Have you ever wondered how taxes came to be an unavoidable part of our lives? There have been some quite bizarre ones over the centuries. The following are just a few.
Cowardice Tax – Also called scutage. In feudal England, knights were given land by the King and in return had to provide him with military service. The tax arose as a means of avoiding the need to fight. It was introduced by Henry I (1100 – 1135) and through the reigns of subsequent monarchs it evolved from a tax, to become a fine. Kings began to impose it, even in peace time, and under King John it was increased by 300%. This led in part to the knights’ revolt and Magna Carta, which once ratified gave some protection against feudal charges which could be imposed by the Crown.
Beard Tax – In England this was introduced by Henry VIII in 1535, and was further reinforced by Elizabeth I who taxed anyone with a beard of more than two weeks growth. In Russia a Beard Tax was introduced by Tsar Peter in 1698 as an attempt to westernise his nobles, as he wanted them to shave off their beards and wear western clothes. The tax applied to all apart from the clergy and the peasants
Ship Tax, or Ship Money – This was a medieval tax which was imposed on coastal towns to pay for naval defence. It was a tax that could be applied without recourse to Parliament and so in 1634 it was revived and enforced by Charles I in an attempt to obtain money without having to go cap in hand to his hated Parliament. It was a major factor in the events which led to the English Civil Wars.
Soap Tax – This was introduced in 1712. It was very hard on small soap makers and drove many of them to move to the colonies in order to make a living. In England the law prohibited soap from being made in batches of anything less than a ton, which kept the business in the hands of the wealthy capitalists who could afford the larger manufacturing premises. The soap tax was not repealed until 1835
Hat Tax – This was introduced in 1784 by William Pitt the Younger and was an attempt to raise revenue from those who could afford it. It was felt that the rich would have several hats whereas the poor might only have one or none at all. The tax was imposed on the hat makers who, as a result, stopped calling their creations ‘hats’. The government then extended the tax to cover all headwear. The tax was repealed in 1811
Window Tax – This was another attempt to tax those who could afford it. Introduced in 1696 it was a flat rate tax of 2 shillings per house, plus a further flat rate tax on the number of windows in excess of 10. This was replaced in 1747, when the 2 shilling tax became a tax in its own right, and the window tax was calculated, per window on any windows above 10. Households took to filling in windows to avoid the tax, evidence of which can still be seen in older properties with clear bricked up window shapes. The tax was not repealed until 1851
Income Tax – not a bizarre tax but have you ever wondered how it came about? It was introduced in 1799 by William Pitt the Younger, to raise money to pay for the War with Napoleon. It was abolished in 1801 when peace was declared but reinstated in 1803 when the War resumed. It was abolished in 1816, the year after victory at the battle of Waterloo. The Chancellor at that time Nicholas Vansittart wanted to keep the tax but it was so hated that the opposition supported its abolition and when Parliament agreed to repeal it, the house erupted to thunderous applause. It was Sir Robert Peel who reintroduced it in 1841, again meant to be a temporary measure of 3 years with a possible further 2 year extension. However the revenue it brought in was too great to ignore. Over the next few years, Prime Ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli both promised to end the tax but neither did, and it has been with us ever since
And finally – if you think Margaret Thatcher invented the Poll Tax, the first time it was applied in England was in 1275, and it reappeared several more times in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was the Poll Tax of 1381 which proved the last straw and, it is believed, finally led to the Peasants’ Revolt. It was briefly revived by both Charles I and II, and again by William of Orange. Then it lay dormant – until Margaret Thatcher saw fit to try and introduce it once more – and we all know how that ended.