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Tithe records introduction

The Oxford English Dictionary succinctly defines a tithe as "the tenth part of the annual produce of agriculture etc., being a due or payment (originally in kind) for the support of the priesthood, religious establishments etc.". As W.E. Tate explains in his book The Parish Chest, the system of tithes became established in the early Christian era. In England tithes are known to have been collected as early as the 8th century and the system was in operation long before the Norman Conquest. It continued unaltered well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In simple terms, a farmer was obliged to hand over a tenth of his produce as tithes for the support of the church. The great tithes (usually those of corn, hay and wool) were payable to the rector, and the small tithes (of other produce) went to the vicar. Even in mediaeval times, however, many sinecure rectories were held by corporated bodies such as Oxford and Cambridge colleges and even by individuals. After the Reformation a great deal of rectorial tithe passed into the hands of laymen. As time went by, particularly with the spread of nonconformity, resentment against tithes increased and disputes over payment became common.

By the end of the eighteenth century there was considerable pressure for reform, but it was not until 1836 that the scheme for commuting tithes for fixed payments was formally introduced in the Tithe Act. In many cases, however, this had already been achieved by local agreement. Previous attempts to deal simultaneously be general legislation with two related problems - the enclosure of open field land and tithing in kind - had failed, although in many Bedfordshire parishes the situation was dealt with at the time of Parliamentary Enclosure. The process by which the tithe owner received an allotment of land to discharge the farmers from future payment of tithe is described in Inclosure Records - Introduction |.

Particulars of the tithes payable in a parish are usually to be found in the glebe terriers, especially those for 1607, 1708 and 1822 (see Glebe Terriers - Introduction |). Incumbents' tithe account books survive for several parishes including Bletsoe 1729-1817 [ref: P36/3/1] and Old Warden 1769-1800 [ref: P105/3/1], and there are papers concerning tithe disputes in the records of the Archdeacon's court [ref: ABCP]. Further references to tithes are also to be found in Family and Estate collections and among title deeds, indexed by parish in our main subject index under "CHURCH: Churches: Property and Tithes". For property history enquiries, however, the most useful sources are the tithe maps and apportionments.

The process of substituting tithe rent charges for payments in kind under the 1836 Tithe Act involved the preparation of tithe maps and apportionments, and these are sources of considerable value to the local historian. Originally three copies were made, one (now in the Public Record Office) for the Tithe Commissioners, and the others (now usually in the local record office) for the Diocesan Registry and for the parish. Where all the property in a parish was liable to tithes, a tithe map will cover the whole parish. The Luton Tithe map of 1842 [ref: MAT 30/1/1] is a noteworthy example, covering all the hamlets as well as the area of the town. Each plot of land shown on the map has a number and the apportionment or schedule, accompanying the map records the names of the owner and occupier, the area, land use, and property names etc.

Although immensely useful, there are snags in using these records. The biggest problem is that the apportionments are arranged alphabetically by name of landowner and not numerically by plot number, and so it can take time to find details for a particular property identified by number of the map. For some of the larger parishes, separate schedules arranged in numerical order also exist, such as that for Biggleswade of 1838 [ref: X440/707]. The other problem is that although local history textbooks imply that tithe maps exist for most parishes, this is not so. Here in Bedfordshire where tithes were often extinguished at Inclosure, tithe maps and apportionents exist for only a third of the parishes in the County - 54 parishes to be precise. Some of these, such as that of 1840 for Keysoe [ref: MAT 27], deal only with the remaining tithable lands and accordingly cover only a very small part of the parish.

Full details of all tithe maps are included in our map index in the searchroom, and information on our holdings of tithe apportionments and altered apportionments is available in the brown catalogue marked "AT". Altered apportionments usually relate to small areas of land within a parish, but they include maps and they can be useful in recording later ownership of particular premises and in charting housing developments and industrial activity.

Twentieth century legislation set up machinery for the total extinguishment of tithes and tithe rentcharges, and the process of redemption has now been completed. Thus there is now in England no such thing as tithe.

Tithe Conspectus Parishes A-E|

Tithe Conspectus Parishes F-O|

Tithe Conspectus Parishes P-S|

Tithe Conspectus Parishes T-Y|