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The window tax was a property tax based on the number of windows in a house. It was a significant social, cultural, and architectural force in England, France, Ireland and Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. To avoid the tax some houses from the period can be seen to have bricked-up window-spaces (ready to be glazed or reglazed at a later date). In England and Wales it was introduced in 1696 and was repealed in 1851, 156 years after first being introduced. France (established 1798, repealed 1926) and Scotland both had window taxes for similar reasons.
The tax was introduced in England and Wales under the An Act for granting to His Majesty several Rates or Duties upon Houses for making good the Deficiency of the clipped Money [Chapter XVIII. Rot. Parl. 7&8 Guil. III. p. 5. n. 4] in 1696 under King William III and was designed to impose tax relative to the prosperity of the taxpayer, but without the controversy that then surrounded the idea of income tax.
At that time, many people in Britain opposed income tax, on principle, because the disclosure of personal income represented an unacceptable governmental intrusion into private matters, and a potential threat to personal liberty. In fact the first permanent British income tax was not introduced until 1842, and the issue remained intensely controversial well into the 20th century.
When the window tax was introduced, it consisted of two parts: a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings per house (equivalent to £12.73 in 2016), and a variable tax for the number of windows above ten windows in the house. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid an extra four shillings (equivalent to £25.47 in 2016), and those above twenty windows paid an extra eight shillings (equivalent to £50.94 in 2016).
In 1709 with the union of England and Scotland, taxes were harmonised and a new top rate of 20s total was introduced for houses with 30 or more windows. In 1747 the 2s flat rate was detached from the window tax as a tax in its own right and the way the window tax was calculated was altered. 6d was charged for each window in a house with 10–14, 9d for each window in a house with 15–19, 1s for every window in a house with 20 or more. In 1758 the flat rate charge was increased to 3s. The number of windows that incurred tax was changed to seven in 1766 and eight in 1825.
The flat-rate tax was changed to a variable rate, dependent on the property value, in 1778. People who were exempt from paying church or poor rates, for reasons of poverty, were exempt from the window tax. Window tax was relatively unintrusive and easy to assess. Manchester Royal Infirmary had to pay a tax of 1/9d per window on the windows of the rooms occupied by staff of the infirmary in 1841—a total of £1 9/9d. Certain rooms, particularly dairies, cheeserooms and milkhouses, were exempt providing they were clearly labelled, and it is not uncommon to find the name of such rooms carved on the lintel. The bigger the house, the more windows it was likely to have, and the more tax the occupants would pay. Nevertheless, the tax was unpopular, because it was seen by some as a tax on "light and air".
In Scotland, a window tax was imposed after 1748. A house had to have at least seven windows or a rent of at least £5 to be taxed. It is possible to confuse windows which were blocked to avoid the tax with those that were designed to be 'blind', to create a balanced elevation in a building.
A similar tax existed in France from 1798 to 1926, Impôt sur les portes et fenêtres (in French).
There was a strong agitation in England in favour of the abolition of the tax during the winter of 1850–51, and it was accordingly repealed on 24 July 1851, and a tax on inhabited houses substituted. The Scottish window tax was also abolished at the same time.
- British History Online, Statutes of the Realm: volume 7: 1695-1701, 'William III, An Act for granting to His Majesty severall Rates or Duties upon Houses for making good the Deficiency of the clipped Money [Chapter XVIII. Rot. Parl. 7&8 Guil. III. p. 5. n. 4', Statutes of the Realm, volume 7: 1695-1701 (1820), pp. 86-94. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=46825#s1 Date accessed 18 September 2012
- Herber, Mark D (1997). Ancestral Trails: The complete guide to British genealogy and family history. Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7509-1418-1. p.416
- John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (1848), Bk. V, Ch. 3, Section 5
- HM Revenue & Customs "Nicholas Vansittart was Chancellor when Napoleon was defeated [in 1815]. His inclination was to maintain some tax on income, but public sentiment and the opposition were against him. A year after Waterloo, income tax was repealed ‘with a thundering peal of applause’ and Parliament decided that all documents connected with it should be collected, cut into pieces and pulped."
- UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 6 November 2017.
- Andrew E. Glantz (2008). "A tax on light and air: Impact of the Window Duty on Tax Administration and Architecture, 1696-1852". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
- Herber p. 416
- Brockbank, William (1952). Portrait of a Hospital. London: William Heinemann. p. 77.
- National Archives of Scotland: Guide to taxation records.
- Encyclopædia Britannica (1911), volume 28, page 713.
- Media related to Window tax at Wikimedia Commons