The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Decay or restoration?

Guy Smith looks at the fate of some of Dorset’s remaining tithe barns

The tithe barn at Whitcombe

The tithe barn at Whitcombe has been impressively restored in recent years

The future of the tithe barn in Swanage was until very recently less assured. Formerly the home of Swanage Museum, the Grade II listed building dates from the 18th century and occupies an idyllic setting close to the town mill pond. However, when the museum relocated in the face of mounting maintenance costs, the tithe barn became redundant. A new owner is currently engaged in repairing the roof and replacing the doors.

The initials LVM are carved, together with the date 1590, into one of the roof beams of the tithe barn at Court Farm, Sydling St Nicholas. They are believed to belong to Lady Ursula Walsingham, wife of Sir Francis Walsingham, courtier to Elizabeth I and renovator of the barn. Over four centuries on, it aure when the Church began collecting them but the levying of tithes had certainly been preached as far back as the 6th century. Dr Thomas Wood in An Institute of the Laws of England defined tithes as: ‘The tenth part of the increase yearly arising from the profits of lands, stocks upon lands, and the industry of the parishioners, payable for the maintenance of the parish priest, by everyone who has things titheable, if he cannot show a special exemption.’

These exemptions tended to be peculiar to each ‘tithe district’ and included Crown and unproductive lands but most commonly took the form of moduses, small customary payments in lieu of a tithe. There were three types of tithe: predial (fruits of the earth), mixed (animal products) and personal (the gains of a man’s labour). Personal tithes applied to tradesmen, artificers, millers and fishermen.

Until the mid 17th century, most tithes were paid in kind, necessitating the building of large tithe barns to store what was collected. However, this practice was already in decline when the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 reformed the way the Church was financed, replacing a host of unpopular and inconsistent local practices with a cash payment linked to the fluctuating price of wheat, barley and oats. The need for large storage barns was at once removed.

The Great Barn at Abbotsbury

The doorway to the Great Barn at Abbotsbury

A number of tithe barns do still exist in Dorset today. The Great Barn at Abbotsbury, once the largest in England, is perhaps the most impressive. Built in the late 14th century, it was designed to last for five hundred years. The fact that only half the barn was still intact by the beginning of the 18th century had less to do with the standards of construction in the 1390s and rather more to do with the anti-Papal sentiments of Henry VIII, whose dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541 consigned the barn to nearly two hundred years of neglect. When originally built, the barn was about 270 feet long. Its roof of split stone slates rested on two rows of twenty supports. Two porches and three doorways were located in its northern façade, while another two entrances punctuated its southern facing stonework. Threshing and winnowing also took place inside the barn on raised wooden floors, while the huge doors provided not only space for carts to enter the barn but also a means to create the draughts necessary to winnow the grain.

New farming methods implemented in the 18th century saw the barn’s fortunes (and those of others like it) revive. A thatched roof was added, using reeds from the adjacent swannery, and a new wall was erected to separate the renovated half of the barn from the ruined portion, which was not needed. As recently as 2005 the roof was re-thatched, again using swannery reeds, and the building now lays claim to being the largest thatched barn in the world. Today it is used as a children’s indoor play area and forms part of the Abbotsbury Children’s Farm. In 1965 it provided the setting for the harvest supper in John Schlesinger’s film version of Far From the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie and Peter Finch.

Another tithe barn to have been put to new use is that at Hinton St Mary, which was converted into a theatre in the late 1920s by George Pitt-Rivers. Besides hosting amateur dramatic productions and concerts, it has also been used for political meetings, the infamous Sir Oswald Mosley being one of the orators to have held rallies there.

The barn at Cerne Abbas

The barn at Cerne Abbas was converted for domestic use in the late 18th century

The barn at Cerne Abbas, a Grade I listed building, is now an imposing private residence, having been partially converted in the late 18th century for domestic use. Gothic sash-windows replaced all but two of the original loop lights or wall slits, while in the 1920s further mock medieval improvements were made and the thatched roof was torn off in favour of stone flags. Like the barn at Abbotsbury, Cerne’s tithe barn also has connections to Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy having attended meetings of the local scientific society there as well as including a description of the building in his novel.

Tarrant Crawford tithe barn has fared less well over the passage of time and its only literary claim to fame is its inclusion in English Heritage’s 2008 ‘At Risk’ list, in which its condition is described as ‘very bad': ‘the northernmost two bays of the roof have now wholly collapsed’, while scaffolding supports part of the neglected structure. Built in the 15th century, the barn was renovated 300 years later, as a gable stone dated 1759 testifies.

Winterborne Clenston's tithe barn

The original chequered pattern of the roof of Winterborne Clenston’s tithe barn can be seen to the right of the temporary patching

Another Dorset tithe barn to appear on English Heritage’s ‘At Risk’ list is that at Winterborne Clenston, a 16th-century specimen which has suffered a partial roof collapse. The roof, dating from the 19th century, has been patched up and stabilised using scaffolding. It is of an interesting hammer-beam design and is reputed to have lain originally atop a monastic building at Milton Abbey.

Those tithe barns in Dorset that have not been converted to new uses have tended to deteriorate without the support of a sympathetic patron with the passion and the means to repair and maintain them. While Tarrant Crawford and Winterborne Clenston barns await such benefactors, the tithe barn at Whitcombe near Dorchester has already found one (or two, to be precise). Author Minette Walters and her husband Alec bought the Grade II listed tithe barn close to their home in 2007 and wasted no time in commencing restoration work, the bulk of which was completed by the spring of 2008. The barn needed stabilising and re-thatching and now, standing beside the A352 between Broadmayne and Dorchester, the restored building is a head-turning sight and will remain so for years to come.

The tithe barn at Whitcombe

The tithe barn at Whitcombe has been impressively restored in recent years

The future of the tithe barn in Swanage was until very recently less assured. Formerly the home of Swanage Museum, the Grade II listed building dates from the 18th century and occupies an idyllic setting close to the town mill pond. However, when the museum relocated in the face of mounting maintenance costs, the tithe barn became redundant. A new owner is currently engaged in repairing the roof and replacing the doors.

The initials LVM are carved, together with the date 1590, into one of the roof beams of the tithe barn at Court Farm, Sydling St Nicholas. They are believed to belong to Lady Ursula Walsingham, wife of Sir Francis Walsingham, courtier to Elizabeth I and renovator of the barn. Over four centuries on, it and some of Dorset’s other surviving tithe barns await the Walsinghams’ 21st-century counterparts to step forward and leave their mark upon them.

Swanage's tithe barn

Swanage’s tithe barn once house the town’s museum but is now a domestic residence

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