The Hearth Tax

A brief introduction to the hearth tax


The hearth tax was introduced in England and Wales in 1662 to provide a regular source of income for the newly restored monarch, King Charles II. Parliament had accepted in 1662 that the King required an annual income of £1.2 million to run the country, much of which came from customs and excise. By1661 the sum was short by £300,000, a figure that the hearth tax was projected to yield but which proved to be a hopeless overestimate. The government sought to raise this money by a means which had no Commonwealth links such as the excise or the assessments and the MPs ensured that it did not impinge too heavily on those with land and personality such as themselves. Unlike other contemporary levies the tax was granted in perpetuity.

Principles of the tax

Sometimes referred to as chimney money, the hearth tax was essentially a property tax on dwellings graded according to the number of their fireplaces. The 1662 Act introducing the tax stated that 'every dwelling and other House and Edifice …shall be chargeable ….for every firehearth and stove….the sum of twoe shillings by the yeare'. The money was to be paid in two equal instalments at Michaelmas [M] (29 September) and Lady Day [L] (25 March) by the occupier or, if the house was empty, by the owner according to a list compiled on a county basis and certified by the justices at their quarterly meetings. These quarterly meetings conducted within each county were known as the Quarter Sessions. The lists of householders were an essential part of the administration so that the returns of the tax could be vetted and for two periods 1662-6 and 1669-74, one copy of the relevant list was returned to the Exchequer and another was held locally by the clerk of the peace who administered the Quarter Sessions.

The administration of the tax

Frequent changes in administration were a feature of the tax in an effort to reach its unattainable projected yield. Initially in 1662 assessment and collection were entrusted to the local government officials - petty constables or tything men supervised by the high constables and the sheriffs. The return of money to the Exchequer was so slow however that a revising Act was passed in 1663 which tightened up the assessment procedure. A further Act in 1664 supplemented the local officials with professional tax collectors directed by a county receiver appointed by the King.

By the spring of 1666, the King was so short of money that the receivers were peremptorily removed and the tax was privatised with a consortium of London merchants paying up front for the privilege. Some receivers had already begun the L 1666 collection but in most counties it was managed by the farmers although audited by the Exchequer. The farm was a failure exacerbated by the Great Fire of London which destroyed the tax office and as a result the contract was terminated at the earliest possible opportunity at 1669L. It was not until the summer of 1670 that a second receivers' administration was set up with county lists again being returned to the Exchequer. Because of this late start, the officials had to make two collections that of 1669M and 1670L retrospectively. At 1674M the organisation reverted to farmers again. Farming was continued until 1684 with two five-year contracts being drawn up. Finally in 1684 the administration was combined with that of the Excise under a Commission. The persistent problems of assessment and collection were reflected in ten abortive bills concerning the tax being introduced in the Commons between 1669 and 1681. The situation was not helped by the fact that from1663 the officials had the right to search each dwelling to check the number of hearths. Finally the tax was repealed in 1689 at the start of William and Mary's reign in order to gain popularity.

The tax was collected according to the administrative units of the time namely county, hundred and constabulary or township, which may or may not be the same as the parish. In the cities, towns and boroughs the constables or sub-collectors often worked according to wards whose boundaries again may or may not be the same as those of the parish. As time went on there was a streamlining of the administrative areas, the county towns and boroughs being absorbed within their respective counties and some other counties being amalgamated.

Yields of the tax

At no time in its life did the tax yield its expected target of £300,000 per annum. The first two collections raised only £115,000 and by 1666 the annual net yield had fallen to about £103,000. The subsequent changes in management saw a gradual increase in annual net yield from about £145,000 in 1670 to £157,000 in 1680 and under the Commission from 1684 to 1689 it reached its highest net total of £216,000 per annum.

Exemption from the tax

By the 1662 Act certain hearths were made not liable namely those in houses already exempt from paying local taxes to church and poor due to 'poverty or smallness of estate', and those in dwellings whose rentable value at market rates was 20 shillings a year or less and whose occupiers did not have or use any land or tenements of their own or others exceeding that value nor had any goods worth more than ten pounds. For those in this second category a certificate was required signed by the minister, and at least one of the churchwardens or overseers of the poor of their parish and certified by two justices. Such certificates of exemption were valid for one year or two collections.The 1664 Act limited exemption still further by restricting it to dwellings with no more than two hearths and furthermore no hearth which had previously been chargeable could be made exempt unless it became ruinous. A third category of hearths in blowing houses, stamps, furnaces and kilns and those in hospitals or almshouses below a certain annual income was also exempted. Throughout the life of the tax the identification of the not liable was primarily the responsibility of the parish officials who not infrequently were challenged by the professional tax collectors thereby causing friction between the two sets of administrators.

Survival of useful lists

The hearth tax has left many records but the most well-known and heavily-used are the county lists of householders which only survive when the Exchequer controlled the administration between 1662M to 1666L and 1669M to 1674L. Usually about four returns were compiled for each county in each period and generally at least two have survived in a legible form for most areas although many are incomplete. In addition, some lists are abbreviated versions merely recording those householders whose hearth number had changed since the previous collection. Most of these records are held at The National Archives and details can be accessed through its E179 database. Some may also be found in local record offices, amongst estate papers and in the British Library, generally but not always belonging to the same periods as those in The National Archives. A selection of transcripts of county lists have also been published.

Recording of the not chargeable

The legal clauses stating the requirements for exemption were drafted rather loosely which together with poor instructions led to much misunderstanding amongst the officials. As a result the recording of the not liable in the county lists is inconsistent and may even be omitted. In 1662 only the names of the chargeable were to be noted but from 1664L the not chargeable were also required to be listed separately. From then on they were included in a bewildering diversity of ways. The records of 1664M-1665 may note the exempt separately or some may be included amongst the chargeable. Most of the returns dated 1669M to 1674L record chargeable and sometimes the not chargeable grouped under various headings such as 'certified', 'not chargeable' or 'receive alms'.

If the names of the exempt have been omitted or truncated it may be possible to extract them from the exemption certificates which are also held at The National Archives. Whilst the earlier certificates were generally compiled on an individual basis, the later introduction of printed forms permitted all or many of the exempt of one parish to be listed on one certificate. Most of these certificates derived from the 1670s are as yet uncatalogued and not all counties are represented.

Description of lists

Normally each entry cites a number of hearths and the name of an individual who may be the occupier or the owner. Where the entry includes more than one hearth the number sometimes represents hearths in several buildings or a sub-divided one. Within a rural area the simple list of householders gives no indication of the relationship of each entry to another on the ground but in the towns, if inn names are recorded it may be possible to trace partially the steps of the tax official.

In some lists the names and numbers represent those who were assessed for the tax and in others those who had or had not paid because the returns were compiled at different stages of the appropriate collections. Sometimes for certain collections due to changing instructions, additional information is given such as a change of occupier or a change in hearth number.

Warnings and limitations

Only in the scattered instances where building names are recorded can the hearth number be related to a specific building although a titled entry or that of a cleric may provide a clue. The absence of a specific name in a place does not necessarily mean that such an individual was not living there. Since the county lists only record the name of the occupying householder or owner, the missing individual could have been living with other members of his family, listed as a householder under another township or perhaps he/she was categorised as exempt for which notification on the lists is notoriously unreliable.

Each list for whatever collection is an amalgam of several people's work so that the amount of information recorded within it may not be consistent due to the varying ability and assiduity of the officials. All the returns are copies of original working lists or previous records so they are subject to copying and spelling errors, a problem made worse where the compiler was unfamiliar with local names. For each county there is no one 'best buy' in terms of completeness of recording but comparisons with lists of a different date where they survive is essential to help identify omissions and errors.