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The Welsh Tithe War

Casglu'r Tlysau...

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The traditional payment of tithes which sparked angry protest from farmers and led to direct action against landowners during the 1880s.

A century of change

 The nineteenth century was a century of change. All across the country, rapid innovation and development was changing the landscape at an unprecedented rate. Alongside this, the attitudes of the people were also changing. Workers became more vocal in the assertion of their rights and protest, riot, petition and strike were all frequently used weapons in the search for a better way of life.

One such issue which sparked anger and protest was the collection of Tithe payments. Tithes were traditional payments which entitled the Church to a tenth of people's annual income. Usually the payments were made in kind in the form of crops, wool, milk and other produce, to represent a tenth of the yearly production.

This payment was demanded whether or not the parishioner attended Church and in a predominantly Nonconformist country such as Wales, this naturally caused contention.

The issue of the tithe

In 1836 the Tithe Commutation Act was passed, substituting the payment in kind with a cash payment. This was designed to ensure that payment was achieved quickly throughout the country. It was as a result of this act that Tithe Maps were drawn up, providing a comprehensive study of the Welsh landscape during the 1830s and 1840s.

By that time, most farmers were Nonconformists who were contributing to the upkeep of their denominations from their own pockets. Being forced to contribute to the Anglican Church, to which they had no affiliation, provoked anger and bitterness.

There was persistent unhappiness at the situation but the agricultural depression which began in the 1870s aggravated tensions. Many refused to pay the tithe and during the 1880s enforced sales of possessions were made by the authorities in order to collect the taxes owed. This naturally led to confrontation and farmers and authorities came to blows across the country. There were disturbances in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and other rural areas but nowhere was the confrontation more pronounced than in Denbighshire.

The Tithe War in Denbighshire

Denbigh was the headquarters of the Welsh National Land League which was modelled on the Irish Land League and designed to lobby against the forced payment of the Tithe. Denbighshire farmers were not necessarily any more disgruntled that those elsewhere in the country but the presence of the League’s headquarters, combined with the influence of local man Thomas Gee, meant that tensions were particularly high in the area. Gee was the owner of the Welsh-language newspaper ‘Baner ac Amserau Cymru’ and was active in the anti-Tithe campaign.

During the late 1880s many farmers decided to take direct action and refused to pay their Tithe. This led to further enforced sales of land and property and violent protests took place in Llangwm in May 1887, Mochdre in June 1887 and Llanefydd in May 1888.  Following the incident at Llangwm, 31 protesters were sent to court and the Mochdre protest resulted in injuries to 84 people, including 35 police officers. Dubbed the ‘Tithe Wars’, the protestors’ actions were praised by Gee’s newspaper as the campaign’s momentum reached its peak. Troops were deployed to the Denbighshire area in 1888 in order to control the discontent and protect the tithe collectors in carrying out their unpopular duties.

From Tithe to Disestablishment

The ‘Tithe War’ effectively came to an end in 1891 when the Tithe Bill transferred the responsibility for the payment of the tithe from the tenant to the landlord. The struggle had served to bring Welsh issues to the forefront of the British political agenda however, being linked as it was so intrinsically to the campaign for the disestablishment of the Welsh Church. Individuals such as David Lloyd George and particularly T. E. Ellis seized the opportunity to strengthen the case for disestablishment. This was eventually realised with the passing of the Welsh Church Act in 1920. 

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