Resistance to Window & Other Taxes in Britain

A paper called “William Pitt and his Taxes” gives an overview of the desperate inventiveness of Pitt’s administration at a time when Britain was suffering from enormous war debts and war expenditures.

A couple of excerpts give hints of some of the resistance to the new taxes:

…Pitt added new taxes. First, a charge of £1 1s. for licenses to use hair powder on wigs, which became an assessed tax in . It raised £177,000 in its first year; Pitt’s opponents called it the guinea-pig tax (on pig-tails) and ceased to wear wigs; it eventually ended the fashion brought by Charles Ⅱ from the Continent.

In a description of Pitt’s “Triple Assessment” for

An important exception was that, if it were less, the taxpayer could instead pay 10 per cent of his annual income. If his annual income was under £60, nothing was due. If it was £60 to £200 a sliding scale from nil to 10 per cent applied: £60 to £65, 1120th; £65 to £70, 195th; and so on up to £195 to £200, 111th.

…Pitt hoped for revenue of £7 million, but amazing numbers of taxpayers declared their income at just under £60, so in April he revised his estimate to £4.5 million; in fact the yield was only £3 million.

And, from “A Tax on Light and Air: Impact of the Window Duty on Tax Administration and Architecture, come these excerpts about resistance to the Window Tax (a tax on the number of windows in a building, meant as a proxy for the building’s value):

Like the earlier Hearth Tax, which inspired many Englishmen to demolish their chimneys to avoid charges, the Window Tax was fraught with incessant evasion attempts and administrative obstacles. Frequent modifications, ambiguity in the tax code and creativity on the part of homeowners were the main impediments to an effective assessment and collection. Sympathetic local assessors and magistrates — who frequently prioritized protecting friends and neighbors over raising revenue for the Crown — were of little help in compensating for these problems.

This led the government to invest in a professional tax bureaucracy to replace these local assessors and the process of auctioning tax rights to profit-seeking “tax farmers.” This, of course, led in turn to the corruption of the tax bureaucracy by the well-heeled and by the wrangling of clever lawyers:

Thus, despite early advances in the management of assessed taxes and their implications for future organization, conflicts between local and central powers undermined the efficiency and authority of the Window Tax and provided ample opportunities for evasion… By , the yield of the window duties had fallen considerably, with average revenue “over £100,000 less than in . The administration of the Window Tax was decaying [quickly]… and in the tax office was at last constrained to admit that some of its officers ‘were more of a burden instead of a support’ to the administration.” Evasion of the Window Tax took place in a number of forms, including the temporary and permanent closure of windows, bribery and abuse of ambiguities in the Window Duty legislation.

In the early tax code, “no provision had been made to prevent the closing up of windows. Consequently, as during the existence of the hearthmoney, taxpayers had demolished their chimneys in order to obtain a reduction of charge, they now evaded the Window Tax by stopping up windows, opening them again as soon as the assessor had made his assessment.” The boarding up or simple camouflaging of portholes was quite common among homeowners, and in the first fifty years or so of the tax’s collection, posed a formidable obstacle to equitable assessment, especially when certain J.P.s were willing to overlook even the most obvious of schemes. In addition to simply boarding up windows until the tax collectors had gone, in many cases, residents and landlords actually filled in window openings with bricks and mortar, with the hopes of permanently avoiding assessment taxes; in new homes, windows were reserved for only the most important places.

More frequently the case in the early eighteenth century, homeowners and local surveyors sympathetic to taxpaying residents skirted the Window Tax by taking advantage of loopholes and ambiguities in the tax code. The duty was originally imposed on every window in inhabited houses. Exempted were all industrial or retail buildings and cottages “paying to the poor and church-rates,” i.e. homes of low-income residents, and “service and business premises attached to dwellings.” The Window Tax also “did not have to be paid on windows to rooms which were not lived in, such as dairies and pantries.” Numerous homeowners attempted to pass off regular living quarters as one of these service quarters to avoid tax on the associated windows. Therefore, “it seems probable that windows of garrets, and of warehouses built on to dwelling houses escaped taxation the most readily.”

Corrupt and locally biased assessors who permitted this form of evasion were little help to the central tax office in combating fraud. Politically inclined surveyors were even known to have ‘bought’ votes from local residents by promising neglect in Window Duty assessment, and by , central administration had grown anxious about declining revenue. “In the course of repeated inquiries,” conducted , the treasury “found a sorry story of windows stopped up, of J.P.s obstructing the work of assessment, of surveyors lazy and incompetent. In , the tax office ascribed the declining yield of the duties ‘mainly to the stopping up of windows to avoid the tax and to the indisposition of the Justices to act, who… excuse when they think fit.’”

On , the Commissioners for Taxes presented a report to the Lords Commissioners “relating to the Difficulties and Obstructions which have attended the Collection of the Duties on Houses, Windows, and Lights.” The commissioners provided counts of “Surveyors not being permitted in some places to do their Duty,” and detailed “the Methods which have been universally practiced in stopping up Windows or Lights, to evade the Payment of the Duties.” It was noted that in numerous cases,

Rooms in the Dwelling-house, where a few Sacks of Corn, or a little Lumber, has been laid, have been discharged, under the Name of Warehouses or Granaries… [and that] In some Parts, Inhabitants of Freehold Houses, who rent small parcels of Land (the Taxes of such Land being paid by the Landlord) have been excused from paying these Duties, upon a Parish-Officer’s alleging them to be poor… Some of the Surveyors have not been allowed to see the Assessors Books; and others not permitted to pass through the Houses, to number the Windows or Lights, as the act empowers and enjoins them to do, but were threatened at the Peril of their lives if they attempted it. The general Practice of stopping up Windows and Lights hath likewise been the greatest Prejudice to this Revenue, as the same hath been done only with loose Bricks or Boards, which may be removed at Pleasure, or with Mud, Cow-dung, Moarter, and Reeds, on the Outside, which are soon washed off with a Shower of Rain, or with Paper or Plateboard on the Inside.

The government responded by enacting a fine for anyone who reopened an unassessed blocked-up window, and by trying to reform the tax administration in such a way as to remove the obstructionist local officials from the process…

“…but when the act of arrived [in Scotland], the entire local administration went on strike, and a few small sums collected in Edinburgh never reached the receiver. The commissioners claimed that the poundage was too miserable to offer collectors; the collectors were unwilling to offend their neighbors; the tax-payers, led by the clergy, refused to pay.”

Soon…

“stopping up of windows began again, and many of the local commissioners would not allow the surveyors to interpret the act as they were directed from the tax office… The provisions for [exemptions] were interpreted as broadly as possible, and surveyors were often obstructed in the course of duty.”

The government kept tweaking the tax and the enforcement bureaucracy that was to oversee it, but although some of these tweaks proved to be setbacks to the resisters, the resisters would develop counter-strategies that would force the government back to the drawing board again. At one point, the government created a second set of officials just to keep the first set in line: “inspectors were hired by the tax office on direction of Parliament, to monitor the surveyors and report to the tax authorities on performance.” The tax, however, “was once again failing to draw sufficient revenue despite numerous revisions.”

The paper also reports on how people eliminated windows to avoid the tax, thus making Britain an increasingly dark, gloomy, poorly-ventilated place:

Assessments from demonstrate the extent to which the stopping up of lights was “a universal practice… In when the tax was extended to houses with seven windows and upwards, the number of houses in England and Wales having exactly seven windows was reduced by nearly two-thirds.” In fact, if one examines data on the number of windows in homes from just , it becomes obvious that people were extremely sensitive to the laws in place at the time. Built into the tax code, which was still in effect in were major rate increases for houses with eight windows or higher, ten windows or higher, twelve windows or higher, fifteen windows or higher, and twenty windows or higher. Not surprisingly, an unusually large number of homes had seven windows exactly, nine windows exactly, eleven windows exactly, fourteen windows exactly, and nineteen windows exactly, clearly modified or designed by homeowners to fall just under the rate increases. Even when the tax was extended to houses with six windows in , “in spite of the increase in building and population, the number of chargeable houses was less in than it had been in , or …”

Many homeowners attempted to shirk the tax on other non commercial dwelling rooms as well, deliberately mislabeling or simply rearranging the premises to suggest a service, or business function, both of which were exempted by the tax code. All it took was “a bit of furniture moving and a bribe offered to the assessor [to] reduce an individual’s charge substantially.”

This also had the curious effect of making ostentatious and gratuitous windows a trend in the homes of the wealthy as a way of showing off how little they cared about the expense of taxation.