Tithes: Introduction

Historically tithes were a church tax, a tenth part of the produce of the land and stock, ostensibly to maintain the parish incumbent and the church, and were introduced over a thousand years ago. Tithes were one of the most hated of all taxes, and were directly against the conscience of many dissenters, particularly the Quakers, and appeared to many to impoverish yet further the poor,  while enriching the clergy.

Of course, farmers were the hardest hit, being forced to reward a clergyman who put nothing into the toils of the land, and who exacted his tithes vigorously, at lambing time, harvest, and haymaking. Even the poorest, who perhaps only had a small garden or orchard were not exempt from the parson, and there were no allowances, as we have today before taxation, it was a tenth, pure and simple.

Tradesmen, manufacturers, merchants and foreign competitors did not pay this tax, so it was seen as a very unjust tax, affecting only those who obtained their living from the land (not forgetting rivers, where fishing and fisheries were also tithed).

Types of Tithes
There were three categories of tithes -

Predial Tithes: levied on the fruits of the earth, e.g. corn, hay, all crops, wood, and fruit

Mixed, or Agistment Tithes: levied on animals and animal products, e.g. lambs, colts, calves, piglets, wool, milk, eggs and honey. However, deer, rabbits, game birds, fish and other wild animals were only tithed by local custom only.

Personal Tithes: levied on the gains of man's labour, but generally only on such things as milling or fishing (from fisheries, not from simple fishing).

What was and was not titheable became the subject of numerous legal cases.

Barren or waste land, including land improved from this state, for a period of seven years.

Woods and forests leased directly from the Crown

Lands formerly owned by the Cistercians, Knights Templars, or Knights Hospitallers

Lands formerly owned by the larger monasteries, who paid no tithes at the time of the dissolution.

Lands which had customarily paid no tithes (since time immemorial).

Great and Small Tithes
All tithes were payable to the rector of the parish. However, if he was not resident, and employed a vicar to perform his duties, then the vicar would be allotted the small or vicarial tithes, which were (generally) all the tithes except the most valuable, i.e the tithes of corn, hay and wood. Again, what constituted 'great' and 'small' tithes were the subject of much dispute, and the practice varied from place to place.

Appropriators and Impropriators
The ecclesiastical body or person who had spiritual jurisdiction over a parish, and to its tithes, was termed the 'appropriator'. However, where the appropriators were religious orders that were subsequently suppressed, as in the case of the Knights Templars or Knights Hospitallers, or the great monasteries at their suppression by Henry VIII, their lands often fell into the hands of laymen, who then claimed either the payment of tithes, or exemption from their payment. Such a layman who was entitled to receive tithes was termed an 'impropriator' because he was an 'improper' person to receive them. But the same may have been said of the lay monks, nuns, military orders, &c, who had been in the receipt of tithes.

Compositions and Moduses
Generally payment of tithes was made 'in kind', i.e. actual produce, such as corn, hay, etc, and the incumbent of a parish would often have a tithe barn to store such tithes. However, many incumbent preferred to receive their tithes in cash, and over the centuries many local agreements were made to convert tithes into money payments.

Compositions were paid annually, and could be adjusted from time to time, and could be terminated by either party. Moduses were a permanent, fixed charge, on certain titheable items, or on a piece of landholding. Moduses, often set centuries earlier, were a thorn in the side of incumbents, as their value were derisory, but were defended as strongly by the farmers as tithes were by incumbents.

Tithe Commutation

In the early nineteenth century tithes were still payable in the majority of parishes in England and Wales. In 1836, the government decided to commute tithes (i.e. to substitute money payments for payments in kind) throughout the country. The Bill received Royal Assent on 13 August 1836; three Tithe Commissioners were appointed, and the process of commutation began.

Although the Tithe Act 1836 (6 & 7 Will IV, c.71) is a long and complicated piece of legislation, the underlying principle was the simple one of substituting for the payment of tithes in kind corn rents of the same sort as were already payable in many parishes under the authority of a local Enclosure Act. These new corn rents, known as tithe rentcharges, were not subject to local variation, but varied according to the price of corn calculated on a septennial average for the whole country. Existing corn rents were left unaffected: they continued to be paid according to the varied provisions of the local Acts which created them.

The main records for tithe commutation under the Tithe Act of 1836 are the Tithe File, Apportionment, and Map. The Tithe File contains all the correspondence and meeting minutes that the Commissioners generated in discovering to what extent commutation had already taken place. The Tithe Apportionment normally begins with a copy of the Tithe Award, and contains columns for the names of the landowners and occupiers (because until the passing of the Tithe Act 1891 the payment of tithe rentcharge was the owner's liability); the number, acreage, name or description, and state of cultivation of each tithe area (with a key to to the Tithe Map); the amount of rentcharge payable, and the names of the tithe-owners .