Hearth Tax in England and Wales

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The Hearth Tax returns collected in 1662-74 provide a most useful census of heads of families in England and Wales, having excellent coverage except only in the county of Radnor. The records have been receiving a good deal of attention from historians in England because of their importance as a source of information about social structure, population and housing.

For the genealogist the lists of occupiers rarely contain anything more than the name of the head of the household and the number of his or her hearths. This, however, is a fair indication of status and the returns certainly fix a family in a certain place at this time. As many counties have, or are in the process of having, at least one year’s entries transcribed and published, the distribution of a surname may in many places be revealed very easily and the location of a particular family found.

History of the Tax[edit | edit source]

When King Charles II was restored in 1660 the new Government voted him a tax budget of £1,200,000 a year for life. This proved far from sufficient. In 1662, just before he sold off Dunkirk (England’s last remaining possession in Europe) for half a million pounds, Parliament approved a hearth tax (often called by contemporaries ‘the chimney tax’) which, in the event, was collected twice a year until Lady Day 1689, but usually provides names only in 1662-6 and 1669-74. The idea came from France and the United Provinces and was promoted in England by the economist Sir William Petty.

In 1662 every occupier was required to pay a tax of two shillings a year for each hearth or stove in his property. The tax was to be collected half-yearly, at Lady Day (25 March) and Michaelmas (29 September), by the petty constables, high constables and sheriffs, the constables having a right of entry to check any query about the number of hearths. The petty constables received two pence in the pound of the money collected for their considerable trouble.

The theory was that the tax would be a fair one as the number of hearths in the house would vary roughly with the wealth of the occupier. A chimney was an obvious thing that, unlike a person, did not move about or die. If the house was empty the landlord had to pay. Many of the poorer people, however, were not required to pay the tax and initially they were not listed. They included the occupiers of houses or land worth less than £1 a year, the possessors of property worth less than £10, those that paid neither church nor poor rate and those who received poor relief or were inmates of almshouses or hospitals. These people had, however, to petition for an exemption certificate from the minister and parish officials. These petitions again provide useful lists of names. No one, however, could apply for exemption if he or she had more than two hearths.

The local tax collectors met with much opposition in their work and naturally came under considerable pressure to overlook and omit hearths. As a result they were required in 1663 to list all the hearths, whether taxed or not.

In 1664 the local collectors were replaced with independently appointed county receivers and sub-collectors, called ‘chimney men’, who went round with the constables. They too found it difficult to obtain local co-operation and in 1666 the operation was taken out of their hands and contracted out (or ‘farmed’) to a group of London merchants. This in turn was a failure, and the contractors were forced to give up late in 1668. The tax was again farmed in 1674-75 and in later years with greater success, but although it was one of the government’s main sources of revenue (raising £216,000 in its final years), it was abolished following the Revolution in 1688, the lost income being largely replaced by the land and window taxes.

Tax Records[edit | edit source]

Under the 1662 Act the lists compiled locally were to be delivered by the petty constables to Quarter Sessions and the Clerk of the Peace was to enrol them and send copies to the Exchequer. The returns have survived locally in only a few counties, but occasionally they supplement or replace returns in the main exchequer collection, now in The National Archives.

The National Archives’ collection (in E 179) consists mainly of the Exchequer duplicates, which are generally more legible than the local returns, but it also contains additional financial material and schedules of arrears of payments. The initial lists made up by constables with local knowledge in 1662 are perhaps the most accurate, but list only the taxed hearths. Jeremy Gibson noted that the early assessments may, however, sometimes contain more names than the later lists. Those for Lady Day 1664, following the changed instructions of 1663, contain both taxed and untaxed hearths, often in parallel columns. Some lists for 1664 were, however, based on the 1662 lists and show changes in tenancy. In both cases the names of the constables appear at the end of the hundred for which they were responsible.

When the tax was farmed the names of the occupiers were not returned to the Exchequer and so only those returns for 1662-6 and 1669-74 contain names and the other years are of little interest to the genealogist.

A Heritage Lottery grant made it possible to create a master microfilm of all the hearth tax assessments and returns in The National Archives. The relevant sections of the films were sent to the county record offices to join the few surviving local returns. There is thus a wide distribution of available material. An extremely useful guide to the surviving records of value to genealogists, both locally and at The National Archives, showing those which have been transcribed and published, is provided by the Gibson Guide, The Hearth Tax (Federation of Family History Societies, 2nd ed. 1996) [FHL book 942 R43]. This guide is now out of print and was compiled before the distribution of The National Archives’ hearth tax assessments and returns on microfilm.

Genealogical Value[edit | edit source]

A search of the available hearth tax returns for a locality will provide one of the best available indications of the distribution of a surname in that area in the late seventeenth century. This may be of great assistance in localising a family, traced back to the eighteenth century, when its earlier origins cannot be found, the earlier entries indicating where searches in parish registers should next take place.

In some cases where the seventeenth century parish registers have been lost or the householders were nonconformists and do not appear in the registers, the hearth tax may provide evidence of a family’s existence in a parish that cannot easily be found in any other way.

The occupations of those taxed are rarely given. Even the clergy are not always differentiated as ‘clerk’ and only occasional descriptions such as ‘esquire’, ‘gent’, ‘widow’ (often instead of the forename) or ‘senior’ appear. The ownership of a smithy away from a place of residence caused problems and sometimes they are listed separately. Smithies and bakers’ ovens were not exempt, though kilns and furnaces were.

The number of exempt householders in any parish is naturally of importance to the genealogist and Tom Arkell has estimated that it may range from 20 to 80 per cent in different communities, with a norm around 30 to 50 per cent. The assessments, however, generally include even the exempted hearths. Each record has to be considered separately. Essex, for instance, in 1662 provides 20,000 names excluding paupers, whilst the return for 1664, which includes the paupers, has about 25,000 names.

In published versions the introductions to the volumes should always be read and the exact coverage checked. The recently published assessment for Kent in 1664 with 26,000 names, for instance, does not include the Cinque Ports and the Liberty of Romney Marsh. In Norfolk there are no complete lists for the whole county in any year but the surviving entries in 1664 and 1666 have been printed. The recent volume covers only the Exemption Certificates 1670-4 for Norwich, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Thetford, though they survive for the whole county. The first of the recent volumes to have been published, however, that for Cambridgeshire, covers the whole county in 1664 (13,500 names) and includes many comments about removals since 1662, new entries and exemptions.

A guide to Population[edit | edit source]

One of the major uses of the hearth tax returns has been as a basis for population calculations. It has been realised that although the returns may provide indications of the general distribution of the population and even a basis for comparisons of relative densities within an area, that overall population figures are much more problematical. Any calculation depends on estimates of the average number in a household at the date in question. A multiplier of 4.5 (outside London) has been widely accepted for some time, though a range from 3.7 to 5.2 should probably be allowed for. Unfortunately in the majority of parishes there will be no better figure until that provided by the 1801 Census.

By comparing the number of hearths in houses with the number of rooms revealed in probate inventories it has been possible to come to some tentative conclusions that (in Richmond, Yorkshire, for instance) one hearth is probably indicative of two rooms, two hearths of four, three hearths of five, and four of seven. In Cambridgeshire these figures are higher, with one hearth perhaps indicating a three-room house and four hearths one of nine rooms. It is likely that fewer rooms in rural houses were heated. Inns, of course, would have a larger number of hearths.

Professor Margaret Spufford, who did the Cambridgeshire research, has taken the equations further and, from the valuations in the inventories, has been able to construct tables showing a direct relationship between the number of hearths and the personal wealth of the occupier: one hearth indicating a median of £25 in wealth, two hearths one of £60, three hearths one of £140, four hearths one of over £300 [The Local Historian, vol. 30, no. 4 (November 2000) 202-21; FHL book 942 B2ah]. Anyone aspiring to gentility or to be called ‘Mr’ probably had at least five hearths. Roger Howell said that the possession of one or two hearths ‘usually indicates an economic situation below the comfortable level’.

The classification of houses in groups according to the number of their hearths has many problems but may provide a relative indication of wealth and poverty in certain areas. The analysis of a town which is divided into many small parishes (as W.G. Hoskins did in Exeter as early as 1935) will reveal, for instance, where the wealth lay (in the central nucleus in this example) and which were the poorer areas. Again, in a country parish, one can see the extent to which it was dominated by one large property landowner as in a closed parish, or if there were many households of modest means, as in an open one. As Margaret Spufford has said, a national survey should indeed show the relative taxable wealth and its distribution in England in that period. The typicality of any settlement could then be judged against it neighbours

The number of hearths in a house may not, however, always indicate relative wealth, this depending to some extent on the age of the building and the physical structure of the chimney stack. It is not known if the existence of the tax inhibited the introduction of new fireplaces. The existence of a hearth does not always indicate its regular use, as anyone with remembrance of houses before central heating will know, and the existence of only one set of fire irons (as in a probate inventory) does not necessarily mean that there was only one grate.

In 1684 the tax-gatherers were instructed to list the houses by street as a greater check on completeness, but this comes too late to help the genealogist. A very few earlier returns, however, have this arrangement and at Worcester in 1678, for instance, they form a gazetteer of the city. The identification of individual buildings elsewhere is problematical but when used alongside other sources most interesting light can be thrown on existing buildings, as the Kent volume mentioned above shows. It has also been possible to date the building stages of some large houses by the number of hearths which appear in successive returns.

The great plan[edit | edit source]

One of the first hearth tax returns to be printed was that for Suffolk in 1674, published in 1905. Since then genealogists have dreamed of having similar lists for the whole of England and Wales in print. An ambitious project to make that dream a reality was summarised by Margaret Spufford of the Roehampton Hearth Tax Centre (at the University of Surrey, Roehampton) in her foreword to the Gibson Guide mentioned above. The intention is to produce a computerised base-map of the old parishes of England and Wales and then to analyse the population densities of those appearing in the hearth tax returns (including, where possible, those exempted) and to produce maps for the 1660s and 1670s for the whole country.

As a first step the plan is to publish a series of county volumes in conjunction with the British Record Society (in Its Index Library series) and the local record societies, for countries where no adequate published transcript exists. Transcription work to that end is now taking place. Ideally, it is hoped to be able to compare returns from the two main survival periods. In any case, at least one year for each county is to be published in a uniform manner and at least twenty volumes will be needed. Those volumes produced to-date are [FHL books 942.59 B4]:

  • Cambridgeshire Hearth Tax Returns, ed. Nesta Evans, for the British Record Society and Cambridgeshire Records Society (Index Library, volume 115, 2000).
  • Kent Hearth Tax Assessment Lady Day 1664, ed. Duncan Harrington, for the British Record Society and Kent Archaeological Society (Index Library, vol. 116, 2000).
  • Norfolk Hearth Tax Exemption Certificates 1670-1674, ed. Peter Seaman, for the British Record Society and Norfolk Record Society (Index Library, vol. 117, 2001).
  • County Durham Hearth Tax Assessment Lady Day 1666, ed. Elizabeth Parkinson, for the British Record Society (Index Library, vol. 119, 2006).
  • Yorkshire West Riding Hearth Tax Assessment Lady Day 1672, ed. David Hey, Colum Giles, Margaret Spufford and Andrew Wareham, for the British Record Society (Index Library, vol. 121, 2007).
  • Westmorland Hearth Tax Michaelmas 1670 & Surveys 1674-6, ed. Colin Phillips, Catherine Ferguson and Andrew Wareham, for the British Record Society (Index Library, vol. 124, 2008).
  • Warwickshire Hearth Tax Returns: Michaelmas 1670 with Coventry Lady Day 1666, ed. Tom Arkell, for British Record Society (Index Library, vol. 126, 2010).

Scotland and Ireland[edit | edit source]

In Scotland a widely similar tax on hearths was instituted in 1691. The records survive at the Scottish Record Office, though not all counties show the taxpayers’ names. They were fully described, and those for West Lothian published by Duncan Adamson in Scottish Record Society, New Series, volume 9 (1981) [not in FHL]. There is a useful summary in the Gibson Guide.

The tax was introduced in Ireland in the same years as in England and, rather surprisingly, continued to be levied until 1800. Sadly the records were destroyed by the fire in Dublin in 1922. One of the early years in a dozen or so counties, had, however, been copied and published. These were listed by Rosemary ffolliott in her valuable section on Irish census returns and census substitutes in Donal Begley, Irish Genealogy: a record finder (Dublin, Ireland: Heraldic Artists, 1981) [FHL book 941.5 D27] and they are also summarised in the Gibson Guide.

Learn more[edit | edit source]

  • Seaman, Peter. "The Hearth Tax: A census for the 17th century?" Free online presentation, 20 November 2009. Excellent background; publication status.

Acknowledgment[edit | edit source]

This article is adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (UK; http://www.family-tree.co.uk) from Anthony Camp’s article ‘The history and value of genealogical records: a 17th Century Census: the hearth or chimney tax’ in Practical Family History, no. 63 (March 2003) pages 8-10.