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Welcome to Doodlecat, where we enjoy the pleasures of life (with a slight bias towards the outdoors). This page is regularly updated with news and views plus information about any additions or changes to the various parts of the site. It acts as Doodlecat’s Blog too, so the odd rant considered opinion may pop up from time to time.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Black Shirt & Tithe

Another delightful walk in Suffolk. The hills, such as they are, are undemanding and the countryside is easy on the eye. Pastoral – that’s the word. Gainsborough, and Constable captured the beauty of this landscape and would still recognise much of it today. A bucolic idyll, with rolling fields and meadows full of fat cattle.

But the neatly manicured countryside and woodland hide secrets – and some pretty nasty ones at that. We stumbled on one episode in this secret history during a delightful amble, when we came across this plaque in the village of Elmsett. It's placed directly opposite the church - so as to be seen by the rector every day.

Detail of inscription on Tithe memorial
The Elmsett memorial was built by Charles Westren who had furniture and goods to the value of £1,200 confiscated in 1934 in lieu of his failure to pay a £385 tithe. He emigrated in 1943, leaving this memorial as a permanent reminder.

I thought that tithes had died out long, long ago - not so. They were officially abolished in 1836, but even after "abolition" many farms remained liable to pay tithes right up to the beginnings of WW2, and indeed seizures in lieu of payment were still being made as late as 1941. The Church of England, it seems, is an uncompromising creditor.

The bailiffs were enforcing “Queen Anne’s Bounty” – a system of tithes (or taxes) originally designed to supplement the income of poor clergy. It was a perpetual fund of ‘first fruits and tenths’ set up in 1704, and reinforced by Act of Parliament in 1714. Trouble was that by the 19th century, the tithes took so much of the net income, and the collection was so ruthless,that some farmers were driven to suicide. Indeed, over a century before Charles Westren we learn of one of his predecessors:

William Bull of Elmsett, 60, tenant farmer on Rookery Farm. Unable to pay the yearly tithe of £40 and feed his wife & 11 children, he hanged himself in the barn next to the farmhouse. August 1816

Well, the church was pretty decent about the suicide, and allowed him to be buried in the churchyard on 13th August. Two of his sons later succumbed to suicide as well. No doubt about it, with the C of E battened on to you like a vampire, life as a farmer in desperate times was not easy.

Under Ramsay MacDonald’s socialist government, when you might think a fairer system would have been established, things actually got worse. The tithes had been assessed before the depression of the twenties, and were collected at the same rate, irrespective of the collapse in farm incomes. The governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty assured MacDonald that tithes would never be enforced in cases of genuine hardship – and I guess it was convenient for MacDonald to accept this assurance at face value, for nothing was done and the rapacious tax gathering continued.

Enter the Blackshirts

Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosely saluted by his blackshirtsFascist leader Sir Oswald Mosely saluted by his blackshirts

There's a similar memorial near Wortham where a confrontation took place at the rectory between the police, fascist blackshirts and landowners fighting the tithe system. In 1936, massed lines of police confronted blackshirts picketing outside Wortham Rectory. The Fascist movement was strong in Norfolk and Suffolk, particularly among non-conformist farmers, who recruited the British Union of Fascists in their campaign against the Church of England's demands for tithes. Norfolk writer Henry Williamson (author of Tarka the Otter), was both a farmer and a member of Moseley's British Union of Fascists, and helped gain sympathy for their cause.

The first resistance to tithing was by the Levellers in 1645, but their cause was crushed by Cromwell, and sixty years later Queen Anne strengthened the tithe's grasp. They were finally brought to a close by the Tithe Act in 1936. Queen Anne’s Bounty was dissolved in 1947, but much of the Act of 1714 remains in force and today its powers are devolved to the Church Commissioners.

Amazing what you find out on a walk in the country! Ramble through these villages today and there is no hint of the booted blackshirt…but then, here people no longer feel dispossessed or oppressed.

Worth a little study, this history stuff.



Blogger Phreerunner said...

Nice one Phil, I enjoy this sort of entry.
Sadly, such suicides continue up to the present day. Folk who can't pay their bills do sometimes reach the end of their tether. It's one thing I don't miss from my 'former life'.
Hope you continue to improve.

June 12, 2009 at 2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, and many thanks for posting it! I was shocked to learn that this sort of thing went on so very recently.

Organised religion of any sort? No, thank you! *shudder*

June 12, 2009 at 2:46 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Hi chaps. Glad you found it interesting. I love it when we spot something on a walk and it turns up a little nugget like this. Not the sort of history you learn in school.
Thanks for the good wishes, Martin - doing fine :-)

June 12, 2009 at 5:29 PM  
Blogger Louise said...

Hi Phil.

My mother's family came from Suffolk and I spent a lot of time there in my childhood. This was a part of it's history I was completely unaware of, fascinating!

I still love walking along a nice shingle beach, reminds me of Aldeburgh.


June 13, 2009 at 7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Tithes Commutation Act of 1836 wasn't intended to be oppressive. It converted the old system of payment in kind to money (rents). Ecclesiastical Commissioners were appointed to assess the rents to be paid. The idea was to modernise the tithes - and provide the church with money to minister in the new industrial centres. As with so much legislation, the intentions were good; the execution left much to be desired.

June 13, 2009 at 12:06 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Hi Louise. Next time we're at Aldeburgh I'll take a few pics - bit of nostalgia for you.

Anon - I think the tithes were probably pretty onerous before they were converted to cash!

June 13, 2009 at 5:52 PM  
Blogger John Manning said...

Blimey, what a beautiful but grim landscape we occupy! What an unforgiving body the church must have been.

Love the tale of Piglet managing to chow jelly babies via the mesh too - quite a pup!

June 17, 2009 at 7:15 PM  
Blogger Alan Sloman said...


I shall have to be more caeful where & when I wear my black shirt on our Suffolk walks in the future, Phil.

What with the BNP's recent successes, we don't want any confusion!

June 18, 2009 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger michael gray said...


and the black pants, the black power stretch top and the Black Down Jacket Alan. Are you trying to tell us something?

July 19, 2009 at 11:30 PM  

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