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Wealth Taxes at Barton-on-the-Heath

With much talk of a mansion tax, it is worth briefly revisiting a past attempt to impose taxes that, although initially considered fair and regressive, later turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. The ‘hearth taxes’ imposed by the post-restoration Stuart governments have some resonance with the much-mooted mansion tax.

The history of the hearth tax illustrates many problems of imposition of taxation on wealth rather than income, but from the accompanying seventeenth century tax returns the historian can glean a mine of information about the population of the period. The first hearth tax was introduced in 1662 at the annual rate of two shillings per hearth or stove (10p for those readers of more tender years than the writers) and, although intended to be fair, fell more heavily on those with multiple or larger residences. There were initially no exemptions to the tax, but these were quickly introduced for those who paid no poor rates or church rates, inhabited a house worth less than 20 shillings in annual rent, had assets worth less than £10, and for hearths in a hospital or alms-house with modest income.

The tax was subsequently amended to a levy on occupiers of properties rather than owners, and was collected in two halves, at Michaelmas, 9 September and Lady Day, 25 March. In later amendments to the legislation large landowners who were also MPs attempted to manipulate clauses to their own advantage. Meanwhile many ordinary folk blocked up or hid their hearths and chimneys in an attempt to escape their dues. In Churchill during 1684 there was a disaster where 20 houses were burnt after a baker diverted his own chimney into a neighbour’s hearth! In time the hearth tax became resented by the bulk of the population who equally disliked the powers given to constables to enter premises to search for undeclared hearths. These constables soon became known as ‘Chimney Men’ for obvious reasons. In 1689, at the end of the Stuart dynasty, the hearth tax was finally abandoned.

The hearth tax returns and associated exemption certificates for Barton-on-the-Heath make fascinating reading on a number of levels. For example, in the records for 1670 can be counted 30 households in the parish. 16 households were listed as taxable, with the occupiers’ names and the number of hearths in each property listed. The two houses occupied by the Overbury families had 18 and 3 hearths respectively, John Dover’s house 12 hearths, and George Stratford’s house 7 hearths. There was a parish grand total at 92 hearths. The exemption certificate of 1670 lists 15 households certified as ineligible for tax by the Rector Samuel Briscoe, Churchwarden John Lambert and two JP’s. The wealthiest resident to escape taxation was John Hall with 2 hearths. All of the other exempt households are shown as having use of one hearth only. OK, so the total numbers do not add up: there are two mildly conflicting versions of the same returns in the archives!

Scanning through the names recorded on the Barton-on-the-Heath hearth tax returns gives an indication of the population of the parish, the relative wealth of the parishioners and the longevity of the family names that reoccur over the centuries. It may be concluded that, with an average of 4 persons per household, the population in 1670 was approximately 120, substantially more than at the present. About one half of the households were revealed as too poor to pay the tax. Names such as Overbury, Dover, Hall, Lambert, Widdowes, Shirley, Sims and many others appear frequently in the historic records of Barton-on-the-Heath. Would mansion tax records be as useful for the historian 350 years hence? Not sure, but we can be certain that, fair or otherwise, a mansion tax would be complicated and resented by many.

Hearth tax records are accessible for most of the parishes in Warwickshire; many are available on-line or at the National Archives. If you need any help with your own village hearth tax records, just ask.

Colin Maynell and John Castle

1 National Archives, Kew, E/179/2068

2 See, Warwickshire, England, Occupational and Quarter Session Records 1662-1866.

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