The Hearth Tax of England and Wales

The Hearth Tax, levied in England and Wales, was imposed by Parliament after Royal Assent on 19 May 1662, when Charles II was on the throne, to help to replenish the coffers following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after the English Civil War.  

The 1662 Act stated that 'every dwelling and other House and Edifice... shall be chargeable... for every firehearth and stove... the sum of twoe shillings by the yeare'.

The tax was calculated depending on the number of stoves, hearths and/or fireplaces in a home.

Virtually all heads of households, including the number of hearths in the home, were recorded, making this one of the most comprehensive sources of information regarding the people of Britain and Ireland before the first national census was taken in 1801.   

As all hearths in the home, including fires and stoves, were recorded, the documents gives an idea of the size of a household, but please bear in mind that more than one family could live in each household, especially if the house was located in a town.

The hearth tax records are not just useful if you are a family historian, they would also be of use if you are studying the social, economic and cultural history of Britain.

Assessors had to enter the house to record the number of hearths in the property, which made this tax very unpopular because this idea was abhorrent.  

The Hearth Tax was abolished by William and Mary in 1689. 


When was the Hearth Tax Due?

The tax was due on 29th September (Michaelmas) and 25th March (Lady Day) and was paid by the person occupying the property, or by the property's owner if the building was empty.  


How Much Was the Hearth Tax?

House occupiers had to pay one shilling twice a year on each fireplace, hearth and stove in their property because occupiers, not landlords, were responsible for paying the tax, but after May 1664 if a property had a tenant who was exempt from paying the tax, it had to be paid by the landlord. 


The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London in 1666 meant that most of the taxes were not collected.  Out of 6326 hearths, the money for only 299 had been collected, and only 35 out of that initial 6326 were left following the fire.


Evasion From the Tax

Some hearths were blocked up if the householder knew an inspection was about to be made, and unblocked afterwards.

Evasion meant that the revenue generated from the tax was never as much as it had been forecast to be so they changed the way the tax was collected in 1666, with a farmer then being responsible for collecting the tax, and retaining a commission.

Unfortunately the farmer did not have to provide the government with his list of taxpayers', and very few of the farmer's records survive.


What Information Do The Documents Contain?

Each county had its own hearth tax list, which were divided into administrative areas.  These were documented by borough, hundred, wapentake, and then by parishes and townships. 

The key documents are the assessments and returns, which were initially compiled by parish constables, who had vast knowledge of the local area, and contain the names of the individual householders, the number of hearths chargeable, and the amount payable.

Some names, however, were misspelt, so it is crucial to look at many different spellings of the name.  Some lists were also transcribed incorrectly.

After 1663, they also include the number of exempt householders.  These records can also be used alongside parish registers.

Comments are sometimes written in the margins of the report, which could include notes regarding the person's marital status, occupations, and personal circumstances. 

It is possible, for instance, that whether your ancestor was blind was recorded, giving you more insight into their life.  The amount of information recorded in the documents depend on how much information the inspector initially wrote down.


Exemption from the Hearth Tax

Exemption certificates were issued if an occupier was exempt from paying the tax, and contain the names and assessments of exempt people in a given area.

The minister of the parish, or by someone on his behalf, assumed responsibility for filling out the form, which was signed by him, the churchwardens and overseers, and then signed by two local justices of the peace.

Householders were deemed exempt if parish officers or the incumbent provided a certificate proving the owner would not be able to charge a rent of more than 20 shillings per year and that their goods and chattels were worth less than £10.  Charitable institutions were also exempt.

Exemption certificates in the National Archives are available by place name (parish or hundred) for Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, London, Middlesex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Warwickshire.

If a person had two or more hearths, they had to pay the tax even if they would otherwise have been exempt, but some people were on the threshold, appearing in some returns as being asked to pay and other not.  Assessments were prepared by the the parish constable, or by a sheriff if in a town or city.  These certificates can help you to trace poorer ancestors.


Where Can Hearth Tax Returns Be Consulted?

Hearth Tax Returns can be perused in the National Archives in series E 179, and also in some County Record Offices.

Assessment records only survive for Caernarvonshire (Wales), Devon, Essex, Kent, Lancashire, Middlesex, Warwickshire and Westmorland, with these being available in record offices.

Unfortunately, not all hearth tax returns survive, with the vast majority of documents covering Michaelmas 1662 to Lady Day 1666 and Michaelmas 1669 to Lady Day 1674.  These returns had to be audited by Exchequer Auditors and were administered by government officials.


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