National taxation records are of particular value to historians, providing rare snapshots of both the extent and distribution of wealth and population across an entire country. The hearth tax of the 1660s and 1670s provides one such detailed picture of the socio-economic and demographic structure of England and Wales. In addition, the information on hearths sheds invaluable light on vernacular architecture and on developments in building during the later seventeenth century. The research rationale of the Hearth Tax Centre and Project was set out by Professor Margaret Spufford 'The scope of Local History, and the Potential of the Hearth Tax Returns', The Local Historian 30 (2000), pp. 1-20.
The hearth tax was levied between 1662 and 1689 on each householder according to the number of hearths (fireplaces) in his/her occupation. The administrators were required to compile lists of householders with the number of their hearths according to county.
For postgraduate students contemplating research on aspects of the social, economic, architectural and economic history of early modern England, the records of the hearth tax have much to offer. Unlike other tax lists they are relatively comprehensive, often including the exempt as well as those deemed capable of paying, and are also compact, sometimes providing several lists for each place between 1662-6 and 1670-4. At Roehampton, students have direct on-site access to hearth tax materials and receive expert guidance. Postgraduate work by Dr Elizabeth Parkinson at the Centre on the administration of the hearth tax was published in E. Parkinson, The establishment of the hearth tax 1662-1666 (2008).
Further links on these pages provide introductory information on the hearth tax and different subject areas.
Early demographers and political arithmeticians, such as Gregory King (d. 1712), recognized that returns to the hearth tax were a rich store of data, but it was not until the late 1960s that modern historians really focused on the value of the hearth tax for a range of enquiries. Historians have continued to draw upon it to assess distributions of population and the divisions between rich and poor in national and local contexts, and in association with other sources it can also be used to assess life cycles, population movements, patterns of employment, kinship and the family, and early modern local government jurisdictions.
In addition to being a key source for both professional historians and students, the recorded personal names and the taxation obligations of householders are of great interest to genealogists and family historians. The most notable feature is the volume of data; for instance, the returns for the West Riding of Yorkshire lady day 1672 list the names of 31, 866 people, and for London and Middlesex, over 50,000 names are recorded. The documents also provide an insight into the status and economic position of the individual by recording how many hearths they were liable for, or if they were exempt due to poverty, limited means or other factors.
Find out more about genealogical research and the hearth tax
The hearth tax can be used to study architecture and the environment in two ways. Firstly, investigation of different returns means that it is sometimes possible to find out how many hearths a contemporary home had in the seventeenth century. This can be used to understand how the present interior of a contemporary home or building has been shaped by its use and/or construction in the late seventeenth century. For non-metropolitan areas, this approach can be used to reconstruct entire streets and neighbourhoods, if a seventeenth century map of the locality is available. An example of this method is provided by Dorian Gerhold's Putney and Roehampton in 1665, published as an occasional paper by the Centre in conjunction with Wandsworth Historical Society. Secondly, analysis of empty properties in hearth tax returns can be used in urban areas to analyse both the impact of the 1665 plague and new building programmes. Numerous architectural essays in the hearth tax volumes, two articles in the Local Historian (2000, 2011), and the Houses and the Hearth Tax: later Stuart house and society, ed. Barnwell and Airs provides insights into architectural history and the hearth tax.