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, and Ireland 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 In England and Wales it was introduced in 1696 and was repealed 155 years later, in 1851. In France it was established in 1798 and was repealed in 1926. Scotland had window tax from 1748 until 1798.
The tax was introduced in England and Wales 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. The first permanent British income tax was not introduced until 1842, and the tax remained controversial into the 20th century.
When the window tax was introduced, it consisted of two parts: a flat-rate house tax of two shillings per house (equivalent to £14.76 in 2021), and a variable tax for the number of windows above ten in the house. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid an extra four shillings (equivalent to £29.52 in 2021), and those above twenty windows paid an extra eight shillings (equivalent to £59.05 in 2021).
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, cheese rooms 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 The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith briefly discussed the window tax as one case among various forms of taxation. Smith observed that the tax was relatively inoffensive because its assessment did not require the assessor to enter the residence—a building's windows could be counted from the outside. On the other hand, Smith reported that others objected to the tax on the grounds of its inequality, since it was thought to have a disproportionate impact on the poor. Smith himself observed that the tax's effect was to lower rent.
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. Windows that have been filled with masonry may have no connection to taxation, but reflect the location of staircases, fireplaces or for purposes of maintaining the symmetry of a building facade. A similar tax also existed in France from 1798 to 1926.
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.
The saying "daylight robbery" is said in popular myth to originate with the window tax, but there appears to be no scholarly support for this. Another popular myth is that bricked-up windows began in Europe with the window tax, however, this is again untrue, with blind windows being used for aesthetic purposes since at least the medieval period, a good example being the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Kerch, Ukraine, built in 757 AD. Windows, however, were also later bricked up in Europe from the 1600s onwards in regards to taxes.
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- 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 11 June 2022.
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- Herber p. 416
- Brockbank, William (1952). Portrait of a Hospital. London: William Heinemann. p. 77.
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- "The 'visual beauty' of bricked-up windows". BBC News. 2021-06-15. Retrieved 2021-06-15.
- Media related to Window tax at Wikimedia Commons