“The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” – Benjamin Franklin
I write Regency romance and even in the early 1800’s tax time was looked upon with as much joy as a man having his tooth pulled. Governments do not run on the smell of an oily rag! In addition, during the Regency era, the Government had to fund the war with America, India and the Napoleonic War was raging, not to mention a Prince Regent with an eye for expensive mistresses and living.
How was the Government to raise the money they needed? Not many people had incomes, trade and barter were still the major payments for the working class. The English government had to think outside the box, so to speak, in terms of taxing their citizens.
They implemented a type of goods and services tax (GST), that we now have in New Zealand (a 15% GST on everything you buy). The English taxed newspapers, soap, tea, pins, sugar, coffee, and even horses and dogs were taxed. During the early 1800’s, the English government got very good at taxing people in unique ways. Here’s what they came up with (note they were aimed at those with wealth but also really impacted the poor, if you think about it :
1. The Window Tax (they also had a Glass Tax)
Yip- they taxed you on the number of windows in your home or business. Buildings were classed into three groups: less than 10 windows, 10-20 windows, and more than 20 windows. Worse, there was an accompanying glass tax. Now you wonder why homes had window spaces to let in light and air but no glass. The funny thing is that this tax was not halted until 1937!
Often the poor would brick up unnecessary windows to lower their tax but then they needed more candles which were also heavily taxed.
Logically this tax targeted the wealthy more than the poor. Only the well-off could afford servants. Families were charged different rates than bachelors. Eventually a sliding scale, based on the number of servants you employed, was applied to the rates.
Originally the law applied only to male servants working in homes or on estates. By the time the Prince Regent (Prinny) took over from the mad king, women servants, waiters, book-keepers, clerks, stewards, and even factory workers and farm laborers were being taxed.
The Servant Tax rates were the highest in the Regency Era, making the sheer effort of making a living and running a household an expensive endeavor. Something alluded to in Jane Austen novels. While things did get better after 1823, the tax was not entirely repealed until 1889.
3. The Church Tax
Religious organizations have always had their hands out and in the Regency period it was no different. However, given the Church of England was responsible for care for the roads, the poor, and upkeep of certain public buildings – including the place of worship – they needed to tax as well.
In addition, the Church collected tithes from farmers and craftsmen which the clergy used to live off. Also, while not a requirement, it was expected that people pay pew rental fees to the church to secure their seats for worship services. One would also have to tip the person who opened your pew box for you to sit down.
As with today, these taxes hit the poor hard and the wealthy weathered it with little complaint. The taxes drove behavior such as few windows, which then made it impossible for fresh air to circulate. The poor washed less frequently due to the soap tax and the combination of putrid air and poor hygiene increased the risk of disease and death.
So you can actually say in the Regency period death and taxes are linked!