18th Century Taxes

taxes 1784

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

We all complain about the taxes we pay, back in the 18th century things were no different, but perhaps government offered a little more clarity about exactly what you were paying for. If it could be taxed the Georgians found a way to tax it!

In this blog I’m going to take a quick peek at a few of these. Most of us are familiar with the existence of land tax and hearth tax, but some of these are somewhat more obscure. Mocking the government was a splendid ‘sport’ for caricaturists and let’s face with some of these taxes they were spoilt for choice! So, here we go –

The Brick Tax

1785 Taxes for America

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

This was introduced in 1784 as a means of helping to pay for the wars being fought in the American Colonies. Tax was paid at the rates of 4 shilling per thousand bricks. Clearly this was not going to be popular so the way to reduce this levy was simple – make bigger bricks, so that you wold use less. That went well (not)! The government simply changed its rules and stipulated a maximum size for a brick. As you can imagine some of the smaller companies simply went out of business. The other option was that more timber was used as an alternative. The tax was finally abolished in 1850 as it was regarded as a detrimental tax to industrial development.

Mr Taxus: an unwelcome visit.
Mr Taxus: an unwelcome visit. Lewis Walpole Library.

 Candle or Beeswax Tax

How very blue the candle burns.
How very blue the candle burns. Lewis Walpole Library.

From 1709 the government created yet another tax, this one went further than simply a tax. The making of candles in the home was also forbidden unless you held a licence. As a result an alternative form of lighting known as rush lighting was used as this was exempt. Rushes were dipped in animal fat then left to harden; these could then be lit at both ends, they only provided light for a very brief period of time though, but they were tax free! That could also be where the saying ‘to burn the candle at both ends’ originated.

Clock and Watch Tax

An enquiry concerning the clock tax.
An enquiry concerning the clock tax. Lewis Walpole Library.

In an attempt to generate revenue for the country, in 1797 William Pitt imposed yet another tax – the clock tax. This tax required a payment of five shillings on every clock, even within a private home, two shillings and sixpence on pocket-watches of silver or other metal, and ten shillings on those of gold. As you can imagine this proved immensely unpopular and was scrapped after only nine months. So that went well!

Gin Tax

Gin Lane.
Gin Lane. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

How many of us like the occasional gin & tonic, ice and a slice? Well, in 18th century London the massive increase in the rate of consumption gin aka ‘mother’s ruin’ became a cause for concern, leading to more increased rates of crime and laziness, so the government of the day simply increased the tax on it. As you can imagine, yet another tax that went down well, this increase in tax caused riots in London in 1743. The tax, although not abolished was significantly reduced over the next few years.

The Night Mare.
The Night Mare. Lewis Walpole Library.

 Glass Tax

In 1745 the Glass Excise Act came into effect. Glass has always been sold by weight and glasses traditionally had thick stems therefore weighed more than fragile thin stems. With this introduction of this tax, the solution was yet again quite simply – glass manufacturers simply switched to making glasses with hollow stems making them cheaper! However, in Ireland glass could be made without taxation meaning that Ireland was better placed to manufacture high quality, thick stemmed glasses as a reasonable price.

Hat Tax

Hat duty revenue stamp.
Hat duty. Revenue Stamp 1803 *

This tax was easy, the wealthier you were the more hats you were likely to own and the more expensive they were likely to be, so if you were poor you were unlikely to be able to afford a hat at all, therefore nothing to pay. The hat was required to have a revenue stamp stuck inside on its lining. Hefty fines were issued to milliners or hat wears who failed to pay the tax. The death penalty was available for anyone who made the mistake of forging a revenue stamp, so be warned!

The tax gatherer.
The tax gatherer. Lewis Walpole Library.

Medicine Tax

Paddy O Pitt's Triumphal Exit!
Paddy O Pitt’s Triumphal Exit! Lewis Walpole Library.

 In 1783 a tax was imposed on medicines that were sold by anyone who was not a surgeon, druggist or apothecary. In 1812 this was replaced with the Medicines Stamp Act which meant that the stamp duty paid had to be attached to the packaging if it was not deemed to be of a certain standard or made using a well-known recipe. If the medicine cost one shilling the tax was one and a half pence, it was charged proportionately.

Le Bonnet Rouge, or... John Bull evading the hat tax.
British Museum.

Playing Card Tax

This was certainly one we had never come across, and even more amazing is the fact that the act was still in place until 1960. Playing cards was seen as addictive gambling and as such proved to be an easy source of income generation. In order to prevent tax avoidance the Ace of Spades was held by customs and only issued once duty had been paid by the card maker. (More information about the history of playing cards can be found on the website of The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards.

Soap Tax

Lord N[ort]h, in the suds. Satire on the soap tax.
Lewis Walpole Library.

 Soap makers were charged a very high levy on the soap they manufacture, so much so that many of them left the country and moved abroad to avoid the tax. The way in which the law was worded effectively meant that soap production has to be in batched of no less than one ton. It was even reported that the pans used to make the soap had to be locked at night by the tax collector to ensure that no illegal production to take place ‘after hours’.  Soap was, therefore regarded as a luxury item and therefore wasn’t in common use until the mid-1800’s.

Wallpaper Tax

This tax was introduced into Great Britain in 1712 as using wallpaper was provided a cheap alternative option to tapestry or panelling.  The government saw this as another of generating much needed income, so with that the taxed people for buying patterned, painted or printed wallpaper. The tax was originally levied at 1 pence per square yard, this was increased to a shilling by 1809. The solution to paying this tax was easy – use plain paper and have it hand stencilled therefore no tax to pay. A totally legal form of tax evasion. Needless to say this tax didn’t work and was abolished in 1836. 

Window Tax

 This tax pre-dates the Georgian period but continued throughout and after the Georgian period. It was comprised of two parts.

There was a flat rate of two shillings per house then, and this where those with larger houses with more windows were penalized, a variable rate was charged for the number of windows above ten in the house. Tax due if you had over 20 windows was a colossal eight shillings!  There were of course some exemptions such as people in receipt of parish relief. The tax was amended several times and often regarded as unfair and seen by some as a tax of light and air. The tax was finally repealed in 1851.

Other taxes included newspaper tax, glove tax, perfume tax and hired horse duty. Those who were wealthy enough to own luxury items such as coaches, silver plate or male servants also had to pay specific taxes on these items too.

For our blog on hair powder tax, click here.


23 thoughts on “18th Century Taxes

  1. That’s strange the Tax Collector (Unwelcome Visitor) writing left handed; I was always led to believe that being left handed was a sign of the devil or some such nonsense and the unlucky people who were had it knocked out of them and were forced to use their right hand


      1. You’re quite right it’s definitely a mirror image, I’ve just noticed too that the chap sitting holding his pipe is also lefthanded, What I can’t understand is why did whoever drew the mirror image not bother to mirror image the writing on the papers, books and cognac bottle label


        1. All Things Georgian

          We have emailed both the Lewis Walpole Library & the Government Art Collection to see whether they can offer any possible suggestion as to why this was done. Our inclination is to think that the one held in UK is most likely to be the original version as Lewis Walpole Library state in their notes that on their copy the title had been expanded ‘in contemporary hand‘ We’ll let you know when we receive their replies 🙂


          1. All Things Georgian

            We have received a very swift & detailed reply from the Lewis Walpole Library, so we thought we’d post it in its entirety –

            ‘It is quite common for images to be reversed in the process of reproducing them as prints. Printing itself produces a mirror-image so if the printmaker simply copies an image as is, it will be printed in reverse. This is not always or necessarily the case. The printmaker can compensate by engraving in reverse so that the printed image will be in the proper or same orientation as the original. The two images you have found are different matrices. They are the same composition and content but not the same image. One is a copy of the other and hence a reversal has been introduced. I am not sure which of these images preceded the other, but printmakers often worked from a design drawing of his own invention or that of another artist. Prints could also be made as copies of other prints.

            There is another impression of the LWL print at the British museum. This one is from the same etching plate. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1655830&partId=1&searchText=woodward+unwelcome+visit&page=1


          2. I am now more confused, I think I shall believe and accept that the right handed tax collector is the original.

            Thank you for all the efforts you’ve made to answer my original comment, I’m very appreciative of them.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a bit puzzled about the taxes on soap and candles: At the heart, these are old and basic products which could be made at home (melting old candle stubs to make new candles, mixing tallow and clean ash for a crude soap). Were these taxes meant to get rid of such home industry or did they tax businesses producing these items commercially and in more luxurious varieties?
    Oh, and I was also wondering about what was taxed in the candle/beeswax tax because fine candles were made from beeswax but the poor man’s option had always been the tallow candle but, as far as I know, that did use a normal wick and was burned at one end unlike the rush light mentioned here.


    1. All Things Georgian

      You’re absolutely correct they were basic commodities and relatively simple to make at home. If you couldn’t afford to pay the candle tax then you could make your own rush lights as these were exempt from this tax. Many people in the countryside simply ignored this tax. Regarding the soap tax this was levied on manufacturers of soap, so once again you could make your own cheaper version of soap using tallow and ash. The government of the day needed to refill the country’s coffers and so levied a wide variety of taxes wherever they were able to. Needless to say many of these taxes became unmanageable and were abolished.


  3. michael dunne

    Terrific. Never realized there were so many angles to taxation. Was there a tax on mirrors? I once heard that looking at ones self in a mirror was known as ‘speculation’ and was an offense except for members of the ‘Royal Family’
    Also I am trying to locate the origin of the word ‘Kybosh’. I am told it is derived from the gaelic words ‘Cáit Báis’ which means the cloak of death. Allegedly Edmund Burke used the expression when adressing parliament on the error of attempting to introduce new taxes to the American colonies, which he predicted would be resisted and cause rebellion… and put the Kybosh on relations with the colonies which happened. Would really love to know if this translation is down to Edmund Burke.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you for two such interesting questions. As far as we can tell under the Townshend Acts of 1767, which was aimed at generating revenue, there was a tax payable at colonial ports that included a tax on glass, but it proved too onerous to administer so it was never actually collected and was repealed shortly after its inception.

      In reply to your question about Edmund Burke using the word ‘kybosh’ we have had a quick search around and can’t find anything to confirm or deny it, but to be honest it’s the type of question that an expert in the life of Burke and his writings would probably be more likely to be able to give a categorical answer to. If we come across anything we’ll be sure to let you know. 🙂


      1. michael dunne

        A debate rages at present on another thread. The argument being advanced was that Dubliners threw dead cats as was the custom at the hearse of an unpopular fellow named Sirr. Personally I would like to think that the alternate explanation is more befitting fot a man said to be the father of Conservative politics. Thank you for your reply.

        Liked by 1 person

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  5. Hello! Does anyone knows anything more detail about taxes on newspapers in 18th century? I need this info for school assignment and it would be much help.

    Thank you so much and have a nice day!


    1. Sarah Murden

      You might want to search online for the 1712 Stamp Act you should find more about it what it covered. Was it something specific you wanted to know?


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    1. Sarah Murden

      A good question and it’s proved tricky to find the answer, but here goes.

      The only answer is contained in a 1754 publication, ‘A collection of several statutes and clauses now in force, relating to the duties upon spirits, malt, candles, sope [sic], callicoes, starch, coffee, tea, chocolate, glass, coaches, and tobacco. With an abridgment of the said statutes and clauses, and a table of the rate upon several commodities, shewing by what acts they are imposed’.

      Although published 1754, it pertains to the 1746 Act and states:

      The tax due on all crown, plate and flint glass imported into Great Britain, is 8 pence for every pound in weight. For green or other glass imported 2 pence for every pound in weight.

      For bottles and flasks containing the quantity of a quart respectively, the sum of two shillings per dozen.

      I hope this helps 🙂


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