Tax is always with us. Could it be worse?

gold coins for taxI’ve been reading a fascinating book, Follow the Money, by Paul Johnson (yes, the one who is Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies). It includes passing references to financial history, including tax and the kind of revenue-raising choices made by British governments over the centuries.

I’ve written before about some of them, like the tax on footmen. I’m sure that, like me, you knew about the window tax, too. But had you heard about the brick tax? Or the glass tax?

No, me neither. Or if I had, I’d forgotten.

So today’s blog is going to be about types of tax in British history, some successful, some not. And, yes, it will include income tax. (Do I hear booing from the back stalls? No surprise there.)

Taxes pay for wars. And that includes income tax

The first “income tax” in England was possibly the tithe instituted by Henry II in 1188 for the Third Crusade. It was a tenth—tithe means a tenth—of both income and movable property. And since Henry II was a tough cookie, he probably ensured it was all collected.

Cartoon Pitt demands Income Tax

Courtesy of the British Museum

In the UK, income tax as we know it dates only from 1799, under William Pitt (seen above, demanding 10% from John Bull’s annual income of £200). The cartoon is very anti, but paying income tax came to be seen as a patriotic duty during the French Wars and so there was less avoidance than there might have been. Once the war was won, however, the country wanted no more of it.  So it was abolished in 1816, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. There was even a public burning of all the related records. (However, the canny Treasury kept copies—are you surprised?)

Back to the old-fashioned and long-established system of raising money for the state via other routes. Down with Income Tax!

Which prevailed for a while…

But then, in the early 1840s, the budget deficit became so worrying that, in 1842, Sir Robert Peel’s new Tory government had the bright idea of introducing income tax as a temporary measure.

Peel had opposed income tax during the previous year’s election but, as we all know, promises made during election campaigns don’t mean much, do they?

And temporary?

Well, income tax has been with us ever since.
Without a break.

Getting at bachelors

I chortle at the the idea of a bachelor tax. (Not for spinsters, please note.)
It all started with the Romans, apparently, who wanted men to marry and have children. Marriage alone wasn’t enough: childless married people were also taxed. The Empire needed soldiers, after all, and workers, and taxpayers…

Bachelor tax, Puck Magazine, late 19th century

Puck Magazine, late 19th century, on the Bachelor Tax

And when England became involved in the Nine Years’ War against France, under the new monarchs, William III and Mary II, it wasn’t long before more money was needed to fund it. So various taxes were brought in, including the Marriage Duty Act in 1695. (You can see examples of parish lists via that link.) It imposed a duty on births, marriages and burials; it also taxed widowers and bachelors over 25.

lovers against fire backgroundSt Paul said “better to marry than to burn”, didn’t he? Well this was a case of “better to marry than to pay tax”. Of course, while the man who married would avoid the continuing bachelor duty, he would have to pay the (one-off) marriage duty instead. Catch 22?  😉

The Marriage Duty Act didn’t work very well and only lasted about 10 years. The Nine Years’ War was over by then, but Britain was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1715) instead. More taxes needed?

Poor bachelors. The later tax on servants (1785) and Pitt’s income tax both discriminated against bachelors. Tough, eh?

Property is easy to find and easy to tax. Or is it?

Houses and land are there, immovable. They can’t be hidden away. So it would seem easy to tax them. But revenue men have to allow for human ingenuity.

Take the window tax.
That was another tax introduced (in 1696) to help pay for William III’s wars (and not repealed until 1851).

It was initially levied at a flat rate of 2 shillings per house per year, plus an extra 4 shillings for 10-20 windows, and 8 shillings for 20 windows or more. Those rates were increased several times and were much higher during the Regency, especially as the threshold for extra tax had been reduced in 1766 from 10 windows to 7. (Guess how many windows new houses tended to have?)

Avoiding (or reducing) the window tax wasn’t too difficult. Either you built your new house with fewer windows, or you bricked up the ones you already had. It’s not clear which was the case for the Georgian terrace shown here.

light can be subject to taxAnd if yours was the room with the bricked-up window? Also tough. You don’t really need light, do you?

Actually, you do. And the glass tax of 1745 (to pay for the cost of the Jacobite Rebellions?) further reduced your access to it.

Here’s The Lancet thundering against it in 1845, the year it was abolished:

In a hygienic point of view, the enormous tax on glass, amounting to more than three hundred per cent on its value, is one of the most cruel a Government could inflict on the nation …

orangery with lots of glass to taxSo, in the Regency period, if you had a house with lots of large windows, or, perhaps even more expensive, a succession house for your peaches and grapes, you were telling the world that you were very wealthy indeed.

Taxmen can be innovative

light bulb idea for new taxTreasury men can be inventive when they’re rooting around for revenue-raising ideas. I’ve blogged before about the tax on hair powder. Another part of the trend towards immovable property was the brick tax. It was introduced in 1784 to help pay for yet more wars—in the American colonies, this time.

It must have seemed a great idea. Building houses needs bricks, so if we tax the bricks (initially at two shillings and sixpence a thousand) we’ll get lots of revenue because a house needs thousands of bricks.

Wilkes' Gobs large bricks to avoid brick tax

By MaltaGC – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Um. It depends.
On the size of the bricks.

Not surprisingly, bricks got bigger, especially after the duty was raised to 5 shillings a thousand, in 1797 (for the French wars this time).

The image here shows Wilkes’ Gobs oversize bricks in the wall of a warehouse in Measham alongside modern bricks in a bridge. Don’t you love the name “Wilkes’ Gobs”?

The Treasury men fought back by levying higher rates on larger bricks. And the tax didn’t help the quality of construction, especially as it was also levied on tiles and pipes. As a result, poorer people might not be able to afford drainage pipes for their houses.

In spite of the downsides, the brick tax was not repealed until 1850. Perhaps the revenue collectors thought they could afford the repeal since income tax was then well established? Besides, Britain wasn’t involved in a major war at the time. That would come a few years later, in the Crimea…
Wars and taxes, eh?

Till the pips squeak?

Many of these taxes, like those on windows and glass, would be paid by the rich. “Tax the rich till the pips squeak” is a misquote from Denis Healey, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974-79. He actually said he would “squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak”. But the misquote trips off the tongue better. A terrific rallying cry for those who do not see themselves as rich, possibly?

Benjamin Franklin by Duplessis

Franklin by Duplessis

All of the above (and there are many more taxes and duties I haven’t covered) suggests that Benjamin Franklin had it right when he wrote (in 1789):

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

I agree, though I think wars might be in there somewhere, too.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


Chelsea and its Flower Show

Mary Poppins arriving with open umbrella and Gladstone bag constructed of dark blue flower heads, with a bush of pale orange and cream flowers filling the bag and almost the same size.Chelsea in Bloom 2023

Mary Poppins, Royal Avenue, Chelsea

Last week was the Chelsea Flower Show. I aIways beam at the enthusiastic visitors who pour down the King’s Road on their way to the Show. (Love a good enthusiast!) But somehow this year the excitement has seemed a bit muted.

Normally the Flower Show People — you can tell them by the floral outfits, exciting hats and sensible shoes for hours of walking — are a pretty cheery bunch, even in the pouring rain. This time, the worst excess of the weather has been no more than overcast. But too many of the visitors have looked harassed.

It made me really grateful for the display at the end of Royal Avenue: a Mary Poppins of indigo flowers, Gladstone bag in hand, flying in to save the Mr Banks in all of us. Her author, P L Travers (her blue plaque currently obscured by builder’s fencing), lived two streets away in Smith Street,

Chelsea in Bloom

Carousel ponies among flowers in the Mary Poppins floral display, Chelsea 2023Mary Poppins, together with her accompanying carousel ponies, are entries in a floral street art competition, supported by the Cadogan Estate, in conjunction with the Royal Horticultural Society. Since 2006, it has become a traditional companion celebration to the Chelsea Flower Show itself. Continue reading

Scottish myth, history and engineering

Falkirk Wheel. Marsupium photography via Wikimedia Commons

Those of you who dropped into the Liberta Blog over Easter might have noticed I was a tad slow with my replies to the comments…

That’s because I was busy exploring a little more of Scotland. The Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies, to be exact.

Most of you will know that my main interest lies in the history of the 18th and early 19th century, but although the Falkirk Wheel did not open until 2002, its heritage and engineering dates back way beyond the Industrial Revolution.

As far as Archimedes, in fact.

Let’s go back a bit for more engineering

Continue reading

How the Union Flag has evolved

When I wrote about coronations a few weeks ago, I didn’t mention flags. But for the 2023 coronation, they were everywhere, weren’t they? Strings of bunting featuring the Union Jack (or Union Flag, if you prefer). So I thought I might blog about the origins and evolution of the flag we all recognise and take for granted.

Many, perhaps most, national flags are fairly simple, perhaps just three coloured stripes, like the French and German ones. The Union Jack is much more complicated, as is the flag of the USA. That’s another flag that has evolved and may continue to do so, like the differences in our languages. Dame Isadora has blogged about that, more than once 😉

Amercian and English spoken

Two Nations divided by a common language  Rawf8

The Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to use the full title. And so the flag should represent the constituent parts. But does it? Where is Wales, for example? Continue reading

Promoting a book : tips from Liz Fielding

“One of my first bosses in the industry told me that publishing is a hits-based business. Publish enough books, the hits will buoy up the titles that don’t sell many copies. Now more than ever, it feels like there’s often a push from on high for more volume – throw more at the wall and more will stick – but often, it’s very much a case of more for less: more books without more marketing spend; more output but no more budget for quality editorial and design; more authors but no more resourcing to ensure good author management.”

From an article in The Bookseller, May 2nd(NB the link may not be accessible for everyone).


Murder among the Roses by Liz FieldingGood news for Liz Fielding fans!

She has a new book out!

This time she’s giving us a mystery set in one of her much-loved English country towns, Murder Among the Roses. I pre-ordered it and read it in one gulp, deep into the night. I can tell you, it has her signature tone of kindly humour, allied with a cracker of a mystery!

As a fellow writer who is pretty clueless about all things marketing, I wanted to ask Liz about the practicalities of promoting a book which is, for her, a new type of story.

Promoting a book: when to start and who does what

Q1  When did you start to tell people about Murder Among the Roses, Liz?
Has it set you any new challenges?
Continue reading

Coronation excess: Napoleon, George IV, William IV

St Edward's Crown used in British coronation

St Edward’s crown used in coronation

You may already be fed up with coronation information and PR. However, my blog this week is not about next Saturday’s coronation of Charles III. It’s about earlier ones, specifically about the outrageously extravagant coronation of George IV on 19 July 1821.

Well, the long Regency is my period, isn’t it?

And although the Regency ended on the death of George III on 29th January 1820, the coronation had to be delayed from August 1820 because the new king wanted to deal with the “problem” of Caroline of Brunswick.

He didn’t succeed in divorcing her, but he did succeed in keeping her out of his coronation.
She died two weeks later, still Queen Consort, but never crowned.

Why was George IV’s coronation so extravagant?

Two basic reasons. First, the new king’s love of excess. Second, Napoleon. Continue reading

Rumour and Scandal – Pru and the stuff of romance novels!

Libertà launches with fanfare of trumpets

It is always an exciting moment for an author when their new book is published, so I hope you will forgive me for indulging in a little fanfare today! I’d like to introduce my heroine, Pru.

Who doesn’t like a bit of gossip? Pru, for one

Illustrated London News

Prudence Clifford is one of the main characters in my latest Regency, The Night She Met the Duke. It hits the shelves at the end of this month.

So, here’s a little bit about Pru and her story. Continue reading

Year of RomCom?

Rosie M Banks, sexual frankness2023 is turning out to be the year of the RomCom movie. This has come as a surprise to me. But I heard it on BBC Radio4, Woman’s Hourand it certainly sounds about right. Their researchers know of 36 new RomComs scheduled for release this year. (The clip starts 27 minutes in, if you’re as interested as I am.)

It started me thinking about romantic stories in general. And wondering — could the same be true of books? Continue reading

Not Mrs Beaton: Sarah Mallory tries Regency cooking

Fellow authors will understandWoman businesswoman working, files, clock this foray into Regency cooking.

I was having a very busy time, planning a holiday, sorting out the family, finishing one book, starting another, looking at the dust highlighted by the spring sunshine…

So what to do first?

I decided to take part in an online course on Regency cooking. What else??? Continue reading

Do troubles always come in threes?

Troubles always come in threes. Isn’t that what they say?

I’m writing this on April Fool’s Day and, boy, do I feel like an April Fool.
Let me explain my trio of troubles. Continue reading