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Hearth Tax discovery by Roehampton historians may illuminate Isaac Newton’s life story

A key detail of the life story of Isaac Newton may have been uncovered by a researcher from the Centre for Hearth Tax Research (CHTR) at the University of Roehampton.

Posted: 22 April 2015

image for news story Hearth Tax discovery by Roehampton historians may illuminate Isaac Newton’s life story
New details about the life of Sir Isaac Newton have been uncovered by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research at the University

It is widely reported that when Isaac Newton left Cambridge in 1665, at the outbreak of the Great Plague and the closure of the University, he returned to his family home in Woolsthorpe by Colsterworth in Lincolnshire. It was at some point during this time that Newton conceived the law of gravity on seeing an apple fall from a tree, an insight which led to the establishment of the fundamental principles of modern physics in Principia Mathematica (1687). 

New research carried out by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research based on Hearth Tax records for the Kesteven area in 1665 casts some doubt on whether he actually lived at the family home during the time he discovered gravity. The records, kept by tax officials at the time, listed 'Isacke Newton' residing in the village of 'Colsterworth with Woolthorpe', but it was noted that he paid tax on a one hearth property, which is indicative of a cottage. 

Paul Hodges, a member of the Centre, who made the finding, said: “The same village’s records also show a Mrs Hannah Smyth, Isaac Newton’s mother’s name after she remarried following the death of Newton’s father, paying for five hearths. The number of hearths suggests a 17th-century farm house of fair size and comfort and is presumably the property known today as Woolsthorpe manor house.

“This house, identified as Newton’s birthplace and family home, is now a National Trust property. Quite how the various properties fit with the family history and Hearth Tax information is a complex matter. We cannot yet be absolutely sure from the Hearth Tax records alone that the ‘Isacke’ paying tax for one hearth was Sir Isaac Newton. The complexities are well known to the group of Newton’s descendants who have investigated their ancestor’s Lincolnshire associations in detail. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about the possibility that Newton was not living with his mother in 1665.”

Andrew Wareham, Director of Centre, said: “It is an interesting possibility to find that Isaac Newton may not have returned to his family home when he fled the Great Plague, and if this is the case one could speculate as to why he would choose to live in a separate home; the material raises interesting questions on how Isaac Newton spent his time in Woolsthorpe by Colsterworth.”

Any property with a rental value of less than 20 shillings was exempt from the tax, so Newton may have been living in a well-appointed cottage. He did not fall on hard times during the Great Plague as by that time he held a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge ( which had 215 hearths), and in 1667 he spent 11 shillings on one and half sacks of coal and turf.

The Hearth Tax was a property tax levied on homes and non-domestic buildings. The intention had been that it would fall mainly on the wealthy, with each hearth attracting a charge of two shillings per annum, so Newton’s payment was quite light in comparison to his mother’s during her second widowhood. The Centre for Hearth tax research is currently working on a group of counties in the wider East Anglian region in order to illuminate the lives of heads of household and their families at all levels of society in urban and rural contexts. This latest discovery has been uncovered thanks to a grant from the Aurelius Trust to commence work on the Lincolnshire hearth tax.

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