The window tax of old England

Old house

The “window tax” was a property tax, originally introduced in 1696, during the reign of King William III. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was enforced in England, Ireland and Scotland, as well as in France.

Profit and debt

During the late 17th century, income tax was opposed by many since it would necessitate disclosing personal income. It was seen as intrusive for the government to know such private matters and was also considered a potential threat to personal liability.

The window tax was introduced during 1696 to replace the Hearth Tax (a tax based on the number of fireplaces in a property). Wealthy people lived in large houses with lots of windows so paid more tax, poor people lived in small houses with few windows so paid less. The tax was therefore considered fair. When William Pitt the younger became Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of 22, Britain’s economic condition was verging on catastrophic. The national debt was £250 million, which was 20 times more than the annual revenue received from taxes. At this time, national bankruptcy was a strong possibility.

Because of Britain’s dire economic situation, Pitt decided to increase the window tax, tripling it in 1797. The tax was seen as quite profitable; it was easily administered and difficult to avoid as windows could easily be counted from outside the building. It was a form of direct tax that was paid by those most able to afford it.

Daylight robbery

Bricked up windowWhen the Window Tax was increased by William Pitt, thousands of windows were bricked or boarded up overnight. The bricked-up windows can still be seen today in some old properties. There was an apartment building in Edinburgh that had an entire floor of windowless bedrooms.

The tax was proving unhealthy. The poor were being denied light and air; it is thought that the term ‘daylight robbery’ comes from the enforcement of the window tax. Charles Dickens famously noticed the problems with the tax. “The adage ‘free as air’ has become obsolete by Act of Parliament,” he said in 1850. “Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the Window Tax. We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to all, at so much per window per year; and the poor who cannot afford the expense are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.”

It is explained in a post on the Parliament website, “The negative impact of the tax on health was well known from the early eighteenth century and was written about in pamphlets and popular ballads. Those living in accommodation without sufficient light and ventilation were more subject to epidemics of typhus, smallpox and cholera. According to Dr D B Reid’s report on the sanitary report of Sunderland, published in 1845, the local Health Committee have “…Witnessed the very evil effect and operation of the window tax; and they do not hesitate to declare that it is their unanimous opinion that the blocking up of the numerous windows caused by the anxiety of their owners to escape the payment of the tax, has, in very many instances, greatly aggravated, and has even…in some cases been the primary cause of much sickness and mortality.” 

The window tax had other consequences. Glass-making should have been a growing industry at the time. However, records show that during 1810-1851, glass production remained the same in Britain – despite there being housing boom at the time. Britain’s window tax was repealed in 1851, 156 years after first being introduced.

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