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Tithes : a paper read at the Diocesan Conference at Rochester, May 31, 1883


A Paper Read at the Diocesan
Conference at Rochester.

MAY 31, 1883.



[The Third Annual Session of the Rochester Diocesan Conference was held in the Corn Exchange, Rochester, on Wednesday and Thursday, May 30 and 31. Amongst the Resolutions was one on the subject of tithe, which was submitted by Mr. Granville Leveson Gower, who read the paper here printed in the form of a pamphlet.]


A Paper read at the Rochester Diocesan Conference,

THURSDAY, MAY 31, 1883.

Mr. Leveson Gower read the paper which follows, and submitted this resolution on the subject of Tithe:—

"That the law in regard to tithe requires amendment, and that it be referred to the Law and Parliamentary Committee to consider and report on the subject."

The subject of Tithe is one that at the present time occupies public attention. Like many others, it has been brought to the front by a long period of agricultural depression, and in this country, owing to the large acreage under hops and under fruit cultivation, the question occupies exceptional prominence under the head of extraordinary tithe. The subject is one that has long interested me. In my opinion it presses for a speedy settlement, and I shall be quite satisfied if I can raise a practical discussion upon it. The collective wisdom of the Agricultural Commission suggests a very slight change in the matter of ordinary and none in extraordinary tithe. I am bold enough to propose some, although I admit the difficulty that attends on any change; still I think that both in the incidence of the tithe and in the method of collecting it useful changes may be made; and we shall, I trust, arrive at some conclusion by a full and free discussion in such a meeting as this. When the question was first proposed for consideration the Very Rev. the Dean was somewhat afraid, I think, that I should take you back to the Pentateuch, and from there traverse the history of tithe until its introduction into this country. I confess that the archæological aspect of the question has many attractions, but I shall not enter into it; we are concerned with the practical working of tithe in the present day, and the grievances, or supposed grievances, under which the tithe-payer suffers. May I say thus much, that I trust the day is far distant when the principle which guided our forefathers in imposing tithe, viz., that of all which we possess, a certain proportion is due to the service of God, will cease to be recognized, or when for political reasons, or from reasons of so-called religious equality, the State will proceed to abolish specific religious endowments altogether. If the time should come when the Church of England (quod avertat Deus) should be disendowed, may we hope that at any rate the revenues it enjoys may be preserved for the purposes of religion, and not handed over to secular objects, frittered away in compensation to individuals, or scrambled for by landlords. Incomes many times larger than those now derived from tithes are wanted to deal successfully with the mass of irreligious ignorance, and vice which an ever-increasing population brings in its train. On the principle of endowment. Lord Hatherley, a strong Liberal, says in his autobiography, "I am convinced that the Church of England alone, from its organization, the wealth of its members, from its endowments, and from its parochial subdivisions, has the means of bringing home religious instruction to the people."

I wish at the outset to state that I speak as a tithe-payer to a considerable amount, and not as a tithe-owner. I trust, however, that this has not exercised undue influence on my judgment. I confess that the more I have gone into the question, the more I am struck with the completeness and care with which the Act of 1836 was drawn; it seems to have anticipated, and, as far as the altered circumstances of the present time can allow of it, to have provided for every objection which might arise; and though I venture to suggest certain particulars in which I think the present system in respect of tithes may be amended, I can hardly do so in fairness upon the ground of any great wrong or injustice to be redressed, but rather as a matter of expediency, in the interests of peace and goodwill, and with a view to meeting the objections which are raised in the present day. The Rev. S. T. Gibson, B.D., in a pamphlet on the tithe question,[1] refers the origin of parochial tithes, upon the authority of Selden, to the year 1215, from which time, that writer tells us, there has been a recognized obligation to pay them, not to some religious object, such as had existed long before, but a specific allotment of them to the parochial incumbent, and he goes on to say:—"We may accordingly assert that for many centuries the owners of the soil have had no legal right to that part of the rent which formerly was the equivalent of tithes in kind and now of tithe rent-charge. They are not really taken from the landowner. They are a reserved rent, which has never belonged either to him or to those from whom he derived those possessions. The only landowners who could with any plausibility say that they lost by tithe-rent-charge are those who can show that they have inherited their estates by unbroken succession from a date earlier than 1215. The title of the tithe owner is older than that of the landowner. The latter has received his property subject to the claim." We may, therefore, at starting, brush away the cobwebs which, either from ignorance or party agitation, have gathered round the question, and acknowledge at once, that as far as ordinary tithe goes, it is in no sense a hardship upon labourer, tenant-farmer, or even landowner; it is a prior charge upon the land, like the land-tax; a charge subject to which the owner holds his land; in assessing the saleable value of land it is taken into account; in the letting of land it is practically so much rent to be deducted before it comes into the owner's hand, a reserved rent which diminishes pro tanto the actual rent that would otherwise be paid. Our inquiry, therefore, will be limited to the incidence of it, not to its nature; and with a view to this inquiry, it will be best to notice in order the objections that are urged in the present day, and the changes proposed.

I.—It is generally suggested, and the idea finds favour with the Agricultural Commissioners, who recommend it in their report, that the ordinary tithe shall be paid by the landlord, and not by the tenant. This may sound like an important change, but in fact it is merely taking money out of one pocket instead of the other. What is tithe? It is merely rent under another name. I have had to do with scores of farm agreements; what is the regular process by which the value of land for letting is arrived at? It is worth so much, say 30s. per acre. What is the tithe? 4s. per acre. What are the rates? 3s. in the pound. The land is then let to the tenant at the figure which remains after making these deductions. In the one case the land will be let to the tenant at a rent allowing for the tithe, in the other tithe will not be considered in estimating the letting value. The proposal is that it should be collected in the same way as the land tax, which by law the tenant is allowed to deduct from his rent, and which in practice now is usually paid directly by the landlord, and this is really the requirement of the Act which regulates tithes now. It is only by custom that the tenant pays them. This alteration is one which I have advocated more than once on public occasions, but I have done so not on the ground that any principle is involved, or that it would bring about any great change, but simply because it would tend to do away with those unhappy collisions which from time to time arise between the rector of a parish and the tithe-payer, which excite irritation against the Church of England, and impair the influence of the clergyman. The present system is also unsatisfactory in this respect, that the clergy naturally shrink from putting the law in force by the remedy which they have of levying a distress upon the tenant's property, and therefore arrears are allowed to run on, and the ultimate resort is to the landlord, although he may have no means of knowing the amount of the tenant's indebtedness. If the present system is to remain in force, it should certainly be enacted that no tithe-owner who had not taken steps to enforce payment should be able to recover from the landlord arrears for more than one year previous to the current year. I foresee certain difficulties in the change; the law will have to be altered which now gives power to recover from the produce of the land, and there is this objection, that whereas the occupier is always on the spot, and to be got at, the owner is not. Speaking as a landlord, the change will not add to our happiness; it will mean one more visit of the collector, and in making deductions to our tenants I am afraid the fact will slip out of sight that they no longer are burdened with the tithe; and of this I am quite certain, that in bad times we shall go hat in hand to the clergy, and shall ask in vain as needy landlords for those kind and liberal deductions which under similar circumstances they have extended to the tenants. And here may I make a remark upon the practice which in the late bad times has prevailed very extensively of the clergy making remissions in respect of tithe. It has been pressed upon them very urgently by the tithe-payer, and has been conceded by them from motives of kindliness and generosity; but may I say how exceedingly mischievous a course I consider it, and how it tends to encourage the idea that the tithe is a tenant's charge, and stands in the same category as farm rent. If the tithe-owner is a wealthy man, and chooses to say to his parishioners, "The times are bad; you must be in difficulties owing to the losses in your business. I propose to make you a present out of my own pocket," to that I have nothing to object; but that the person on whom the collection of the tithe devolves should have instructions to remit 10, 15, or 20 per cent., as the case may be, from the tithe, is a practice utterly indefensible on principle—one that causes invidious distinctions to be drawn between those who do and those who do not adopt it (either from a conscientious objection or from inability to make the sacrifice) and is playing into the hands of those who are attacking the tithe merely with a view to further attacks upon property. I feel this very strongly, that so long as the law remains as it is the tithe-owner ought not, in fact has no right, to allow any abatement of the tithe. Of many evils this must necessarily result from it, either that the landlord in making a reduction of rent expects that the same will be made in the tithe, and makes a less reduction in consequence, in which case the remission of tithe is really made to the landlord, or else the landlord makes such a reduction as he intends to cover tithe as well as rent, in which case the tenant obtains a remission twice over.

II.—It is objected that the averages are taken over too long a period, viz., seven years, and that they should be reduced to three, or even two. The reason that this matter has acquired such prominence of late is that during the past disastrous years the tithe has been considerably above par. For instance, in 1880, after the ruinous season of 1879, the tithe-payer was paying £109 17s. It has fallen this year to £100 4s. 9¾d., and there is every prospect of a continued decrease. Bat coincidently with very low prices and bad harvests the tithe-average remained exceptionally high. This is of course very undesirable; but it is a question whether the much shorter average would not tend to make the fluctuations even more sudden. A longer average seems to give a fairer measure of value; and in the matter of farm lands and long agreements to make a calculation more easy. Mr. Gibson in his pamphlet (page 14) gives statistics to show that under a short system of averages the price of tithe in some of the late bad years would have been higher still. It all seems to me to point to this, that a fixed sum £100 of tithe to represent £100 of money, not calculated at all on corn average, would be the best change; but in these days of prospective decline in the value of tithe it may be difficult to get the tithe-payer to agree to this arrangement.

III.—The objection that is raised as to the way in which the averages are taken and the returns made from the different market towns is one which, if it does exercise much influence on the value, is a matter provided for by the Tithe Act of 1836, and can be remedied by a due enforcement of the law. I would only remark that it is a mistake to argue, as some do, that because wheat has fallen considerably in price of late years that therefore it stands to reason that the tithe ought to have fallen in the like ratio. The value of tithe depends more upon barley and oats, and both those kinds of corn are higher in price than at the time of the commutation, and are more extensively cultivated. This objection, like the former, would cease under a system of fixed money value.

IV.—Increased facilities, it is said, should also be given for redemption. This sounds at any rate promising, and if only the magic source could be found from which the already overburdened landlord could find the means to redeem, and the scheme be propounded which should be fair as between the tithe-owner and tithe-payer, what an excellent plan it would be. Unfortunately the suggestions most in favour amount simply to a confiscation of some ten per cent, of the tithe-owner's property, after deducting fifteen per cent, for poor rate and expenses of the collection. It was assumed by a writer in the Times who signed himself "Layman" that the tithe-owner did not receive more than £75 clear for every £100 of tithe. On this assumption it was proposed that, taking the total rent-charge in England at £4,000,000, this sum, as redemption, was to be paid direct by the landowners to a Government office. Of this sum 75 per cent., or £3,000,000, was to be paid by the office to the tithe-owners each year, free of all deductions, the remaining £1,000,000 to be annually invested in consols as a redemption fund. He calculated that in 47 years, from this annual investment at 3 per cent, at compound interest, there would be a sufficient fund to provide an annual income of £3,000,000, and that the tithe rent charge would then cease absolutely. A deduction of 25 per cent, from the gross is the calculation on which Mr. Inderwick's Bill proceeds in regard to extraordinary tithe. It is clear, I think, that so large a deduction would amount to a confiscation of property, and is a method which, outside Ireland, at any rate, would hardly be applied. I venture to suggest that the average value of tithe calculated since the Act of 1836 should be the starting point; from that should be deducted the expense of collection, which may be estimated at about 5 per cent, on an average (although in many cases it is much higher), and the poor rates, which may be taken as from 10 to 12 per cent. The average value of tithe since 1836 is £103 2s. There is, however, this difficulty, that we are always on shifting ground, the value changing from year to year; and therefore it might be better to take £100 as the fixed value, from that deduct 15 per cent, for rates and collection, and £85 would remain as the price for redemption. I am perfectly aware that this would not be accepted by all tithe-owners, and would be considered to involve a large sacrifice of income. At the same time, I believe that there is a large body of the clergy and lay owners who are desirous of removing the question from the arena of party politics, and who would welcome such a change, even at some loss of personal income. Where the best cannot be had, it is often the wisest course to accept the best under the circumstances. The sturdy resistance of the oak may be more to the taste of some, and they are not to be blamed for it; the more pliant disposition of the willow may be more likely to weather the storm. Earl Stanhope's Bill, now before the House of Lords, proposes these enactments, which seem to me to be in the main worthy of support. 1. That the owner of lands shall be liable for the tithe as between himself and his tenant, and out of this the parties cannot contract themselves. 2. The tithe-owner is to have a right of personal action against the land-owner without losing the remedy of distress. This is rather a large provision, and will require modifying, because it not only allows him to resort to the land to satisfy his claim, but to the whole fortune of the land-owner. 3. A deduction of 3 per cent, to be allowed on payment within one month. (I see no good reason for this clause.) 4. The tithe rent charge to be fixed at a given sum and not to vary; corn averages no longer to be required.[2] Mr. Stanley Leighton's Bill, the "Tithe Rent Charge Recovery Act," enables a tenant to recover from the landlord the tithe rent charge he has paid, and makes void all covenants to a contrary effect. Both Bills are set out on the last page but one of the Report of the Law and Parliamentary Committee of this Conference.

Another point which arises incidentally, and is worth attention, is this—whether, supposing we have got rid of corn-averages, and have established the tithe as a fixed sum, some steps might not be taken to remedy the inequality of its incidence. Without proposing to tithe land such as the woodland in the Weald, which is not subject to tithe, most persons must be aware how very unequally tithe often presses in a parish, some of the best lands, if grass or valuable building land, being very lightly charged, while poor arable land of old standing which now may have gone out of cultivation has a heavy charge upon it. I have in my mind, amongst other instances, that of a poor hill farm (acreage about 500), the rent of which is £200, and the tithe in two parishes about £90; or again, another where it amounts to nearly 5s. an acre, the letting value being about 7s. 6d. per acre. There are difficulties in the change; but I think they might equitably be made, confining the alteration within the limits of the parish, and letting the tithe follow altered values as the Land Tax does now, basing it upon the Parochial or Income Tax Assessment. Before I say a few words upon the extraordinary tithe, may I briefly sum up the alterations I have suggested, so as to keep them clearly before this meeting.

1. Tithe to be a fixed, not a fluctuating sum—£100 money for £100 tithe. The advantages of this are, that we get rid of a fluctuating tithe rent charge, high, possibly, as of late, in bad times, leading thereby to agitation arising out of what one writer calls the "demoralization of money embarrassment;" giving also the clergy a fixed, not an uncertain income, and, as I hope, tending to abolish remissions of tithe. Objection as to seven years being too long an average, and that as to returns being unfairly taken, would disappear.

2. Tithe payable by landlord, not tenant, removing thereby the ground of irritation which the present system creates between clergy and their parishioners. This can be obtained even if No. 1 should not.

3. Facilities of redemption based on a calculation of the averages taken since the Tithe Commutation Act, or by taking £100 as a fixed value, deduction being made for poor rate and expenses of collection.

4. Readjustment on different lands in a parish according to their altered value.

Extraordinary Tithe.

And now of extraordinary tithe. What is there in a name? In this case, we must admit, a great deal, and allow that to this it owes a good deal of its factitious importance. The absolute failure last year in many places of both the hop and fruit crop has given fresh impetus to the discussion of the question. I proceed to enquire (1) how did it arise? (2) how has it worked? and (3) how can it be fairly dealt with? There can be no question that it was introduced at the request of the land-owners themselves, with the concurrence in most cases of the tithe-payer. The original intention of the Tithe Commutation Act was to include the tithes of hops, fruit, gardens, &c., in the ordinary tithe. The land-owner, however, considering that the time might come when special produce such as hops might not be cultivated, and unwilling to saddle his estate in perpetuity with the charge, pressed upon, and eventually induced the Commissioners to adopt, the system which has since been known as extraordinary tithe. It is right to emphasize this fact at starting, and to show that if the tithe-payer now complains of being shackled and fettered by it, it was he who wove the chains by which he is bound. I think that in principle the tithe-payer was right, and in many cases he has reaped the benefit of it. At the same time I do not think that it was in the minds of the commissioners that the extraordinary tithe would or ought to increase to an unlimited extent. This their intention to class it with ordinary tithe I think proves. That it has so increased in many places is due to the system devised by the tithe-payer; and although, perhaps, in strict justice, as we made our bed so ought we to lie in it, there are reasons which, I think, make it desirable that a limit should be put to its extension. It is undesirable in these days of active competition with foreign produce to restrict in any way the cultivation of the land, if it does so restrict it. A tax on a particular crop is not in accordance with modern and perhaps sound fiscal policy; and one would be glad by any equitable means to allay the heartburning and conflict which in many places arise out of it. Quot homines tot sententiæ; and many and various have been the schemes propounded—redemption calculated by the Farmers' Alliance at three years' purchase, and ranging from that to so sanguine a one as 31, propounded by a Rev. Canon belonging to this county. Perhaps the most original and thorough-going suggestion was made to the Commissioners by a Mr. Bryant, a gentleman living in my own neighbourhood, who has lately purchased his estate, who gave it as his opinion that extraordinary tithe should be abolished without any compensation whatever. He subsequently qualified it by suggesting that the nation should pay it; but to this I am afraid the Chancellor of the Exchequer would raise objections. The scheme which seems to find most favour, and which was strongly advocated by Sir Mordaunt Wells at a large meeting held lately at Tunbridge Wells, is to redeem the extraordinary tithe at a fixed composition, and to place it as a permanent change upon the ordinary tithe. To this I am decidedly opposed. The merit of the scheme devised in 1836 seems to me to be this—that instead of charging the tithes permanently with the proceeds of a crop which is acknowledged on all hands to be of a fluctuating character, the extra charge is only made when the particular crop is grown. I feel most strongly that in dealing with the extraordinary tithe we are bound to keep it as it has hitherto been, absolutely distinct from the ordinary. Redeem it or compound for it if you will; and probably this would be done upon terms favourable to the tithe-payer; but in any such scheme the lands subject to extraordinary tithe should bear the cost of it; and if it be commuted into a fixed payment, that payment should be divided rateably among those who under the old system would have been liable for extraordinary tithe. No one will dispute that hops are cultivated with a view to larger profits than can be made by ordinary tillage; and taking an average of the last seven years, such profits have been made. Is it not manifestly unfair that A, an owner of poor land in any parish, or at all events of land which could not possibly be planted with hops, should be called upon to pay extra tithe for B, whose land may be thoroughly suited for them, when he is not in any way to share the profits of such cultivation? "Whatever might have been done at the commutation, to throw the burden now of extraordinary tithe upon the ordinary is to my mind to intensify the evil. I have never been able to understand how it is that the extra tithe, which in the award is declared to be so much per acre, should follow the corn averages, and fluctuate with them. If nothing else be done, I consider that it ought to be the sum per acre fixed by the Act without any variation. Am I satisfied with the present state of things? I am not. I do not consider, as I said, that the intention of the Tithe Commissioners was that extraordinary tithe should go on increasing ad libitum, and I should wish to see a limit put to it. The Act of 1873, which declares that extraordinary tithe shall only be charged upon newly cultivated market ground, where such extra tithe was distinguished at the time of the commutation, points in that direction, and rather, I think, aggravates previous inequality. The mere accident of living in a parish subject or not subject to extra tithe ought not to determine the liability of newly cultivated gardens. Having admitted the principle that newly cultivated gardens in parishes not subject to extraordinary tithe should not be charged, the same principle should be adopted in parishes subject to it; hops or fruit gardens newly cultivated should not be made to swell the amount of extraordinary tithe already existing, but should contribute rateably towards the amount now charged on a plan which I will propound directly. My own parish of Titsey is not subject to extra tithes, whereas Limpsfield is. I know a case on a farm of my own where the tenant, in cultivating hops, studiously adheres to the boundary-line of the parishes, in order to avoid the extra charge. This is an anomalous state of things. The scheme I propounded at a meeting of tithe-payers a short time ago was to this effect:—That an average either for seven years or for a longer period should be taken of the produce of extraordinary tithe; that the charge should be fixed at that point as a maximum beyond which it should not extend, however much the acreage might do, while on the other hand it might fall below, if the special cultivation were diminished; the 15s. per acre, or whatever the extraordinary tithe might be, still being taken as the charge per acre. To make it clear. Suppose a parish in which the extraordinary tithe on the average of seven or more years is fixed at £30, the calculation for extra tithe being taken at the original figure, say 15s. per acre. That £30 would represent 40 acres, subject to extra tithe, at 15s. Suppose the acreage to increase to 60, the amount to be levied being the same, 10s. per acre would be the charge to be assessed rateably. On the other hand, supposing the cultivation to decrease to 30 or 20 acres, 15s. on such acreage would be the sum to be levied, viz., £22 10s., or £15 respectively, all future plantations to come in for charge rateably. Do you say that this is hard? That a limit is fixed beyond which it cannot increase, while it might decrease to any extent. I say that it is liable to sudden fluctuations and even extinction now; that I do not believe that the tithe-owner would suffer, because it is unlikely that the acreage of hop or fruit gardens would materially decrease; in fact, the charge being smaller in proportion to the quantity cultivated, this plan might tend to increase it. I get these advantages. I still recognize the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary tithe. I make the charge upon those who grow the more paying crop; and do not impose it as a permanent charge on the ordinary tithe. I stop an unlimited increase of it, and by spreading it rateably over a larger area I make the incidence of it less heavy. Regard this scheme with favour or disfavour, it has this cardinal principle, which I wish to enforce, that ordinary tithe shall be kept quite distinct from extraordinary, and that the former shall not be made to bear the burden of the latter. As to redemption, I am afraid that at best it would be a slow process unless the number of years purchase were fixed so low as to be practically a confiscation of the tithe-owner's property; and that I should be sorry to see. Mr. Inderwick's Bill, which is more moderate than many, proposes to take the value of £100 at £75 as a basis for the redemption of the extraordinary tithe. As to payment by the landlord, I consider this would be unfair. It is purely a tenant's question. He grows the crop, and does so with the knowledge that he will have to pay an extra charge. The landlord is already put to the expense of building oast houses and rendering himself liable to the valuation for hop-poles, &c., which is a very heavy one. We should all probably agree that to leave the question where it is would not be satisfactory. We want to lift it out of the domain of passion and party politics; to recognize the grievance, if there is one, and to devise a settlement on fair and equitable terms. I have suggested one, liable, I have no doubt, to criticism and open to objections which I may have overlooked. I only beg those who follow me to criticize it as an honest, and, I hope, fair attempt to deal with this difficult question, and would say,

"Si quid novisti rectius istis
Candidus imperti, si non, his utere mecum."
  1. A Discussion on the Objections made to the present Tithe Law, 1881.
  2. Since this was written, Earl Stanhope's Bill has been rejected.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.