Taxes More Inevitable Than Death in Austen’s Napoleonic Britain

Taxes More Inevitable Than Death in Austen’s Napoleonic Britain

The Saturday blog schedule lobbed a fat one across the center of the plate this month! While the “Official Tax Day” in the United States is April 18th, the 15th is so ingrained in American national consciousness as to make this the only realistic topic.

‘Tis true that Mr. Franklin sardonically noted “…but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” And, of course, the American War (as the British named it) from 1775 to 1783 was fought over (in American eyes) the issue of “taxation without representation.” Yet, in the Great Britain of the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), representation in the Westminster Parliament did not relieve Britishers of a two to twenty-plus percent tax burden. It is doubtful if any were happy to pay these taxes.

However, nearly every resident of the Isles realized the existential threat posed by Napoleon. The Government imposed long and short-term tariffs on individuals and businesses in order to cover the millions of pounds needed to fund the military machine (and loans/subsidies to foreign countries…£560,000 in 1794 to Hanover…what was that? Oh yes.[i] The Hanoverian Dynasty!).

As Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer noted at the end of the Nineteenth Century,

“[An Englishman] had to pay, besides tithes and church-rates, window tax for every window, taxes on his horses if above the size of ponies, taxes on his cart-wheels, taxes on his malt, taxes on silver plate, if he had any, taxes on hair powder, if he wore it, taxes on property if he inherited it, taxes on every bill he paid, for no receipt for any sum above £10 was legally valid unless it were written on stamped paper.[ii]

Of course, many of us in the JAFF world focus on the more peculiar of these taxes…particularly the one on hair powder simply because the idea of powdered hair or wigs is now so quaint. Yet, a comfortable gentleman could expect to pay at least an annual license of 1 guinea in 1795 and eventually over £1 3s per person by 1813. Is it any wonder that young men (particularly the Corinthians) and young women began to favor softer more natural hairstyles than the previous two generations (those born between 1740 and 1770)?

Of course, Pitt’s hair powder tax only accelerated the trend away from hair powder which had begun with the snickering rumble of the guillotine in 1792.[iii]

The number of taxes levied was truly astonishing. Unlike the modern world where VATs, excise taxes or sales taxes are generally applied across-the-board, different items enjoyed different assessments. Many of these taxes, since there was no income tax, were clearly geared to separate the well-to-do from their annual income. The larger your establishment, the more you had to fork over to the government. And, an, as a point of reference, the purchasing power of an 1812 pound is about $2,200 in 2017.[iv] Do the math.

Consider a few of these duties.[v]

Servants: (for Men) £2 8s for one, £3 2@ for two up to £7 13s for eleven

Carriages for pleasure: £12 for one…up to £163 7s for nine or more

Coat of Arms on Equipage: £2 8s

Carriage Rental Firms: £12 per four-wheel coach

Recalling how Lady Catherine DeBourgh emphasized showiness of wealth, her massive household at Rosings could have set her back a pretty penny. Assuming she only had three carriages (a large barouche, a smaller coach and Anne’s phaeton), she would pay £42 in tax every year.

After 1792, with each budget, the government discovered new ways to increase revenues by adding items for a single year to the list[vi]


Game Duty


Foreign Brandy & Rum, slate/stone/marble, bricks & tiles, glass, paper


Imported wine, tea, coffee, cocoa, fruit, silk

But, one need not be a military historian to comprehend how the war was progressing by 1797. Consider the list of items added to the taxed list:


Tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, bar iron, Scots Distilleries (an excise tax on Scotch, dear Lord!), brick, auctions, wills, deeds, advertisements and on and on…29 items

Is it any wonder that smugglers, always seeking to avoid the excise men, shifted into high gear?

One other source of revenue was a tax, enacted in the late 17th Century…the Duty on Lights and Windows (1695), popularly known as the Window Tax. The original purpose, interestingly enough, was to raise revenues without undue government invasion of privacy. Unlike an income tax that demanded a person to reveal their total income, a tax collector needed only to count the windows. And the tax was based upon a combination of the dwelling’s value and the number of windows/ventilation openings.

The impact of such a tax upon architectural design is only now being considered by historians and other social scientists.[vii] Windows and ventilation openings (vents) were reduced in tenements built to house industrial workers. This condemned the poorest of Britishers to living in pestilential miasmas without any relief available. On top of that, the landlords often passed on the tax burden. Other apartment buildings saw existing windows bricked over. Homes were constructed featuring bedchambers with no windows—after all one sleeps at night, no?

Yet, the tax also led to an exhibition of conspicuous consumption by British elites. Windows rose from floor to ceiling, as frequently imagined in Darcy’s library. Ostentatious treatments called attention to windows. The greatest of houses created glassed-in porches to demonstrate wealth![viii]

Unquestionably the Georgian/Regency world carries a great romantic appeal. Yet, what we rarely appreciate is how the entire nation was living under as much of a threat, in fact a more real one, as the USA was in the 1950s. However, the lives of the gentry and the ruder classes were profoundly affected by the taxation programs enacted by the Government to keep the revolutionary hordes of Republican France away from Dover.

I am deep into the next book in The Bennet Wardrobe Series…”The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque.” Cover design is out with the wonderful Janet Taylor.  I am hoping (pretty please) to be ready to release on or about May 15th. Stay Tuned!  Here is an excerpt….This is the tail end of the meeting with Holmes and Watson at 221B Baker Street.

Chapter XXIII

Holmes’ certainty lifted Henry’s spirits.

He challenged Holmes, though, “How can you suggest that Miss Bennet is unharmed?”

Holmes retort was quick, “I did not say unharmed, Lord Fitzwilliam. I said alive. Once I explain my deductions, I am sure you will agree that her mere survival is the most we can hope for.”

Cold fear stabbed back through Henry’s midsection as Holmes continued.

“My Lord, I seem to recollect that you experienced a similar problem shortly after your father’s death last summer. Your personal secretary, a Mr. Michael Wilson, disappeared from his flat. His body was discovered some six days later in the docklands.

“Lestrade asked my opinion after Scotland Yard had reached their usual dead end. While the circumstances were unfortunate, they did not arouse my curiosity enough to deflect me from my work with the First Lord. The case seemed a story heard too often; a young man having fallen in with the wrong crowd, experiments with substances best left alone.”

Fitzwilliam observed Watson rolling his eyes as Holmes seemingly pontificated.[i] Holmes did not notice his friend’s reaction. The detective stepped away from the mantle and strode, his robe flapping in his self-made headwind, back to his worktable where he began to rifle through papers until he hit a casefile.

He began to fire questions at Fitzwilliam.

“Wilson was your personal secretary, was he not?” Indeed.

“He was privy to much if not all of your business?” Of course.

“Were there aspects of your work, of the Bennet ability to travel through time, to which he had access, but no context to arrive at a broader understanding?” On a daily basis.

“Illuminate me.”

Henry paused and then concluded in for a penny, in for a pound, and answered, somewhat elliptically, “From time to time, sealed documents would be moved from the Trust’s Archives. Those papers, known as Founder’s Letters, would necessarily be deposited with young Wilson. He would then deliver them to me.

“I would personally distribute the papers to their recipients.”

“You, my Lord? That seems a rather plebeian chore for the Managing Director of the Bennet Family Trust,” Holmes said skeptically as he settled back into his wingback, resting the file on his knee.

Henry allowed himself a brief smile, “True…except that our Board has demanded that the Managing Director undertake this task.”

“Am I correct in deducing that these Founder’s Letters are communications from Mr. Thomas Bennet of Meryton? Did he not pass away in 1815, even before the Duke’s great victory in Belgium?” Holmes quizzed.

“You have the right of it. These Letters are uniquely treasured. They come to us down the ages from Mr. Bennet. Each are uniquely prescient, and each are addressed to one individual. There have been, to my knowledge, very few Letters. My Great Grandmother Lydia received two, My Grand Aunt Jane also received one.”

“Did Miss Bennet receive one?”

Henry started.

“How did you conclude that? I said nothing,” Henry nervously asked.

“You did not have to. One only need to read a book which has recently begun to return to vogue…Pride and Prejudice…to notice the significance of the surname Bennet rooted at Longbourn Estate in Meryton, Hertfordshire. The author accurately identified Mr. Bennet. You supplied two of his daughters’ names a moment ago…Lydia and Jane.

“There was a Mrs. Mary Benton affiliated with the Trust up into the Fifties. That’s a third Bennet daughter’s name.

“It was not difficult to surmise that your Miss Bennet…Miss Catherine Bennet…was the fourth Bennet girl. She would have probably received a missive from her father…one of those Founder’s Letters.

“Obviously you realize that I have also concluded that Miss Bennet traveled forward to this time from Napoleonic Hertfordshire,” Holmes stated.

Henry collapsed back into the cushions behind him, astonished at Holmes’ insights.

He nearly gasped out, “You have all of it. The Miss Bennet for whom we search is Catherine Marie Bennet, born in 1794. She came forward to 1886 from 1811. She is, in reality, my Grand Aunt, sister to Jane, Elizabeth, Mary and Lydia.”

Holmes briefly pondered his next question, “Did Mr. Wilson know that Miss Bennet received a Founder’s Letter?”

A sinking feeling in Henry’s gut confirmed his own conclusion that Wilson’s death was no one-off, but rather part of a web that had been spun for months.

“He would have seen the direction on the Letter. He would have known it for what it appeared to be…handwritten on ancient paper, folded and wax sealed in a manner not seen in decades.

“But, she received the Letter in 1886, over four years before Wilson’s disappearance. He surely would have forgotten that.”

A dour expression crossed Holmes’ face.

“It is true that he would not directly remember that she had collected a Founder’s Letter. However, our brains are remarkable things, indeed. I once heard a distinguished Professor argue that our brains retain every bit of information to which they have ever been exposed.

“However, he posited that unless the information is put into use on a regular basis, we ‘forget.’ But, that word suggests that the knowledge vanishes. He said that it did not.

“He proposed that the data is buried in ‘dead letter files’ where as Her Majesty’s Post Office consigns missives with bad, obscured or unreadable addresses. The letter may be undeliverable, but the message inside of the envelope still exists.

“He claimed quite convincingly that if a man could train his mind to organize inputted data, he could be able to out-think, out-imagine, out-deduce all but a very few.

“He also suggested that the administration of certain chemical compounds—truth serums if you will—could induce even untrained minds to relinquish seemingly innocent and unimportant facts. That is probably what happened to your secretary.

“Both myself and my brother have applied his methods to great success. And, as I have since learned, so did the lecturer.”

“I doubt if I am the only one to arrive at this conclusion; my brother Mycroft, for instance, would have done so if he had chosen to focus his attention upon these particulars. However, I fear that there is one other, a more malevolent person, who may well have found the same threads and followed them to the same destination.”

“Moriarty,” whispered Watson.

Holmes acknowledged his exclamation, but continued.

“I do imagine myself to be a force for good, my Lord, but we live in a universe which demands homeostasis—a balance. So, for my good, I fear, there must be an equally spiteful evil.

“Now picture, if you will, an individual possessed of my talents but with absolutely no conscience, no set of inhibitions to check him.

“Imagine that he has observed exactly the same facts as I have. Can he arrive at any different inferences? But, to what use will he put these conclusions?

“Just as this present meeting here in Baker Street has been revelatory, can you comprehend the wonder and the frustration he would have known when he realized the power just beyond his grasp? To understand that some persons—not he—could step over intervening decades to discover the future and then to return.

“He would have done all to control that power, to the extent of revealing himself rather than working, as is his wont, through intermediaries and cutouts.

“Tell me, Lord Fitzwilliam, did you receive any callers in the months before Mr. Wilson’s disappearance who seemed unusual?”

The process of sifting through names and faces was not difficult. Few if any visited Henry in his capacity as Managing Director. Most Trust business was conducted at least one level below him.

“There was one man, in August of last year. Father’s funeral had been held two weeks before. I had just returned from Selkirk when someone begged a few minutes of my time even though he had not previously made an appointment. He seemed respectable enough, a professor at one of the Oxbridge Colleges…something in applied mathematics, I think.

“Wilson told me that he seemed harmless enough. According to Michael, the gentleman was claiming to have some insights into economical science. I agreed to see him for a few minutes.

“He was soft-spoken with a voice that reminded me of dried leaves rustling in the breeze. Most of what he spoke of—algorithms, derivatives and the like—was completely over my head. I was quickly tempted to send him downstairs to Research.”

“Did Wilson come in contact with him?”

“Oh yes. He escorted him from the lower level through the legal offices. Wilson was a gregarious fellow, so I could see him chatting up the visitor.”

“How did you conclude your business?”

“Once I comprehended that he was suggesting investment strategies that were mere speculation in comparison with our other, more dependable methods, I thanked him for his consideration and ended the meeting.”

Holmes had one final question.

“I know that Miss Bennet is young. Is she healthy?”

“Kitty Bennet is one of the healthiest people of my acquaintance.”

The detective tented his hands beneath his nose and gazed at nothing.

Finally he heaved a giant sigh, and faced Henry.

“I fear, my Lord, that we will arouse the beast when I begin my inquiries in earnest. Even my request to Lestrade to arrest the forger might lead to a violent reaction. Your efforts, while well intentioned, have been so non-threatening as to be ignored. My adversary, however, is acutely aware of the danger I pose to his scheme.

“He may very well strike out at all involved. The prize is beyond value. As such, once we break here, I demand that you move your immediate family to a safe location surrounded by rings of trusted retainers.

“You told me that only those with Bennet blood may travel through time, but that they will only be taken where they need to go. You, for instance, were carried to a Great War where you learned that which you needed to learn.

“So, a logical conclusion would be that no adult could be compelled to travel where my adversary wished.”

Henry readily agreed with this thought.

“Therefore, while someone like your sister may be in danger, Miss Bennet was a more likely candidate for his plan as she is generations closer to the fount of the potency of the Bennets. Lady Eleanor’s Bennet blood has certainly been diluted by intervening generations.

“Miss Bennet is not in mortal danger…quite the contrary. But, she is, without a doubt, in jeopardy of losing her virtue if it has already not been taken.

“He is seeking a Bennet baby. One he can hold captive, to mold to his designs and beliefs. The child of Miss Bennet would give him the power to shape the future to his hideous design!”

[i] Holmes, when particularly bored, sought release with a 7% solution of cocaine taken intravenously.


[i] William Newmarch, On the Loans raised by Mr. Pitt During the First French War, 1793-1801; with some statements in Defence of the Methods of Funding Employed. Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 1855), pp. 255.

[ii] Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer. England in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, A.C. McClurg & Co.), 1899. p. 13-14.

[iii] See accessed 4/5/17.

[iv] See accessed on 4/9/17.

[v] 1819 Gentleman’s PocketMemorandum Book as cited by Nancy Mayer at accessed 4/9/17.

[vi] Newmarch, p 257.

[vii] Andrew E. Glantz. A Tax on Light and Air: Impact of the Window Duty on Tax Administration and Architecture, 1696-1851. Penn History Review, 15:2, Spring 2008, p 28.

[viii] Glantz, p 32.


13 Responses to Taxes More Inevitable Than Death in Austen’s Napoleonic Britain

  1. There is a never ending pit of taxes and the government will always try to find another name it…fees!

    So looking forward to Kitty’s story…my favourite secondary character! With Holmes and Watson on the case, the action should be intense! Can’t wait to see what Janet T. has planned for the cover…if she decides to paint a portrait of Kitty, I will be over the moon! I love her work!!!

    • As usual, I will depend upon my beta readers to set me straight. The Holmes’ appearance was used to explain why Kitty was taken…I DID NOT want her to repeat Lydia’s “mistake” of eloping and then being held for her money. That would have been sending the plot down a channel well-hewn by the waters of better writers than I. I tried to consider how the Five Families would have worked in the Universe of the Wardrobe. They more certainly would have tasked the most capable consulting detective of the age! Then, I (in my conceit) “adjusted” Conan Doyle’s dates by a few months to make the opening of “The Final Problem” more logical. Hopefully out to Betas in 2 to 3 weeks.

    • In my research on hair powder I discovered….1) Henry IV of France (Famously known as being a Protestant who won the French Wars of Religion in the 16th Century and then converted to Catholicism. He was quoted as saying…”The throne of France is worth at least one mass.”) started the fashion of hair powder when he used a brown shade to cover up the grey (Grecian Formula 1609?). 2) Throughout the 17th and well into the 18th Centuries, hair powder was used to disguise the fact that hair was not frequently washed. The powder tended to hide the accumulated gunk (I can’t think of it any other way). However, younger persons…those of the later Enlightenment in both France and England…began to move away from the use of hair powder in the 1780s. However, as Pitt discovered (over 40,000 hair powder licenses were purchased in 1813) there was money to be made in the taxation of vanity.

      And, to your pleasure at seeing Holmes and Watson in the middle of “The Exile” in late 1891. I am an adherent of “The World as Myth” approach which argues that the act of writing fiction creates reality. Thus, (no spoiler here) after Kitty Bennet is snatched up from Brompton Road in July 1891, the logical course of action for Lord Henry Fitzwilliam (11th Earl of Matlock) would be to consult the foremost detective of his age (however, I assure you that if we get to the 1930s, I will not be inserting Poirot). As I noted in “Of Fortune’s Reversal” when I used Jack Aubrey’s friend Stephen Maturin and young Jeremy Poldark, my belief was that these people existed (as a result of their author’s creation) in Jane Austen’s time…but they were not of her acquaintance…and thus she did not mention them in her work.

      Plus, you will note that I also insert “P&P” into the excerpt…thus looping our reality into the story’s reality.

      I hope you found my Holmes’ voice convincing.

  2. Your excerpt ends with such great drama! I love it. I wish you the best of luck having the book out by May 15th. I can’t wait to see the cover. As for taxes . . . I don’t want to talk about them 🙂 (The lists of what items were newly taxed were very interesting)

    • My wife just raced upstairs from the computer. “Do you realize how much it is going to cost us to re-register one of the cars this year?” Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Washington state may have no income tax…BUT…..they’re gonna get’cha!

      May 15th is a moving target. Oh, I am also working with Janet to go backwards and recover “The Keeper.” I burned my Junior Art Director’s Card when I reviewed her work.

      I always seem to have a fanfare going in my head (Da-Da-Daaaah) when I get to the end of a chapter.

  3. “Death and taxes” – a phrase I’ve known for a long time but which nowadays always reminds me of the film Meet Joe Black, where Death takes on the form of Brad Pitt (not a bad choice!) and, amongst other events in the film, experiences the life and emotions of we mere humans, even falling in love!

    Aside from that, thanks for a very interesting post, Don, and for the tantalising excerpt from your new book. I have to confess I haven’t come across the first book in The Bennet Wardrobe series yet, but see that I’m going to have to look it out. It sounds right up my street, as the saying goes, as I’m a bit of a sci-fi geek as well as being a Janeite. The time-travel aspect definitely appeals to my other inner geek.

    • Thank you so much. As I have noted in other blog posts…the books are connected…and will focus on the possible destinies/raison d’etre of the secondary/major characters, the Wardrobe and the Universe.

      Book 1 The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey (2016)

      Book 2 The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Epoque (Pt. 1) (coming soon)

      ((((Kitty’s Life is long and her story is beyond important!))))

      Book 2a The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn (Pt 2) (Fall 2017-ish)

      Book 3 The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and the Soldier’s Portion (def 2018)
      Book 4 The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and the Father’s Lament (def 2018)
      Book 5 The Grail: The Saving of Elizabeth Darcy (2019)

      The Bennet Wardrobe novellas are usually ways I work out plot motivations.

      Thus “The Bennet Wardrobe: Origins” allowed me to understand how the Wardrobe came to be…and to establish the character of Edward Bennet/Benton…Thomas Bennet’s brother. This became Book 1 in “The Exile.”

      “Miss Bennet’s First Christmas” was rooted in the question of how Mary would change after the early December weddings. I was coming from a belief that she chose to become prosy and moralizing as a teen-aged reaction to her mother’s abuse…and probably her sister’s as well…kids can be miserable creatures…even Jane and Lizzy!

      Side story related to MBFC: we had two cats…a brother and sister…Buckeye (all black male/it and from Ohio) and Blizzard (all white female/it). For 15 years Buckeye lorded it over Blizzard…and she took it. Then Buckey went to the big litter box in the sky…and Blizzie lived another 5 years (20!) and acted like the Queen of Sheba! That is sort of how I saw Mary…she was able to come into her own AFTER Jane and Lizzy left Longbourn.

      “Henry Fitzwilliam’s War” explores the shaping of the personality of Henry Fitzwilliam, one of the principals in “The Exile.”

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.