Britain’s Anti-Tithe Agricultural Rebellion of the 1930s

God save us from these raiding priests, who seize our crops and steal our beasts, who pray “give us our daily bread,” and take it from our mouths instead. (Sung to the tune of The Old Hundred)

photo from the Niagara Falls Gazette

I tried to hunt up some more information about the coordinated tithe resistance in England in that I noted . Here’s what I found.

Some background from the New York Sun:

British Farmers Protest Tithes

Old Quarrel With the Church Breaks Out Anew.

London (U.P.). — The old quarrel between the farmers and the church over the troublesome question of tithes has broken out afresh in several counties in Great Britain.

Protests are pouring in upon politicians along with demands that Parliament revise the tithes act about which many of the complaints are centered. Appeals also have been sent to the Conservative Agricultural Committee and to high church-men.

For hundreds of years the English farmers have paid tithes. They were imposed long before the days of Cromwell, when the clergy existed on voluntary gifts of the parishioners. Later the church claimed and established a right to a tenth part of the produce of lands.

The land owners or tenants paid in kind, but this system also was found inconvenient and unprofitable to the church. The feeling toward the tithe was reflected in a harvest song, whose refrain ran like this:

We’ve cheated the parson,
We’ll cheat him again,
For why should a blockhead
Have one in ten
For prating so long like a book-learned sot,
Till pudding and pumpling burn to pot?

So, in a commutation act was passed substituting a money payment charged upon the lands, fixed on the basis of the prices of corn, barley, and oats during the preceding seven years. But the farmers still rebelled, however peacefully, to the charge.

The rector was compelled to give a dinner to collect the tithes. The farmers came and gorged themselves with meat and drink and all at the expense of the church. Six years ago the tithe act was passed, stabilizing the payment.

The farmers, hard hit by the depression, complain they are unable to make a living after paying all the taxes in addition to the tithe.

The tithes assessed vary in different counties. In most sections the landowner pays the tithes instead of the tenant. When these responsibilities are assumed by large estate companies the vicar in chosen by their representatives [sic]. The charges may be as low as fifty cents an acre, or as high as $5.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of land in England still are under tithe, and church authorities are determined to oppose any efforts toward scrapping the system.

An article from the New York Evening Post by their foreign service correspondent Morris Gilbert, mentioned some of the resistance tactics that had already been brought into service at that time:

[T]hey have made conditions very unhappy for auctioneers selling property for non-payment of tithes.

They have stampeded oxen so that the sale of them could not continue. They have browbeaten bidders so that prices adequate to pay the tithes have not been reached; they have stoned auctioneers, thrown them in ponds, plastered them with mud, slashed their tires, and organized mass resistance to tithe collecting in other ways.

Meanwhile, in spite of violent opposition, there has been an enormous amount of foreclosing for tithes in the last few weeks and forced selling of farmers’ possessions. A farm tractor went for $2.75 recently. A houseful of furniture went for $7.50, a cow for $1.50, cart horses for prices ranging from $1.25 to $4. In many cases bids were kept low by menaces and property was restored to the insolvent tithe-debtor afterwards.

The article goes on to say that the tithes were established to pay the salaries of the clergy of the establishment Church of England, but that about $5 million of the $16 million in total tithes goes to people who have obtained the rights to the tithes from the church at some point — “including various universities, colleges, charities, and private individuals.”

But in the 7,000 tithe-receiving parishes of the Church of England, about half, according to reports, are being paid under protest. There are said to be 1,000 anti-tithe farmers banded together in Norfolk, 800 in Suffolk, while the movement is strong in Kent, Essex, and Cambridgeshire.

Here is some more on resistance tactics, from the Niagara Falls Gazette:

At first they adopted a mere attitude of passive resistance. Their answer to demands was: “I can’t pay.”

Whenever a seizure was threatened, farmers and their workers from all around appeared on the scene, armed with sticks, pitchforks, and spades. In some cases barricades were thrown up, trenches were dug across approaches to the farms, gates were buttressed with tree trunks, and barbed wire fences put up.

In one case in East Anglia a farmer owed $1500 for tithes on his 300-acre farm. The bailiffs distrained on some stacks of hay. They never got any farther. The farmer’s wife summoned her husband’s friends by going to the parish church and ringing the church bell in a wild clamor. The farmers appeared on the scene in droves. And the bishop wrote her a letter, saying he could take legal action against her for invading the church in that manner!

Tithe owners who seek to foreclose come to grief. When cattle or farm implements are put up for sale, the farmer’s friends bid the articles in for a song. Not many outsiders have dared come to make a higher bid. At times standing crops of grain have been offered for sale. These sales, too, have been mainly failures, because prospective outside bidders found they could not secure in the neighborhood laborers who would cut the grain, nor machines with which to do the work.

Lady Eve Leads

In many cases the authorities have taken out warrants charging the farmers with holding an unlawful assembly. One of the leaders in resisting this attack is Lady Eve Balfour, a niece of the famous British statesman and one-time prime minister, the late Lord Balfour. Her father is the present earl.

Lady Eve is no play farmeret. She owns 150 acres and works on them herself, mostly garbed in semi-masculine clothes. She does some of her own ploughing and harrowing, drives her own truck, and superintends the market gardening. During the war, she trained farm girls and later spent several years at an agricultural college. Now she makes her own living as a practical farmer. She has denounced the tithe system as a racket and has joined the militant farmers of her district.

The struggle was still going in . Here are some excerpts from the Buffalo Courier-Express of :

Scarcely a day passes without reports of fresh violence in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Kent counties, where the farmers appear to be particularly hard-pressed. As many as 100 farmers frequently band to attempt to aid a distressed comrade whose goods and chattels are being seized in lieu of tithe payments.

A huge sign was chalked on the side of a church at Newchurch: “Clergymen, be sporty and pay for your own religion.”

During a recent sale of cattle at the same village 30 constables were called out to prevent a disturbance in the market square. When 60 farmers went to the rectory to consult the vicar they were checked by police and only two were admitted to interview the cleric.

One of the favorite devices of the embattled farmers is to lie down in front of the loaded trucks of the police as they leave a “raided” farm. Dozens of men and women take part in such demonstrations.