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May 2017 Item of the Month

Tithe plan of Washington, County Durham

We look this month at a tithe map for the tithe district of Washington in County Durham. Similar such maps, with their accompanying apportionments can be found for most areas of England and Wales, and date from the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act in 1836 through into the 1850s. This act ended an ancient and very inefficient form of in-kind taxation of produce in payment for the services of the local clergyman, and commuted such offerings into money payments or ‘rent charges’ which were much easier to collect.

Dated 30 December 1843, this map is one of three copies that were usually produced for each tithe district: one copy was lodged with the tithe commissioners, which records are now held at the National Archives in London, a second copy was deposited with the local diocese, the archive of which is now held at Palace Green Library in Durham, and a third copy was returned to the tithe district or parish, often spending many years hanging on the vestry wall; these last ‘parish copies’ are now usually found deposited at the local County Record Office, although Washington is a rare instance where the parish copy no longer survives.

Tithe maps are very useful for many types of enquiry as they frequently provide the earliest large scale landed property survey of an area, predating in Durham the first Ordnance Survey series often by many years. Aside from the information on field boundaries, paths, roads, railways, vegetation, and buildings that are delineated on the maps, the accompanying apportionments provide consistent information about field names and areas, cultivation schemes, property owners and occupiers, and tithe rent charges. For a local or family historian this can be valuable enough, but the data from 264 tithe districts in the county, or 11,830 districts in Wales and England, can be combined to provide an extremely useful historical source, one that can be set beside later national surveys such as the Return of Owners of Land (1873), the Valuation Office Survey (1910-1915), or the National Farm Survey (1941-1943). Here in County Durham, thanks to the work of our Special Collections digitisation team, and to the efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers, digital images of all the tithe maps and apportionments are now freely available online, and transcriptions of each of the apportionments is also available upon request.

Washington tithe district has been chosen in this instance in order to demonstrate how much industrialisation and urbanisation have changed this country. In many districts this is true in the 19th century alone, but Washington was not significantly altered until its designation as a new town in 1964. So great has been the change since then that it is now hard to find common landmarks in maps of 1843 (above) and today.

Washington tithe district: map (1:6336) and apportionment (1843)
Durham Diocesan Records collection: tithe apportionments and plans

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.