Income Tax in Jane Austen’s Time

Income Tax in Jane Austen’s Time

In the United States this weekend is an unofficial helliday. A helliday is the opposite of a holiday. It’s time to pay the tax man! By April 18th, you better have your 1040s in, your Schedules calculated, and your W-2s organized. Hubby and I are still counting the pennies and nickels spent on my business and on our two rental properties (because we were transferred and couldn’t sell them). This got me thinking:

How did characters in Jane Austen’s books have to pay taxes?

And so far the answers I have found make me feel much better about MY tax burden. 🙂 Granted, the cultures in the United States vs England are very different. In the US, we’ve never really liked the idea of taxes going to the Crown. And from our founding, the framers of the Constitution were very particular about HOW the government could tax citizens. It was not until tax reform after the (American) Civil War, and finally the 16th Amendment in 1913, that our federal government had a clear path to what we have today in the IRS, and state and local taxes.

The tax structure in Jane Austen’s time was far more complex because it was applied to well, just about EVERYTHING. From windows greater than 6 in a building to how many servants an estate employed to mail to anything purchased and even carriages and horses! Despite the high number of taxes, there was interest in levying taxes in a fair manner.

For example, take the window tax. The window tax began in 1695 to help compensate for people clipping coins. This is a complicated situation, back then coins were often weighed, not counted. So what people could do was clip just a tiny bit of an edge so the weight would be within the deviation of the scale (we’re not talking digital precision here). Then you take those clippings, melt them down, and press a counterfeit coin with the King’s mark. It would be like if you could tear a little corner off a dollar bill today, take all of those bits and glue them together and print what could pass as a legitimate bill today.

It sounds absurd to tax someone based on how many windows they have, but in 1695, only the rich had more than 6 windows. If you were poor and living in a small cottage, you might only have 3 or 4 windows. And therefore, no tax.

But eventually, taxes did creep down to affect the working classes. And it was controversial that taxes went to pay for the poor. We learned at JASNA’s AGM from scholars there that in Jane Austen’s time there was a gross discrimination against the poor as being in such a state from a defect in morality. We can still see these attitudes in modern times when discussions come up about welfare and social programs. Some things, never change.

In the cartoon below, the “poor” seemingly have a lever to get beer to pour out at the expense of John Bull who has had to move to living above his shop and complains he will have not a head nor hole if he pays all of the taxes. Beer has been a cheap method of nutrition since Ancient Egypt. The fat, government official explains it’s for good of country, and argues what does John Bull want a house for, can’t he live in a room or cellar? The book of tax includes a listing of items there are taxes on, such as soap, candles, tobacco, beer, salt, hats, etc.

Caption reads "The Friend of the People & his petty new tax gatherer paying John Bull a visit"
Caption reads “The Friend of the People & his petty new tax gatherer paying John Bull a visit”



Here is an excerpt from England in the Nineteenth Century by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer which was originally published in 1894. In it she quotes clergyman Sydney Smith who complained about taxation in an 1813 speech.

“The schoolboy whips his taxed top; the beardless youth manages his taxed horse with a taxed bridle on a taxed road; and the dying Englishman, pouring his medicine, which has paid seven per cent, into a spoon that has paid fifteen per cent, flings himself back upon his chintz bed which has paid twenty-two per cent, and expires in the arms of an apothecary who has paid a license of a hundred pounds for the privilege of putting him to death.”

The longer excerpt also talks about taxes on just paying bills! At the time, no payment greater than £10 was legally valid UNLESS it was paid on stamped paper, and a stamp meant the tax had been paid! This is like paying a tax just for your checkbook or debit card!

As far as income taxes go in England, the 1790s to 1810s were the first experimentation with an income tax, again progressive in nature and beginning at an income of £60 pounds (the equivalent in 2015 would be £5,696). However, in 1816, the income tax was abolished and not reinstated until 1842.

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817, so she would have seen the rise and fall of the income tax in her lifetime. And yet there is very little mention of tax in her books. According to the Jane Austen Thesaurus, the word tax is only used 8 times in all of her novels, and usually not in the context of a government levy. Instead, Austen’s use of the word ‘tax’ is in a social context, as a tax on one’s nerves or forbearance. 🙂

Despite the difference of hundreds of years, those of us paying our taxes this weekend have a kinship to those living in Jane Austen’s time: paying the tax man! They say there’s nothing certain but death and taxes, though sifting through all of this tax law and history on both counties, I do not find taxes to be certain at all! In modern times, we use loopholes and creative deductions to find savings on the tax bill. In historic times, other than fraud, the only way the taxes changed was a change in political leadership.

And despite my grumbling that I have to pay a hefty tax bill this year, even for that I can tip my hat to the woman herself, Jane Austen. The opportunity to write stories in her amazing world of characters and settings is what resulted in the West family paying such a sizable check to Uncle Sam this weekend. 🙂 At least I don’t have to pay a tax on the check paper itself!

Nancy Mayer

England in the 19th Century, Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer


Check out my site for the BIG ANNOUNCEMENT of the next book and when you have it in your hands!

17 Responses to Income Tax in Jane Austen’s Time

  1. Really interesting article. I thought we had a crazy tax code; England’s at this time sounds absolutely crippling. Also love the coined word “helliday” so apropos!

  2. Interesting post, Elizabeth! I’m a history buff, and this kind of thing fascinates me. I won’t be quite so enthralled, I’m sure, when I have to write out my check to the government. I’m used to getting a good sized return! 😉

  3. I often joke about my habit of jumping down research rabbit holes, and taxes was one I read on in depth a couple of years ago. You did an excellent job of covering the topic in this post! I will never forget the moment I read about the glass taxes. It really put Mr. Collins’ boast about the glazing of Rosings into context. He wasn’t just talking about the initial expense, when the taxes on the installation could be as high as 3 times the cost of the glass itself, but he was talking about the wealth she had to have to be able to afford the annual tax on “light and air” as well. It also helped explain why so few households had greenhouses or “forcing houses” as they called them, in the garden.

    Congrats on your release.

  4. Thanks for teaching us about this. I have heard about the tax on windows, but did not much more. Last month I read a book about the poor in Victorian England, and I have to say that though things aren’t perfect now, they’ve been much worse.

  5. I had never thought much about taxes in Jane’s day because I don’t remember reading about them in books of that era. But of course where there are men, there are taxes! Sigh. I worked in accounting for years and am very organized, but still I hate getting my figures up for my accountant. “smiles”

    • I am learning a great deal about organizing our lives to mesh well with my author career. For example, I am going to CT in 2 weeks to visit an author friend and discuss strategies. That trip is 100% tax deductible and it’s easy to stay within perdiem rules.

  6. Well it seems that the British were always at war, and I imagine they had to find some way to fund it. Taxes??? Of course, from all I read, the Prince Regent – Prinny spent money like there was no tomorrow so who knows. As for you … estimated taxes???

  7. No one likes to pay taxes. Even in the scriptures they grumbled regarding paying taxes and the dislike of the taxman [justified as many were corrupt]. Unfortunately, today we can’t retrieve coins from the mouth of a fish in order to pay our taxes. Drat!!! Pastors like to preach on this topic in its many forms… death, taxes and the taxman. I’d always cast a gleeful glance at my husband because he worked in state taxes at the time.

    Tips for future success at tax time… be organized and keep that paperwork manageable, keep receipts and keep track of all expenses and know what you can and cannot deduct. There are many hidden expenses that you can claim that you may not be aware of. Good luck next year and keep writing.

    • Oh I was organized 🙂 This year is the first year we will pay because it’s the first real year I made enough. For 2016, I now have a baseline to make estimated tax payments. We just took our sweet time because we knew we would have to pay them, and well, I like to keep my money in my pocket as long as I possibly can 🙂

  8. Elizabeth, Thank you for this post. Fascinating!
    I look forward to the reveal of your next book and will tune in on your site this afternoon.

    • SMOOCHES Barbara!! 🙂 Thanks for the comment, I found the different tax laws so interesting. And the arguments we deal with today, what’s a “fair” tax, what’s gouging X group of citizens, was still an issues hundreds of years ago. Basically, those being taxed are rarely happy about whatever it is the tax money goes to pay, but then no one is happy when whatever it is it’s paying for is gone. Taxes are a game governments must play and can never win.

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