In April 1990 the Community Charge was introduced in England and Wales amidst much consternation among the population who were affected by its implications. The Charge had been introduced the previous year in Scotland where, to put it mildly, it had not gone down well. Indeed a proportion of the population refused to pay it; a similar situation arose south of the border.
The introduction of this form of taxation was not the first to cause a furore amongst the citizens of the United Kingdom as over the past three hundred years other taxes had been implemented which brought similar reactions. One of these was Window Tax – in simple terms a tax was levied on the number of windows a house had.
Window Tax was introduced at the end of the 17th century by Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax to provide for the expenses of Recoinage. The country’s currency was depreciating alarmingly as chipping and counterfeiting had been carried out and as a result the coinage at that time was on average half its normal weight. The coins in circulation had values as commodities apart from their monetary value due to the fact they were made of silver. Those responsible for “clipping” took part of the silver off the coin and passed them as being of full value. To prevent this coins were subsequently “milled” and this practice remains today.
Halifax was responsible for the foundation of the National Debt and he was also one of the founders of the Bank of England. The Re-coinage Act of 1696 was carried through in co-operation with the new Master of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton. The Act was paid for by the introduction of Window Tax and the first issue of Exchequer Bills.
Whilst the tax was introduced at the end of the previous century it was more prominent during the following one as Pitt the Younger had been responsible for the reconstruction of the tax system beginning with the Commutation Act of 1781. At that time duty on tea was 112% and following the act it was reduced to 25%. To make up some of the revenue lost from this source Pitt made a large increase in Window Tax. The tax was graduated, starting at one shilling (5p) per window and increased steeply in its rate per window on properties in excess of 10 windows
The tax was easily assessed and was difficult to escape from due to the fact that the windows were, of course, easily visible to assessors. There was a greater burden for wealthy people as they lived in larger houses because of their status within society and in order to accommodate their families and servants. However, the reduction in the tax on tea was of benefit to everybody. The reliance on a direct tax such as this would yield more monies to the Treasury as through time the population converted their fortune made from trade into bricks and mortar. It could be said that Window Tax had some of the moral and practical advantages of an income tax and the assessors did not need to be so inquisitive as the liability could be calculated from outside the building merely by counting the windows.
In 1792 Pitt abolished Window Tax on houses with fewer than seven windows, however, in 1797 the tax was trebled and it reached its highest level in 1808 when the minimum tax was 8 shillings (40p) per window, per annum. It was also proportionally more for houses with a larger number of windows. As a result the windows of many houses were bricked up and still remain so to this day.
The tax was paid by the occupier of the property not the landlord so workers houses were built with as few windows as possible which made them dark and, due to the lack of ventilation, very unhealthy. A halving of the tax was made in 1823 and in 1825 the seventh window was exempted and finally in 1851 Window Tax was abolished thus creating an increased demand for window glass.
Whilst Window Tax existed there were also other “odd” taxes in force which nowadays we may find hard to believe. Examples included a tax on personal servants which was imposed at a higher rate on bachelors rather than married men. It was introduced in 1785 and repealed in 1791. Another example was a tax on hair powder. Window Tax itself replaced Hearth Tax which was an annual tax of 2 shillings (10p) on every fireplace in all houses liable to church and poor rates or above a minimum rate of 20 shillings (£1) per annum. All of which makes one think that today’s tax system is not so bad after all!