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TAX! Ten Weird Taxes You Probably Aren't Paying
A lot of people around the world aren't happy about the taxes they are paying.
This article looks on the bright side! You aren't paying a slavery or hearth tax, or 8 other weird ones.
Taxation does not just collect money from people for activities, income or possessions they have, it also inevitably changes their behaviour.
If there is a beard tax, people shave. If there is a window tax, some people will block up their windows or build houses with smaller ones.
In some cases, this has led to a deliberate attempt to use taxation to modify behaviour, as in the case of high petrol taxes or a congestion charge whereby motorists are charged for driving into certain areas, mainly city centres.
Some taxes are just plain weird. Here's ten of the best, taxes you aren't paying (I hope!)
More than one ruler in history has decided to tax beards.
The first I can discover is Henry VIII, King of England, who in 1535 taxed beards. Henry VIII continued to wear his beard even though taxing everybody else for wearing them.
The tax was reintroduced by his daughter, Elizabeth I, who also decided that beards should be taxed. It’s not entirely clear whether Elizabeth I disliked beards, or merely saw it as a handy way of raising extra revenue. The tax imposed by Elizabeth I for beards varied according to the age and status of the man required to wear it.
Tsar Peter I of Russia issued a decree in 1705 which prohibited the wearing of beards unless a tax was paid.
Everybody except a member of the Orthodox clergy (who are obliged to wear beards) was ordered to pay a special tax in order to keep his beard. Those few men who continued to wear beards despite the tax were ordered to carry a sign with them which stated that beards were ridiculous.
The Window Tax was a little favourite introduced by King William III in the “Act of Making Good the Deficiency of the Clipped Money 1696”.
It was introduced because there was massive controversy around the idea of income tax, many people feeling it was entirely none of the government’s business what their income was.
Every house had to pay two shillings a year, and you paid more tax if you had more windows.
Extra rates kicked in above 10 and 20 windows, although these numbers were lowered in 1766 to 7 and raised again to 8 in 1825. The tax wasn’t wholly abolished until 1851.
A lot of people resented the tax, considering it to be a tax on sunshine and air.
The tax affected buildings. It’s still common in England to see Georgian buildings with windows bricked up.
Buildings either had existing windows bricked up in order to minimise the tax, or windows were built in new houses bricked up, ready for glass to be installed if the tax regime changed later on.
- Danegeld A.D. 980-1016
Kipling's famous and oft-quoted poem on the reasons why paying Danegeld is a rather bad idea.
The Danegeld was a tax raised in Anglo Saxon England in order to pay off the Vikings.
The idea was that by paying the Vikings they would take the money and go away instead of invading, plundering, raping and murdering.
The first English payment, 3,300 kilograms of silver was made in 991 after the Vikings beat the Saxons at the Battle of Maldon in Essex. King Aethelred the Unready paid the Vikings off rather than submit to further looting.
The problem with the Danegeld was that the Vikings were encouraged to come back and get some more. Danegeld was further paid in 1002 A.D., 1007. A.D. (that one was 13,400 kilograms of silver) 1012 A.D. and 1016 A.D.
As a result of all this Danegeld, more Anglo Saxon silver pennies can be found in Sweden than in England these days. Danegeld represented about 10% of the Exchequer’s income.
Kings continued to charge the Danegeld after it stopped being paid to the Vikings. It became a rather useful tax for Kings. For example, William the Conqueror was rather fond the Danegeld in order to pay for his wars in Normandy, and King Stephen and Henry II were really rather fond of it. The last Danegeld was raised in 1161.
The Danegeld was based on assessments of how much particular agricultural land should be producing, rather than what it actually was producing, and people in favour with the King tended to be exempted for it.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Danegeld states, “That if once you have paid the Danegeld you never get rid of Dane”
is now used as an insult in UK politics, as a form of appeasement.
It’s often compared to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of
Hitler in the late 1930s, not a favourable comparison.
An extract from Kipling's poem:
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you've only to pay 'em the Dane-geld
And then you'll get rid of the Dane!
It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: --
"Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away."
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
Extract from genealogy programme showing use of hearth tax records to trace ancestry
The Hearth Tax was introduced in 1662 after the restoration of the monarchy, when King Charles II replaced the Cromwellian commonwealth.
The reason the Hearth Tax was imposed is that it was considered easier to count hearths than people. People have a nasty habit of moving or hiding if you try and count them in order to tax them.
The payment was one shilling every Michaelmas (29th September) and Lady Day (25th March) per hearth or stove. The tax was therefore two shillings per hearth per year.
People were exempted if they were very poor, if they were industrial hearths such as the kilns, or if there were hospitals or alms houses.
Oddly enough, the Hearth Tax was not what you would call popular. In order to avoid paying it, some people stopped up their chimneys so that the hearth wouldn’t be usable and they wouldn’t have to pay the tax.
One of the things which people particularly resented about the Hearth Tax is that the officers in charge of collecting it had the right to enter any house and inspect all the rooms in order to count hearths.
If the tax wasn’t paid, the same officials could destrain goods, which meant helping themselves to the non payer’s stuff and going off with it.
It was also quite a dangerous tax. For example, a fire destroyed 25 houses, 15 other buildings, and killed 5 people in Oxfordshire. A baker who resented the chimney tax had stopped up her own chimney, and knocked through from her wall to her neighbour’s chimney in order to avoid paying it. As a piece of engineering it was rather botched.
It’s often easy to tell from archaeological evidence where a hearth was stopped up.
An example is a Cornish house which appears in the records as owned by John Ellis. He had six hearths in his household and had stopped up two. Looking at the house now, it’s possible to tell where one was stopped up in a bedroom.
It was only unblocked recently, and the stopping had caused a damp patch around the hearth and in the chimney.
Scutage, also known as Escuage, was a tax applied to people who didn’t want to fight and die for the English King.
It started under Henry I, and people who didn’t fancy going off to do knight service in the King’s army could pay not to do it instead. The Crown had the right not to accept the payment instead of service, but Kings found it a rather useful way of raising money, with which they could then hire mercenaries.
Richard I came up with the cunning idea of refusing permission to pay instead of serve unless even greater sums were paid.
It fell out of use as the feudal system declined, and Edward III was the last person to charge Scutage successfully.
- Link to an Open University BBC script about the hearth tax
Detailed records from Cornwall are examined in this extract from the programme
Freedom Tax for former slaves
In Ancient Rome, slavery was a well developed institution. Slave owners could free their slaves, or slaves could under certain circumstances work for other people in their spare time and eventually buy their freedom.
If you were a Roman slave who had managed to save up enough to free himself, you not only had to come up with the price your slave master required of you, you had to come up with an extra 10% tax to the government for the privilege of not being a slave anymore.
The Poll Tax was first brought into Britain in the 14th Century by the child King Richard II.
It was raised three times, in 1377, 1379 and 1381. It was slightly different in each year it was raised.
In 1381 it was levied across the population on an equal basis. Every person in England aged 15 or over had to pay one shilling. This was seen as extraordinarily inequitable by the peasants in particular.
If you were well off, a shilling was nothing. However if you were poor a shilling was extremely difficult to pay.
There had been resentment among peasants for some time about how the country was ruled. The Black Death which killed between a third and a half of the population between 1349 and 1351 had led to a growing demand for labour.
The government tried to control this by passing the Statute of Labourers Act 1351 which meant that it was very difficult to change employer, and wages were held at old levels.
The setting of the tax in 1381 at 3 groats (a groat was 4 pence, therefore the tax was 12 pence or a shilling) caused all the built-in frustrations to well up in one go.
The revolt was led by John Bull, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, three famous names in England even today. For example, you will find a Wat Tyler Road in Blackheath and a Jack Straw pub in Hampstead.
A common cry of the peasants’ revolt, first introduced by the priest John Bull, was:
When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman?
The revolt was eventually put down, but only after significant damage and death. John of Gaunt, who was the Regent for the child King, had his London palace, the Savoy, burnt down.
A number of other buildings in London were burnt, the Tower of London was successfully stormed, and the Lord Chancellor who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Lord Treasurer were both executed by the mob.
Margaret Thatcher failed to learn from the example of the 14th Century, and tried to introduce the Poll Tax in the late 1980s.
This led to the Poll Tax Riots in 1990, and was a major in factor in Thatcher’s downfall later in the same year.
Peter the Great had a similar go at a Poll Tax, instead he called it a Soul Tax. This was in 1718, and if you didn’t believe that you had a soul because you were an atheist, you didn’t have to pay it. Instead you had to pay religious dissenter tax which amounted to exactly the same sum.
British State Opening of Parliament, complete with wigs
Hat, wig and wig powder tax
It was common in the late 18th Century as well as earlier to wear wigs in order to look fashionable. If you had any pretensions for fashion as a man, you had a nice wig.
The wigs that barristers wear in England now are simplified forms of the height of fashion in the 17th and 18th Century.
If it’s fashionable, however, someone thinks about taxing it.
There was a tax introduced in parliament in 1795 which taxed both wigs and wig powder, which was the stuff you put on the wig everyday a bit like talc in order to look an extra man about the town.
A common Wig Tax in about 1815 was a guinea (one pound and one shilling or 21 shillings) which is the equivalent today of about £40.
A similar tax introduced at the same time was a Hat Tax. It was supposed to be a progressive form of taxation, based on the idea that if you were rich you would have lots of very pricey hats, and if you were poor you wouldn’t bother.
Every man’s hat sold had to have a stamp sowed into its lining to show that it was a legal hat. In any hat shop or hat maker also had to have a licence in order to sell legal hats. In London this was a significant sum, £2. Outside London, a hat trader had to pay 5 shillings.
The penalty for not having a hat licence for a retailer or manufacturer or a hat stamp for a wearer was heavy. The death penalty was introduced for those who forged hat tax revenue stickers.
Those people who had the hat seller’s licence had an official sign outside their shop which proclaimed them as legal, saying ‘dealer in hats by retail’.
There was a lot of disagreement about what things you might put on your head were hats and which were other forms of headgear. This caused such trouble that the government was forced to introduce a new Act in 1804 to describe and define hats so that everybody knew what was a taxable hat and what was just a headscarf or cap.
The tax was never a great success and was repealed in 1811.
The Emperor Nero in the 1st Century A.D. introduced a Urine Tax.
Nero was insane. Whether as a result of this or not, he decided to tax urine.
Wealthy Romans had their own sewage disposal systems, but everybody else used chamber pots and emptied them into cess pits.
The liquid was then collected from these latrines and used as the raw material for a number of industrial and service industries.
Urine was used in tanning leather, a smelly and rather revolting process, and was also used to clean and whiten white clothes especially togas.
As a result of it being re-enacted by Nero’s successor, Vespasian, the word for a public toilet in France, Italy and Romania is still derived from the Emperor’s name.
Something of a special historical legacy.
Illegal drugs tax
Several American states now have laws whereby you are supposed to pay taxes on illegal drugs that you have in your possession.
For example, in the State of North Carolina, there has been a tax law in relation to illegal drugs since 1990. If you want to pay this tax, you can go to a local revenue office and pay a certain amount to show that your illegal drugs are legally taxed.
79 people have, apparently, decided to pay this tax in the last 19 years.
The main source of revenue, however, is from those who don’t pay it and are fined for a failure to pay after arrested in possession of illegal drugs.
I’ve included this because although it’s still a tax and valid on the tax books, anybody who’s happy to possess large quantities of illegal drugs is unlikely to be particularly bothered by tax evasion, and if you’re arrested with a large haul of heroin or cannabis in your possession, you’ve probably got more to worry about than a tax bill.
In Tennessee, for example, from 2005 once you’d bought illegal drugs you had 48 hours to pay the tax on it. It’s a tax charged per gram, from $3.50 for cannabis up to $200 for crack. In July 2006 a judge ruled that this particular tax was unconstitutional and it was got rid of.