It happened in Peter Tavy – A Tale of Tithes (Bill Lane)

King William IV died on 20 June 1837 and due to the fact that his 10 children were all illegitimate he was succeeded by his cousin Princess Victoria of Kent. The news of the death of the king did not reach Tavistock until the 21st of June and despite the initial period of mourning the new Francis, Duke of Bedford, decided that there should be no delay in the collection of the Midsummer Day Quarter Day tithes.

Up until 1836 the tithe rents had been paid in kind but under the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 in kind payments were substituted by money payments. This change for tenants around Peter Tavy was very unpopular as it had frequently been possible to persuade the Duke’s Steward, Arthur Fitzroy, to take the payments in kind with unwanted goods or goods of an indifferent quality. The Steward therefore realised that he probably had a very difficult day ahead when he set out in his pony and trap on 24th June.

Having called at the Wheelwright on the main route to Ashburton at the top of Pork Hill for some adjustment to the right hand wheel of the trap which appeared to be coming loose he made his first port of call on Thomas Prout at Harragrove. Thomas was a good friend of his and a jovial hour was spent over a jug of porter which Thomas had just acquired from London where it was a most popular drink.

The next call was on Samuel Fuge at North Godsworthy. Here was a very different man who in the summer had many sheep on the moor. Samuel had readily been able to pay his tithes by persuading the Steward to take some of his barren ewes off his hands but money was a different matter. After much argument he gave the Steward about half of what was due and told him to come back another day.

On his way into the village the Steward collected the tithes due from John Dodd who lived in the cottage by Smeardon Newtake and Thomas Mudge from the cottage near the church. At this stage it was apparent that there was about to be a very heavy thunder storm up on the moor and he felt it prudent to repair to the Peter Tavy Inn for refreshments and shelter. Here were many friends sheltering from the storm and amongst them was the Church Warden who was bemoaning the fact that Parson Macbean still insisted that he clear the Inn of customers before he would start his sermon on Sundays. After partaking well, and the storm being over, he set off for Tavistock in the trap

The road from Peter Tavy to Tavistock was not well maintained and a short way out of Peter Tavy, with the Steward fast asleep and the horse keen to get home, the trap lurched into a very large pothole and the right hand wheel came off throwing the Steward to the ground. In a very dazed state he managed to disentangle his horse from the remains of the trap and decided that he would ride on to Tavistock but he was fearful that riding through the Western Union tin mine works at Harford bridge he would be accosted by some of the very rough mine workers and therefore before setting off he decided to bury the tithe takings in a nearby field to be collected on a later day when he was sober.

His fears were well founded because as he approached the bridge he saw that some miners were demanding a toll from all those crossing the bridge. To avoid paying any toll the Steward decided to ride through the ford beside the bridge although the river was in full spate. Sadly this decision was the last that he would make because, his mind still being unclear, he misjudged the strength of the river and when the horse slipped he fell in the water and was drowned.

(Author’s note. In 2015 one 1823 Sovereign, some other coins and a small part of a trap wheel were found in a field close to the Peter Tavy road. The only fictitious name is that of the Steward.)

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