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The Origins of Tithe:

In 1428, lands were granted from Witheridge to the Priory at Cannington in Somerset. The fact that the Pope and Bishop were concerned with this grant would tend to indicate that the lands were already Church Property. This part of the village became Witheridge-Cannington, the rest being Witheridge-Bradford, and, to ensure that the vicar received sufficient funds from the land to fulfil his obligations to the Church, and to support himself, the Bishop set out in great detail which land belonged to the nunnery, and which to the vicar.

This document tells us something of the agriculture of the time in Witheridge, and what constituted the 'vicarial tithes'. The vicar received the tithes of "beans, peas, and apples growing in the ancient gardens, the tithes of coppice wood and that of calves, colts, lambs, suckling pigs, kids, geese, pigeons, eggs, wool, milk, cheese, butter, plus flax and hemp growing in the ancient gardens".

The tithe was originally an annual payment of an agreed proportion (originally one-tenth) of the yearly profits of cultivation of land or farming, which was payable by all parishioners to the Parish Church, to support it and its clergyman, and was in theory payable on three categories of produce:

a) All things which grew and which increased annually e.g. grain, vegetables and wood.

b) All things, which received nourishment from the ground, lambs, calves etc, and animal produce such as milk, hides, eggs and wool.

c) The produce of man's labour, particularly the profits of mills and fishing.

There were two forms of Tithe, the first, known as the Great Tithes, or 'rectorial tithes', was commonly paid to the Rector of a Parish, and were paid from corn, other grains, hay and wood. The Rector, often living away from the actual parish, usually appointed a vicar to act in his stead as parish priest or vicar. Because the vicar would not entitled to the Great Tithe, it was usual to provide him with The Small Tithe, also known as 'vicarial tithes', based on all other things that grew, such as vegetables, fruit, hops, animals, animal produce, milling and fishing profits, as a basis for his living. This Small Tithe represented around a third of the total parish tithe.

The payment of tithe was a cause of endless dispute between the tithe owners and the tithe payers, and in many cases, between clergy and parishioners. The difference in value between the two tithes, and consequently the income between the Rector and the Vicar, could be quite considerable, and in many cases the tithe income often went to an absentee Rector. This resulted in the Vicar doing his utmost to increase his income by making such produce as acorns or fallen apples tithable! There was further cause for dispute after the Reformation, or Dissolution of the Monasteries, between 1536 and 1540. Much church land, and in many cases, the accompanying 'rectorial tithes', passed into lay ownership. These tithes became the personal property of the new owners or lay impropriators. Usually a vicar continued to have spiritual oversight of the parish and to receive its 'vicarial tithes'. Additionally many members of non-conformists groups had objections to paying any tithes to support the established church.

Almost every agricultural process and product attracted controversy over its tithe value. By the eighteenth century, the complex legislation surrounding the tithe began to have a detrimental effect on the increasing numbers of farmers working for agricultural improvement. Tithing had become increasingly irrelevant to the needs of the community, and to the developing agricultural industry. From early times, although most payments were in kind, these had in some cases, been replaced by cash payments, and with the advent of Parliamentary enclosures, (which mainly occurred in the 18th and early 19th century, to improve the land and its yields), this trend was further encouraged. This enclosure, prompted by local landowners, was a purely local affair; achieved by the passing of an individual Act of Parliament, called an Enclosure Act. This Act set out procedures for enclosing medieval open fields into newly laid out field parcels, and made provision for new roads to provide access to the fields. The existing tithe payments were abandoned and compensation given to the Tithe-owner. Usually by removing the obligation to pay tithes, either by allotting land to landowners in lieu of tithes, or by substituting a fixed money payment, called a 'corn rent'.

Early in the nineteenth century, it became clear that the system whereby tithe payments continued to pass to the tithe-owner, often the Church, though Lords of Manors were also included, was in need of reform. Disputes between the tithe owners and the tithe payers had become more frequent, and the tithe was becoming increasingly difficult to collect. In response, the Government passed the Tithe Commutation Act in 1836. Tithes would still payable in most of the parishes in England and Wales, but in future payment 'in kind' would be replaced by monetary payments.

These monetary payments, reviewed on an annual basis, would be a fluctuating money payment, based on the average price of wheat, barley, and oats. This annual review of the payment for each tithe owner would reflect the variable nature of the amount of farm produce in good and bad harvests, and preserve the purchasing power of the payment. Every piece of tithable land was to have a corn rent-charge or tithe rent-charge (a monetary value) assigned to it, and a record kept, so that any future prospective purchaser of land would know exactly what he would have to pay annually to the tithe owner. It also permitted comparison between the value of a given piece of land and its tithe obligation. Those existing 'corn rents', previously established under any old Enclosure Act, were left unaffected, and continued to be paid instead.

With the appointment of Three Tithe Commissioners, the long process of tithe commutation began. Assistant Commissioners were appointed to survey every parish listed in the census returns in England and Wales, and all over the country meetings took place to find out how much commutation had already taken place. Parish boundaries were also scrutinised and mapped, and the resulting maps detailing these boundaries became known as Tithe Maps. Tithe Districts were established to distinguish them from parishes, and although in most cases Tithe Districts corresponded with existing parishes, the Commissioners could, if necessary, form separate districts.

This huge effort to survey the country in the 1840s gives us the first detailed view of the rural landscape of England and Wales. If the tithe-owners (clergy or lay owners) and landowners failed to reach any agreement between them, the Tithe Commissioners would make a compulsory Tithe Award. When an overall value for the tithe in a district or parish had been determined, the resulting tithe rent-charge needed apportioning fairly among the lands of differing quality and various uses within the parish. This resulted in each parish having the results documented in a Tithe Apportionment. When a landowner was also the tithe-owner, and effectively had to pay the tithes to himself, the tithe rent- charges were 'merged' in the land, in other words, 'the liability to pay tithes on that land was cancelled', or the land was 'free of rent-charge liability', and this could happen before or after the apportionment took place.

One copy of Witheridge's Tithe, dated 20 October 1837 remains in the County Record Office in Exeter.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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