Bizarre and annoying taxes

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 The soap tax was not repealed until 1835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 The tax was repealed in 1811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.

Old remedies

If you have a headache you would probably wash a couple of tablets down with a glass of water. Lucky then that you didn’t live in times past.  Old medical cures have ranged from sound ideas based on beneficial herbs, to the downright crazy remedies that make us profoundly grateful we managed to avoid them.

Many women in rural communities would have a basic knowledge of the herbs and plants to use for illness and to ease symptoms, a knowledge that be passed down through the generations. Indeed in medieval times the lady of the house would have been expected to be familiar with the herbs and plants required for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Monastic houses too would have had herb gardens for the same reason.

However, somewhere along the way various bizarre notions were also introduced. To return to your headache, you might well be advised to place a cabbage or lettuce leaf under your hat to keep your head cool and therefore prevent headaches.  Another equally bizarre belief in the 1700s was that tying a piece of a hangman’s rope round your head would cure headaches. As there were plenty of hangings, an enterprising hangman could make a tidy profit on the side by cutting up the rope afterwards and selling it.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist religion, was also interested in what he viewed as natural cures, for people who could not afford a Doctor’s fee. Some of his ideas are surprisingly sensible, such as eating plainly, drinking water and taking exercise, but others are a bit off the mark, such as ‘dry and powder a toad into small pills for asthma.’  My favourite however is his cure for stomach pains or colic, which is to ‘hold a live puppy over the afflicted area’

Another old remedy book suggests that you get someone to rub your head, which will take away the headache, although they would subsequently have the headache so I suppose you needed to choose someone you didn’t particularly like. A popular 18th century cure for a cough was snails boiled in barley water, with snail slime mixed with brown sugar to cure whooping cough.

As time went on the cures became more ridiculous and some were downright dangerous or more deadly than the original illness. Bleeding was very popular and Doctors would apply leeches or open veins to drain away some blood, making patients even weaker.  By the time we arrive in the Victorian era, Morphine was used in soothing baby syrup (no wonder the baby was quiet), Opium was often used in cough medicines, and Arsenic and Mercury were used to cure syphilis. Added to this was a whole array of travelling salesmen touting their own brand of ‘cure all’ elixirs.

Thankfully we have come full circle with many of the medieval herbal remedies being recognised for their natural healing properties, alongside the more scientific based treatments of today.

And now – if you’ll excuse me I feel a headache coming on. Now where did I put that cabbage leaf?

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Huguenot immigrants

In 16th century France, groups of French Protestants were referred to as Huguenots, mainly by those who disagreed with their religious convictions. As the Reformation spread across Europe it lit a bonfire of religious upheaval wherever it went.   France was no exceptions with Protestants through all levels of French Society following the teachings of Jean Calvin. As with all religious wars, the degree of tolerance swung back and forth, until finally in 1598 King Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes, which gave substantial rights and freedoms to the Protestants, although France still remained a Catholic country.

This was not to last, and in 1685 at Fontainebleau his grandson Louis XIV revoked the earlier Edict.  He exiled the protestant Pastors but forbade the French citizens to leave. The idea was to make life so unbearable it would force them to convert to Catholicism. Men who tried to leave the country and were caught were executed or sent to be galley slaves in the French fleet, while women were imprisoned and children sent to convents to be brought up as Catholics.  Regardless of the dire consequences thousands of the Huguenots fled, taking ship to wherever felt safe. Some went into the Netherlands, or to Prussia, Switzerland, Scandinavia or Russia. Others crossed to America and settled in the New World.

It is estimated that around 50,000 came to England, with around 10,000 of those continuing on to Ireland. There was already a French Protestant community in London and this is where the new arrivals headed, with many of them settling in the area of Spitalfields.  Although they had to leave surreptitiously and leave most of their belongings behind, they brought their skills. Many were silk weavers, watchmakers and silversmiths. Others brought financial expertise.

The refugees were made welcome, and for a long while the area of Spitalfields was prosperous with the silk weavers being considered highly skilled and their work much sought after.  Spitalfields was often referred to as ‘Weaver Town. The communities thrived, and the French language and culture survived.  Their religious beliefs were important to them and by 1700 they had built at least 9 Huguenot churches in the East End, and a further 12 in the West end where another French community thrived around Soho.  The church not only provided a central focus for the immigrants but also provided support and help for the new arrivals and the poor.  The best known of the churches were ‘ L’Eglise Protestant’ in Threadneedle St and the ‘L’Eglise de l’Hôpital’  in Brick Lane.

The silk weavers’ prosperity was to rise and fall several times due to the fluctuating nature of the textile trade but it was finally to come to an end around the end of the 18th century, with the import of cheaper Indian and Chinese fabrics, and the move towards machine manufactured cloth.   By this time the Huguenots were no longer viewed as a separate religious group but had been absorbed into the rich cosmopolitan tapestry of London.

Many London families, who have lived in the East End area for generations, will have Huguenot ancestry.

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Victorian Children’s Card Games

Happy Families was a card game for children which made its appearance after the 1851 Great Exhibitions, where it had been shown to great acclaim.  Unusually for the times, it was not devised with the intention of educating children but purely for their amusement.  It was created and developed by John Jaques & Son of London, and was based on families consisting of a Father, Mother, Son and Daughter, the idea being to collect all four members of the family by asking the other players for a specific card. If they had it, they were obliged to pass it to you.  The names of the families were reflective of the occupation of the head of the family – such as Miss Dose the Doctor’s daughter and Mrs Bones the Butcher’s wife.

Photo 2The illustrations for the first editions of the cards were by Sir John Tenniel, chief illustrator for Punch magazine, who had also illustrated Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass for Lewis Carroll.  Lewis Carroll’s niece Irene Dodson later married John Jaques III.

Another card game to come out of the Jaques stable was Snap. This was first published in 1866 and the box described it as ‘sixty-four cards of Grotesque Characters, Beautiful and Printed in Colours.’ Once again the illustrations were by Sir John Tenniel. The aim was to turn the cards one by one and find a matching pair, the first to say ‘Snap’ gaining the cards already drawn. The winner would be the one left holding all the cards at the end of the game. This is another card game which has survived to present day, although I image that Victorian children would not be allowed to shout with the same enthusiasm that today’s children do.

In 1896 the illustrations by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s books were used for an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ card game.  This comprised of 48 cards, divided into 16 sets of 3 cards in each set.  The cards had a number between 1 and 16 on the left hand corner and each set of 3 had a ‘leading’ card and 2 others. For example, the leading card may be an illustration of Alice standing by the table with the bottle and the key, and the instructions are ‘find the bottle and the key’.  The player has to try and collect all 3 cards, the other 2 being a card with a bottle, and a card with a key. To avoid mistakes all 3 of the set would have the same number on the top left corner.  I’m sure Victorian children found it lots of fun, after all they didn’t have Xboxes or Kindles.

The family business of Jacques of London was passed down from father to son and is still in business today. You can also still buy the Happy Families and Snap card games today, although Alice appears to have returned to Wonderland.


Smallpox is a disease that seems to have always been with us. It stretches back through ancient history and there is even evidence to suggest some of the mummified bodies of Egyptians from as far back as 1500 BC had suffered from this disfiguring disease.  By the early 18th century the surgeons and physicians were looking for a way to protect patients from the disease. This usually meant causing direct exposure to the smallpox germs by adding pus from an infected smallpox patient, to a cut in the skin of a healthy one.

Sounds grim, but it was based on the understanding that anyone who survived a smallpox attack would then be immune to it. Results were not brilliant, and it was not until around 1796 when Scientist and Medical Practitioner Edward Jenner, realised that dairymaids who suffered from the milder cowpox, did not catch smallpox.  He carried out experiments and developed the procedure which was eventually to be called vaccination.  It was initially rejected by the medical profession but gradually gained acceptance from around 1800 onwards.death-certificate

It seems ironic that 40 years later the 17-year-old Margaret Borrowdale was to catch smallpox and die following her vaccination, when the vaccination would go on to save countless lives. Although the initial vaccination programme was refined and it was later realised that it did not give lifelong immunity and that some revaccination was required, Edward Jenner was the one who has to be given credit for his unwavering belief in his research and his refusal to take no for an answer.

In May 1980 The World Health Assembly announced that the world was free of smallpox.

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Dressing Victorian boys

Today’s little boys, from toddler age upwards, are likely to be dressed in stylish jeans and designer T shirts and trainers, by clothes conscious parents. Not so the boys in Victorian times who, once out of the baby gowns, would be in the same clothes as their sisters, a tradition that started back in the late 16th century.

The young boy would wear a skirt, also known as a petticoat, which came to just above his ankles, and which was often stiffened.  It was sometimes worn with a boned bodice. It was often difficult to tell the boys from the girls, a fact borne out by old black and white family photos.framed

The boy would be breeched at around the age of five, although this gradually moved forward until it was more common by the early 1900s to do this at around age three.  Breeching was named for the breeches (or trousers) that the boy would henceforth wear. It was viewed as a rite of passage, a sign that the child had taken his first step towards the man he would become. For Victorian children it usually coincided with the start of schooling or lessons. Breeching was also often accompanied by the boy’s first haircut, for those mothers who had been unable to part with the soft baby curls any earlier.

The practice of boys’ dresses and breeching gradually died out by the 1920s, but the next time your son complains about the clothes you dressed him in as a toddler, you can point out that he had a lucky escape.

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