Death & Taxes!

It’s said that only two things are certain in life: death and taxes.  As we hurtle headlong towards the end of the financial year, we thought it might be interesting to know exactly why we have this current system whereby the calendar year starts on 1 January, but the tax year starts on 6 April.

It is all to do with when Britain moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. This happened in 1752 after the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with most of Western Europe. By this time, the calendar in Britain was 11 days ahead of the Gregorian one, so it was ordered that 2 September 1752 would be immediately followed by 14 September 1752, losing 11 days. Its introduction meant that the year 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25 March (Lady Day and New Year in the Julian calendar) to 31 December (1 January was the New Year in the Gregorian calendar).

One issue with the date change was that it meant that all tax and other payments traditionally made on the quarter days (Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas & Christmas) would be due earlier under the new calendar than they would otherwise have done. Consequently, it was decided that any monthly, quarterly, or yearly payments would not become due until the days that they originally would have done if the Julian calendar continued – so these due dates were deferred by eleven days. The Treasury, ever wary about losing tax, therefore moved the tax year from 25 March to 5 April. In 1800, it added an extra day to adjust for a leap year and so the new tax year began on 6 April – where it remains to this day.

A lot is made about rioting after the change with crowds of people on the streets demanding, ‘Give us back our 11 days!‘ but this probably didn’t occur and in all likelihood, it stems from William Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment painting.

Copy of William Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment painting
© The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This shows a tavern dinner organised by the Whig candidates, while a Tory mob protests outside. On the floor, under the man in the white coat’s boot, a Tory banner containing the words “Give us our Eleven days“, can be seen.

Taxes have been in force in various forms since the Romans arrived, although they have had a chequered history. From Anglo-Saxon times until the Tudor period, the main forms of taxation were land taxes, although with a good dollop of customs duties on guilds, charter fairs, markets and market produce. In England, a Poor Law tax was established in 1572 to help the deserving poor, and this changed from a local tax to a national tax in 1601. In 1692, Parliament introduced a national land tax, which was a direct tax levied on rental values and applied to both rural and urban land. In a way reminiscent of today’s Council Tax bandings, the valuations of the land tax were never reassessed and consequently they remained fixed until well into the 1700s. The rate of tax was set by Parliament each year in a ‘Land Tax Act’ and was typically between two and four shillings in the pound, based on the value of an individual’s land or property. The oddest feature of this was that it was administered not by government officials, but by unpaid local ‘commissioners’, essentially gentry who were nominated by Parliament and whose names were included in the annual Land Tax Acts. The act of collecting the tax was left to local men of each parish, typically farmers or tradesmen of good standing.

Ignoring modern times, perhaps the most heavily taxed periods were the late-Stuart and Georgian periods when ‘assessed taxes’, were introduced. These were primarily levied to raise money to pay for the series of wars that characterised the 18th century. It is said that If it could be taxed the Georgians found a way to tax it! The document here is the assessed taxes return for Eastleach Turville for 1804-5 and this page lists three assessed taxes: window tax, servants’ tax, and the four-wheel carriage tax. 

Photograph of an archival document showing assessed taxes return for Eastleach Turville 1804-1805
Gloucestershire Archives D1070/VII/62

The window tax was in force from 1697-1851 and was charged at 2s per year, but at 10s for houses with 10 windows or over. It led to some windows being bricked up but not as many as we think, as some were built bricked-up for fashion (especially on large houses) or were blocked due to later alterations. The servant’s tax was a progressive tax introduced in 1777 and wasn’t repealed until 1889. It was levied at £2 per head on male servants (i.e., butlers, footmen, valets, grooms, coachmen, gardeners, gamekeepers, and huntsmen) but in 1785 was extended to female servants. The Four-Wheel Carriage tax was imposed on anyone possessing a horse-drawn conveyance from 1747 until 1782 and was charged at £12 a carriage, although farm wagons and trade carts were exempted. The charge varied depending on the size, number of wheels and number of horses used. 

These weren’t the end of it – the Georgians also added levies on wine, silks, gold and silver thread, silver plate, fire hearths, horses (exempting working horses), hats, salt, shops, Armorial bearings, dogs (used for hunting), clocks & watches, medicines, glass, guns, candles, wallpaper, leather, beer, gin, soap, starch, bricks, playing cards, and finally, wig powder!

Not surprisingly, with all these types of taxes being levied, mocking the government was splendid sport for the wonderful caricaturists of the day and many examples of tax cartoons exist – such as this one by Rowlandson depicting a country tax collector visiting a lady.

Cartoon by Rowlandson depicting a country tax collector visiting a lady =
Courtesy Lewis Walpole Library (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

Written by John Putley, Community Heritage Officer

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