Daylight Robbery – The Taxing Problem of Too Many Windows

The concept of window tax is easy to understand. Taxation tends to be aimed at valuable items and/or wealthy strata of society.

Because glass was a costly commodity in the 18th century, someone with a deep pocket must own a house with many sash windows. The easiest way to harvest a property tax was to base it on the number of windows. Today, modern council tax is calculated on housing value, which is divided into bands, with the higher value properties incurring a larger levy.

Window tax had a powerful social and cultural impact in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. It also significantly impacted the architecture of the period. Drive around a historic town centre or look at impressive Georgian houses in pretty villages, and you can often spot that one or two windows have been bricked up, if not more.

The History of Window Tax

Window tax was first introduced in England and Wales in 1696 and remained a functioning law until 1851. Window tax was also introduced in France but much later in 1798, although it was not repealed until 1926. Scotland had a much shorter period of window tax from 1748 to 1798.

Window tax in England was introduced in the reign of William III. It was designed to be a tax which reflected the prosperity of the property owner on the basis that glass was a rare and luxurious commodity. Think of window tax as an indirect version of income tax. Levying income tax would have required knowledge of people’s personal finances, which was considered an intrusion of their privacy. In contrast, window tax was relatively unobtrusive and did not even require anyone to enter the property.

Calculating a levy based on the house’s outward appearance was much easier for the government to implement. Income tax proper was not introduced until 1842, following which, in England at least, window tax faded away within the next decade.

How much was Window Tax?

When window tax was first introduced, it consisted of two parts, a flat rate per house of two shillings and a variable rate for the number of windows. Initially, the second element only applied to houses with ten or more windows. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid an extra four shillings, and those with more than twenty windows paid an extra eight shillings. In 1709, a new top-tier rate of twenty shillings was introduced for houses with thirty or more windows, sound familiar?!

Over the years, the rate per window and how the tax was calculated changed. The flat rate tax was changed to a variable depending on the property value. This also sounds horribly familiar.

Exemptions from Window Tax

Houses with few windows were usually exempt and were commonly the home of poor people. Those who were exempt from paying poor or church rates because of poverty were also excused from paying window tax.

Certain rooms were exempt from window tax, but only if there were clearly labelled. These included cheese rooms, milk houses and dairies. That might explain why some of these names are carved into the old lintels above the windows.

A Tax on Light and Air

Many people viewed window tax as a tax on the quality of their living, and it’s certainly true to say that people suffered from a lack of light and ventilation in their homes, and not just poor people either. Epidemics spread quickly.

The writer Charles Dickens vociferously condemned the tax on many occasions. In 1850 he said, “Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the window tax. We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to all, at so much per window per year, and the poor who cannot afford the expense are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.”

Doctors played a big part in the campaign to repeal the tax, which was finally abolished in 1851 after a winter which saw strong agitation and discontent aimed squarely at this form of financial levy.

Architectural History

Repair and refurbishment of existing sash windows is a huge part of what we do, but we have also played a role in opening up bricked-up apertures and restoring sash windows to houses which have been without them literally for centuries.

We manufacture new timber sash windows and repair and restore old windows both onsite and in our workshops. We can bespoke design windows in any size, style and shape and offer all the modern features you require, like thermal regulation, acoustic control, draughtproofing and security, without any concession to style or period authenticity. For owners of listed properties that want to re-open bricked-up apertures, we will liaise with the listings officer to ensure that all work is done within the regulations.

Contact us here to find out more about our heritage sash window design and repair service for historic properties and traditional homes.