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The window tax was a glass tax which was a significant social, cultural, and architectural force in the kingdoms of Englandmarker, Scotlandmarker and then Great Britainmarker during the 17th and 18th centuries. Some houses from the period can be seen to have bricked-up window-spaces (ready to be glazed at a later date), as a result of the tax.

Details

The tax was introduced under the Act of Making Good the Deficiency of the Clipped Money 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 they believed that the disclosure of personal income represented an unacceptable government intrusion into private matters, and a potential threat to personal liberty.(JOHN STUART MILL, PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, BK. V, CH. 3, SECTION 5) In fact the first British income tax was not introduced until the late 18th century and the issue remained intensely controversial well into the 19th century.

When the window tax was introduced, it consisted of two parts: a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings per house and a variable tax for the number of windows above ten windows. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid a total of four shillings, and those above twenty windows paid eight shillings. 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 ineligible for church or poor rates, for reasons of poverty, were exempt from the window tax. Window tax was relatively unintrusive and easy to assess. 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 this Window Tax was imposed by William Pitt the Younger in the 1780s in the financial district in Edinburghmarker and to this day "Pitt's Pictures" (blacked out windows with white painted cross-frames) can be seen in Charlotte Squaremarker.

A similar tax existed in Francemarker from 1798 to 1926, the Doors And Windows Tax.

The richest families in the kingdoms used this tax to set themselves apart from the merely rich. They would commission a country home or a manor house whose architecture would make the maximum possible use of windows. In extreme cases they would have windows built over structural walls. It was an exercise in ostentation, spurred by the window tax.

The tax was not repealed until 1851, when it was replaced by House Duty.

Term "daylight robbery"

Some allege that the term "daylight robbery" originated from this tax. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase daylight robbery was first recorded in 1949, many years after the "window tax", which places doubt upon the claim.. However, the phrase originates from at least 1916, when it was mentioned in Harold Brighouse’s play Hobson's Choice, and it should be remembered that the Oxford English Dictionary only records the first provable written instance of the phrase that its etymologists can find, so the phrase might have been used in everyday speech beforehand, or even in published writing.

Contemporary references

It has been suggested that a luxury tax on window size could make new houses more energy efficient, the argument being that more efficient windows only encourage people to install bigger windows by the principle of waste homeostasis.

References

  1. p.416
  2. 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."
  3. Wolverhampton Archives
  4. Herber p.416
  5. Request for window tax exemption, 1765
  6. http://books.google.com/books?id=95cYe1q8xrQC&pg=PT33&lpg=PT33
  7. Full text of the law at French Wikisource
  8. World Wide Words: Daylight robbery
  9. Take Our Word For It, the weekly word-origin webzine
  10. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext04/hbsnc10.txt
  11. BBC - History - More about One Sandwich Short of a Picnic



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