Tithe, or the obligation to support the established church by giving one tenth of the produce of land, was a system which had matured over many hundreds of years, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century it was in dire need of reform following the industrial revolution and the growth of nonconformist religions. The substitution of money payment rather than produce had already been adopted in some areas and the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 extended this nationally; titheable lands in future being made subject to an annual rentcharge apportioned to each holding by the Tithe Commission. To define and settle the amounts payable, reference was needed to a good map or plan showing individual fields and areas. No such maps were comprehensively available, and despite pressure to have the Ordnance Survey undertake the task (they were just finishing a large scale survey of the whole of Ireland) the work was entrusted piecemeal to numerous private surveyors. Instead of uniform coverage of the country by maps of known accuracy which would have been invaluable for a host of other purposes, the result was a hugely expensive hotchpotch of ad hoc plans on different scales and specifications. Whilst these largely fulfilled the purpose, only one in six were endorsed by the Commissioners as ‘First Class’ or fully accurate.
That said, the tithe maps and their associated ‘apportionments’ or schedules of areas, ownerships, and payments, are one of the local historian’s most valuable tools, giving a detailed snapshot of most areas at the dawn of the Victorian age. We are fortunate in having a record made by a young man who assisted in 1839 in the survey for the plan of Biddulph Parish;
“MR. [DAVID] MACFARLANE had a partner in the survey of Biddulph, Mr. Robert Wyatt, and had an uncle, another Mr. Wyatt, who kept the ‘Black Lion’ in Congleton. I was to have gone to that hostelry, but by some mistake was put down at another, the ‘Lion and the Lamb’. “Is this the ‘Black Lion’?” I asked. “Yes,” said the landlord, “this is the ‘Lion’,” and thinking one ‘Lion’ quite enough for so small a town, I supposed that it was all right, and stayed there, the victim of a small swindle, my first night of any experience in hotels. The next morning it rained cats and dogs; but I set out to walk to Biddulph. Not quite sure of the way, I asked a woman whom I saw on the road whether that was my way to Biddulph. To my amazement she had never heard of such a place. However, when I had proceeded a few yards, she turned and shouted: “Hey! happen it’s Biddle you want; yes, that is t’ reet ro-ad, and when yo coom to t’ next hausen, yo mun turn to t’ reet, and t’ place is nelly two moile further on.”
“The woman spoke right good English, with the fine old Saxon plural for house; but I hardly understood her. However, I got to Biddle, found the gate that led to Whitmore Cottage, in which lived Farmer Birks, and in which lodged the two surveyors, who were glad to see me, and gave me a hearty shake of the hand. The rain had kept them in that day, and they were busy plotting their maps. The next day was Saturday, and soon after eight in the morning (a cold raw morning it was) I set out with my master for the survey. I carried the chain, and he the rods. We walked to the gate of Kinnersly (Knypersley?) Hall; there I threw the chain, and so began life. The morning was spent in surveying a part of the park, I drawing the chain and my master driving. In the afternoon we returned and had dinner, and then the three of us walked to Congleton. As there was neither rail, coach, nor carrier’s cart, it was our custom to go into Congleton every Saturday evening, to purchase our provisions and carry them to Whitmore Cottage ; and many a loaf of bread and shoulder of mutton I carried on these Saturday nights. On that night, the first, our landlord, Mr. Birks, went with us; our marketing done, we went, of course, to the ‘Black Lion’ Inn, where Mr. Wyatt, such a big, burly, honest, good-tempered Boniface! presided. We remained there for some hours. I had never smoked a pipe: I had hardly drunk a glass of ale; now I was almost compelled to smoke and drink, and we all smoked and drank. At last we rose to go home, and we were all tight. I can recollect very little of the walk to Biddulph that night; but I do remember tumbling with Macfarlane into a ditch, to the great damage of the quartern-loaf that was to form part of our provisions. I think I ought to make an exception in favour of Mr. Robert Wyatt ; he was not drunk, though a little touched. But I now found that Macfarlane was, like his father, a great toper. For four months I remained at Biddulph, each Saturday night being very like the first, only that I did not again get the worse for drink. I got accustomed to both tobacco and beer, and neither had any effect. My chief business was to keep Macfarlane on his legs as we went home.
“Land-surveying is a fine occupation, healthy to mind and body. The worst of it in my case was, that at almost every public-house we were all but compelled to have some drink. Still it was always wholesome ale, and the air and exercise prevented it producing ill-effects. But out in the open air for eight or nine hours a day, exercising the mind in the construction of triangles and other figures resorted to in surveying, drawing the chain, climbing stone walls, clambering through thorn-hedges, crossing streams that had no bridges, it was very wholesome work. Nor do I think that it was a bad exercise of the voice for one who was to become a preacher, that all day long my master and I kept up a conversation a chain’s-length (sixty-six feet) apart. It compelled me to speak up. Afterwards, when at Wolverton, a similar necessity was laid upon me, as I had to speak among the roar of machinery; and to such training may perhaps in part be ascribed the fact that I have never suffered from a parson’s sore throat.
“The parish of Biddulph is a portion of a valley running north and south. It is about four miles long and three broad. On the west the hill is some four hundred feet high, something higher at a well-known place called Mow-Cop, on which stands an old and ruined tower. From Mow-Cop the view is very fine, extending over the greater part of Cheshire, the long range of the Welsh mountains, and to the southwest, that pride of all Salopians, the Wrekin. The eastern side of the parish contains Biddulph Moor, a wild district inhabited by wild people, who lived a kind of gipsy life a large part of the year, going about the country selling earthenware from the neighbouring Potteries. I remember a public-house on Biddulph Moor which much resembled some Irish or Highland house; the donkey lived at one end and the family at the other. I must say, that defective as was the civilization of the Isle of Man, Biddulph was a great deal worse, and it was very difficult to understand the people’s language.
“The survey was finished in April, and as Macfarlane had no more work to do, I went back to the Isle of Man...”
(Hugh Stowell Brown, A Memorial Volume Chapter VII)
The frequent attendances at licensed premises may have contributed to the failure of the Biddulph map to achieve ‘First class’ status! Hugh Stowell Brown, however, turned teetotal and eventually became a Baptist minister in Liverpool.