Tithes in Fontmell Magna

February 14, 2007

In a previous article we looked at the introduction and development of land enclosures in Fontmell Magna. There is, however, another aspect of agricultural economics that required legislation in the 19th century. It was the taxation system we know as paying tithes. The Saxon King Ethelwuld had granted English churches the right to collect tithes in 855, and this was confirmed by the Statute of Westminster in 1285. It was not until 1836 that the Tithe Commutation Act converted the payments ‘in kind’ to rent payments in cash. For centuries payments of one tenth of a Fontmell farmer’s production of grain crops and wool had been seized by Shaftesbury Abbey, then by the Arundell estate and the Rector, and stored in a tithe barn (of which there are still several local examples, but not, alas, in Fontmell). The many earlier individual Inclosure Acts had led to a growing number of disputes about tithe payments, and so the 1836 Act was designed to provide clarity and equity to the system.

Part of the Tithe Map of 1839

Part of the Tithe Map of 1839

The appointed Commissioners published Fontmell’s Tithe Map in 1839, the Apportionment document in 1840, and an amendment to the apportionment in 1853. The information thus provided reveals perhaps the most detailed survey of the village since Domesday (1086). Not only does the map show the disposition of every dwelling, every field, every woodland and every lane, but additionally the apportionment document lists every owner, every occupant (head of family) and the exact land measurements of closes, meads, pastures, woods and orchards. Taken in conjunction with the 1841 census, the tithe survey provides us with an unrivalled analysis of the village economy in the first half of the 19th century.
The tithe commissioners estimated the size of the parish as

 Tithe document 1922

Tithe document 1922

2853 acres and put a value on each property based on a formula that took account of the price of wheat in that year. The biggest landowner was Sir Richard Plumptre Glyn (1643 acres or 57.5% of the total) but he was not the sole landowner. In addition to the Rector (57 acres owned personally, and 33 acres of glebe land) the Bennett, Bishop, Cole, Good, Rixson, Rideout and Tucker families together owned 17.5% of the acreage. This left 25% occupied by tenant farmers and cottagers. The ‘yeoman’ farmers included Charles, James, John and Thomas Mayo, John Hall (who had Manor Farm, the largest in the parish) and James Rebbeck and probably accounted for 20%, while the remaining small holders and cottagers occupied 5%.

 Tithe document 1924

Tithe document 1924

The reform of the ancient practice of tithing thus had invaluable outcomes for historians. But its purpose was to rationalize the incomes of Church of England clergy. The then Rector of Fontmell, Robert Salkeld, was allotted £559 per annum (£17,350 today).
The tithe survey further reveals that the landowners and larger

Tithe document 1932

Tithe document 1932

tenant farmers held land scattered throughout the parish. For example, James Mayo farmed 20 separate closes, meads and orchards together with parts of land on Littlecome, New, Netton, Quarrendon and Shortland Fields. This suggests, therefore, that even though the open field system had finished, much of the layout of the 1774 land distribution had survived. In the period 1840 to 1870 the population figures for Fontmell were at a high stable level. Possibly the wasteful expenditure on widely dispersed farms could be tolerated. But when the agricultural depression of the last decades of the 19th century took hold, the incentives to consolidate farm land may have become imperatives.

Notification of the new Tithe Act, 1936

Notification of the new Tithe Act, 1936

Tithe legislation is immensely complicated and further acts were introduced in the 19th century and it was not until the Tithe Act of 1936 that the practice was abandoned, although residual payments were still made until 1977. We have a number of tithe documents in the archive which were sent to the Rev. Charles Pigott Edmonds who was Rector here from 1903 until 1949. All of them quote the date of the first implementation in Fontmell – 29th June, 1840. The elaborate system of providing tithe incomes was administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) from 1889 until 1936, when it transferred tithe accounts to the Bounty Office.
In 1943, in the midst of the war, Canon Edmonds received a

Tithe document 1936

Tithe document 1936

letter which confirmed that he would receive £665 per annum (£12,900 to-day) You can see from the various documents illustrated here that a great deal of effort was devoted to the legal machinery of paying tithes. The documents issued by MAF were quite large, with page measurements of 15 inches by 21 inches. We had assumed that the Rector received tithe income only from Fontmell land, but documents issued in 1894 and 1920 show that he also had land in the village of Corfe Castle in Dorset which provided him with £23 per annum (£1060 to-day).
The paying of tithes may at first seem remote from our life today, but their close scrutiny can help us to understand more fully our village’s heritage. In Fontmell Magna the tithe map of 1839, the apportionments lists of 1840, and the census of 1841, if studied simultaneously, provide us with an amazing level of historical detail. We can find the names of householders in the 1840 document, and all their families in the 1841 census. We can find exactly where they lived by checking the 1839 map with the 1840 list. We can find the size of their properties in the 1840 document, and what work they did in the 1841 census. We can check in the 1840 the freeholders and see who their tenants were. We can also determine from the 1840 the value of every holding and the distribution of ownership throughout the village. From the 1841 we can identify the type of work being carried out, the size of families, their place of birth and their status within the family. From this data it is possible to develop a full and clear picture of the village in the first decade of the Victorian era.

Author: Ian Lawrence