For those who were at the Centre’s first event of the new academic year, a joint occasion where the Centre was in partnership with the Agricultural Museum, Brook, they experienced a great treat when Dr John Bulaitis give the Nightingale Memorial Lecture. As those who have read earlier blogposts will know, John was due to talk about ‘the battle of the ducks’, and these 56 Indian Runners, not your average farmyard fowl, were very much in evidence, but so were a bull, a sow and sundry other agricultural items, including a hayrick, as well as the inventor of bar billiards.

What is particularly striking about the ‘Tithe War’ of the 1930s is that this is still within living memory for some; indeed tithe itself was not fully abolished until 1977, so this is not some archaic practice lost in the mists of time, but still resonates today. In fact among the audience on Friday were men whose fathers and grandfathers had been on opposite sides of the proverbial barricades during the ‘tithe war’.


Professor John Nightingale of Magdalen College, Oxford, introducing Dr John Bulaitis (hidden behind John Nightingale)

at the start of Fourth Nightingale Memorial Lecture

Those directly involved in the ‘liberation’ of the ducks and the returning of them to their ‘rightful’ pond at Beechbrook Farm in Westwell had begun their campaign when between 70 and a 100 people, mostly young men and some with trucks, had congregated at the ‘Half-Way House’ on the Dover Road. This was not far from Shepherdswell where the ducks had been taken on the orders of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to their farm called West Court Farm, run by their tenant. The ducks and other livestock had been seized because the farmer at Westwell, the Rev. Roderick Kedward, had refused as a matter of principle to pay the tithes demanded of him. Reports about this night-time raid in September 1934 were reported in the national press the following day, making the Church authorities even more furious. They thus sent their agents, General Dealers, to retake the ducks, and the other items that had not been collected during the first sequestration, and also persuaded the Police to provide a substantial guard at West Court Farm for the whole of the following week.

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ policy of seizing goods in lieu of tithe payments required them or their agents to turn the goods into cash, and initially the means used for the latter was to auction them off. Yet following several very public debacles (Ruckinge and Stelling Minnis in September 1931) where those sympathetic to those refusing to pay tithes put up ridiculously high bids and otherwise disrupted the auction process, the authorities turned to alternative methods – public tender using the services of possession men, and hence the ducks’ episode.

Just from the names of the places mentioned so far it is clear that these anti-tithe farmers came from different parts of Kent, and there were certain ‘hot spots’ in the county, namely the areas around Sandwich and north of Dover, the Weald and the Romney Marshes. Such areas were not that far from earlier centres of discontent, as at Barham Downs in May 1834 when about 3000 people met to denounce the evils inflicted by tithe, or again in the early 1880s when the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported in 1883 that support for tithe protestors was especially strong in the Weald. Indeed, Mr Cooper is still known as the Smarden martyr having been sentenced to a month’s hard labour at Maidstone jail for his actions again the Church authorities.

Furthermore, Dr Paula Simpson found evidence of such resistance in the 16th century, and even before the Reformation during the later Middle Ages. Equally, it is also roughly the same foci where these earlier tithe disputes were at their greatest, and such a geographical pattern similarly has something in common with first areas of Lollardy and later non-conformity. Not that Kent was the only place in the British Isles where tithe was bitterly contested and in the modern period, as John said, other places included Wessex, Sussex, East Anglia, and interestingly Wales. Again, as he suggested, we need to think about issues surrounding non-conformity and also nationalism (and/or an anti-London feeling in the form of seeing the capital as remote and urban, unable to understand rural society).

Thus, John provided a perceptive analysis of the place of tithe disputes as part of the social and cultural contexts of resistance and rebellion in the English countryside, before turning to the immediate conditions that were important in the problems of the inter-war years. He discussed these under 4 themes: the major changes in land ownership after the Great War when tenant farmers bought farms, paying ‘over the odds’ which necessitated large mortgages; the post Great War legacy of tithe payment levels that were pegged at what had become unrealistically high levels, which was coupled by a move to centralised collection of tithe through offices at Westminster Abbey; the new agricultural depression of the late 1920s and into the 1930s; and finally the activities of an increasingly militant group known as the National Tithepayers Association.

Towards the end of his lecture John spent some time discussing the important leaders of this Association. In particular he considered the strategic contribution of Frank R. Allen, who, having worked for the Dean and Chapter at Canterbury Cathedral in the collection of tithes, knew many of the farmers personally, the difficulties they were experiencing, and, for his later role, had an insider’s knowledge of exactly how the system worked. He seemingly changed sides as a consequence of a particularly nasty dispute with the Dean in 1924, which amongst other things cost him his pension. Other important individuals were the Rev. Kedwood we met earlier as the owner of the ducks, Kinglsley Dykes, a father and son: George and David Gill, Ebenezer Haffenden and Alderman Solley of Sandwich. While not going into details here, the important issue is that such men advocated a wide range of political views – from fascist to communist – but were bound together in their common hatred of what they saw as an out-dated system that exploited the rural community mercilessly. Yet, as John reported, sadly so far modern historians have failed to appreciate the significance of this political movement in the countryside. In part this is a consequence of an almost total focus on urban society, and even where such matters as the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the Swing Riots have been discussed, tithe has either been ignored or seen as ‘curious’ or ‘amusing’, rather than giving it due weight as an important political and social phenomenon – something John is in the process of correcting.