Short Guide to Historical Sources

The following text is a shortened version of an article that explains the historical sources used for this map series. The full version is the Guide to Historical Sources which is printed on every sheet in the series. As well as giving more detail, the printed article has some notes about the treatment of different kinds of information shown on the maps (antiquities, boundaries, field use, place-names, and so on). Each sheet also has an Archival References section which is specific for that sheet.

Each map in the Devon in 1840 series incorporates information from a number of different historical sources. Therefore, the map is not a snapshot of the landscape at a specific moment in 1840, but rather a composite work having a range of dates around that year. The most important sources are the tithe maps and apportionments of the parishes. The following is a brief introduction to these documents.

Fremington tithe map
Part of the tithe map of Fremington parish. Tithe maps are quite diverse in style and content, but this plain-looking extract is typical of most of them. The area shown includes orchards, woods, and three abandoned quarries filled with water, but you wouldn’t know it from this map! (Devon Heritage Centre: image used with permission of South West Heritage Trust.)

Tithe maps were made as a result of the Tithe Commutation Act 1836 which reformed the payment of tithe, a tax on agricultural production. Implementation of the act required detailed maps of affected areas, but there were no ready-made maps suitable for the purpose, so new ones had to be created, parish by parish. Parliament decided that the mapping work would be done by private land surveyors at the landowners’ expense. The majority of tithe maps were made between 1839 and 1842. Tithe maps normally showed every building, lane and field in the areas that they covered, and for most places in Devon it is the oldest map that shows that level of detail.

Nearly all tithe maps were drawn in manuscript only. The surveyors made one original map and two ‘statutory copies’ for each parish. The original was kept by the Tithe Commission in London, one copy was deposited in the cathedral archive of the diocese, and another copy was kept in the parish concerned. Today, the original maps are in The National Archives and the diocesan copies for Devon are in the Devon Heritage Centre. The statutory copies were supposed to be identical to the originals but differences were not uncommon in practice. Some of the diocesan and parish copies were drawn with less care than the originals, or at a smaller scale, diminishing their accuracy; other differences sometimes occurred which are harder to explain. My maps are based on the original tithe maps in The National Archives, but I have also consulted the diocesan copies and I have occasionally incorporated additional details from them.

Tithe apportionment page
A page from a tithe apportionment. (Devon Heritage Centre: image used with permission of South West Heritage Trust.)

The tithe map was only one half of the parish tithe survey. The other half was a document known as the tithe apportionment, the bulk of which was a schedule of all the fields in the parish that were liable for tithe rent-charge. The schedule was prepared by a tithe valuer, usually a different man from the surveyor who made the map. Each field was identified by a reference number which was marked on the tithe map, and its owner, occupier, field-name, cultivation and area were listed. Farm-names were usually included as headings in the schedule. My mapping of land-use and place-names is largely based on these schedules.

The coverage of Devon by tithe maps and apportionments was not quite one hundred per cent. The most important places that were left out were the built-up parts of several towns. Certain areas of countryside were also omitted; land that had once belonged to a monastery, for example, was usually tithe-free. I have tried to find alternative sources, as close in date to 1840 as possible, to fill the gaps in tithe map coverage. By a fortunate coincidence, several towns in Devon were mapped in great detail by the town mapmaker John Wood between 1840 and 1843, and I have used his maps as my main source of information for some towns (more about John Wood). In the countryside, some areas that were not shown on the parish tithe map were covered by a similar map made for another purpose within twenty years or so.

The Ordnance Survey, founded in 1791, was occupied in the early decades of the nineteenth century with mapping Ireland in detail, and England and Wales at the small scale of one inch to one mile. Maps covering Devon at that scale were first printed in 1809. The Ordnance Survey did not begin mapping Britain at larger scales systematically until after 1840. Its first large-scale maps of Devon were the First Edition sheets of the County Series. Surveys for County Series maps were made for the Plymouth area in the 1850s, the Torbay area in the 1860s, Exeter in the 1870s, and for the remainder of Devon not until 1883–9. For my maps, I have used the County Series as a ‘source of last resort’ for buildings and field boundaries in the very few places where there was no tithe map and no other alternative. I have also used the County Series everywhere to supply certain kinds of information, but only for features that almost certainly had not changed between 1840 and the survey date.

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Further Reading

Roger J. P. Kain and Hugh C. Prince, 2000, Tithe Surveys for Historians.

Richard Oliver, 2013, Ordnance Survey Maps: A Concise Guide for Historians, 3rd edition.