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Guides to Our Sources

Rate Books for Family History

Parishioners were responsible for maintaining their own parish church and paid rates to the churchwardens for this purpose. It was decided in the vestry meetings how much the rate should be. Any disputes about the rate were heard in the church courts. Many non-conformists objected to paying church rates when they did not attend church and these objections grew as the number of non-conformist chapels increased. Church rates were abolished in 1868 when Gladstone’s Compulsory Church Rates Abolition Bill was passed.

Following the 1601 Poor Law Act, the payment of rates to maintain the poor became compulsory. Poor rates were approved by the justices, and any complaints about unfair rating were heard at Quarter Sessions. From the mid 17th century, parishes were also able to impose a rate for repairs to the parish roads.

Ratepayers had to pay county rates, which were decided on by the justices at Quarter Session, and collected locally by the constable. These included payments for the hospitals and the gaols (from 1700). An Act of Parliament of 1744 gave residents the right to inspect rate books. Any other rates needed for "improvements" such as building a road or a canal, or enclosing land, could be levied once a local Act of Parliament had been passed. In the 19th century, various Acts of Parliament were passed to enable rates to be imposed for works which would benefit the community, without first taking the matter through Parliament, for example the Museum Act 1845, the Baths and Wash-houses Act 1846/7, the Public Libraries Acts 1850 & 1855 and the Recreation Grounds Act 1859. District Councils were formed in 1894, and were given the authority to collect rates from householders in their district.

The earliest rate assessments were written into churchwardens and overseers account books. They usually list the householder’s name and the amount payable for his property. Later, printed books were used, and in Devon these date from the 1830’s. They list the houses street by street, the value of the property, the householder’s name and the amount assessed. Rate books often include properties which were not subject to land tax, and a run of rate books can be very useful for researching house history. It is best to start with the most recent book and work backwards. They can also be useful for family history to give an idea of when someone lived in a parish, or when family property changed hands. Rates held by the Devon Record Office can be found listed in the diocesan archives (mainly early 17th century rates), parish collections (church, poor and highway rates) and urban and rural district council records (late 19th and 20th century rates).

Useful reading

E. Cannan. "The History of Local Rates in England", 1927

W.E. Tate. "The Parish Chest", 1983

Ida Darlington. "Short Guides to Records: Rate Books",  History , vol. XLVII, 1962