18th century window tax records released

NRS chief executive Tim Ellis is lucky to be able to look out his window. Picture: contributed
NRS chief executive Tim Ellis is lucky to be able to look out his window. Picture: contributed
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HE was one of the greatest thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose influence is still felt 250 years later – but David Hume had to pay his taxes like everyone else.

And old records made available online show details of how much the philosopher – and other better-off people of the time – had to fork out in window tax.

Like the current bedroom tax, the window tax was notorious in its day with some householders blocking up their windows to reduce their tax burden.

Hume would no doubt have been philosophical about the tax bill for the 18 windows in his St David Street house in Edinburgh’s New Town in 1773/74, which was £1 and 7 shillings.

Another Enlightenment figure, Sir Adam Ferguson – six lines below Hume on the records – had to pay £4 for 40 windows in his residence nearby.

The tax rolls, covering the years 1748-98, show details for taxpayers and properties across Scotland.

The records have been put online by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) and are available on the ScotlandsPlaces website at www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

NRS chief executive Tim Ellis said: “The window tax rolls are a rich resource for academic research, but also for anybody who wants to gain an insight into our nation’s incredible history.”

When it was first introduced in 1748, anyone with less than ten windows did not have to pay, though the threshold was later reduced to seven.

But NRS archivists believe the practice of blocking windows was not as widespread as sometimes believed because it would only save a few shillings per year, which would not have been enough to make wealthy homeowners give up their daylight.

Archivist Jenny Cutts said: “It did happen, but probably not all that often. Assessors would sometimes indicate when people had blocked up windows – he made a note saying ‘Blocked up to under ten’.

“There was a regulation that it only counted as blocked up if it was done in the same material as the walls and plastered on the inside.

“And there was a fine if you blocked it up for the assessment and unblocked it afterwards. The window tax had been in force in England since 1696 so I think they were wise to what people might do.”

There are plenty examples of windows in the Georgian buildings of the New Town which appear to have been blocked up, but Ms Cutts said it was difficult to know when or why they had been filled in.

Many of the window tax records will also feature in a free exhibition at General Register House from July 29 to August 23. Among the exhibits is a rare tally stick, which Exchequer officials used as a receipt when sending cash from revenues.

Levy on horses, dogs and clocks

THE window tax was introduced in Scotland in 1748 when there were already taxes on a whole variety of things, including dogs, horses, carts and clocks.

The new tax was aimed at the wealthy – the more windows you had, the higher the rate of tax. In 1766 it was only two pence per window if you had seven but two shillings if you had 25 or more.

The tax had been in existence in England since 1696, but was not automatically extended to Scotland at the time of the Union in 1707.

And it was always charged at a lower rate in Scotland than south of the border.

After 1798, the window tax continued to be levied but taxes were all recorded together. It was finally abolished in 1851 amid concerns about the harm caused to health by blocking up windows.

The term “daylight robbery” is often linked to the window tax – even though the phrase was not recorded until the 20th century.