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Tithe Commissioners Awards

Whilst it was hoped that the land and tithe owners would reach a mutual agreement it was sometimes not possible. As the commutation process had been stalled over the ‘use of a pre-existing map’ problem [see Five Acts of the 19th century] the government was keen to move things on. Until the 1st October 1838 parishes were free to make voluntary agreements without any real interference from the commissioners. If after that time a voluntary arrangement did not appear to be proceeding in a timely fashion, or if there was no clear prospect of a voluntary agreement, the tithe commission would step in through it’s network of Assistant Tithe Commissioners [see next section]. This was not an option to be chosen lightly;

“The policy of apportioning voluntarily will appear obvious to any body of landowners who will reflect on the power which they themselves surrender and which they invest in the hands of the commissioners….maps and surveys will have to be provided by the commissioner, not such as the landowners themselves may be satisfied with, but such as will satisfy a body ignorant of the merits or defects of their own existing maps…and when well-grounded objections are made to their accuracy order entirely new ones.” Not only that but the landowners lost the power to decide how the apportionment should be made but in the interests of “strict and naked justice, will be perpetually driven to order valuations and admeasurements at a very heavy expense.”1

Of the fifty seven or commutations undertaken by Martin a total of twelve apportionments took place in parishes where the commissioner had made an award. The final instrument of apportionment rarely give a meaningful account as to why the land and tithe owners could not reach an agreement. In seven of the awards the reason given in the instrument was the same;[2]

“And Whereas due notice was given to me in the manner prescribed by the said Act that the clear average compositions instead of the Tithe of the said Parish during the seven years preceding Christmas in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty five would not fairly represent the sum which ought to be the basis of a permanent commutation of the said tithes.”

This of course tells us virtually nothing and unfortunately the awards never give details of who objected to an agreement or why, so we cannot know precisely why the tithe and landowners could not agree. Potentially either side could have felt themselves at a disadvantage. The award hints at a possible explanation in these cases.

By the nineteenth century most tithe in kind had probably been replaced by monetary payments. As with all tithe practices this varied from parish to parish. Some rectors employed tithe valuers as we have seen already but this was expensive and in many parishes the tithe was replaced by a composition that amounted to a flat rate per acre of land based upon the prevailing price of wheat. Agreements were often made to pay this for a period of years. When prices were stable this did not create a problem, but the years preceding the act had been a period of price volatility. In 1828 the official price for corn [wheat] was 66 shillings a quarter [8 bushels] and it fell steadily until by 1835 it had fallen to 39 shillings [3] as the rent-charge was based on the average price of wheat in the seven years preceding Christmas 1835, agreements entered into during this period could adversely affect either party and it is probably this issue that caused most disputes.

Usually when the assistant tithe commissioner made the award, the instrument of apportionment begins;

“Whereas an award of Rent Charge in lieu of TITHES in the Parish of xxxx …..was confirmed on twentieth day of July in the Year One Thousand Eight hundred and thirty nine confirmed by the Tithe Commissioners for England and Wales….”

It is probable that in these cases no agreement had ever been reached. Since the tithe owner had little to lose by calling in the tithe commissioners in most cases it was probably they that called them in. Occasionally the award begins;

“And Whereas it has been represented to the said Tithe Commissioners that an error has been committed in the said Agreement”

In these circumstances we must assume that some error came to light after the original agreement. At Batcombe, one of Martin’s commutations the two parties had reached a voluntary agreement which subsequently had to be modified by an assistant tithe commissioner when it was discovered that land included in the Batcombe apportionment belonged to the neighbouring parish of Leigh.The assistant tithe commissioner with whom John Martin was most associated was Aneurin Owen. He was Welsh, his background was in Welsh history, his father had been a Welsh lexicographer, and Aneurin himself published work about the ancient laws of Wales and Welsh history. In their wisdom, the Tithe commission sent this Welshman, living in Wales to Dorset. In total, whilst he was in Dorset he visited five parishes where agreements had been made and seventy eight where awards had to be imposed. He born in 1792, he was to die in 1851.

Aneurin Owen as a child. Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales

After the initial introduction the award usually continues “Know all Men by these presents that I Aneurin Owen having been duly appointed and sworn an Assistant Tithe Commissioner…” and he then goes on to explain in standard phrases with little detail of what he found or how he worked,

“And whereas I have duly considered all the Allegations and proof tendered to me touching the matter of the said notice and have myself made all enquiries which appeared to me to be necessary before awarding the Rent-charge hereinafter mentioned…”. Thereafter the award is similar to an agreement.

There is no further explanation of how the assistant commissioners arrived at their awards although it is possible that the tithe files for individual parishes might contain more details. Following this the language of the award follows the same format as that used in the agreements until the end when, instead of the parties setting their hands and seals to the agreement, it ends, “In Testimony whereof I the said Aneurin Owen have here unto set my hand this…day”. This was not the end of it; although the ATC’s had the power to impose an award on the parties it still had to be confirmed by the tithe commission in London.

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1 Whalley G H ibid

2 Cheselbourne, Chilfrome, Fordington, Hillfield, Manston, Toller Fratrum and Winterbourne Steepleton.

3 A Grain of Truth-The nineteenth century grain averages. Wray Vamplew British Agricultural History Review