You know the saying about death and taxes…. Taxes aren't mentioned much in historical romances, but they've been around for a long time, and I'm sure most Regency people felt as taxed to death as we do today. People of substance, that is.
Can you think of a historical romance that mentions taxes, or even better, uses them as a plot point? All those impoverished families might want to look closely at their taxable assets! The information below is from A Gentleman's Pocket Memorandum from 1819.
(Addition, I originally got my photocopy from Nancy, and she has put up a much fuller and clearer transcription here. It's a wonderful site full of information.)
I'm going to mostly write about the small taxes, but a word first about one we all know well.
Income Tax was introduced as a temporary measure (ha!) to help pay for the Napoleonic Wars. "It began at a levy of 2 old pence in the pound (1/120) on incomes over £60 (£5,077 as of 2013), and increased up to a maximum of 2 shillings (10%) on incomes of over £200." (Wikipedia.)
(I think their estimate of modern values is off. It's very tricky because there are a lot of variables.)
You can read more about the progress of income tax here. It was abolished in 1816 and didn't return until 1841, so the characters in the book I'm writing now, set in 1817, didn't have that burden to bear. But let's look at some others. One interesting thing is that they're all designed to tax wealth, so they were more socialist minded than we might think.
This was introduced in the 17th century as a tax on wealth and had the advantage of not obliging people to disclose their income. It levied 2 shillings per house, and then the amount went up according to the number of windows, up to 8 shillings if the property had over twenty windows. I'm sure the owners of Chatsworth and Blenheim really felt the pinch!
Some people bricked up windows to reduce the tax.
On to the others.
Nibbled to death by taxes
(I'm going to give these in brief and I don't understand the full implications of some, so due warning. l=pound)
1. Armorial bearings – if you have them and keep a coach, 2l 8s pa. If you have them and don't keep a coach but are liable to house duty 1l 4s. All others, 12s
2. Vehicles. If you keep a four-wheeled carriage for pleasure, 12l pa and it goes up, getting more expensive per carriage to 9 and upward at 163l 7s pa. And people complain about vehicle licencing today! Carriages drawn by one horse with less than 4 wheels, 6l 10s. There are taxes on carriages let for hire. Makers of carriages, 10s pa, plus 1l 5s for every 4 wheeled carriage made and 12s 6d for every two wheeled. There are taxes on selling them and doing nearly anything to them, I assume because vehicles were a sure sign of wealth.
3. Dogs. Greyhounds a pound per dog pa. More than one of any type of dog, 14s.
4. Hair powder. If you wear it at all, you pay 1l 3s 6d. Exempt are the royal family and their servants; clergymen whose income is less than 100l; naval personnel below commander; subalterns or lower in the army etc etc. There's a very odd line at the end of this paragraph. "No person to pay for more than two unmarried daughters." Perhaps a typesetting error? Or if you're unfortunate enough to have many unmarried daughters they can powder at will?
5. Horses. Again, a sliding scale from 2l 17s 6d for one, reaching 6l 12 for twenty. That seems quite moderate, so perhaps having a horse was not seen as such a sign of wealth as having a carriage.
6. Houses — 1l 6s up to 2l 10s
7. Servants. Male servants, 2l 8s for one up to 7l 13s for eleven and up. Note, bachelors pay an additional 2l a year for every manservant. Disabled officers on half pay may keep one servant duty free. There's nothing about female servants, so I assume the penalty for male servants is because they were a status symbol, and also the legislators might feel men could be employed in more worthwhile jobs. Anyone giving a servant a false character could be fined 20l.
Are you surprised by these? It must have meant quite a bit of book keeping even in a moderate household. What would you tax today to particularly zap the wealthy over-consumers? Sports cars? Handbags that cost over 200 — dollars, pounds or euroes? TVs bigger than….?