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The Tithing of Turnips

Tithes were coming under increasing pressure in the early decades of the 19th century. Not only were they seen as damagingly high, but the system had become almost unmanageable. Most of the landlords in the parish of East Meon had secured Indentures from the Diocese of Winchester which made the ‘greater’ tithes over to them, in return for annual payments, which meant that it was no longer necessary to divide their harvests and yields and deliver them to episcopal tithe barns. Lesser tithes were still paid to the vicar of the parish, and these came under scrutiny when a new vicar arrived in East Meon in 1826. A year after the Reverend Thomas Cooke Kemp was inducted as vicar, he sought to increase the lesser tithes due to him by insisting that the turnips grubbed up for animal feed be included in the tally. Pechell chose to resist the vicar’s demand, saying he did so on behalf of all East Meon’s farmers. The case was to end up in Parliament.

By 1836 1.3 million acres in England and Wales were down to turnips (compared with 1.6m for oats, 2.0m for barley and 3.4m for wheat). The dispute between the vicar and the squire arose from the way in which turnips were ‘grubbed up’ to feed sheep as they were herded behind wattle hurdles; labourers hoed up the turnips on the far side of the hurdles behind which the sheep were grazing, and in front of a further line of hurdles, through which the sheep were then allowed. Turnips used for feeding animals in this way had not previously been liable for tithing. Captain Pechell already paid £50 a year in tithes, £5,000 in today’s money, and said he could well afford the extra £11 which this would represent; he said that, as a magistrate, he was loathto take a stand against the vicar but chose to resist the demand, saying he did so on behalf of all East Meon’s farmers.

We know from the Tithe Apportionments, determined in 1851, that 70 East Meon residents paid tithes to the vicar – not only farmers, but others who occupied and cultivated small pieces of land – agricultural labourers, wheelwrights, a tailor, a brick-maker and so forth.  The position would no doubt have been very similar in 1830. The vicar received the tithes, ‘great and small’, from Westbury, Peak and Combe, and all lesser tithes, amounting to £680 per annum. He was entitled to ‘Tithes of Hops’ at the rate of 13/4d per acre: 33.48 acres of hops yielded £21. 15s. He was also apportioned tithes of £230 from each of the chapelries at Steep and Froxfield. Using the Bank of England Inflation calculator, the vicar’s receipts from all tithes and from the glebe land were £1165.00 in 1852, or £154,614 in today’s money. To put the vicar’s income in perspective, the weekly wage of an agricultural labourer in Hampshire in 1830 would probably have been about 8 shillings a week, with an increase during harvest-time.  In the unlikely event that the labourer was fully employed, therefore, he would have received about £20 a year (£2,654 in 2018).

The vicar took Captain Pechell to court in 1831: the case was heard in the Hall of Lincoln’s Inn Fields on August 3rd 1833 by the Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer.  Lord Lyndhurst was a notable politician and a brilliant lawyer. He found that ‘there was no dispute that turnips were titheable as predial small tithes, as crops’, that it was sufficient that they had been severed from the land, and that it was ‘not impracticable’ to retain every 10th turnip. Pechell’s total bill for the court case was £318.8s.11d, (£63,680 in 2015 values). He did not let it rest there.

Captain Richard Pechell RN MP, cousin to Captain Samuel Pechell RN

Early in 1835 there was a general election and Samuel Pechell’s cousin Captain Richard George Pechell RN was elected as the Whig MP for Brighton.  He decided to take advantage of his new position to right the wrong that he thought had been done to his cousin by Lord Lyndhurst’s judgment. Hansard for 19th June 1835 records that ‘Captain Pechell, MP, rose pursuant to present a Petition from Capt Samuel G Pechell Esq … complaining of the vexatious proceeding of his vicar … praying for a speedy commutation of Tithes … He did not intend any censure on the clergy generally, but to show the necessity of altering the present law of Tithes’. Pechell was referring to long-standing resistance by the Church of England to reform of Tithes. He argued the technicalities of the case. ‘If these turnips had been severed and removed from the spot either for sale or for feeding cattle or cows in a yard, then the vicar was clearly entitled to his tithe, and such could easily be set out. 

But how is it possible to set out the tithe that in the modern system of cultivation the turnip crop has been adopted on very poor and inferior soil?. Now I contend that it was practically impossible to set out the tithe of turnips intended for depasturage; and I defy the Chief Baron and all the Barons of the Exchequer to point out how the object can be attained.’ Pechell concluded by saying that he trusted ‘that this petition would be the means of drawing the attention of the House to this branch of the subject when the Tithe Bill came before it.’

Two months later, the Bill ‘for the amendment of the Law as to the Tithing of Turnips’ was passed, and a year after that, the Tithes Commutation Act received Royal Assent.

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