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The Tithe Commission

The process of implementing the Tithe Commutation Act was vested in three Tithe Commissioners based in London. The Chairman was William Blamire, whose simple description was ‘Cumberland farmer’. Born in 1790 he was educated at Westminster School, Christchurch Oxford and was friends with the Vicar of Dalston – William Paley, Christian apologist and philosopher. Blamire though was not interested in the learned professions; he preferred the rural life and in particular the newly developing science of agriculture. His practical experiments in the breeding of livestock were shared with his neighbours and he was very popular and respected by them. He was a Whig in politics and in 1831 stood for parliament. The Dictionary of National Biography describes the Cumberland election of 1831 as “one of the most exciting in the annals of parliamentary contests.” His opponent was a Tory opposed to reform but Blamire was so popular that “..his yeoman friends rode in such an imposing cavalcade towards Cockermouth that Lord Lowther [the tory] felt it better to retire on the third day’s polling than to be ignominiously defeated.”

Blamire’s credentials with respect to the tithe had a long history. In 1821 Trinity College Cambridge, acting through two sisters to whom it had leased the tithes of various properties in Kendall, began a campaign which had it been successful would have overturned all customary payments and a tithe which had been £300 would have been increased to £3000. For the next twelve years there was continual litigation between the college and the farmers.

Blamire was considered to be one of the foremost experts on the tithe and took up their cause in parliament. The Kendall case was particularly bruising and matters were made worse by an equally aggressive stance by the Anglican church. It is difficult to understand the controversy and bitterness felt at this time. Eric Evans, who has written extensively on the tithe, considered that the church at this time was close to being disestablished. The problems caused by the tithe were aggravated by an attempt at parliamentary reform in 1832 known as the Tenterden Act. This was designed to limit the rights of tithe-owners to challenge customary payments. Unfortunately the act gave a period of grace of a year in which challenges to moduses [in particular] could be made and the result was an explosion of litigation between the church and lay impropriators and the landowners. In Kendall alone, in a two year period between 1831 and 1833, some 1,200 new cases came before the courts.

This was a battle between two property owning classes that was eventually to be resolved by the Tithe Commutation act and Blamire was the obvious candidate to lead it, which he did although he had to resign as an MP in so doing.

Richard Jones , another of the Commissioners, was a contemporary of Blamire’s, also being born in 1790. His intended profession was the law but owing to poor health he went into the church instead becoming a curate first in Sussex and then in Kent. His health must have improved as in 1833 he was appointed professor of political science at King’s College. Shortly after this he wrote ‘A few remarks on the Proposed Commutation of Tithes’ and the Dictionary of National Biography notes that “he was associated with the passage of the Tithe Commutation act” but in what manner is not known.

Revd. Richard Jones by Maxim Gauci, after Eden Upton Eddis lithograph, 1830s NPG D5401

Not surprisingly the church wanted appoint one of it’s own to the commission and Jones was nominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite this it was generally acknowledged that he was impartial between the interests of the church and landowners.

The tithe commission now had a churchman and a landowner it was only natural that they should appoint as the third commissioner a Captain in the Royal Navy. This was Thomas Wentworth Buller who not only had no portrait but apparently did not merit an entry into the Dictionary of National Biography although he is mentioned in the Naval Biographical Dictionary which is arguably a bit more exclusive. He was a friend of Lord John Russell, the man who eventually got the Tithe Commutation Act through parliament and it was his patronage that secured the job for Buller. Little else is known about him.

Given the task ahead of them the commission itself was a small affair with a Secretary, assistant secretary together with fifty clerks and draughtsmen. Parishes, chapelries, manors, tithings, villages, towns, hamlets- there was no shortage of names for the civil division of the countryside and the first thing the commission had to decide were the boundaries of what were known as tithe districts. These were areas where the tithe was paid separately and eventually some 14,829 places were identified. The vast majority were indeed parishes and even when their status was somewhat less, as at Evershot which was technically a chapelry of Frome St Quintin, they were often labelled as parishes.

The commission sent out forms to those places which they had identified as parishes and towns from the censuses and then moved onto other places which were less clearly identified as tithe-districts. In the process they found that 2,096 places were exempt from tithe.

After that all they had to do more or less was sit back and wait for although they were proactive in providing forms and advice to aid the commutation process there was little they could do until the tithe and landowners in the parishes initiated proceedings themselves. As it was based in London the commission had to appoint assistant tithe commissioners whose work was based in the country. As Evans noted they were the overworked infantry of the commutation army, who carried the battle in the field, working under strategic direction from Whitehall’.[1] The primus inter pares of the ATC’s was Robert Kearsley Dawson who was based in London and the first appointment that the commissioners made. In the two and a half years after the passage of the act fifteen ATC’s were appointed together with twenty two ‘local agents’ who had a slightly different role. Eventually some seventy ATC’s and local agents were appointed.

“Local agents were only required to visit parishes where the tithe and landowners were in agreement as to the amount of rent-charge to be paid. Their sole job confirm the fairness of the agreement He did, however, need to be fairly familiar with local tithing customs of the parishes he visited and understand their influence on agricultural practice. He had also to be able to assess the quality and value of the land sometimes several thousand acres in the course of a few hours visit.”[2]

The local agents worked on an ad hoc basis for which they were paid five guineas per parish. This was still a tidy little earner for them. George Bolls was the local agent in 144 Wiltshire commutations, 116 in Dorset, 37 in Gloucestershire, 16 in Hereford, 13 in Worcestershire and one in Radnor which would have netted him over £1600, almost £100,000 in today’s money.

The ATC had a more onerous task, for it was he who was called in when a voluntary agreement could not be reached and an award had to be made. As we saw at Child Okeford he was also the person to go over the final draft with the landowners before it was sent to the Commission. For his troubles he was paid £3 a day plus expenses but he had to be available at all times for the Commissions work.

Four years into the commutation process it was becoming clear to the commission that in many parishes there was little chance of an agreement being made and they began to be more proactive, writing to the parishes and informing them that they intended to send an ATC to the parish to impose an award. The commission sent a notice to the Rector was sent for attachment to the church door a copy of which had to be returned to the commission thus ensuring that it was! Another letter was sent which explained the process and what information the ATC would require when he attended. He would hear both parties and then would make his award but this was not necessarily the end of the story as either side was able to appeal the award. Holt noted that this was relatively uncommon however.

Once the draft agreement or the award had been sent to the Commission in London the clerks and draftsmen in the office there set to work.

When the Tithe Commutation Act was passed things must have seemed simple. A map, produced according to guidelines laid down by Lieut Kearsley Dawson, would be submitted to the Tithe Commission who, after appropriate checks, would certify its accuracy by attaching a seal to it. As we have seen his proposals had to be abandoned. Some parishes did commission surveys along Dawson’s line and they were rewarded by the production of a ‘first class’ map whose accuracy could be confirmed and that could be sealed. Those maps whose accuracy could not be certified became known as ‘second class’ maps: Whalley commented, “As to these maps, the commissioners have no remark to make.” [3]

In the early stage of commutation some confusion seems to have arisen. The Frome Vauchurch was drawn to the 3 chain per inch scale and Dawson returned the following form to John Martin. It is a standard form which summarises the reasons for rejecting maps submitted as first class maps. Martin’s reply is included.

When Maps are required to be sealed by the Tithe Commission the original working plans with the chained lines all marked upon them, and the original field books, must be sent to the Office of the Tithe Commission for examination; otherwise the Tithe Commissioners can only prove the accuracy of the work by measuring testing lines upon the ground and the expenses must be borne by the Landowners.

The Tithe Commissioners will not seal Maps to which any of the following objections apply without first testing them upon the ground:

  1. Where the means afforded are insufficient for proving the accuracy of the work, in all its details

  2. Where the Map does not agree with the Field Book

  3. Where the Field Books have been kept in pencil and afterwards penned in.

  4. Where alterations have been made in the Field Books without a satisfactory explanation being afforded.

  5. Where the offsets exceed a Chain in length.

Remarks on the Construction of the Map

If it be the wish of the landowners that this map should be sealed by the Tithe Commissioners the original Working plan and Field books should be sent up for examination.

Robert Kearsley Dawson Asst Tithe Commissioner 2/2/1839

Second class map RKD


Some part of the Parish of Frome Vauchurch was measured some years ago and the remainder recently done and it is not the wish of the landowners that this map be should be sealed

John Martin of Evershot near Dorchester Dorset 4th February 1839.”

John Martin Esquire Evershot & Sherborne Dorset

Forms were provided for other purposes. This form lists fourteen points that had to be met if the map and the apportionment were to be signed :

Particular attention on the part of the VALUER is required to the following REMARKS which will both save himself trouble, and expedite the examination in the Tithe Office.

  1. The Declaration of the Valuer to qualify him to act under Sect:34 of the Tithe Commutation Act, if not previously sent, must accompany the Draft Apportionment; a separate Declaration being required for each Parish, in which a valuer may be engaged.

  2. A copy of any Instructions by the Land-owners for the guidance of the Valuer must likewise be forwarded with the Draft Apportionment; and if no such Instruction were given, that fact should be specifically stated.

  3. The Draft Apportionment must in each case be signed by the valuer.

  4. Every parcel of Land described in the Apportionment must have a specific Reference Number and Quantity assigned to it.

  5. Each Reference number must be entered only once in the Apportionment, and refer only to one Quantity and one Rent-charge.

  6. A Single series only of consecutive Reference Numbers is to be used for each Map

  7. The use of Letters as Reference is not sanctioned by the Tithe Act

  8. The Reference Numbers must in all cases be entered in full

  9. The Reference Numbers in the Apportionment and Map must correspond in every particular

  10. The Quantities are not to be written upon the Map but in the Apportionment only

  11. Every parcel of Land in which a separate Quantity is assigned in the Apportionment must be set out and Marked with a Reference Number on the map

  12. When the quantity of two or more contiguous parcels of Land is given in one sum, the Reference Number must be repeated on each parcel or the parcels must be connected by a brace as in the annexed sketch;

  13. The Boundaries in all cases must be clearly and fully defined on the Map

  14. When an extensive Parish is, for the convenience of the Parties mapped in two or more Districts or Townships or other Subdivisions, it will be necessary to accompany such District Maps with a General Sketch of the Parish on some reduced scale showing the Names, Boundaries and relative Positions of the several subdivisions. The number of parts into which the Map is divided must also be stated in the Title and a separate number assigned to each part.

Remarks on Draft Apportionment and Map


Tithe Commutation was a long and drawn out affair. By 1856, some twenty years after the process started there were only seven apportionments still in progress, although it would be another ten years before the last commutation was received.Dawson died in 1861 aged 63 yrs.

William Blamire continued as a Tithe Commissioner but on the principle that if you want something done you should ask a busy man his services were in great demand. He was involved in the ending of copyhold tenures and was also involved in drafting the 1845 Enclosure Act. He served as an unpaid commissioner for the Enclosure Commission established under that act. He was so much in demand,  that in 17 years he never once found the time to return to his home in Cumberland [Cumbria]. A price was paid ; he appears to have had a stroke in 1847 and he fell ill in 1860 and died two years later.

Richard Jones died in 1855 having worked for the Tithe Commission throughout as well as being Professor of Political Economy at East India College Hailebury.

Captain T Wentworth Buller ‘swallowed the hook’ i.e settled ashore, sometime after 1817 when he was made a commander. When he was made Captain is not known. He married Anne Divett in 1827  and in 1833 Anne’s brother married Bullers sister! The two brothers in law went into partnership to rescue a pottery known as Folly Pottery based in Bovey Tracey. It is not known if or when he left the Tithe Commission but he died in 1852.

The work of the Commission would continue. The tithe was an anachronism and needed constant tweaking. An agricultural depression in the 1870’s meant that many landowners were paying more in rent-charge than the land could be rented to tenants for. Land use changed and new apportionments had to be made as at Fordington in 1873. The tithe though was property. It could not simply be abolished. In 1936 the Tithe Commission was replaced by the Tithe Redemption Commission. A loan, granted by the government, to Queen Anne’s Bounty generated sufficient income to replace the tithe. Nothing comes free however and the loan was repaid by farmers purchasing an annuity to pay it off. In the 1950’s no farm could be sold without the tithes being redeemed which of course added to their purchase price. Evenutally in 1977 the Tithe or it’s replacement the annuity were finally and irrevocably extinguished.

1 Evans E The Contentious Tithe 1976

2 Holt H M E Assistant Tithe Commissioners and Local Agents: Their Role in Tithe Commutation 1836-1854 BAHR

3 The Tithe Act and the whole of the Tithe Amendment Acts G H Whalley 2nd ed 1848

Categories: In Depth

Ned Elliott