A tax for all seasons - the seventeenth century Hearth Tax

From the September 1999 issue of the Berkshire Family Historian

John Gurnett

New government taxes have never been popular: the riots that followed the poll tax of 1990, the introduction of income tax during the Napoleonic wars, and Lloyd George's land tax in 1911, that caused a constitutional crisis, are just three examples. But it was the hearth tax imposed by Charles II's Cavalier Parliament in 1662 that created widespread public condemnation and riots in Bristol and London.

It was levied in England and Wales from 1662 until 1689 when it was abolished after the accession of William and Mary and eventually replaced by the Land and Window tax. The tax of two shillings a year was imposed on every fireplace, stove or hearth. There were a number of exemptions: most charitable institutions were not required to pay, nor were industrial hearths. Two further exemptions were paupers and those whose dwellings were worth less than 20 shillings a year in rent. Although paupers were exempt from paying the tax, from 1663 the law required them to be listed, but on many occasions the legislation was ignored. However, many of the lists do include everybody, those paying the tax and those who did not.

As with all tax returns they must be treated with some caution as they give an unreliable account about the condition and wealth of Society at this period so they must be used with a number of caveats. Most importantly because of widespread evasion and the subsequent under-reporting which must have occurred. But for family historians they can provide a list of names of those who lived in the parish in question. No indication of occupation is given, although occasionally titles are used and sometimes widows can be identified. The number of hearths often gives some idea of relative wealth and social status as the size of the houses has an approximate relationship to the number of assessed hearths. More than seven usually indicate gentry, between four and seven moderately wealthy merchants, yeoman and craftsmen, the labouring poor usually had one hearth. Addresses are not given, so individual dwellings are only identified if the occupants at the time were known from other sources.

The tax was collected twice yearly at Michaelmas and Lady Day. Returns were made to the Justices by petty constables, tithingmen, high constables and sheriffs, but in 1664 responsibility was shifted to a new set of officials called the "chimney men". The tax lists the householders (not owners) who were liable to pay the tax together with a list of the number of fireplaces in each home. A return was sent to the Quarter Sessions and a duplicate to the Exchequer. If the constable was not satisfied with the householder's statement, he was empowered to search the house and count individual hearths. Whether or not this occurred on a wide scale is doubtful as even at this time an Englishman's home was still his castle and a search for hearths could easily reveal other kinds of illegal activity.


Instructions to collectors

Like all unpopular taxes there was widespread evasion and for many years the tax was not audited by the exchequer, so in general only assessments from the years 1662 to 1666 and 1669 to 1674 can be found in the public records. Because of the widespread evasion the tax was "privatised" or farmed out to Commissioners to collect and hardly any lists of taxpayers exist for periods outside these dates. However, a few can be found in quarter session records at county record offices.

The taxation lists for some years are virtually complete, although the most comprehensive records are those for March 25, 1664. They list the taxpayer's name, and the amounts they had to pay and returns showing the tax paid, or the number of hearths. Sometimes lists of arrears can be found together with exemption certificates.

It does provide us with what is probably the most important single piece of information about individuals in the midseventeenth century, especially during the Interregnum between 1654 to 1660 when many parish registers were poorly maintained, or in some cases non-existent. It acts as a kind of mini-census at this crucial time after many Anglican ministers had been ejected from their parishes because of the Royalist sympathies. Some buried their registers for safety, but how many of these survived after the restoration is questionable, especially as the registers that were left behind were often destroyed by Cromwellian soldiers. From 1653 parish registrars were appointed to oversee records. Many parishioners deliberately avoided registration as the officials were authorised to charge a fee of a shilling for each entry.

Many counties have published returns for individual years, the most popular being 1662, 1664 and 1665. The surviving accounts and administration records are held at the Public Record Office in the Subsidy Rolls (E179). Constables or quarter sessions copies can usually be found in county record offices. However, none exist for Berkshire.

Very often it is possible to trace a family line back to the late seventeenth century and then profound problems appear. But using the hearth tax records it is possible to bridge the gaps left by parish records. The first step in locating a particular householder is to find the hundred in which your ancestor lived, as the assessments themselves are arranged by county and hundred and then by parish.

Although Berkshire has not published transcripts we are particularly fortunate that Frederick Simon Snell transcribed many of the returns. His massive collection of genealogical transcripts held at the Society of Genealogists' library is probably one of the most important collections devoted to Berkshire. Amongst other records he transcribed the hearth tax for the County for around 90 parishes, with lists of names grouped under each parish followed by a full surname index. The introduction to Volume 17 explains his working method:

"The following lists are taken from a very complete series of papers - over 500 in number - consisting of lists of each village in Berkshire county of persons assessed for the hearth tax - years 1663, 1664. I copied them in 1898, and had I continued in England would have finished the county. As it is I think the following lists take up about half the county. Since completing these lists I have made others from the same set of documents. I do not claim great accuracy for the lists, as I worked hard and long, but did not revise, so that there must be several mistakes. The spelling of surnames is often capricious - more so than other seventeenth century documents - but where these are very unusual a crossreference will be found in the index. Christian names are all spelt in every conceivable way, but in order to save time I wrote down the conventional form in each case.

“The Subsidy Lists for Charles II reign are of peculiar interest as they are very full, giving not only the names of the chief people in the villages, but those of the poor cottagers as well. This last item alone would make the lists unique, as the rural poor are quite lost sight of, save in parish registers and perhaps some less accessible sources. The whole series of documents in fact forms quite a little directory for the county. When the date 1663 is mentioned alone it means ‘Our Lady Day’ of that year. Note that certain villages e.g. Swallowfield and Hurst, should be looked for under Wiltshire”.

A surprising number of counties have published returns and many more are planned. Margaret Spufford who has applied for lottery funding to microfilm the original PRO files and make them available at County Record Offices is leading a major research effort. The Berkshire Record Office already has photocopies of many returns from Michaelmas 1663 (T/A 17), but the largest original collection is at the Public Record Office.

In collaboration with the University of Cambridge the PRO is also developing an on-line database of all the E179 taxation records from 1200 to 1689 which will encompass the hearth tax records. It is early days yet but when it is finished a whole class of records not just the hearth tax - will become available to local and family historians.

The University of Reading Library at Whiteknights and the Society of Genealogists' Library have the tax for the parishes of Uffington, Baulking, Woolstone, Kingstone Lisle and Fawler, 1663/John E. Little, 1968; Records of the hearth tax for Reading and Caversham 1662-3/ Edgar Powell, 1912. A transcript of the Wantage names from the 1663 tax list was printed in the Berkshire Family Historian in the summer of 1982.

For a complete guide to the surviving records, county by county see Jeremy Gibson's Hearth Tax, Other Later Stuart Tax Lists, and the Association Oath Rolls, available from our Bookshop.

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