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Essex Hearth Tax

Essex County, England, Hearth Tax
By Linus Joseph Dewald Jr., Editor
Winter 2000 and Revised 17 Nov 2000

So, you think you are taxed to death because of all the taxes you pay: federal income tax, state income tax, sales tax, social security tax, real property tax, personal property tax, etc.

Well, you may be right, but consider a tax that our ancestors in England in 1662 had to pay. It was called a "Hearth Tax." Taxes like the Hearth Tax, and a later tax called the "Window Tax," were levied by the Government to raise revenue, often for particular purposes like funding a war. The idea was that such taxes were fair, in that the more wealthy you were the bigger the house you tended to live in, with more living rooms, and attendant hearths, and more windows etc., and consequently the more you ought to be able to pay to the Exchequer.

The 1662 Hearth Tax, and those of later years, consisted of a half-yearly payment of one shilling for each hearth in the occupation of each person whose house was worth more than 20s a year, and who was a local ratepayer of church and poor rates. It was introduced at a time of serious fiscal emergency by Charles II. The surviving hearth tax returns and assessments of 1662-1674 relate to the levy of two shillings on every hearth: as such, they are one of the obvious sources for family, local and social history.

The hearth tax actually continued until 1688, but only the assessments for 1662-1666 and 1669-1674 were delivered into the Exchequer. Outside these periods, the collection of the tax was 'farmed out' to private tax collectors who paid a fixed sum to the government in return for the privilege of collecting the tax. They were not required to send their assessments into the Exchequer.

Did everyone pay the Hearth Tax? Only people whose house was worth more than 20s a year, and who were local ratepayers of church and poor rates, were required to pay the hearth tax. This actually left out quite large numbers of people, and paupers were not liable at all. Exempt were people who paid neither church nor poor rate (paupers); and people inhabiting a house worth less than 20s a year who did not have any other property over that value, nor an income of over £100 a year. However, the tax-collectors were required to collect exemption certificates from those not eligible to pay.

To prove that you were exempt, you needed a certificate of exemption from the parish clergyman, churchwardens and overseers of the poor, signed by two JPs. After 1663, the hearth tax return includes lists of those chargeable and not chargeable (exempt), although these may be entered in a block, not necessarily at the end of the parish entry of payers. From 1670, a printed exemption form was used.

Needless to say such taxes were extremely unpopular to the extent that they tended to be one-tax wonders, the Government not daring to repeat he exercise.

What information do Hearth Tax Returns give? No tax return can be used as a total census of the population - there were always exemptions and evasions. The most complete hearth tax records are those for 25 March 1664. Information supplied includes names of householders, sometimes their status, and the number of hearths for which they are chargeable.

The number of hearths is a clue to wealth and status:

  • 8 or more hearths unually indicated gentry and above.
  • 4-7 hearths indicated wealthy craftsmen and tradesmen, merchants and yeomen.
  • 2-3 hearths suggests craftsmen, tradesmen, and yeomen.
  • 1 hearth would indicate the labouring poor; husbandmen and poor craftsmen usually only had 1 hearth.

By email of 16 Nov 2000, Ian Prentice has provided us with the names of various Prentices in Essex County upon whom such a tax was levied. The number refers to the number of hearths in that person's home:

  • Francis Prentis, Theydon Garnon 3
  • George Prentice, High Laver 1
  • George Prentice, Harlow 1
  • George Prentice, Little Burstead 3
  • Henry Prentice, Colne Engaine 1
  • John Prentice, West Bergholt 1
  • Joseph Prentice, Great Warley 3
  • Joseph Prentice, Springfield Chelmsford 3
  • Joseph Prentice, Springfield Chelmsford 2
  • Nicholas Prentice, Rivenhall 1
  • Robert Prentice, Colne Engaine 2
  • Thomas Prentice, Barking, Chadwell Ward 2
  • Thomas Prentice, White Roothing 3
  • Thomas Prentice, Haslingwood Hamlet, Harlow 1
  • Widow Prentice, Rayleigh 1
  • Widow Prentice and George Griffith, Hornchurch North End 5
  • William Prentice Senior, Colne Engaine 1
  • William Prentice, Colne Engaine 1
  • William Prentice, Latton, near Harlow 1
  • X Prentices, Stow Maries, Dengie Hundred 2

Correspondence:   If you have any information about the folks mentioned in this article, please send your information to us at the Prentice Newsletter. Be sure to give the full title and date of this article in the Subject line of the email.

Caution: If you don't use the above email link, your email to us may be deleted as spam by our email filter.

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