The Tax Man Cometh

The Tax Man Cometh

Tax day here in the United States has come and gone, leaving either joy, despair or resignation in its wake, depending on if you received a refund or owed money. Like most Americans, I dislike taxes intensely, especially in years when I end up owing. To ease the pain, I thought it would be fun to make a list of all the things that people in regency England had to pay taxes on. I knew there were a lot, but the final list ended up being longer than I had thought. Much longer! Just looking at it makes my head hurt. Was there anything in regency England that didn’t get taxed?

Taxes were levied on:

  • Alcohol – all kinds. Rum, beer, malt, spirits, you name it. If it bubbled or fizzled, it got taxed.
  • Almanacs
  • Bachelor tax- that’s right: there was a tax for being single!
  • Bricks
  • Candles
  • Carriages- Only the well to do could afford a carriage, Like many items on this list this was effectively a tax on the wealthy.
  • Coal
  • Coat of arms on a carriage- this seems like overkill. Wasn’t taxing the carriage enough?
  • Coffee- If you didn’t like paying tax on coffee, perhaps you might want to switch to tea instead. But tea was even worse!.See tea, below.
  • Corn
  • Dice
  • Employees in certain categories
  • Gamekeepers- but let’s face it: if you could afford a gamekeeper, you could afford a gamekeeper tax.
  • Glass
  • Gloves
  • Hair powder
  • Highway maintenance
  • Income- Some things never change!
  • Land- another obvious tax on the rich
  • Lace
  • Leather
  • Men’s hats (headgear)- What, no tax on women’s hats? Hooray!
  • Newspapers and newspaper advertisements
  • Paper
  • Perfume
  • Playing cards
  • Poor tax- Not a tax on *being* poor (though I wouldn’t have put it past them); a tax for the support of the poor in your parish
  • Raisins
  • Ribbons- I guess they decided to tax ribbons instead of women’s hats.
  • Salt
  • Soap- In an era with poor hygiene, why on earth would you want to tax soap?
  • Sugar
  • Servants
  • Shooting licenses
  • Silk
  • Sporting dogs
  • Starch
  • Tea – The tax on tea was as high as 119% at one time; it was down to “only” 12.5% by Austen’s day
  • Timber
  • Timepieces
  • Tithe to clergy (paid by farmers and craftsmen)
  • Tobacco
  • Wallpaper
  • Wills
  • Windows- As if taxing glass wasn’t enough already.

No wonder the American colonies revolted! And no wonder smuggling was such a large problem in England during this time period.

It’s easy to look at this list and congratulate ourselves on the “lower” taxes we now pay in the United States, but sometimes we forget how much tax we, too, pay. It’s just that some of our taxes are more subtle. For instance, gasoline has a federal tax of eighteen cents per gallon, and states add their own tax on top of that (an average of thirteen cents). So every good or commodity that is transported by plane, train or automobile has a hidden tax on it. There’s a “gas guzzler” tax on large vehicles sold through a dealer, and we also have an employee “tax” in the form of FICA, unemployment  and other charges the employer must pay. And most states have a sales tax on general goods sold, except for basic foodstuffs. So perhaps our taxes are not so different after all.

Oddly, we have an entire class of taxes today that was not collected in England (that I know of): Americans are charged taxes on hotel stays, rental cars and airplane tickets. I have not found any equivalent tax in regency England.

I am curious about how some of these taxes were collected. Things sold in a store, like gloves or playing cards, could obviously be taxed at the point of sale. But what about the servant tax? Did the tax man come to your house and count the number of manservants? Who was responsible for reporting the number of windows in a home? And how did that whole bachelor tax thing work, anyway? If anyone knows, please enlighten me!

I look forward to hearing what you have to say!

19 Responses to The Tax Man Cometh

  1. I don’t know about the exact reason behind all the taxes during the Regency but here is a snippet from a talk I once gave on the influence of India on England:
    “The Bengal famine of 1770, in which one-third of the local population died, caused distress in Britain – as Military and administrative costs for the British East India Company mounted out of control because of the low productivity due to the deaths. The company attempted to avert bankruptcy by appealing to Parliament for financial help. This led to the passing of the Tea Act in 1773, which eventually triggered the Boston Tea Party, one of the major events leading up to the American Revolution.”
    In other news, the US is the only major country that taxes citizens residing in other countries and even thinks it has the right to tax some noncitizens who are nonresidents. A Canadian friend who lives in Canada but is married to a US citizen keeps getting letters from the IRS saying she should pay US taxes, and she ignores those indignantly. Living in Canada and a dual Cdn-US citizen, I pay taxes in both countries.

  2. That’s some list. What and all to keep the Prince Regent in the life of luxury so he could finance his expensive fete? I guess I’m being a little sarcastic. Sounds like the poor got poorer in those days.

    • Smuggling was a huge industry at the time, and after looking at this list, it’s not hard to understand why! And presumably you wouldn’t pay tax on the money you earned from smuggling!

  3. Her they taxed just about anything! If I were a single man I would’ve hurried up and got married!lol I wonder if they taxed a single woman? I would’ve been in trouble!

  4. I didn’t know about the taxes on dice and playing cards. Since they taxed both essentials and luxuries, you do have to wonder about their reasoning (I’m with you on the soap tax). Thanks for an interesting post.

  5. The next interesting question is what one got for the taxes. Without doing research, which makes it likely that I will make mistakes, some things we get that they don’t are:

    “free” schools (The quotes are because they are paid for by taxes. Almost nothing is free. Well, maybe sunsets.)

    Enforcement of laws that require food to be safe. (They may have had laws for the safety of food, but I doubt they had inspections of the sources. Meat packing plants are inspected, or at least were, when a relative of mine worked in one.)

    Police that would investigate crimes routinely without being paid to do so.

    Laws protecting the rights of the elderly in nursing homes and various other kinds of housing for the elderly. Yes, the elderly were cared for by their families, but not everyone had families. The elderly may have been cared for by the parish. (A side story: I know a case of a woman who ran a nursing home. When the inspectors came, she would tell them what to write her up for, because, for example, the owners of the nursing home would not buy another dresser if they weren’t written up for the fact that someone was missing one.)

  6. I had no idea how many things were taxed in regency England. I was especially amused by the bachelor tax. I wonder if that was the inducement for some men to marry.

    • I’m not sure about how the bachelor tax worked. I know that if you had servants, your tax on them was greater if you were a bachelor than if you were married. So perhaps the bachelor tax was more like a surtax than an outright penalty for being a single male. I’m still baffled as to its purpose.

      Then again, aren’t single taxpayers in the U.S. taxed at a higher rate than married couples? I haven’t been single in a long time so I really don’t know!

      • I just went and checked. A single taxpayer in the U.S. actually pays substantially more on the the same amount of income reported by a married couple filing jointly. So I guess we have our own “bachelor” tax as well. We should just call it the “single” tax!

  7. Although the phrase ‘death and taxes’ can be traced back to an earlier time… the one we remember the most was stated by Ben Franklin.

    Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

    —?Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789

    Great post.

  8. I have the same question you do, how did they collect some of these taxes? Were they one time taxes, or collected yearly? A bachelor tax sounds yearly. Timepieces, on the other hand… did they actually come in and count the number of clocks in your house, or was that a one time tax at point of sale? Either way, that’s quite the list 🙂

  9. Tax laws completely baffle me now so I’m afraid I’m no help whatsoever.
    The hot food tax in the UK is annoying. If you go in a shop to buy a pie for lunch you have to pay more if it is sold hot. So obviously the next invention must be a portable machine for heating food. I would say it’s a shame I’m not clever enough to invent one but if I was I would no doubt be taxed on it ?

    • We have a similar tax on hot food in some parts of the U.S. Groceries are rarely taxed but convenience food or food served at a restaurant often is. I have to think they must have had some kind of tax on meals at inns and such in regency times, but I haven’t found anything about it yet.

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