Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Black Act of 1774

I blog for anyone who is interested in old houses, looking after them or researching their history. Knowing and understanding the history of building in Britain goes hand in hand with that. It is the backdrop to the history of the country and those of us who live in it. So I thought I’d write a short piece about the intriguingly named “Black Act” of 1774.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Charles II realised how much the traditional construction of buildings had aided the spread of the fire. Specifically, the close proximity of buildings and the incendiary nature of building material (i.e. timber) had literally fuelled the fire.

The Rebuilding of the City of London Act of 1667 determined that the size of buildings had to correspond with the width of a street.  In addition they had to be built in brick or stone. Timber-framed buildings were forbidden. There could be no projections or jetties over the streets either, because they allowed fire to leap from house to house. Further legislation to standardise and improve the quality of construction in London was introduced in 1707, 1709, 1764 and 1772.

But it was the Building Act of 1774 that consolidated all previous legislation. The Act became known as the Black Act and defined construction of urban and suburban houses in the 18th and 19th centuries. Drafted by the architects Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance, the aim was to standardise the quality and construction of buildings and make the exterior of a building as fire-proof as possible. The Act restricted any superfluous exterior timber ornamentation,  except for door frames and shop fronts. Window joinery which previous legislation had already pushed back from the wall face was now concealed in recesses behind to avoid the spread of fire.

When researching the construction of an 18th or 19th century house in London the “rate” of the house is often found. This was introduced by The Black Act and determined 4 types of building construction graded by value and floor area.

  • A “First Rate” house was valued at over £850 and occupied more than 900 sq ft.
  • A “Second Rate” House was worth between £350 and £850 in ground rent and occupied 500-900 sq ft. These buildings faced notable streets, and the Thames.
  • A “Third Rate” House was smaller and worth around £150-£300. It occupied 350-500 square feet and faced principal streets.
  • Finally, a “Fourth Rate” House was valued at less than £150 per year in ground rent and occupied less than 350 square feet and would be found in minor streets.

Each “rate” was given a structural requirement for foundations and walls. But the real importance of this grading was setting the standard for speculative building. The limitation of size and value tended to create standards from which there was little or no variation.

The result of was the development of the London terrace, creating the simple elegant uniformity so admired today and reflected in the premium paid when purchasing a “Georgian” property. However, at the time it was loathed for stifling creativity. Benjamin Disraeli blamed the Act for "all those flat, dull spiritless streets all resembling each other, like a large family of plain children."

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

What Was The Window Tax? (Letting Light In On Blind Windows)

I remember, from a very young age, being fascinated by and looking out for old buildings with blocked up or blind windows (my love of historic buildings began early). I was told by my father that these features were a result of the long-loathed Window Tax. Such a ridiculous-sounding imposition only made me seek them out more.

It is widely thought that the phrase “daylight robbery” originates from opposition to this levy (it was certainly viewed to be a tax on “light and air”). Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this assumption. But what exactly was this unpopular revenue-generator and how does it play its part in unravelling a house’s history?

The Window Tax existed from 1696 to 1851. It was introduced during the reign of William III as part of the beautifully named “Act of Making Good the Deficiency of the Clipped Money”. It was considered by the law-makers to be fair as the greater demand was placed on the better-off, living by default in larger houses and therefore with more windows and those of very meagre means were exempt.

When the Act was passed in 1696 it was a tax for the occupiers of the house, not the owner. Only if the property was empty would the owner be liable to pay. There were 2 parts to the levy. First, a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings and the second payment was determined by the number of windows. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid a total of 4 shillings, and those above twenty windows paid 8 shillings. The minimum number that could be taxed was reduced to 7 in 1766 and increased to 8 in 1825. The flat-rate tax was changed to a variable rate in 1778, when it became determined by the property’s value, not simply its existence. Scotland was spared the tax for nearly 100 years. However, William Pitt brought it in there in 1784. To this day, blind windows north of the border are called “Pitt’s Pictures”. It has to be said though, that not every blocked up or blind window is necessarily so because of the Window Tax. Some were built that way to provide an exterior decoration or symmetry to a building. Good thorough research can determine which it is.

As a house historian, however, window tax records are very useful to understand the full history of a house. They may not have survived as comprehensive or complete, but in the parts of the country where they do still exist the records can give a clue as to the size of the property at the time of the tax demand. Most telling is when there are changes in the amount due from one year to the next, which could indicate whether there had been a demolition or addition to the property. If you are lucky enough to find the window tax records of a property they can prove to be a key chapter in the story of the house.

This article can also be found on (The UK's premier resource centre for period and listed buildings projects).