Operation Sock, the Battle of the Ducks and the Tithe War of the 1930s 

Guest post written by John Bulaitis, author of The Tithe War in England and Wales, 1881-1936.

A story in an old Dover newspaper caught my eye. It described how in September 1934 around 100 farmers, farmhands and their friends had assembled in late evening at a local inn. They arrived with a password – ‘operation sock’. Soon they were travelling in a convoy of cars and trucks down the Dover Road: 

The night was dark with patches of fog, and as the cars approached the lane to West Court Farm a couple of scouts were sent out to cut the telephone wire. The gate was locked so it was taken off its hinges. A cordon was immediately thrown around the farm buildings and cottages. A farm labourer, Arthur Lee, was woken by his wife and opened his door to the men. He gave a statement to the police: ‘One of them grabbed me by the neck and pulled me outside. They had a handkerchief tied across their faces.’ They asked if the farm was Ecclesiastical Commissioners: ‘We want the stuff which was brought here this afternoon, a Bull, a Sow and the ducks’. 

The story also featured prominently in the national press. ‘Ducks “in Custody”’, announced The Daily Mirror; ‘Ducks Seized in Tithe Distress’, reported The Times. ‘Tithe Battle of Ducks’ screamed the headline in the London Evening Standard over a report of ‘an astonishing story’ that ‘will go down in Tithe War history’.  

I simply had to know more. 

A bitter conflict 

The history of the tithe is a complex one. Its origins shrouded in the mists of time, most people know tithe as a medieval tax: ten per cent of produce paid to the Church. Yet most people are flabbergasted to learn that in England and Wales tithe was still collected, albeit in cash form, during the interwar years. As well as the Church, tithe was collected by Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, public schools (Eton, Winchester, Bluecoat School, etc.), hospitals, insurance companies and aristocrats.  

The ‘tithe war’ of the 1930s began when farmers – organised by the National Tithepayers’ Association – launched a campaign of ‘passive resistance’ and refused to pay the charge. In response, titheowners took out court orders to seize produce and household possessions, selling the goods at auction or by tender.  

The ‘war’ became increasingly bitter. My book’s front cover has a photo of protesting farmers burning effigies of titheowners. One of these was ‘The Arch of Cant’, a thinly disguised reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ‘Battle of the Ducks’ was an attempt by farmers to seize back goods that had been forcibly removed by General Dealers Ltd, a shadowy company set up with subterfuge and at great expense by the Church in an attempt to break the farmers’ movement. 

The combatants in the tithe war

The Tithepayers’ Association left no official archive – though I found traces of its activities in local collections. As I shared my research at local history society events, people came forward with documentation from family collections. Some recounted stories. I learnt about George Cooper – known as the Smarden Martyr on account of being jailed for disrupting an auction – from his great-great grandson. The Church of England archives contained a rich documentation, which amongst other things allowed me to piece together a warts-and-all story of General Dealers Ltd. 

The dramatis personae include the main political figures of the day. But pride of place goes to lesser-known personalities, many of them colourful characters, including: 

  • Canterbury Cathedral agent, Frank Allen, who after collecting for the Church championed farmers as secretary of the National Tithepayers’ Association; 
  • the ‘Fighting Parson’, Rev Roderick Kedward, Methodist minister and former Liberal MP whose fiery oratory galvanised the movement; 
  • Cambridge-educated novelist, Doreen Wallace, who married a Suffolk farmer and found herself at the heart of the conflict; 
  • former Labour MP and trade union official, George Middleton, who as First Estates Commissioner masterminded the Church’s response to the tithe war. 

There is also the thorny question of the involvement of fascists in the farmers’ campaign. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and Nazi sympathisers such as Viscount Lymington and George Pitt-Rivers all played a role. 

This piece of local history turned into a major research project. I explored the Tithe War, how it was organised and the problems it caused for the Church, government, political parties, and leading farming and landowning associations. This tale also has a wider historical significance. As, today, farmers across Europe join marches and protests – often supported by forces from the extreme-right – the Tithe War is a story we all can learn from.  

JOHN BULAITIS is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. His book “The Tithe War in England and Wales, 1881-1936: A Curious Rural Revolt” is out now, in the series Boydell Studies in Rural History. 

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