Lord Chancellor's allowance on sequestered estates appears to have been the yardstick for his basic salary, but this could be augmented in various ways. Apart from persuading tenants to take leases or obliging them to shop at a store in which he had an interest, the agent could magnify his power by allowing them to become indebted to him. Rents were paid six months in arrears. This was known as the hanging gale, and was intended to allow an incoming tenant a respite to establish himself rather than, as it was afterwards construed, to make him indebted to the landlord.279 After that, the tenant's animals and goods could be sequestered and he would have to pay interest on the outstanding rent and a fee for the return of his goods. Wandering animals were likewise locked up in the manor pound, and a fee was payable on their redemption. Where the agent doubled as a tithe collector, he acquired the odium attached to that unpopular role. This was intensified when he tried to collect more than the legal or traditional dues for the area. On one occasion Nisbitt pointed out his fellow agent Colhoun's iniquities as proctor for the parish of Ardstraw, where he had 'made the people pay by the acre for flax and potatoes but at the same time confessed it was more an act of power than any right'.280
Some landlords paid their agent an agreed salary, sometimes with additional allowances. For instance, in 1750 Lord Egmont paid his Irish agent £100 p.a. Some years later Lord Charlemont was paying his agent £150 p.a. In 1778 the Shirley family paid their agent 6d for every £1 of rent collected to be made up to £300 p.a., and he also had the use of a house on condition that he kept a room for the landlord. In the late 1780s Lord Fitzwilliam was paying his agent £300 p.a. plus £50 as a housekeeping allowance. These were large estates, and the salaries offered to the agents placed them on a financial par with junior government officials or army officers. An agent could also manage a number of smaller estates, sometimes including his own, and thereby augment his income.281
Thus, in the eighteenth century, estate management with its perquisites and reflected prestige could, and often did, offer a career suitable for a gentleman. This was no longer the case in the nineteenth century. However, in the eighteenth century, the agent was the bridge between the tenant and the landlord and an estate functioned most efficiently when he was the trusted arbitrator between the two parties.