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Pre-Commutation Work

The tithe owner faced many problems especially if the tithe was paid in kind. There was an ever present risk of being short changed by the farmers and some assessment of their crops had to be made. The rector had to transport, store and then, finally, sell all of the produce which was at best an inconvenience at worst an expensive imposition.

The alternative to payment in kind was for the tithe to be paid in cash in what was known as a composition. For those rectors who could afford it the employment of a valuer each year, provided an accurate assessment of the tithe to be charged. This is what happened at Leigh in Staffordshire: “In June every year, the Tytheman goes around the parish and enquires of the different farmers what cows they have kept, what calves have been born, what sheep etc and how many acres of wheat, oats, grass etc are growing on their respective farms. Everything is reckoned up to the time the question is asked…On the Monday after Advent Sunday the Parishioners account with the Rector for the tythes and compositions according to the account taken in the June preceding.”[1]

In this case the Rector lived in the parish as did the valuer, both had intimate knowledge of the local conditions and it helped that the Rectory was a rich one. For many poorer rectories it was probably not cost effective to have annual valuations made and many rectors settled for a simpler expedient: they agreed a flat rate per acre for each crop wheat at 7s [shillings] an acre, oats at 4s and so on. Such a linkage was not without precedent. Many landowners linked their rent to corn prices in what was known as a corn rent and when commutation eventually came the tithe-rent charge itself followed this principle.

If settling the charge in this way was good for one year, how much better it would be settling it for several? Rates were often settled for periods of up to seven years but this to be a cause of disputes when commutation took place. Unbeknownst to them the period 1790 -1840 proved to be particularly volatile for grain prices. If a composition was agreed when price of corn was high it would be unfair to the landowners when it subsequently fell on the other hand an unduly low composition settled when the price of corn was low was unfair to the rector when it subsequently rose. The commonest reason given for failing to reach a voluntary agreement in deciding the rent-charge was that the average value of the tithe over the previous seven years did not reflect the true value of the tithe.

Even when money was substituted for payment in kind the rectors still had to collect it and many, if they were wealthy enough or had extensive and disparate land might well prefer to lease the tithes for a fee. When Somerton in Somerset was commuted in 1839 we find that although the rector of the tithes were the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral church of Bristol they had leased the right to claim the tithe to Henry Stephen Fox Strangways, Earl of Ilchester. This had several advantages for both sides. The Dean and Chapter may not have received the full value of the tithe but at least they were spared the expense of valuing and collecting it whilst the Earl, who was the principal landowner in the parish, may have had to pay for the lease but at least he did not have to pay himself any tithe. On the other hand he did garner the tithes of the other landowners.

A considerable degree of wealth would have been needed to buy the lease of a large parish such a Somerton and we have no evidence from the diaries that Martin was ever the lessee of tithes. He was however a valuer and acted as tything man for a number of rectors. The first reference we have to him working in this role is in the 1810 diary and is somewhat enigmatic, he was working at the time in Bishopstone on the inclosure and the entry reads: “taking up the Arable from the pasture in the Homesteads in order to Calculate the Vicars Tithe Apples &c”.

He also does not say how much he was paid for this service but paying a tithing man was not cheap, typically a quarter of the value of the tithe was charged by them for valuing, collecting, delivering and accounting for the tithe to the tithe owner.[2]

A frontispiece page of the 1821 diary detailing the sale of tithe hay at Wraxall.

On the frontispiece of the 1821 diary is a list of farmers prepared to buy the hay that had been tithed in the parish of Wraxall. Ten of them were prepared to buy the hay and assuming that they were parishioners a huge change of ownership was to occur in the next eighteen years for by the time of commutation in 1839 only two landowners are listed in Wraxall – the Rector William Pace and a Mr John Stein. He was still at Wraxall in May 1821 when on the first he noted:

1st May 1821 Tithed Mr Noakes’s Lambs [28] and sold them to him for 14£ [sic] [3]

How must Mr Noakes have felt when after weeks of sleepless nights and worry over lambing, he had to give up twenty eight of his stock to someone who had done little or nothing to deserve them? It is an enigmatic entry but he was acting as tithing man and to save everyone inconvenience he may well have sold them straight back to the farmer, a practice that Kain and Prince [4] found evidence of in several counties. On the 25th he,

25th May 1821 Tithed more Lambs at Wraxall 20 & Scaling Chilfrome

The last entry concerning tithes for 1821 is in November



at Somerton on tithes

Martin had a long standing involvement at Somerton [in Somerset]. We know from the tithe apportionment for Somerton in 1839 [which Martin conducted] that he owned land in the parish as did members of the Jennings family and the Earl of Ilchester. In 1839 the Rector of the parish was the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral church of Bristol but they had leased the tithe to the Earl of Ilchester. It is possible that this arrangement existed in 1821 as well. William Jennings was almost certainly the Earl’s land agent and when in March 1821 Martin,

20th March 1821 Reced of Mr William Jennings a Years Salary due Michaelmas 1820 £50

this may have been a retainer for him working in the Earls service. It may also explain why in November 1821 Martin received no more than expenses at Somerton [2s 4d].

The most complete set of entries for Martin’s pre -commutation work comes from the 1827 diaries when he worked at Allington near Bridport. The story has a familiar ring to it. The incumbent was Henry Fox who took the living in 1819, adding the neighbouring living in Bothenhampton in 1824. Fox was related to the Strangways family, whose full name was Fox Strangways and amongst whom the Christian name Henry was common. The living was in the gift of the Earl of Ilchester and one of the sponsors was a Mr John Pitfield of Symondsbury for whom John Martin made a map of his estates and lands in July 1827. In April however he was valuing tithes for the Revd. Mr Fox,

14th April 1827 Doing a Little to Allington Map
16th April 1827 Writing Names of Fields in Allington Map
17th -21st April 1827 Making out fair valuation of Allington Tithes.
24th – 25th April 1827 Receiving tithes at Allington for Mr Fox
4th May 1827 Making out Tithe Receipts for Mr Fox – Bill &c
4th June 1827 Received of the Revd. Mr Fox for valuing and making map of Allington Tithes-£33 10s

Feeling flush with money Martin was not reluctant to spend it as the next entry is for the purchase of a silk handkerchief value 5s 6d – over half a weeks salary for a farm labourer at this time.

The 1827 diary has a number of entries which may or may not be related to his tithe activity. The first from 15th May clearly is “Receiving rent and tithes Rampisham” and we should not forget that as a farmer he also had to pay tithes; the day before this entry he had “Pd years tithe due lady day 1827 £1 14s”.

At the end of 1827 he was also working for the Revd. Mr Gregory Raymond, the Rector at Symondsbury. Rectors of parishes were required to maintain a register of all their interests in the parish – known as as a ‘glebe terrier’ a part of which was the tithe to which he was entitled. The entries appear to indicate that Martin mapped the whole parish, which at nearly four thousand acres would have been no mean feat. Raymond owned some two hundred and seventy eight acres of glebe land in the parish and whilst we cannot be certain how or what the survey was made for it is possible that it was used as a basis for determining the tithe composition. When the commutation was agreed in 1839 Raymond was still the rector and as the tithe was commuted for £800, he might have thought it worth ordering a survey of the parish many years before commutation was even thought about.

6th October 1827 Taking of Symondsbury- on Sketch Paper – Thos How fetched Hay from Courtlands [5]
15th October 1827 Writing Symondsbury Reference Book Rough Copy
17th & 22nd October 1827 Writing Symondsbury Reference
23rd October 1827 Do finished same
26th October 1827 Went to Symondsbury with Mr Raymonds Map
[entered in Accounts section headed 22nd] Received of the Revd Mr Raymond for Symondsbury Map – £80

The 1832 diary has two references to tithes [other than him paying his own]. In January he

2nd January 1832 Received of Mr Broadley for recevg [receiving] his tithes £4

This probably refers to Robert Broadley rector of Melbury Sampford and later at Bridport. Later in the year he was paid £11 by Charles Fryer the rector at Cattistock.

12th June 1832 Went to Dorchester on Business at the Bank called at Mr Fryers Cattistock and received my Bill of him Received of Mr Fryer for Copy of Valuations of Cattistock Tithes £11

The probable reason for the paucity of tithe work is that he was too busy on his inclosure work, which was almost certainly more lucrative. But if 1832 was a quiet year for Martin’s tithe work it was followed by four years of intense work in parliament trying to reform the tithe; most of this came to nothing but in 1836 Lord John Russell succeeded where others had failed and the Tithe Commutation Act was passed.

The Act could not be implemented immediately however: there were 12,733 tithe districts [6] in England and Wales and it was not possible to arrange commutation in all of them at once. Until the commutation process was complete in each district the tithe still had to be valued and collected and there are several entries in the 1838 diary where he was employed valuing tithes in parishes where the commutation process had not started.

Attending in my Garden the whole of the day and calculated the Value of Little Maine Tithes for Mrs Talbot of B[road] Maine.

This entry from March 1838 is the first tithe work of the year and was not part of the commutation process. In this case it is odd that neither Little Maine or B[road] Maine appear in the list of parishes where the tithe was commuted. Mrs Talbot was a 42 year old widow whose husband had died in 1836 leaving her with six children. She is listed as independent in the 1841 census and may have been a lay impropriator as she does not appear as a landowner in any tithe record.

In June 1838 he received twelve guineas “of Mr Colson for valuing Studland Tithes”. The Tithe agreement was made in the following year but the apportionment was not done by Martin. How he came to be involved in the parish or who Mr Colson was is not known. In the 18th century the parish had been home to several Rectors of that name but they had long since gone and neither are there any landowners of that name in the parish at the time of commutation.

His next reference to tithes comes from June and July 1838 when he was involved at Tintinhull, Somerset. It is not clear what role Martin had in Tintinhull as for once the Earl of Ilchester does not appear to have been involved. Mr Clark [without the e in the apportionment] was a landowner in the parish and Martin appears to have had the role of a land agent in Tintinhull as his involvement with the parish continued. In the 1845 diary [6th February] is a note “Mr White of Tintinhull here respecting Ploughing up some Pasture Land He Dined here” and in 1858 when, Martin was 78 yr’s old, he was responsible for selling an unnamed farm in Tintinhull which was in bankruptcy.

23rd June 1838 Reading over papers relating to Tithes of Tintinhull and working on Batcombe & Frome Vauchurch
30th June 1838 Walford and Sons went to Tintinhull respg tithe matters
13th July 1838 Messrs Walford & Sons

{ Mr Benj Jesty died aged 66} Attending Mr Clarke of Tintinhull at Evershot. Examining Parish Books respecting Rates 1.1. 0

As at Studland and Bere Regis [see below] he was not to be responsible for the commutation in Tintinhull, which was undertaken by Henry Wadman of Martock. In late July 1838 he was at Bere Regis.

31st July 1838 Working on Allington in the Morning and went to Bere Regis in the Afternoon
1st -2nd August 1838 At Bere Regis Valuing Mr Manuel’s Tithes
3rd August 1838 Returned Home – and began making out particulars of Bere Regis Tithes

This was probably a private commission for Joseph Manuel who lived near Bere Regis at Bloxworth. He is shown in the agreement for that parish when it was commuted in 1845, although strangely there is no record of him in the 1841 census.

The commutation at Witherstone did not take place until 1840, when Martin surveyed and apportioned the parish, but in August 1838 however the process had not started and Martin was there valuing the tithes.

8th August 1838 Went to Wytherstone and Valued Tithes of Farms and divided the same between Tenants – slept at Wytherstone charge 3 guineas”. The next day he spent “
9th August 1838 Working upon the same all the Morning and returned home

Taking the period covered by the 1810 – 1838 diaries its clear that Martin’s pre-commutation tithe work occupied a small part of his time. There may be a number of explanations for this, he was certainly spending a lot of the time on various inclosures but other factors may have been at work. For example not every tything man was a surveyor; many men learned their trade through years of practical experience rather than formal training and Martin’s role may have been limited to those parishes where the rector wanted a map drawn or where an arbitrator was needed between a landowner and rector. Even where a surveyor was used they may have been used in frequently. The following entries from the 1832 diary are of interest. It’s clear he was valuing the parish as a whole and not just an estate in the parish but for what purpose? It’s possible that it was in connection with the Poor’s rate but equally that it was setting a corn rent for the tithe of the parish. Whatever the truth of this particular entry if compositions were being set for seven years its hardly surprising that his pre-commutation tithe activity was somewhat sparse.

19th November 1832 Valuing Thornford or rather revising Valuation made in 1819

Pd James Moore Thornford 4s

20th November 1832 Working upon Thornford Valuation
21st November 1832 Do. and completed the same three hard days work £10 10s 0d


Next             A Very Brief History of the Tithe

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1 Eric Evans “The Contentious Tithe” 1976

2 Evans ibid

3 It was the practice to put the pound sign either above or behind the amount of money.

4 Tithe Surveys of England and Wales CUP 1985 p12

5 Martins farmland in Evershot.

6 Plus another 2096 districts identified but where no tithe was payable. Tithe districts sometimes straddled two parishes and so the two terms are not synonymous; nevertheless in most commutations that Martin was involved with the tithe district and parish were coterminous.