Resisting “The Assessed Taxes” in England

There was sporadic tax resistance practiced against what were called “the assessed taxes” in England in .

I’ve had a hard time tracking down just what the “assessed taxes” were — some sources suggest they were the property and windows taxes (whereby the tax-value of a building was determined by how many windows it had), while others include taxes on shop owners based on how many employees they had, and there may be others I haven’t seen reference to yet. Most contemporary accounts assume everyone knows which taxes are the assessed ones, and the movement didn’t seem to have left enough of a mark for modern commentators to have bothered to explain it for us.

The grievance that prompted the resistance is also somewhat vague. It was intimated that because the value of the assessment was meant to simulate the potential rental value of the property, this meant that smaller buildings on small plots in town were assessed at greater value than grand manors on vast estates in the country, making the tax a regressive one.

I haven’t done a thorough job of researching this campaign, but I have a handful of examples of references to it, from which I’ll reproduce some choice excerpts today. The first comes from the Royal Cornwlll Gazette on , in the form of an editorial reproduced from the Bath Chronicle denouncing “[t]he Associations which have been formed in the Metropolis for the resistance of the Assessed Taxes.” If you believe the editorialist, these Associations must have been preaching bloody mutiny:

These Associations ought to be opposed and scouted by all who wished to bear the title of good and peaceable subjects; and the Government will have much to answer for in the eyes of England, and of the world, if it does not, by force of the strong hand, teach these bands of misguided or mischievous men that they are not with impunity to bid defiance to the laws, and to wage war with the principles of civil rule.

Even that editorial, though, admitted “[i]t is allowed on all hands that the Assessed Taxes are an odious impost, and it is plain that they must be abolished.”

The Spectator weighed in , apparently quoting from the True Sun:

During the early part of last week, a table belonging to Mr. John Doherty of Manchester, late editor of the Voice of the People, was seized for arrears of Assessed Taxes, which Mr. Doherty declined paying, on the ground that he had no vote. The sale was announced to take place on ; at which time some hundreds of people assembled before the public-house, next door to Mr. Doherty’s, to which place the table was taken: however, an hour elapsed, and it was evident there was some difficulty in procuring an auctioneer. Notwithstanding the rain came down in torrents, the people did not manifest the least impatience. About , Mr. Doherty addressed the people from his chamber window. He entreated them to wait a little longer, and expressed his regret that he could not afford them all shelter from the rain. The bailiff then informed Mr. Doherty, the sale would take place at came, but no sale; and ultimately, at , the bailiff gave up the table. The people then gave three cheers for Doherty, procured a band of music, and took the table round the town in triumph.

Also in the same issue:

On , executions were put into the houses of Mr. Savage, of the Mechanic’s Institute Tavern, Circus Street, New Road, and of Mr. Brain, picture-dealer, Crawford Street, Marylebone, for arrears of Assessed Taxes. About nine in the morning, a Sheriff’s-officer, attended by several of his men, with an Exchequer writ, took possession of the goods of Mr. Brain, consisting of pictures and articles of furniture amounting to 11l. A van, which was at hand, conveyed the property to Mr. Crook’s, auctioneer to the Sheriff, Skinner Street. The officer next proceeded to the house of Mr. Savage, and exhibited his authority for distraining on his goods for arrears of Assessed Taxes amounting to 35l. Mr. Savage said, the officer might take what he thought proper. Some of the best goods on the premises were at once laid hold of; but, on the van being brought up, Mr. Savage warmly protested against the illegality of the proceedings, and accordingly called in six brokers to value the goods seized. No sooner had this gained the ears of the inhabitants, than Circus Street was literally crammed with people, anxious to witness the process, and who were loud and vehement in their expressions of disapprobation of the seizure. The Police on duty hastened to the spot, and succeeded in preventing them from resorting to acts of violence on the instant. About eleven o’clock, a large banner, bearing the words “The people of Marylebone,” was placed in the middle of the street, and the crowd continued to increase; but no violence was attempted. At twelve o’clock, the van which had been loaded with the goods drove off; and it was followed along the New Road by several persons. At the corner of Baker Street, upwards of 1,000 people had assembled; but no one endeavoured to arrest the progress of the vehicle. At length a woman, more courageous than those by whom she was surrounded, rushed through the mob, and, seizing hold of the horse’s reins, exclaimed, “What! are you Englishmen, and yet suffer these things to be done? — see what a woman dares do!” and turning instantly the head of the animal, a loud cry of “On to Savage’s!” was raised. The officers fled, and the van was then taken back to Mr. Savage’s; and the furniture would have been carried back into his premises, had not he peremptorily refused to receive it. It was then deposited in a warehouse opposite his residence. The furniture having been taken away, the owner of the van endeavoured to get out of the street with his vehicle; but the mob soon demolished the latter with hammers and stones. There was great confusion, and the shopkeepers in Circus Street put up their shutters. A small party of Police then arrived; and the owner of the van was glad to escape with his horse safe.

Mr. Savage and a Mr. Potter went to the Station-house in the afternoon, and met the Under-Sheriff and Mr. Mayne, the Police Commissioner; to whom they gave assurance that the goods would be delivered up. The Under-Sheriff said, that he thought they were concealed in Mr. Savage’s premises; but upon search being made this was found not to be the case.

There was a meeting of the Association in the evening, at the Mechanic’s Institute; of which Mr. Birch was Chairman. He made a long speech, exhorting those present to persevere in their resistance to the taxes, but not to commit illegal violence. A deputation from the Westminster Association attended, and was received with loud cheers. The room was much crowded till the meeting broke up.

The issue of The Spectator included this note, which, in part at least, seems to have been quoting from the London Times:

On , the parochial authorities of Marylebone attempted to make a seizure of the goods of a cow-keeper, in Upper Park Street, Dorset Square, for arrears of taxes. A mob of persons, about four hundred in number, soon collected; and the driver of the van intended for the conveyance of the goods deemed it prudent to drive off. The parochial authorities were locked out of the house, and they found it impossible to make the seizure.

Thirteen persons were selected in the Holborn district who had refused to pay Assessed Taxes, and who had made themselves the most prominent as members of associations to resist payment. Of the thirteen, five paid their taxes, costs, and poundage, on being applied to, and three promised at once to pay. Levies were made upon four, and no evidence of any inability to pay was visible in any of the houses. One of these was a Mr. Stephen White, a chemist, and keeper of a twopenny-post-office in Lamb’s Conduit Street. The demand upon him was under 10l. He stated that he had pawned his watch to pay the last taxes, and refused to pay. The house was well furnished; and the Sheriffs proposed to take some books from a book-case full of books in his back-parlour, as the least inconvenient to him. He begged them to leave the books and to take his bed; that his wife was not up, but that he would set her out of bed for the purpose. This, the Sheriffs very properly declined, and the matter ended by their taking a washing-stand. If the Sheriffs had accepted the offer of the husband, no doubt we should have had a pathetic story of a bed remorselessly torn by the ruffians of the law from under a delicate and interesting lady, in an infirm state of health.

The next account in my archives, also from The Spectator, comes from , and so may very well represent a different campaign against a different “assessed taxes” with a different grievance (it comes from an article about a meeting of “the anti-Corn-law Conference”):

In the Bradford Club it was proposed to resolve, that “since Government had stopped the supplies of the people, and refused relief to their distress, it was time to stop the supplies of the Government”; but that resolution was postponed, to see how the House of Commons would deal with the measure. A meeting of ladies, held at the Manchester Bazaar on , recorded their resolution–

We, the undersigned ladies of the Bazaar Committee, resolve that we will form ourselves into a provisional committee to carry out a plan of passive resistance, and for forwarding such other measures as the Conference at present sitting in London may deem best, for the obtaining the total and immediate repeal of the Corn and Provision laws. By passive resistance we understand that we will allow our furniture to be seized for the payment of Assessed Taxes without offering any resistance to the collecting-officers, urging the people not to purchase the articles so seized; and we further mean abstinence from the several taxed luxuries annexed to our names. We adopt the above pledge for three months; and further pledge ourselves during that time to use our utmost exertions to preserve perfect peace among the people.

Mr. Hume addressed the meeting at considerable length. The plan of agitation which he proposed was this—

Let them bring the subject forward in every town and village; let every man come forward and assist in the object; and let them not satisfy themselves with a simple meeting, but let every man get up and record his aye or no with respect to the principle of this taxation.

Mr. Hume urged the Whigs to take the opportunity of coming forward and joining the people; “Let them demand the repeal of these laws — no holding back, no fixed duty, but a total and immediate repeal.” He cautioned the meeting against adopting any resolution to resist taxation, for it might be illegal; but he recommended them to refrain from the use of ardent spirits, which produced a revenue of 5,000,000l.; with that, the articles of beer, tobacco, sugar, and wine, placed a revenue of 20,000,000l. at the command of the people to withhold or greatly to reduce. The electors, indeed, had it all in their own power; but what was to be expected of the electoral body who had turned him out in such a town as Leeds, and had returned a Corn-law man?

[Mr. O’Connell] gave a new turn to Mr. Hume’s objection against resistance to taxation–

My friend, and the friend of every measure favourable to the extension of civil and religious freedom, says that he did not approve of the avowed combination of the Manchester ladies not to pay taxes. He is right, in point of law. A public agreement not to pay taxes is a wrong thing; such an association may be the subject of prosecution. Oh, I wish they would prosecute the Lancashire ladies; I should like to hear one of the landed aristocracy dare to talk of prosecuting the ladies of Manchester! I tell him, the ghosts of the murdered operatives, whom the laws made for his benefit have starved to death, would not terrify his class half so much as the idea of prosecuting Mrs. Brooks and the ladies associated with her.