Light and Air For All – With No Charge!

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: July 24, 1851
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

This was the day when citizens of the United Kingdom were allowed light and air in their homes without having to pay for it. The long-hated Window Tax had finally been scrapped.

Imposed in 1696, it was a banded tax, so that the more windows a house boasted, the more its owner would pay in tax.

Inevitably, property owners and developers did what they could to avoid the levy. The rich built new houses with the minimum number of windows, while the poor in their tenement housing simply bricked up the windows, making their cramped, dark dwellings even more gloomy.

Another ploy by the rich was to apply only one layer of bricks in parts of their new homes where they thought windows could be added later when the tax was withdrawn. A simple job just to knock away a single layer of bricks and install a window in their place.

In the darkened tenements, the bricked-up windows came to be known as “Pitt’s Pictures” – a scathing reference to Conservative Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who enthusiastically supported and extended the Window Tax.

Its abolition came after campaigners successfully argued that it was a “tax on health” and a “tax on light and air.” The medical profession in particular argued that the lack of windows tended to create dark, damp homes that were a source of disease and ill-health.

The taxman certainly saw glass as a handy source of income, even if the number of windows was being reduced. The Glass Tax, introduced in 1746, lasted 100 years until, once again, protests led by doctors caused its abolition.

The medical journal The Lancet protested against “the enormous tax on glass, amounting to more than three hundred per cent on its value,” and described the burden as “one of the most cruel a Government could inflict on the nation.”

It added that “the deficiency of light in town habitations, in a great measure caused by the enormous cost of glass, is universally admitted to be one of the principal causes of the unhealthiness of cities.”

Benjamin Franklin remarked in 1789: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” He could perhaps have added that equally certain is the capacity of finance ministers to stretch their imaginations and dream up new taxes.

Before the Window Tax, for example, came the Hearth Tax, which was a levy on “every Fire Hearth and Stove within every House, Edifice, Chambers and Lodging" in England and Wales.

It was introduced in 1662 but was so unpopular and difficult to assess – officials had to enter homes and count the number of fireplaces – that it was scrapped about 20 years later.

A report by one of the officials became of interest to historians when it was noted that Thomas Faryner, a baker, of Pudding Lane, London, owned five hearths and one oven. A spark from this oven is believed to have started the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Other dreamed-up levies include the Wallpaper Tax, which was introduced in 1712, not abolished until 1836. And in recent times, ex-Chancellor George Osborne introduced an “under-occupancy penalty” which meant that tenants of local authority housing deemed to have a spare room would receive a cut in welfare benefits. It was quickly dubbed the “Bedroom Tax.”

Published: September 4, 2017

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