Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Jo Beverley here talking about taxation.

I find that taxes aren't mentioned much in historical romances, but they've been around for a long time, and I'm sure most Regency people felt as taxed to death as we do today.

Can you think of a historical romance that mentions taxes, or even better, uses them as a plot point? All those impoverished families in search of a rich marriage might want to look closely at their taxable assets instead. Get rid of the carriages and block off some windows.

I'm going to mostly describe the small taxes, but a word first about one we all know well.
Income Tax was introduced as a temporary measure (ha!) to help pay for the Napoleonic Wars. It began at a levy of 2 old pence in the pound (1/120) on incomes over £60 and increased up to a maximum of 2 shillings in the pound (10%) on incomes of over £200.  £60 was a modest income, but the tax would only be 120d, or 10 shillings a year. A comfortable income of £1,000 a year would mean paying £100 a year, which would pinch a little more. It was, as we'd say today, a progressive tax as the rich would pay more than the poor.

You can read more about the progress of income tax here. 

It was abolished in 1816 and didn't return until 1841, so the characters in my recent books, all set in 1817, didn't have that burden to bear. But let's look at some others. One interesting thing is that they're all designed to tax wealth, so they were more socialist minded than we might expect.

Window Tax.
This was introduced in the 17th century as a tax on wealth and had the advantage of not obliging people to disclose their income and being cheat-proof. Windows are pretty obvious. It levied 2 shillings per house, and then the amount went up according to the number of windows, up to 8 shillings if the property had over twenty windows. I'm sure the owners of Chatsworth and Blenheim really felt the pinch! Some people bricked up windows to reduce the tax.
The picture shows bricked up windows on one side of a house on St. James's Square in London. I can't be sure they were bricked up to avoid the window tax, but it seems likely.

On to the others.

1. Armorial bearings -- if you have them and keep a coach, £2-8s pa. If you have them and don't keep a coach but are liable to house duty £1-4s. All others, 12s

2. Vehicles. If you keep a four-wheeled carriage for pleasure, £12 pa and it goes up, getting more expensive per carriage so that if you have 9 or more you'll pay £163-7s pa. And people complain about vehicle licencing today! That would be two or three times the annual income of a skilled worker, so we could say the equivalent of £80,000 or more. (c$120,000)

If you're living simply and only have one two-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse -- tax due £6-10s.

There were taxes on carriages let for hire, and on every carriage made, plus taxes on selling them and doing nearly anything to them because owning a vehicle was a sure sign of wealth.

3. Horses. The carriages aren't much use without horses. Again, there's a sliding scale from £2 17s 6d for one horse, reaching  £6-12 for twenty. That seems quite moderate, so perhaps having a horse was not seen as such a sign of wealth as having a carriage.
4. Dogs. You can own one dog and be tax-free, but more than one will cost you 14s for each. Greyhounds were taxed at a pound per dog pa, presumably because they had no use except for racing. Though I haven't come across much about greyhound racing in the Regency.

5. Hair powder.  By the Regency that's out of fashion except for court, but if you do wear it you have to pay £1 3s 6d per annum for the privilege. Exempt are the royal family and their servants; clergymen whose income is less than £100; naval personnel below commander; subalterns or lower in the army etc etc. There's a very odd line in the regulations. "No person to pay for more than two unmarried daughters." Perhaps a typesetting error? Or if you're unfortunate enough to have many unmarried daughters they can powder at will?

6. Houses -- 1l 6s up to £2 10s

7. Servants. Male servants are taxed at £2 8s for one up to £7 13s for eleven and up. Note, bachelors pay an additional £2 a year for every manservant. Bachelors were generally disapproved of and dinged in any way possible. Disabled officers on half pay may keep one servant duty free. There's nothing about female servants, so I assume the penalty for male servants is because they were a status symbol, and also the legislators might feel men could be employed in more worthwhile jobs. Anyone giving a servant a false character could be fined £20. That could be a plot point!

And then there are all the taxes on tea, sugar, beer, lace etc etc etc

Are you surprised by any of these? It must have meant quite a bit of book keeping even in a moderate household, and an enormous bureaucracy.

What would you tax today to particularly zap the wealthy over-consumers? Sports cars? Expensive handbags and shoes? Enormous houses? Too many bathrooms?


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Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, Jo. I used the huge tax on tea in the 1780s and the subsequent rise in the use of smooch - fake tea made from dried leaves and sheep's hung etc - as the basis of the plot for Wicked Captain Wayward Wife.

And of course most books on smuggling owe something to the taxes or excise duty, even if it isn't mentioned in the story.

Sharon Osenga said...

What an interesting post! Such a variety of items were taxed. Today: just tax on gross income without all of the "loopholes" the rich have so they don't pay very much...

Jane Odiwe said...

There's so much evidence of the window tax in Bath where lots of the Georgian windows are bricked up-fascinating post, Jo-what a pity they had to bring it back!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I enjoyed this post, Jo. As you say, a lot of the taxes were specifically aimed at the wealthy and, if you add them up, they would amount to quite a lot, especially for somebody like Mr Bennet living on a modest gentleman's income of £2000 a year.

The most iniquitous tax, however, was surely the tax on newspapers which was aimed at controlling knowledge - especially anything which might embarrass the government.

Fenella J Miller said...

Lots of useful information here, thanks Jo.

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