TitleHearth Taxes - Birch Centenary Chronicles 39
AbstractHearth Taxes

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 39.

Published in Parish News - September 2005

Not so many years ago politicians, and others, made much of the need to reduce air pollution. This involved measures to convince people that it would be beneficial to burn smokeless fuel and, if possible, reduce the amount used. We still hear much about what will happen when such fuels run out and also about the need to take more care of our environment. We pay tax on much of the fuel we use today and, in the main, this is levied in such a way that the more we use the more we pay. We also pay VAT on appliances in addition to it being levied on fuels.

We may consider such taxation as fairly new but taxing the means of keeping warm is not new. Originally a tax on the number of hearths in a dwelling was taxed in order that Parliament could provide an income for Charles II. Other taxes then in being had failed to provide an adequate income and so the great minds of the day did much the same as those in power today - they looked to see what other countries did to raise revenue. It was argued that "hearth money, or smoke money seems the best". It was thought to be easy to assess and collect.

A measure to raise such a tax was passed in 1662 as a permanent levy collected twice a year at a rate of one shilling (5p) for every hearth, fire and stove, in every dwelling in England and Wales. The tax was to paid at Michaelmas (20 September) and Lady Day (25 March). Altogether it was hoped to collect about £160,000 each year in this manner.

Parish constables were to inform landlords and tenants to provide written returns to them so that they could assess the tax due. They had power to enter houses, and empty property, in order to verify the details given. This caused considerable unease to the occupants. The constables being local officials were not at all popular! They sent returns to the justices of the peace and so there was some control over the collection and accounting for the tax. Eventually the money reached the Chancellor of the Exchequer through a rather hierarchical system with controls not dissimilar to those we have today.

As with any new system there were objections to the way in which it was levied and collected. There is evidence that some constables were subject to physical assault and confusion arose when new or replacement sheriffs and constables were appointed. There were also exemptions for some e.g. those too poor to pay, and where the house itself was worth less than £1 a year. Industrial premises were also exempt. Realising that the tax collected fell far short of the estimate the law was tightened and the King informed Parliament that he could make a better job of collecting the revenue!

From the local historians point of view the surviving Hearth Tax returns are of interest. Firstly they have survived to some degree or other for many areas. They show the number of hearths in each dwelling or house and such details have been used to provide a very rough measure of the size of parishes and enable estimates of population to be calculated. The Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, has copies of many such returns either as photocopies or microfilms. The original documents are stored in The National Archives at Kew.

In our area the returns for 1662 show that Birch had 139 hearths in 55 premises and this appears to include all premises including those of the poorest. The size of premises range from 13 hearths in one case down to 7 in 2 houses and 6 in another, one had 5 hearths and a further 7 had 4 hearths each. This shows that many other houses had two or less hearths. By 1671 there were 72 houses but 33 were exempt from the tax leaving 39 taxable with 125 hearths.

Layer Breton was, as it is today, much smaller and in 1662 had only 21 dwellings with 66 hearths. Seven years later the number of premises was the same but 6 were exempt from the tax while 15 dwellings paid for 51 hearths. In Layer Marney in 1662 there were 22 premises with 90 hearths and by 1671 this had changed slightly to 23 premises (5 exempt) with a total of 79 hearths. In comparison Layer de la Haye was larger than the other two Layer parishes and had, in 1662, 30 premises with 97 hearths.

These returns can also be of use to family historians as they record the names of the families whether they were tax payers or exempt persons. Layer Breton, for example, had a Jacobus Lemming as owner of the largest number of hearths in 1662. Described as a "gent." he had 10 hearths and seven years later it appears that the same premises were occupied by Samuel Jones. The largest number of hearths was to be found in a dwelling occupied by Barbara Pellett in Layer Marney and she had 19 hearths to keep her warm while John Colby, and Ricus Smith both "gents." had 12 each. Some names found almost 340 years ago are the same as today although by no means ancestors of those alive today. For example Phillipps, Cooke and Woodgate along with Jones, Munton, French, Mead, Goody (perhaps Gooday?) and both Lay and Wheeler appear in the records for local parishes.

Although Charles II felt that he could make a better job of controlling the tax than Parliament the system was open to much abuse and constant disputes. This meant that it was in being for a comparatively short time before both Parliament and King turned to other systems to provide an adequate and certain income. The returns were saved fortunately and are now much studied to try to provide answers to all manner of questions raised by both local and social historians.

It is strange that a tax imposed as a "permanent" levy lasted only a few years whereas a number of temporary measures such as an increase in excise duties to pay the cost of the Civil War, and the imposition of income tax in the nineteenth century, remain with us to this day.

PublishedSeptember 2005
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath