The History of the Window Tax

People have complained about taxes almost since time began and it has been said that nothing unites the public more than their general dislike of The System.

While today’s Council Tax levied on domestic properties isn’t particularly popular, spare a thought for our ancestors in 17th century Britain.

The History of the Window Tax

© Colin Burdett /

They suddenly found themselves being taxed on the number of windows in their home when King William III tried to overcome his subjects’ opposition to paying taxes.

However, introducing the window tax caused a national outcry, which some believe led to the birth of the modern term, “daylight robbery” – although this may be an urban legend.


Window tax history

When William III ascended to the English throne in 1689, the idea of paying income tax was a sore subject. Most people opposed it on the grounds that disclosing their personal income was a threat to their liberty. They objected to the government intruding into their private life and rallied against attempts to discover their personal wealth. However, the king refused to be thwarted.

In 1696, he introduced the unpopular window tax in England and Wales, aimed at ensuring his subjects paid taxes according to their income. The basic idea behind it was that houses with more windows were likely to be bigger and therefore owned by a person who was wealthy. It was a simple and fast way of estimating a person’s financial situation without them having to declare their personal income to the government.

The original system of window tax comprised two elements. The first was a flat-rate tax of two shillings per house, equating to around £15 in modern terms. Added to this was a variable tax based on the number of windows in the property. Householders with ten to 20 windows must pay an extra four shillings (just under £30), and those with more than 20 windows had to pay eight shillings (£60) extra.

People weren’t happy about the window tax and the term “daylight robbery” originated at this time. In modern terms, it refers to a robbery so blatant that the thieves carry it out in broad daylight. In the late 17th century, it suggested the government was “stealing” one of the staples of human existence, daylight.


Impact on properties

People went to great lengths to wriggle out of paying the window tax. They started bricking up windows to put their property in a lower tax bracket. This had a generally negative impact, as houses looked far less desirable with a brick wall where the windows used to be.

Some householders tried to disguise the appearance of their bricked-up windows by painting on “trompe l’oeil” fake windows to make them more aesthetically pleasing. This was a 3D painting technique which literally translated from French to “deceive the eye” and meant creating an optical illusion of a window on the wall. While they looked reasonable, nothing could replace the daylight lost in the days before electricity had been invented.

In 1709, taxes were harmonised across England, Wales and Scotland and a new top rate of window tax was set. This required the top tier of society, whose home had 30 or more windows, to pay a flat rate of 20 shillings.

Despite ongoing protests, the window tax UK-wide was successfully bringing plenty of money into government coffers.

Things got worse for householders in 1766, when those with seven windows were penalised. Prior to this, people with less than ten windows weren’t required to pay the extra premium.

The only people who were exempt from paying the window tax were the most impoverished members of society. While they were still required to pay a blanket “church rate” or “poor rate” of tax, they didn’t have to pay the additional windows sum.

If people could show certain rooms were used for work purposes, such as for dairies or cheese-making, their windows were exempt. However, even hospitals found themselves being hit with a large bill, as the parts of the building used as staff accommodation were subject to the tax.

Manchester Royal Infirmary had to pay £1 9s 6d window tax in 1841, equating to almost £200 in today’s money.

Protests grew against the “tax on light and air” and critics claimed it promoted inequality.


Impact on landlords

The 18th century Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote in his book, The Wealth of Nations, that the window tax had a positive impact on poorer people, as it lowered rents.

He also described it as “relatively inoffensive” because the assessment didn’t require any officials to enter homes; they merely counted the windows from outside.

While it may have helped the poorer tenants rent-wise, the window tax had the opposite effect on landlords.

The majority of working-class people lived in poverty and were unlikely to have their own house. They often lived in tenement blocks subdivided into individual flats – the equivalent of modern day HMOs. No matter which way they were subdivided, they were judged to be one dwelling by law.

As the property owner, the landlord was responsible for their maintenance and general upkeep and would therefore be hit with a large bill during the window tax period, as the bigger their HMO, the more windows it would have.

As a result, the standards of rental properties for poorer tenants declined, as landlords couldn’t afford to pay large tax bills when their properties were bringing in only minimal income.

Some windows in existing blocks were boarded up and newer buildings were often built with a reduced number. This had a negative impact on tenants, as buildings with less daylight and fresh air were generally unhealthier. Inadequate ventilation created an environment where germs could be passed on easily.

Landlords had two choices: pass on the higher costs of the window tax to tenants by increasing rents, or board up the windows. As most tenants in this demographic were already struggling with their rent, putting the rent up wasn’t an option, so boarded-up windows became more commonplace.

This was shown in documents from 1766; the year the window tax was extended to include houses with seven windows. Records show the number of houses with seven windows decreased by almost two-thirds at this time – people were blocking them off.

A sanitary report of rental properties in Sunderland, published by the local Health Committee in 1845, reported how the window tax had “greatly aggravated” tenants’ wellbeing and had caused “much sickness and mortality”. As a result, by the mid-19th century, the focus was on improving HMO properties to aid tenants’ wellbeing.

Purchasing buy-to-let furniture for landlords to improve standards wasn’t as simple as it is today. They relied on furniture-makers who hand-finished items and this wasn’t cheap. Any further drain on landlords’ income through heavy taxation was in danger of tipping them over the edge and causing them to leave the sector.

The controversial window tax was finally abolished on 24th July 1851, following national protests and a successful motion in Parliament.

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