These valuable records can reveal where your ancestors lived, and whether they owned any property, 180 years ago, says Alan Crosby
Trace your kin with mid-19th-century tithe maps
The tithe system required owners and occupiers of land to give one-tenth of their produce to the Church – from the 1530s the Church of England, even if you were Catholic or nonconformist. The main beneficiaries were the parish clergy, but in many cases private individuals – mostly major landowners – acquired ‘tithe rights’, so they benefitted instead. The system was deeply unpopular: people saw a sizeable portion of their produce going to a wealthy organisation or a rich individual. And one-tenth meant just that – one in every ten calves born, one in every ten sheaves of wheat harvested.
Although the Church authorities fiercely resisted attempts to abolish this lucrative arrangement, the 1836 Tithe Commutation Act reformed it, substituting an annual monetary payment based on the value of land. These payments were fixed, so inflation gradually reduced their value until they became token sums.
Of course, the land first had to be valued so that these payments could be assessed. After 1836 the tithe commissioners oversaw a massive exercise in surveying, valuing and recording landownership in the great majority of places in England and Wales. This produced the tithe maps, usually at a scale of 26 inches to the mile and plotting every parcel of land subject to tithes, which in most cases meant the entire parish or township.
The maps cross-referenced with tithe apportionments: large parchment sheets on
‘The earliest tithe maps date from 1837’
which was listed, for every parcel, the name of the landowner; the name of the occupier (the person actually ‘using’ the land); a reference number, also shown on the map; the name of each field; its land use and acreage; and details of the valuation and the payable charges.
The process of surveying and recording continued for over 15 years. The earliest tithe maps and apportionments date from 1837, the peak years were 1839–1843, and the last few were finished in the early 1850s. There are roughly 11,000 separate sets of tithe records from England and Wales (note that the exercise did not involve Scotland, where tithes had been reformed in the 1630s). Approximately 73 per cent of the country is covered. In the other areas tithes had already been eliminated, when a landowner bought them out by paying a lump sum to the Church, or the enclosure of the parish provided an opportunity to extinguish them.
How can family historians use this resource? Only a minority of the population is listed, so many of our forebears won’t appear. The primary purpose was recording land, not people, but if your family owned any property in the 1840s, or were tenant farmers, they will almost certainly be included (unless they lived
in a place not surveyed). The number of landowners varies dramatically – sometimes there were dozens in one parish, in other cases only one. Much more numerous were the occupiers who might also be owners (hence the term ‘owner occupier’), but were mostly the main tenants who worked the land or rented housing from the landowner. You are statistically more likely to find forebears among the occupiers, but it is important to check both columns.
Who’s Left Out?
People omitted entirely include those who occupied sub-let property, so someone who rented a cottage from a tenant farmer will not appear in the schedules. Neither will a person who rented rooms, or did not have a formal lease. In congested urban areas, with slum landlords, tithe records show only a tiny percentage of the total population, and in general they are skewed towards the ‘middle classes’ and upwards.
But if you do find a forebear, you’ve hit gold. The schedule cross-references with the map to reveal exactly which property was owned or tenanted by your family 180 years ago. Plot the holdings on a modern map and see the extent of their farm, and the location of their cottage. Learn how they fitted into local society – were they ‘top people’, or one of many small owners or
occupiers? Family history comes alive; you might even be able to visit their fields.
Three copies of the records were made for each parish (or township in the northern counties). One was deposited with the other parish records; the second was sent to the relevant Church of England diocesan offices; and the third was included with the records of the tithe commissioners. Parish and diocesan copies are usually in county record offices, although quite a few have been lost or damaged thanks to the vagaries of history (damp, fire, mould, vermin and neglect). The third set, covering the entire country, is now held by The National Archives (TNA); it is almost complete, and for the most part in excellent condition.
The subscription website TheGenealogist ( thegenealogist.co.uk), in conjunction with TNA, is working on putting all of the tithe maps and apportionments online, fully indexed and searchable; however, it will be some time before the national coverage is complete. Fortunately, there are a number of free local or regional projects.
Tracing Welsh Kin
The National Library of Wales has covered the whole principality ( places.library. wales) with interactive links between the maps, apportionments and transcribed data; modern and historic map overlays; and location pins. For the historic counties of Somerset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, Know Your Place West of England ( kypwest.org. uk/about-the-project/maps) has the maps but unfortunately not the apportionments; the website is also quite complicated to navigate.
For East Sussex and Brighton and Hove thekeep. info/collections/tithe-maps has transcribed details from the apportionment and zoomable map images. However, the map is shown in a small, square pane, so it is difficult to see a wide area – the site encourages you to buy it on CD. In addition, a warning says that “the tithe maps search function will not pull up every personal name. For a full name search, please use our online catalogue, which includes all the names recorded in the tithe apportionments.”
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies also has tithe records online ( maps.cheshire. gov.uk/tithemaps). Finally, a good site for the City of Leeds, ‘Tracks in Time’, is now part of a new resource for West Yorkshire: www.wytithemaps.org.uk.
‘TheGenealogist is putting tithe maps and apportionments online’
Well-to- do farmers at the first meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society at its show yard in Oxford on 17 July 1839