Value added tax

Value added tax

Nobody likes the taxman... except perhaps for the family historian, who has much to gain from tax records, as Simon Fowler explains in this book extract

Simon Fowler, Professional history researcher and writer

Simon Fowler

Professional history researcher and writer

Taxation records are a very important source for researching ancestry pre-1837, more so than they are afterwards, largely because they are contain lots of names. Indeed, after parish registers they may well be the most important source. Of these records the most useful single source is one of the least used: rate books.


Rate books
Rates were a tax on the notional value of houses levied by local government and were payable by all but the very poorest inhabitants. Originally they had been a levy to help churches, but by the Reformation they were beginning to be used for non-ecclesiastical purposes. Rates for bridges were authorised by an act of 1530/31 and those to pay for gaols shortly thereafter. A wide range of different rates could be levied to pay for the poor, highways, removal of vagrants or even the eradication of vermin. Each parish vestry (the basic unit of local government) or borough was responsible for both setting rates as it saw fit and collecting the amount assessed. This was normally done by appointing collectors to physically call on ratepayers. He recorded payments in rate books which, where they survive, are at local record offices. Few records, however, seem to survive before 1744, when ratepayers were given the right to inspect the books, but they can go up to the 1960s.

As well providing information about the value of a property (and its size and location), they can act as surrogates to directories and even as a replacement for early censuses. I once did research for a client about his ancestor, Edwin Ridley, a wine merchant who lived near Clerkenwell Green in London for nearly 20 years before his death in 1838. Some of the most useful information came from rate books at Islington Local History Centre, where he appears every year until 1839, when the ratepayer was noted as being R Ridley (presumably a son). In 1840 the house was empty, so the family had moved away. The house had a rateable value of £32 and total value of £40, about average for the street. The rates were 2s 10d in the pound and he paid about £4 10s 8d per annum. It was described as being a house rather than a ‘house and shop’ as other premises in the street were. The landlord was a Mr Fisher.

The fact that even a respectable and presumably well-to-do figure like Edward Ridley rented his property is not unsurprising as very few householders in the 19th century, perhaps no more than one in ten, owned their own houses. Rate books are held by local record offices, but due to their voluminous nature they have often been heavily weeded. Only ones for every fifth year survive at Richmond Local Studies Library, for example.

parish rate book
Pages from an 1833 parish rate book for the village of Harbury in Warwickshire University of Warwick

Military fundraising
Central government was always short of money and came up with a wide range of ways to extract money from citizens.

Taxes were generally raised to pay for a military campaign or war and ceased when the national emergency came to an end. Some taxes are well known, such as the hearth tax of the 1660s and 1670s, but others have almost been forgotten, like the 18th-century taxes on silverware, dogs, hair powder and so on.

Most taxes were short-lived and badly administered, so were fairly easy to evade. With the proposal for the introduction of a poll tax to help pay for a war against the Dutch, Samuel Pepys confided to his diary of January 1665–66:

This afternoon I saw the Poll Bill, now printed; wherein I do fear I shall be very deeply concerned, being to be taxed for all my offices, and then for my money that I have, and my title, as well as my head. It is a very great tax; but yet I do think it is so perplexed, it will hardly ever be collected duly.

Window taxPunch
Many properties circumvented window tax (introduced in 1696) by blocking windows up, as in this house in Southampton built in the 1830s. Right: a Punch cartoon from 1850 in advance of the repeal of the tax in 1851

Window tax
The impositions of the 18th-century window tax, for example, could be mitigated by bricking up a window or two. Even for the rich the tax burden was not onerous, as Liza Picard points out in Dr Johnson’s London, there was no inheritance tax, no income tax [before the Napoleonic wars], only 5s in the pound on income from land and multitudinous taxes on status symbols such as footmen and carriages, which could be borne without strain. In 1762, window tax was 1s per window up to 12, or 1s 6d for households with more than 12 windows. The tax had to be paid weekly.

Most surviving records are at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew in series E 179, which, according to the archives, provide the overwhelming bulk of the information now available about taxes and taxpayers in England during five centuries of English history. The series contains detailed records of taxation levied in England and Wales from about 1190 to 1690. Most, but by no means all, rolls contain the names of individual taxpayers and the amount of tax paid. The series has been exhaustively indexed and a database can be searched online by place or by type of tax, although not by name of individual taxpayer. In addition, a reasonable proportion of the records has been transcribed and published by local record societies with detailed name indexes where appropriate.

The 18th century saw numerous much-mocked and short-lived taxes on everything from hair powder to clocks
Extracts from subsidy rolls for the village of Crich in Derbyshire, from 1549 and 1640 The National Archives

Lay subsidies
The earliest records relate to the Carucages, a tax on land which was levied on several occasions between 1194 and 1224. Of more interest are records of the taxes imposed on the income and moveable property of more prosperous individuals, known as lay subsidies, which survive between 1225 and 1334. Lay in this context means anybody who was not in a holy order, as the clergy were exempt. The most important of these lay subsidies was levied a number of times between 1290 and 1334. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘tenth and fifteenth’ because it was levied on one-tenth of moveable property in towns and one-fifteenth

Intriguing article?

Subscribe to our newsletter, filled with more captivating articles, expert tips, and special offers.

of such property in the poorer countryside (although the proportions taxed at each levy varied). The rolls, or lists of taxpayers, are a major source for both family and local historians as they offer a rare insight into England before the Black Death. In addition, these records also show the use of surnames for the first time in any great number. Indeed, Dr Harold Flood described lay subsidies as being an alphabetical roll-call of the wealthier inhabitants… in the early 14th century…The records are easy to use, being essentially lists of names of the people who paid the tax (almost always the male head of the household) with how much they paid. The records are arranged by parish within hundreds and then counties. Lay subsidies ceased to be assessed directly on individuals in 1334 and were replaced by fixed quotas paid by parishes or towns, charged at a fifteenth on most of the country, but at a tenth on the royal lands or demesne and boroughs. These records rarely include names.

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a protest against poll tax. The death of rebel leader Wat Tyler is shown at the bottom left

Poll taxes
The next tax to contain many names were the poll taxes, which were levied in 1377, 1379 and 1381. The tax was abandoned after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The 1377 returns are the most complete, for there is evidence of widespread evasion in other years. In 1377 the tax was levied at 4d per head for everybody over the age of 14 with the clergy paying a shilling. Rich and poor paid the same amount. Only beggars and the hopelessly impoverished were exempt. As with the lay subsidies, the records just give the individual and how much they paid. Individuals in a particular household are listed together. In 1379 and 1381 richer individuals paid more. In addition, an indication of their marital status, occupation or rank is given in the returns. The poll tax was revived at least eight times after 1641.The survival of records is patchy, but where they do survive they are likely to be at local record offices.

Further lay subsidies were revived by Henry VIII and again records survive in TNA series E 179. Those for 1523–24 offer best coverage for southern England and the Midlands, while in the north the best coverage is in 1543. Again you can get some idea of the wealth of individuals from the amount they paid. In the Leicestershire village of Kibsworth, John Polle was assessed at £23 in goods in the lay subsidy of 1524, as against some of his middling neighbours who were rated at a mere £3 or £4, and ten more who were taxed on wages of 20s per annum. As the lay subsidies of the early 14th century and the 1520s were not dissimilar, it is possible to compare how villages had prospered over the years and see which families had remained. John Polle’s family, for example, had been in the village since at least the 1280s.

Hearth tax
The restoration of Charles II in May 1660 led to a return to the old problems of a pressing shortage of funds. One answer lay in taxing the hearths found in houses, it being easy to tell the number of hearths which remove not as heads or polls. The resulting hearth tax was levied several times between 1662 and 1689, initially at 2s per hearth. Householders who possessed fewer than two hearths were exempt – very roughly a third of the population. The returns give a rough idea of a person’s wealth – the more hearths they had, such as the Earl of Dorset’s house at Knole near Sevenoaks with 85 fireplaces,

the richer they were likely to be. Sometimes the returns also include other information, such as status or rank, eg the addition of titles such as Sir, Widow and Esquire. Records survive for two distinct periods, between 1662–66 and 1669–74, most of which are in TNA series E 179, although a few lists are at local record offices. The tax was payable on Lady Day and Michaelmas, with two lists being drawn up each year. Approximately eight different lists for each county were returned to the Exchequer, although the survival rate for each county is patchy. While Warwickshire is well covered, other places like Berkshire only have one list, which is incomplete. In addition, there are some subsidiary lists which may provide some information, including certificates of exemption listing householders too poor to be assessed.

The records are arranged by county, hundred and then parish. You may not need to use the originals as an increasing number of lists are being edited and published by the British Records Society .

hearth tax return17th century woodcut of a hearth
This hearth tax return (left) from 1683/4 details hearths in newly erected houses and smiths' workshops in and around Birmingham The National Archives. The number of hearths in new houses shown in the return demonstrates the rate at which Birmingham was expanding during this period. Below: a 17th century woodcut of a hearth Simon Fowler

Marriage duty
In the late 17th century and during the 18th century an increasing number of taxes was imposed on consumer goods. There are few records at Kew, although registers and other records can often be found at local record offices. Details should be available through the Access to Archives database (at www.national

Intriguing article?

Try a four-month Diamond subscription and we’ll apply a lifetime discount making it just £44.95 (standard price £64.95). You’ll gain access to all of our exclusive record collections and unique search tools (Along with Censuses, BMDs, Wills and more), providing you with the best resources online to discover your family history story.

We’ll also give you a free 12-month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine (worth £24.99), so you can read more great Family History research articles like this!

View Offer Details, but due to be incorporated into A fascinating example is the marriage duty tax, which would have meant, had it worked and had more than a handful of records survived, that we would have had a registration system 140 years before one was actually introduced. Despite its name, the tax was imposed upon burials, births and marriages as well as on bachelors over 25 years of age and childless widowers. It came into force in May 1695, initially for a five-year period, but was later extended until August 1706. To make the legislation work it really required a complete enumeration of the people in order to identify all bachelors and widowers, together with detailed records on people’s wealth (as the rich were to pay more): a levy of 4s was levied on the burials of ordinary people, rising to £50 4s for archbishops and dukes. All this was beyond the administrative capabilities of the period, so it was widely ignored and few records survive. Remarkably they include returns from 80 of the 94 parishes of the City of London, so we have a list of the majority of Londoners over the age of 14, including servants and apprentices.

Income tax
Income tax was first levied in 1799, repealed in 1816, and has been with us again since 1841, despite still being technically a ‘temporary’ measure. This Punch cartoon from 1896, by Sir John Tenniel, reflects views of it then (when it was being upped to 8 pence in the pound) and now

Income tax
One tax for which there are no records about individuals is income tax. The tax was first introduced in 1798 at a rate of 10 per cent on the total income of the taxpayer from all sources above £60, with reductions on income up to £200. As this was a considerable sum, it was paid by relatively few people and it brought in rather less than anticipated. The tax was abolished in 1815 and Parliament decided that all documents connected with it should be collected, cut into pieces and pulped. It was reintroduced in 1841 as a temporary measure, levied on incomes over £150, so again at least initially it was only paid by a fairly small proportion of the population.

However, another set of returns were supposedly saved by the king’s remembrancer and are now in series E 182 at Kew. The series comprises summaries of money collected with details of defaulters, as well as some records of window and other late Georgian taxes – but unfortunately is virtually impossible to use.

Death duty
More records survive for another tax initiative introduced during the French wars: death duties, which were actually three different taxes on legacy, succession and estate duty, and were payable from 1796 on large estates.

The scope of estate duty was extended throughout the 19th century. Before 1805 the death duty registers cover about a quarter of all estates. By 1857, there should be an entry for all estates except for those worth less than £20, although unless the assets were valued at £1,500 or more, the taxes were rarely collected. Registers survive up to 1903. For researchers with middle-class ancestors they are an important resource, as entries can show what happened to someone’s personal estate after death, the estate’s worth, details of the deceased and executors, as well as details of estates, legacies, trustees, legatees, annuities and the duty paid. They can also give the date of death and information about the people who received bequests or who were the next of kin. The records are in series IR 26 and IR 27 at Kew, with records before 1811 available through TNA’s online records here .

Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is published by Discover Your Ancestors Publishing, UK. All rights in the material belong to Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and may not be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without their prior written consent. The publisher makes every effort to ensure the magazine's contents are correct. All articles are copyright© of Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and unauthorised reproduction is forbidden. Please refer to full Terms and Conditions at The editors and publishers of this publication give no warranties,
guarantees or assurances and make no representations regarding any goods or services advertised.