IN Worcestershire the system was responsible for the killing of a clergyman and it wasn’t very popular across the rest of Europe either, but then taxation never has been.

Long before buff-coloured envelopes marked HMRC began plopping on hall door mats, citizens were required to pay their dues by way of tithes. They could be in cash or much more likely in kind or goods and the recipient was the Church, which used the income to support a network of monasteries, abbeys and assorted religious activities.

When in 1806 the Rev George Parker decided to increase his rate of tithes in the parish of Oddingley, just south of Droitwich, he was shot dead. So the process was not without hazard.

Although when Parker’s believed killer was himself bludgeoned to death, the saga entered history as the Oddingley Murders and has often been revisited over the years when news is short or someone wants to write a new book on an easy subject.

To store the tithes paid to the Church, huge buildings called tithe barns were built across the land and several local examples appear in a new book called, rather obviously, Tithe Barns by historian Joseph Rogers (Amberley Publishing £15.99).

To illustrate the size of these structures, the one at Bredon, in the south of the county, was alleged to have been used by Will Shakespeare to stage one of his plays while on tour and that would have needed somewhere big enough to put quite a few bums on hay bales.

In fact most of the tithes were related to agriculture, because in the medieval period when the system was at its height, agriculture was the main industry and farmers were required to pay one-tenth of their yield to the Church.

So the buildings were packed to the roof with perishable goods long before the days of meaningful refrigeration or preservatives. 

In order to maintain this function, a sort of Tithe Barn blueprint emerged. It was for a building with thick walls, level foundations and good ventilation, which was normally achieved by elongated slits at gable ends. In addition there were “putlog” holes in the walls which enabled basic scaffolding to be erected for extra “shelf space”.

The exposed nature of the interior allowed the draft to maintain freshness and birds to enter, keeping vermin to a minimum.

However, because so many barns were being built at the time, what was or wasn’t a tithe barn has sometimes been a matter of debate. Joseph Rogers writes of the Bredon structure: “It was built around 1350 and was likely a manorial barn.

Its past confusion with tithes barns almost certainly results from its size, style and connection with the Bishop of Worcester. Throughout the year crops ranging from wheat and barley – used for brewing – to wood and hay would have been stacked  high in the barn, with excess being transported to Tewkesbury for sale.”

Unfortunately, having survived for 500 years, the Bredon Barn fell victim to a catastrophic fire in 1980 when still used to store  hay. The restoration took three years using the same Cotswold stone and oak to repair the roof, although some timbers remarkably survived the blaze.

The vulnerability of these ancient barns was shown by one at nearby Ashton under Hill being completely destroyed by fire in 1940, despite Evesham Fire Brigade’s prompt attendance and best efforts.

The same happened to another near Kidderminster in 1960, although on that occasion careless car parking blocked the firefighters’ way until it was too late.

Bizarrely, the tithe taxation system did not disappear from England until as recently as 1966, having (reputedly) been introduced into England by St Augustine around 400AD.

Nowadays, these wonderful old barns are more likely to have been converted into museums, public spaces, private homes or even hotels. But don’t expect to settle your minibar bill by offering the reception desk six boxes of freshly picked spring onions.