When it comes to the 1841 census, one of the greatest disappointments for family historians is that the addresses given, particularly in rural areas, tend to be frustratingly imprecise. More often than not, we just get the name of the village or hamlet.
Earlier records such as parish registers are unlikely to provide us with any detailed information about where our working-class, agrarian ancestors were living, and the ‘addresses’ given in the 1841 census seem like they’re just there to tantalise us!
Fortunately, there’s another source we can use, roughly contemporary with the 1841 census, which can help us to pinpoint the actual building in which our mid-nineteenth century ancestors lived.
The 1836 Tithe Commutation Act brought an end to the out-moded and highly unpopular system of paying tithes to the Church of England. The Tithe Commission was set up to assess the value of the individual pieces of land which were then liable to payments of tithes. The work of the Commission took about 15 years but was largely complete by the early 1840s. The records don’t cover land which had been subject to Inclosure Acts, nor most land and properties in urban areas (roughly 25% of the country) but for our rural ancestors, the Tithe records are a fantastic resource.
Details of each piece of land were entered on pre-printed schedules, known as apportionments, and arranged by parish. They record the names of the various landowners, the occupiers or tenants, the name or description of the land or property, the state of cultivation (i.e. arable, pasture, meadow, wood etc.), the area (in acres, rods and perches) and the value assessed. Each piece of land or property also has a number attached to it which acts as a cross-reference to the associated map.
The maps were created specifically to support the work of the Tithe Commission. Every building is recorded, with the boundaries of the various pieces of land clearly marked. Rivers, bridges, lakes, ponds and other significant features are also shown. They’re basically works of art!
The original records are held by the National Archives (available online at TheGenealogist.co.uk) with copies for most counties in the relevant county or local record office. Many of these are also now available online, for example, those for Cheshire can be found at Cheshire Tithe Maps Online.
It’s not difficult to see how we can use the Tithe maps and apportionments in conjunction with the 1841 census to pinpoint our ancestral residences – and this is how it works in practice.
At the time of the 1841 census, William and Harriet Harwood were living in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot Green, in the parish of Ayot St Peter. Their entry in the 1841 census is less than informative, giving their address simply as Ayott [sic] Green. William was an agricultural labourer, as were most of his neighbours; there are no obvious landmarks such as pubs or churches listed in the census to help us locate exactly where the family were living so all we can say from this is that they were living somewhere in Ayot Green.
Thankfully, the Tithe records come to our rescue. The index throws up two hits for William Harwood in Ayot St Peter, further identified, once you click on the links to view the apportionment itself, as William Harwood senior and William Harwood junior. Given that our man was aged just 30 in 1841, and that the Tithe records for Ayot St Peter date from 1838, it seems most likely that we’re looking for William Harwood junior but we can do some more checking, just to be certain.
Both men were tenants of Viscount Melbourne (the then-Prime Minister) and appear on the same page of the apportionment; William Harwood senior is recorded as the occupier of a cottage and garden (plot number 109) while William Harwood junior is at plot number 146. A quick check of the occupants of the neighbouring properties in each case reveals that our man is indeed William Harwood junior. Joseph Clarke (plot number 145) and Charles Stiles (147) appear as his neighbours in the 1841 census.
We can then turn to the associated Tithe map and quickly locate plot number 146. The image is quite blurred but we can see that the property is one of two adjoined cottages – the left-hand one – and that there’s another cottage to the right, with a row of buildings on the west side of the lane leading northwards from the Green.
The 1898 Ordnance Survey map of the area shows that not much had changed in 60 years or so – the same two adjoined cottages are clearly marked with the separate cottage to the north, set back from the road and the long row of buildings to the north of that.
And this is where an online search can really help to bring your research to life. A search for ‘Ayot Green Postcard’ (without the quotation marks) leads us to a fantastic site on the history of the parish of Ayot St Peter and a page full of old photos of Ayot Green. Of particular interest to us is this one, which clearly shows William & Harriet Harwood’s cottage, on the extreme left, with the apparently much older cottage on the right, and the row of buildings to the right of that.
And guess what? The cottage is still there, as this recent view from Google maps shows. The old cottage to the right has evidently been pulled down and replaced by a modern mock-Tudor building, but the Harwoods’ cottage is still standing, and looking good for its age!
Of course, the old postcard is a bonus and we’re lucky that the cottage is still there today but you can see how we were able to go from a vague address in the 1841 census to viewing an ancestral property as it looks today – and all thanks to the work of the Tithe Commission!
Accessing the records
The Tithe Commission produced two sets of records; a national collection held centrally in London and local copies held … well … locally! The national collection of records is now held by the National Archives and has been fully digitised and indexed by TheGenealogist.co.uk.
The following local collections are known to be accessible online:
Additionally, the KnowYourPlace website provides access to maps (including Tithe maps) for Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Devon, Gloucestershire, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
Several counties (e.g. Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Wiltshire) have digitised their collections of Tithe Maps and made them available electronically onsite and in some cases the images are available for sale.
If you know of any other online collections, please let me know.