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Robert Kearsley Dawson

From “Ordnance Survey Map Makers to Britain since 1791” Tim Owen & Elaine Pilbeam 1992

The Tithe Commutation Act had been drafted with two incommensurable clauses in it concerning the provision of a map. Clause 35 allowed the apportioners, to base their apportionment on any admeasurement, plan, or valuation previously made of the lands…..the accuracy of which they shall be satisfied.[1] Such plans were not uncommon and provided that three quarters of the landowners agreed, these old plans could be used.

The sting in the tail came in clause 63, as once the apportionment had been agreed by the rector and the landowners it was to be sent to the Tithe Commission in London who if the commissioners shall approve the apportionment, they shall confirm the instrument of apportionment under their hands and seal, and shall add thereunto the date of such confirmation.” Herein lay a problem. The ‘instrument of apportionment’ was made up of two components. The first was a written statement of the agreement that had been reached together with a written record of the apportionment. The second was the map that was annexed to the written record. In law the two parts were regarded as one and the commissioners seal acted as legal confirmation of the accuracy of both parts.

But how could the commissioners in London be sure that the map they had been presented with was indeed accurate? The simple answer was that they couldn’t and early apportionments under the act had already shown there were inaccuracies [see below]. As a result they felt they could no longer attach their seal to apportionments whose accuracy they could not determine.

It is probable that the commissioners had some inkling of the problems that might arise for on the day the TCA was enacted a man began work at the commission to whom the Commission turned.

Lieut [2] Robert Kearsley Dawson, Royal Engineers was born in 1798. His father, also Robert but without the Kearsley, was a renownedtopographical artist and draughtsman working for the Board of Ordnance,an independent branch of the army which was later to be come the Ordnance survey. Dawson Snr. was famous in his own right and it was not surprising that the younger Dawson entered the service. At the age of twenty one [1819] Robert Jnr. worked with the famous Captain Colby of the Ordnance survey in the primary triangulation of Scotland. In the late 1820’s he worked again with Colby in the mapping of Ireland. Colby had boundless energy and a passion for the job that transferred itself to Dawson Jnr. and the Irish experience had a formative influence on him. The survey was concerned with the ‘county cess’, a tax that paid for much of the country’s infrastructure and government. It required large scale mapping of the villages as the tax was linked to small units of land known as ‘townlands’. In many ways it was good training for the Tithe Commutation act.

On 26th August 1836 the Tithe Commutation Bill was enacted and on the same day Dawson joined the newly formed Tithe Commission. Based in London, the Tithe Commission was headed by three men, William Blamire, Thomas Buller and the Revd. Richard Jones. All three men were experts in the problems caused by the tithe but none of them had any cartographic skills. Working under them were a number of assistant tithe commissioners [ATC’s] and local agents. Nominally Dawson was an Assistant Tithe Commissioner but he was definitely the primus inter pares amongst the assistants. His expertise in mapping was recognised and considered invaluable. Where as the majority of ATC’s worked in the countryside, Dawson rarely if ever left London. It was to him that the commissioners turned when the question of what maps should be produced for the new act arose.

It is probable that as a result of his training under Colby and his experience in Ireland, Dawson had in mind a grand plan – a cadastral survey encompassing the whole country.[3] Many nations had undertaken such a survey but it was an an enterprise far in excess of that required for tithe commutation. In September 1836 he wrote to the Tithe Commission setting out the advantages of such a survey and had one been made it would at, a stroke, have resolved boundary disputes, allowed the establishment of a land register to monitor the conveyancing of land and provide an accurate assessment for tax and Poor’s rate purposes. It would also allow the tithe commissioners to attach their seal to a map confident in it’s accuracy.

Some time after his letter he was asked by the Tithe Commissioners to report on the type of map that would be needed. In November 1836 he wrote to them, “I understand that I am now required to report for their information the means and modes of proceeding by which may be obtained, in the most efficient and economical manner, such essential requisites in the plans affixed to the apportionments as will ensure their answering now and hereafter the important and indispensable purposes here pointed out.” [4]

Firstly it was to be “an instrument to assist in the immediate apportionment of a gross amount of rent-charge upon all the titheable lands of the parish or district”. Secondly it would act as “a permanent record, to show now and hereafter to which lands certain rights of distress and entry extend under this Act, and which are free from them.” This latter point is obscure but of some importance. If a landowner refused to pay his rent-charge the act allowed the tithe owner to enter the landowners land and take the landowners goods, to the value of the rent-charge for that year. Had they not had these ‘rights of distress and entry’ they would have been vulnerable to an action for trespass. It was vital therefore that a record be made of the lands that attracted a rent-charge [and could be entered] and those exempt from the tithe which could not.

Dawson then went on to issue a warning, in that remarkable circuitous way that his generation had, about the possible confusion that might arise if things weren’t done correctly: “It is notorious that much practical confusion and inconvenience have already arisen from the difficulty of identifying lands, under circumstances much less likely to create difficulty and error than those circumstances are which will naturally arise while the changes produced by the powers given by this Act are going on.” In other words if it was not done correctly, an almighty mess up would result.

Dawson then addressed the issue created by Clause 35 of the TCA. If difficulties were to be avoided, Dawson argued it was not only the land surveyors who had to be satisfied with the accuracy of any admeasurement, plan, or valuation previously made of the lands” but the commissioners themselves. They could do this only if the surveyors maps submitted that they had tested the accuracy of and had been prepared to a defined standard. At first sight his proposals seem innocuous enough.

Previous to commencing the survey of a parish, for the purposes of the Tithe Act, it will be desirable 1st. To ascertain if any sufficient plan of the parish (on a proper scale) has already been made.” The farmers were free to use such a map if it existed and sufficient number agreed to it so there was nothing contentious in this.

“2nd. To test the accuracy of any such plan which may be found, giving particular attention to the external boundary of the parish, in order to guard against any contradiction or inconsistency in the position of the boundary lines, as compared with those of the adjoining parishes which are to be surveyed for the same purposes”. The surveyor had to be assured of the maps accuracy so this too does not seem particularly concerning but it is not quite as innocuous as it seems. As a minimum the surveyor would have to measure and plot the boundaries but it’s clear from the detailed instructions that he expected far more in the way of testing the accuracy. He could not simply accept the map as it stood.

“3rd. If the plan be of old date, to alter and complete it, so as to represent the true state of the inclosures, and other necessary detail of the parish at the present time; or if plans of portions only of the parish be found, to test and combine them into a plan of the entire parish, adding such further detail as may be required.”

It’s clear even to a non-professional that a considerable amount of work would have been needed to test these old maps and Dawson was keen to forestall opposition to the proposals;

I beg to premise, that I have not recommended for the purpose either of making new plans, or testing or combining old ones, any operations but those commonly gone through by surveyors employed to map estates.” This may have been true but a landowner employing a surveyor on his own estate had something to gain and would bear the expense but the landowners at tithe commutation had little to gain. They much preferred old maps which were cheap and they were not expecting to pay additional costs.

Dawson’s report included five outline plans and instructions which he used to demonstrate how these old maps should be tested. Two of these were shown in the previous section; The object of the two first is to show how the particular lines which I recommend to be measured, will ensure the accuracy of the general outline of a parish, its gross contents and the relative position of its parts.”

Having measured the parish these lines would then be used “in testing the accuracy of any old plan of an entire parish ….The fourth will point out their use in combining maps of different parts of a parish in the formation of a new plan of the whole.”

Even at this early stage the surveyors must have balked at the amount of work that would be involved if this approach was adopted. It was also clear that what he really intended was not that an old map could be submitted but that new map would be created the basis of which was the old map. Dawson now recommended that the maps for submission be drawn to a minimum scale of 3 chains to the inch. This is a very large scale map, 26 ¾ inches on the map representing a mile of real ground. For Dawson this scale was a crucial point for not only did it allow for considerable detail to be included on the map, but more importantly allowed the “correct computation of the contents of the several lands. This is, in fact, the smallest scale which can be relied on for computing contents from the map itself”.

At this scale errors in draughtsmanship, the measurement of lines or the construction of angles were all minimised and most importantly it allowed the commission to recalculate the areas of the various parcels of land by taking measurements directly from the map. At a scale of this size an error of 1/16th of an inch in measurement would represent about a foot error on the map.

He then made a bold claim, for the virtues of such a scale were such that, it “is accordingly the scale upon which the great majority of existing maps in the country have been, in the first instance, constructed.”[5] This is an interestingly constructed sentence. “in the first instance constructed” probably refers to the fact that many estate maps were initially drawn at large scale and then reduced to a smaller one. The OS first series 1” to the mile maps had, for example, been reduced from an initial survey undertaken at 6” to the mile. The final product as presented to the landowner may well have been a reduced map. Evidence from an estate map at Rampisham in 1807, a parochial map at Child Okeford in 1834 and an estate map of Fontmell Parva farm in 1771 reveal that none of them were drawn to a 3 chain/inch scale.

An immediate problem therefore is what could be done with existing maps that were not drawn to the 3 chain/inch scale. It is of course one thing to reduce a map, which according to J Butler Williams could be done reasonably accurately but he cautioned against enlargement and in this he was justified as will be seen below. Despite his confident assertion many surveyors must have realised that they would have to make a completely new survey and map.

On 4th January 1837 the Commissioners wrote back to him in full agreement with his proposals as indeed they might. For if Dawson’s letter was a set of instructions to the surveyors it was also a reminder to the Commission that without their implementation it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fulfil their obligations under clause 63. If the map were to be “a record sufficient to prevent… confusion and litigation” these were the minimum specifications. A map drawn to his specification could be rigorously checked and the Commisioners could have confidence in certifying the map.

By the time that Dawson had produced his report the Parochial Assessment Act had been passed and the Poor Law Commissioners had been in contact with him as well. As we have seen they were banking on using the maps constructed for the tithe commutation. On the 5th January the Poor Law Commissioners wrote back approving Dawson’s proposals and stating that since the passing of the Parochial Assessment Act if it shall be deemed necessary that a plan of a parish or district shall be made, they [The Guardians of the Poor] will either adopt the plans made under the orders of the Tithe Commissioners, or will direct the plans required, to be constructed on the scale and in the manner pointed out by Lieutenant Dawson.”

In the mean time of course tithe commutations were still proceeding and unfortunately for the Tithe Commission evidence was accruing that the maps being submitted were inadequate. By February 1837 the TC had received thirty eight instruments of apportionment together with their annexed maps; none of which they considered to be accurate enough for the purposes of the act. Given the legal risks that they ran the commissioners became disinclined to set their seal to them.

One famous example of this problem is quoted in Kain and Prince [6]. The parish of Tonge in Kent was surveyed in a manner which purported to be that recommended by Dawson. This map appeared at first sight to be a model of conformity to Dawson’s proposals. The scale is that recommended [7] , the construction lines are shown and the measured distances marked in, but when Dawson came to recalculate the areas of the fields he found errors of up to 100% in their sizes and two fields of exactly the same size on the map were recorded in the apportionment with different areas. One was listed as being three and a half acres in size and the other three quarters of one acre. When the fields were remeasured both were found to be nearer two acres in size. [8] Further investigation revealed that the surveyor had submitted a map which was over thirty years old and the new map had been scaled up from it. This must have come as a shock for the Commission. As the landowners had agreed to the map, in theory it could be accepted but how could the Commission’s seal be attached to it? It’s very submission was close to fraudulent.

In March 1837 the Commissioners wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Rice, explaining the difficulties created by the two clauses and their view of how the difficulties should be resolved. In essence they believed the only way out of the fix was to obtain accurate large scale maps, in the manner Dawson had proposed, and which could be verified by the Commission. Unfortunately for them they did not have the legal power to enforce his recommendations and it rapidly became obvious there was considerable opposition to the proposals amongst MP’s who were sympathetic to the views of the landowners. As a consequence the Chancellor established a select committee to examine the problems the clauses created. The outcome was not as Dawson hoped.

Firstly it became apparent that for the purposes of the act a map was not in fact necessary. Even one of the Commissioners, William Blamire admitted as much. After all for centuries a written schedule had been used in many manors quite successfully enough. The land may need to be measured in some cases but in theory a map was not necessary. Secondly there were many objections to the proposals from the landowners who would, when all was said and done have to bear the cost of a new survey and map. If there was no actual need for a map then there was certainly no need for a cadastral survey- at least not one paid for by them.

When the select committee reported in May 1837 it concluded that accurate, large scale maps were not needed for the purposes of commutation and since it’s remit only concerned the Tithe Commutation Act it did not consider the collateral needs of the Poor Law Commission or some wider need for a cadastre. The committee decided that, in keeping with the spirit of the act, if the local community wanted to use existing maps then they should be allowed to do so even if not entirely accurate. That there might be future complications did not seem to trouble them greatly, so long as everyone was happy wherein lay the problem?

To resolve the invidious position in which the Tithe Commissioners found themselves, the Committee made a number of recommendations and with a speed that must make modern politicians envious, “An Act to Amend an Act for the Commutation of Tithes in England and Wales,” passed in July 1837. Amongst other things the amendment act relieved the Commissioners of the necessity of certifying the accuracy of the map. They could still certify a map if they were convinced of its accuracy but it was not obligatory. The amendment act effectively separated the instrument of apportionment and the map annexed to it. If the apportionment was fair it could be sealed: but the map need not be.

The effect of the amendment act was to create two classes of map. First class maps, would be sealed with the Commission’s seal and would be admissible in court as evidence of the quantities and boundaries of the lands referred to. First class maps carried not only legal certainty but also the certainty that the parish had actually been surveyed according to the principles laid down by Dawson. It also carried the knowledge that this survey and the map produced had been examined by the Tithe Commission in London and that it had passed a fourteen point assessment for accuracy using the original field books. In the event 2,333 of 11,800 tithe maps received the seal, just over 1 in 5.

A map of some sort was still of course required under the terms of the original TCA and if they were not to be the result of a new survey, a map based upon other, existing, maps could be submitted for use if three quarters of the landowners agreed. In these cases the commissioners could now, “if they shall think fit,.. confirm under their hands and seal any instrument of voluntary apportionment… which shall be annexed a map or plan agreed to be adopted by a parochial meeting, although they shall not be satisfied of the accuracy of such map or plan, or that the several quantities of land specified in such apportionment or agreement are therein truly stated [9].

In theory as there was no longer a necessity for the Tithe Commission to be concerned with the accuracy of such maps it appears that there was no longer a need for the surveyor to submit any evidence confirming the accuracy of such maps, nor would they be examined by the Commission. Nevertheless it is clear the Commissioners felt they still had some responsibility, for it was a requirement that Assistant Tithe Commissioners or local agents should report on the parish even if only cursorily. At Child Okeford George Bolls, the local agent for the Commission and himself a land surveyor made a simple statement “there is a Map of the parish and the quantities of Land stated in the agreement correct” and this seemed enough to satisfy the commission.

Not surprisingly these ‘second’ class maps, were referred to rather disparagingly in the new act: “As to these maps, the commissioners have no remark to make, but to remind the parties that if, on an appeal against an apportionment, such maps, and the estimated quantities founded on them, are shown to be inaccurate, the commissioners may be obliged to direct fresh maps to be made.”

Despite their disdain the vast majority, 9467 out of some 11,800 maps, were second class. As a generalisation second class maps fall into two groups. First were those maps which were intended to be first class maps; the map was constructed according to Dawson’s rules but subsequently failed the Tithe Commission’s examination [see below]. How many second class maps were submitted as first class we can probably never know, but at least one of John Martin’s was intended to be a first class map. In 1845 whilst commuting the parish of Warmwell Martin refers frequently to making a first class map. In fact he made two maps but since neither were sealed some fault must have been found with them which the landowners decided was not, after all, worth the expense of correcting.

The second group were those maps that were compiled from pre-existing maps of the parish [10]. The nature of these maps varied, some may have been based on manorial or estate maps, possibly even an inclosure map. As most of these parishes had several landowners the situation doubtless arose where parts of the parish had been surveyed at different times and to different scales, whilst other parts had never been surveyed at all. It is not clear if any of these maps were submitted as they stood. The map submitted for the parish of Durweston is a crude affair and it certainly looks as if it were an old map recycled to a new purpose but the parish had only one land owner and it was not one of John Martin’s apportionments. All his tithe maps appear to be new creations, even if, as we shall see, some were based on pre-existing maps.

Where maps were provided they may on occasion have been sufficiently accurate for no further survey to have to be made. Indeed the possibility is raised that in some parishes no new survey or measurement was made at all. If this seems unlikely we should not forget the Tonge map, mentioned above, which had been re-drawn as if it was a first class map when in reality was based on one that was thirty years old and where a new survey had not been conducted. That itfailed to convince Dawson was solely because it was intended to be a first class map and he had to check it. Had it been delayed another year it could have been submitted as a second class map and nobody would have known the difference.

The Commissioners were under no illusions as to human nature, they guessed, almost certainly correctly, that where second class maps were used, disputes would soon arise so “To prevent the multiplication of appeals on the grounds of inaccurate admeasurements, the commissioners will, unless any serious inconvenience is found to result from the practice, refuse to receive appeals against apportionments, on the grounds of inaccurate admeasurements, from any parties who have signed the requisition to the commissioners to receive the maps actually used in the apportionment.”

Poor Law Maps.

If parliament had resolved the problems for the Tithe Commission it did nothing to help the Poor Law Commissioners. The rejection of Dawson’s plans for a cadastre and the variable and infrequent production of first class maps [11] left them in some difficulty. They had little expertise in the area and had pinned their hopes on having one survey and map to serve the purposes of both the TCA and the PLAA. They attempted to solve the problem by only allowing contracts for maps to be made that were still to Dawson’s specifications. The Guardians of the Poor could order a map to be made but, and this was the sting in the tail, they could not pay for it until it had been submitted to the Poor Law Commission who then sought “the assistance of the Tithe Commissioners, who have in their service scientific and experienced engineers, competent to pronounce a judgment, after due examination of the work, and whose report would ultimately be required to determine the adoption of the map”.

When the annual report for 1837 was published the Poor Law Commissioners were still hopeful that Dawson’s plans would come to fruition but three year later, when they reported on their progress, a note of disappointment had set in [12]: “With regard to the maps which have been made under the provisions of that Act [13], we have endeavoured by all the means in our power to secure for those parishes in which maps were required, accurate and trustworthy documents…….Notwithstanding the assistance we have derived from the Tithe Commissioners towards this important object, we cannot report so favourably as we could wish of the result of our endeavours. Out of the maps which have been made under the Parochial Assessments Act, less than half have been found of that degree of accuracy which would justify their being treated as first-class maps, and their receiving in testimony of such accuracy the seal of the Tithe Commissioners.”

In the end the Poor Law Commission had little option but to adopt a pragmatic approach to the maps submitted to them. If the Tithe Commission could not give their seal to the map they had either to accept the map, not withstanding its defects, attempt to get the map corrected or to decline altogether. It is not known how many maps were made under the Parochial Assessment Act. Kain found ninety extant maps, made between 1830 and 1850, which could definitely be attributed to the Parochial Assessment Act but he also comments that Dawson had estimated that five hundred and twelve PAA maps had been made up until 1856. He asserted that “The overwhelming majority of parish rates were determined without the use of a map.”[14] He also raised another intriguing possibility “Research in two counties, Essex and Kent, has revealed that about 15 per cent of the seemingly missing maps can in fact be accounted for by the way the parochial assessment maps were almost immediately copied for tithe-commutation purposes”.

Dawson appears to have taken his failure over the cadastre well and it certainly did not impair his career. He went on to be head of the survey department at the Commons Enclosure and Copyhold Commission. His death in 1861 came a year after the death of his father. The father was 84 yr’s old the son a younger 63 yr’s.

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1 My emphasis.

2 Later Captain, finally Colonel.

3 There are various definitions of the term cadastre. Here it is used to describe a large-scale map showing the boundaries of land with sufficient accuracy to be used for the assessment of tax or creating legal title.

4 Report from Lieutenant Dawson to the Tithe Commissioners for England and Wales 29th November 1836

5 He means by this that most estate maps were drawn to this scale. The first series OS maps which were not completed until 1869 were one    inch to the mile.

6 The Tithe Surveys of England and Wales Kain and Prince 1985

7 The consequence of which is that the map extends over five sheets.

8 Search as I may I have not found these fields on the published map which may have been redrawn and submitted anew. Construction lines are present on only three of the five sheets so the surveyor may have submitted corrected maps.

9 My emphasis

10 In theory a third group could have existed ; maps deliberately surveyed to a lesser standard than required by the first class maps. We have no proof such maps existed.

11 Only 1 in 5 of the 14829 apportionments was reckoned to be a first class map.

12 Sixth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales 1840

13 The Parochial Assessment Act

14 Oliver R, & Kain R Maps and the Assessment of Parish Rates in Nineteenth-Century England and Wales 2008