Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pitt's picture

In Scotland, the antiquated expression “Pitt’s picture” refers to ‘blind windows’, which were windows blocked up from the inside in an attempt to avoid paying the much-despised window tax that was brought across from England during Pitt the Younger’s prime ministership.

A century before, on the last day of 1695, the British Parliament established a window tax in England and Wales. A tax on windows may seem rather odd at first, but the British have had some unusual taxes in their time, especially in the centuries prior to the establishment of income tax. (Spain and France also had window taxes at one time or another, so we shouldn’t think the English too odd, at least not based on this reason alone!). Many will have heard of the glass tax (est. 1746), but there was also brick tax (1784) and even wallpaper tax (1712). Window tax, however, predated them all, and wasn’t as arbitrary as it now sounds.

In Mediaeval England, windows (like chimneys and sometimes doors) were considered individual items of property, separate from a house. Thus, when one moved homes, windows could be dismantled and transported along with one’s luggage. Windows could also be bequeathed to someone other than the inheritor of a house. This state of affairs clearly caused some dissension, because during Henry VIII’s reign it was ruled that windows were to be seen as part of a house. The idea of the independent value of windows however continued well into the C17th, and it would seem to me that such an ‘awareness’ of windows (which does not exist today) is an important precursor to the then government ever having the idea to tax them specifically.

By 1695 there existed a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings. Along comes the window tax, and now homes with 10 or more windows were taxed an extra 2 shillings, while those with more than 20 windows were to pay an extra 4 shillings. Not a cheap tax, and therefore it was much disputed. Knowing this, one better understands why some residents would go to the seemingly extreme measure of blocking up their windows.

Although it is a contested bit of etymology, I rather hope it is true that the phrase “daylight robbery” originates from this tax: the public felt the government was trying to tax them (overtax them) on the very air and daylight entering into their homes via windows.

The official thinking behind the window tax was that the bigger house, the more prosperous the inhabitants and the more tax they could therefore afford to pay. The window tax came about under “An Act for granting to His Majesty severall Rates or Duties upon Houses for making good the Deficiency of the clipped Money”; then, as now, government looked for a systematic way to gather more income from wealthier citizens. We see the root of income tax in such acts, even though income tax itself was successfully resisted for a while longer by the many who felt it would prove too intrusive into their private matters. Those fighting income tax won battles for a time, but in the end, they lost the war, and no-apologies income tax was eventually instituted in 1799.

The window tax was only repealed as late as 1851.


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