Do you know what happened at the Wortham tithe war of 1934?
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Over the centuries, Suffolk has been home to a number of wonderful women who did extraordinary things with their time in the county. Think Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Edith Pretty, and Dorothy Hodgkin to name a few.
But have you heard of Doreen Wallace, and the instrumental role she played in the infamous Wortham tithe war of 1934?
Born in 1897, Doreen was a prolific 20th century author and social activist who settled in the Suffolk village of Wortham back in the 1920s.
By the end of her life, she had published nearly 50 books – but it was the stand she and her husband took against the Church of England land tax that some might argue to be her greatest accolade.
Here to tell her story is June Shepherd, a Suffolk-based writer and former journalist who has spent years retelling Doreen’s story for all to hear.
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But how did she first come across Doreen?
“I got into journalism in the late 1970s and 80s, and it was when I was working as a features writer that I was invited by one of the national papers to write Doreen’s obituary after she passed in 1989.”
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After penning the obituary following in-depth research, one of Doreen’s family members approached June, asking if she knew anyone suited to write a biography on her.
“Her family thought her life ought to be recorded, and my husband turned to me said ‘why don’t you do it?’, as I had done all of the research for her obituary and had read a lot of her novels,” June explains.
June then spent four years researching the life and times of Doreen, putting together her findings in a biography entitled ‘Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner’.
She used a variety of sources, including being granted access to Doreen’s very own unpublished autobiography, and speaking to a number of friends and family members who knew her well.
“Doreen was a well-known local character, and she lived in the Manor House at Wortham with her husband Rowland Rash and their children.”
She met Rowland when she moved to area after securing herself a teaching job at the secondary school in Diss, and the two married in 1922.
Happily settled in the sleepy Suffolk village, Doreen spent her days on the family farm, raising the children, writing her books and teaching.
But it wasn’t long before this peaceful existence was to be disturbed, resulting in a 19-day stand-off – later to become known as the tithe war of Wortham.
Agriculture life in England was bleak in the 1930s, with many feeling the ongoing effects of the interwar depression period.
And although the Church of England was undergoing modernisation, rural parishes were still requiring landowners to pay tithes in order to keep their clergy – whether they were members of the church or not.
And at the time, tithes in Suffolk and parts of Norfolk were seven shillings an acre.
“Doreen was actually of Scottish heritage, and a descendent of William Wallace on her father’s side. She thought the tithe payments were ridiculous, as Scotland had long abandoned them, and she never understood why she had to pay money to a church that she wasn’t a member of,” adds June.
“She was always an opinionated person, and had the courage of her convictions. So when she married a farmer and saw how worried he was about trying to meet the tithe demands, I think that was what really powered her fight against them. It was also in her personality to stand up for what she believed in, and she wasn’t a shrinking violet.”
And while the couple owned more than one farm and eventually amassed around 1,000 acres, they were by no means affluent. “There wasn’t a lot of spare money, as they had to pay their employees. It was in 1934 that her and Rowland decided they were going to refuse the tithe payment.”
It took Doreen a while to convince Rowland, as he was actually a church warden at the time – but he soon came round and the two began standing their ground.
However, it didn’t take long before the bailiffs –who were working for a church organisation called Queen Anne’s Bounty – came looking for their money.
“If you didn’t pay your tithes, your animals and household goods were distrained on your land and put up for auction,” explains June.
“This happened on quite a few farms here in East Anglia and elsewhere in the country. However, the farmers soon got wise to it, and if there was a farm that refused to pay their tithes and there was a distraint auction sale, they would all bid for animals and goods at ridiculously low prices so they could return them to the farmers.”
In response to this however, Queen Anne’s Bounty took on a tougher approach and would sell the animals and goods in the north of England to prevent them from being rebought by the local farmers.
“A strong-armed band of people called General Dealers would then arrive at the farms, using quite harsh tactics to remove the animals.”
However, Doreen, Rowland and the other farmers in the area came up with a plan to thwart their removal attempts.
“Rowland suddenly decided to dig a drainage ditch just before the bailiffs and dealers were due to remove the animals. They then felled a tree which happened to fall across the drive. Nothing they did was illegal, but it did make it difficult for them to come onto the land.”
The ensuing back and forth attracted a lot of media attention – partly due to how prolific Doreen was at the time thanks to her novels.
“She promised the tithe collectors of Suffolk that she was going to use her pen as a weapon, and that’s exactly what she did. She wrote articles about it, and also retold the events in a lot of her fiction.”
The Wortham siege resulted in hundreds of people waiting across the field to witness the animal removal, and lasted around 19 days - with the Doreen, Rowland, and local farmers coming to a standstill against the police and clergy.
“Unfortunately, the animals were eventually taken, and they complied with the law in the end. But the stand they took and the fight they fought has been memorialised and is still remembered to this day.”
On land still owned by the Rash family, there is a plaque that reads:
‘The Tithe War
134 pigs and 15 cattle
(Value of £702)
Seized for tithe
Feb 22nd 1934'
In an interview years later, Doreen revealed that the bailiffs came down from Durham, as no firm nearby would take on the job. In addition, the bailiffs also wished to seize the farm’s wheat harvest, but were unable to find any farmworkers who would do it – suggesting a sign of solidarity with their fellow workers.
“However, it is also important to remember that Doreen wasn’t the only figure trying to fight against tithes at this time. Over in Oulton, A.G. Mobbs was a major figure in the movement, and he threatened to go to prison rather than pay money to the church.”
A.G. Mobbs was a local councillor and farmer who also served as the chairman of the Suffolk Tithe Payers’ Association in 1931, and county chairman for the National Farmers’ Union between 1936 and 1938.
Additionally, in Elmsett there is a memorial opposite the gates of the parish church, as a permanent reminder of the goods and livestock seized from Charles Westren of Elmsett Hall in 1932.
By the 1930s, it is estimated around 11,000 farmers and landowners pledged to fight for the abolition of mandatory tithe payments.
And while it may seem like these farmers lost their respective battles, collectively they won the war, as by the 1970s the tithe system across England and Wales was finally abolished. Farmers and landowners no longer had to pay money to the churches.
Doreen later wrote about her campaign against the forced payments in a book entitled ‘The Tithe War’.
In the book’s foreword, she writes: ‘I have a grievance, for I am experiencing the oppression of the Tithe Laws. And I have an inspiration: the courage and conviction of my fellow soldiers in the Tithe War.’
“The book was published in 1934 – but it is quite hard to get copies now, as only a limited number were published,” explains June.
June – who has worked hard to try and get many of Doreen’s titles republished in the modern era but without success – believes her work in both the literary field, as well as the agricultural one, makes her a figure worth remembering.
“I think she made her mark on the times, there’s no doubt about that. She was known across several fields - she was an artist, a pianist, and a keen gardener. She was also one of the earliest women to be university educated, at a time when women were not allowed to be awarded degrees. And her legacy can still be felt in Wortham and further afield, even to this day.”