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 www.projectbook.com (The UK's premier resource centre for period and listed buildings projects).  

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