Light and air for everybody: the window tax imposed on English citizens in 1696
The Victorian era was one of enormous transformation for British industry and architecture, popular also for its weirdnesses, including funerals for pets, hospitals for dead that prevented the fear of being buried alive, hidden mothers, but also very very very long hair, macabre beheaded portraits, or iconic post mortem photographies. It was also during the Victorian era that windows tax was abolished.
July 24, 1851 was the day when citizens of the United Kingdom were allowed light and air in their homes without having to pay for it. And this meant that the long-hated Window Tax had finally been scrapped.
Imposed in 1696 by William III, it was relatively easy to assess and collect as windows are clearly visible from the street.
It was a so-called banded tax, so that the more windows a house boasted, the more its owner would pay in tax and, inevitably, property owners did what they could to avoid the thing. For istance, the rich built new houses with the minimum number of windows, while the poor in their tenement housing simply bricked up the windows, making their cramped, dark dwellings even more dark.
Another ploy by the rich was to apply only one layer of bricks in parts of their new homes where they thought windows could be added later when the tax was withdrawn: just a little simple job to knock away a single layer of bricks and install a window in their place.
In the darkened houses, the bricked-up windows came to be known as “Pitt’s Pictures”, an innocent reference to Conservative Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who enthusiastically supported and extended the Window Tax.
Its abolition came after campaigners successfully argued that it was a “tax on health” and a “tax on light and air” and the medical profession in particular argued that the lack of windows tended to create dark, damp homes were a source of disease and ill-health.
The taxman certainly saw glass as a handy source of income, even if the number of windows was being reduced. The Glass Tax, introduced in 1746, lasted 100 years until, once again, protests led by doctors caused its abolition.
Also the medical journal The Lancet protested against “the enormous tax on glass, amounting to more than three hundred per cent on its value,” and described the burden as “one of the most cruel a Government could inflict on the nation.” But it also said that “the deficiency of light in town habitations, in a great measure caused by the enormous cost of glass, is universally admitted to be one of the principal causes of the unhealthiness of cities.”
Benjamin Franklin stated in 1789: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”
But, in any case, equally certain is the capacity of finance ministers to stretch their fantasy and dream up new taxes.
Before the Window Tax, for istance, there was the Hearth Tax, which was a levy on every fire hearth and stove within every house, edifice, chambers and lodging in England and Wales.
It was introduced in 1662 but was so crazy and difficult to assess that it was scrapped about 20 years later. Try to imagine officials who had to enter homes and count the number of fireplaces…
Interestingly, a report by one of the officials became of interest to historians when it was noted that Thomas Faryner, a baker of Pudding Lane, London, owned five hearths and one oven. A spark from this oven is believed to have started the Great Fire of London in 1666!
Other improbable levies include the Wallpaper Tax, which was introduced in 1712 and not abolished until 1836 while, in recent times, ex-Chancellor George Osborne introduced a so-called “under-occupancy penalty” which meant that tenants of local authority housing deemed to have a spare room would receive a cut in welfare benefits. It was quickly dubbed the “Bedroom Tax”…
Images from web – Google Research