Research Context

The hearth tax as a research tool

National taxation records are of particular value to historians, providing rare snapshots of both the extent and the distribution of wealth and population. In relation to England and Wales for the period before 1815 the records of the hearth taxes are the last remaining national taxation sources which are not readily accessible to the academic community, whether as hard-copy editions or through electronic media, and as a result have not been adequately studied. The Hearth Tax Project seeks to address this omission by providing editions of texts with modern scholarly apparatuses, and this discussion sets out several on-going avenues of research.

Economic and social history

Other records of the seventeenth-century such as the poll tax or window tax have not survived on such a scale and with so much data. With such a nation-wide survival, the lists of taxpayers with or without the exempt provide unparallelled information on the numbers of householders across England and Wales with some indication of the size of houses in which they lived and hence an indication of wealth in later Stuart England and Wales. Varied though the recorded returns for the tax are in degrees of comprehensiveness and documentary survival, they have long interested historians working on economies and social structures of communities in the post-Restoration period. Studies by Schofield (1965), Husbands (1987, 1992) and Arkell (1987, 2003) mapped the taxable population and/ or the wealth of communities working on the assumption that there was an approximate correlation between social standing and numbers of hearths in an occupier's household (Spufford, 1962).

Comparative analysis of hearth taxes can be used to substantiate the extent of regional differences in relation to the incidence of wealth and poverty; the distribution and density of population; and the relationship between these factors and standards of housing. The extent of such variations can in turn be tested against differentiations in agricultural regions and what is known about the emergence of industrial and mining areas, and of course the contrasts between urban environments, rural areas, and those localities near to major towns and ports. Where there is sufficient data on the exempt this can also be plotted to show areas where the less well-off lived. In addition the divisions according to township provide historians with an idea of these early areas of jurisdiction, many of which had disappeared by the nineteenth century.

In short, the hearth tax is a remarkably rich research resource on economic and social history. In addition to these questions, the hearth tax can also be used to explore themes in less obviously relevant historical themes, such as cultural, gender and architectural studies. For instance, in relation to the latter, information on hearths sheds light on vernacular architecture and on building developments in the later seventeenth-century, and comparison of specific entries in several surviving lists may indicate changes in hearth number suggesting re-building or even destruction perhaps due to fire.

Source criticism

As with any historical source it is necessary to consider the shortcomings of the data. The most striking problem is the volume of information: the Michaelmas 1662 Hearth Tax assessments found 1,618,525 chargeable hearths in England, and a further 79,289 in Wales. These assessments were made before the non-chargeable were recorded for the purpose of declaring poorer householders exempt from the tax. The number of householders was, of course, much lower than the numbers of hearths, and the returns of the 1680s variously recorded between 1.1 million and 1.4 million names.

Reservations on the reliability of the data also need to be considered. Those responsible for drawing up the returns were occasionally erratic in the application of regulations and sound arithmetic. By comparing returns and exemption certificates it is possible to demonstrate the nature of such inconsistencies. Yet the fact that the hearth tax is the first record of any pre-modern tax for which there is enough material to compare returns and hence to discuss the accuracy of any one return in comparison to its counterparts demonstrates the richness of this source. The returns from Domesday Book to 1524/25 are 'given', either to be taken or left, but there is rarely an opportunity for internal checking. Together the extent of the data and the rich complexity of the source materials explain why it has been hard to produce a definitive edition of the hearth tax. Yet by choosing the best available county return, considering its evidence in relation to the exemption certificates and proceeding with a series of palaeographical and historical checks, it is possible to provide historians with a remarkably rich and useful historical resource.

The hearth tax and long-run economic and social history

The interest of the hearth tax reaches beyond the needs of seventeenth century historians to include scholars with an interest in social and economic history across the medieval and early modern periods. When the Hearth Tax Project’s results are readily accessible, scholars and students will be able to discuss and debate the distributions of wealth and population in national and local contexts from the mid eleventh century to the late seventeenth. Darby (1977) completed a national and county-by-county analysis of distributions of population, wealth and various farming and agricultural resources in eleventh century England, drawing upon Domesday Book. For the Middle Ages historians can additionally turn to the analysis and mapping of the Subsidy Returns of 1334 by Glascock (1975), and studies of the Poll Taxes of the fourteenth century by Fenwick (1998) and others. Moving forward into the early modern period, Sheil (1968) mapped the numbers taxed and the wealth of each vill in the Great Subsidy of 1524/25, and Palliser's and Dyer's (2001) analysis of the diocesan population returns for 1563 and 1603 completes the picture for the sixteenth century. Given that the population of England almost doubled between 1541 and 1650, analysis of the hearth tax has a major role for those interested in reconstructing long-run economic and social development.

A comparison with the Low Countries

Yet the hearth tax is not only a valuable source for those who are in interested in the history of England and Wales. It can also be placed within a comparative European framework, notably in relation to sources from Holland in sixteenth century. These hearth tax records have proven of great value to measure wealth, population and urbanisation. However, they were generally fixed, the levies resulting in similar quotas that were imposed time and again in contrast to practice in later Stuart England and Wales. Towns were allowed rebates of the amounts due in the bargaining process concerning the amount of taxes to be paid to the Prince at the level of the provincial estates. Again this pattern is quite different from the situation in Restoration England and Wales. One frequent argument was that the population and the number of hearths had declined, yet no registers were kept of the actual changes (De Vries, J. and A. van der Woude 1997).

The advantage of the English/Welsh situation is that it allows for much more of an analysis through time, whereas in Holland they can be used to look into the situation at a particular moment only. Again, in the time of the Dutch Republic, hearth taxes were seldom levied, for example in the seventeenth century only in 1606 and 1672; the tax was obviously an extraordinary measure, rather than being a standing and statutory source of revenue as in England and Wales.

In relation historiographical approaches, for the United Provinces, the hearth tax records have proven their value for numerous estimations notably in relation to demographic developments and urbanization, above all for the sixteenth century. Recently, the sixteenth century hearth taxes gave been used in impressive calculations by van Zanden J. L. (2002), espec. 138. By using hearth tax registers in conjunction with other data, he manages to arrive at a reconstruction of the national economy for Holland in the early sixteenth century.

In short, hearth taxes provide an extremely valuable research tool for studying early modern economic and social history and allied subjects of study within a comparative framework.

Further reading

  • Arkell, T. (1987), 'The incidence of poverty in England in the later seventeenth century', Social History 12, 24-37
  • Arkell, T. (2003), 'Identifying Regional Variations from the Hearth Tax', The Local Historian 33, 148-174
  • Darby, H.C. (1977), Domesday England (Cambridge)
  • De Vries, J. and A. van der Woude (1997), The first modern economy. Success, Failure,and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy Cambridge (Cambridge) CUP 1997
  • Dyer, A.D. and Palliser, D.M. (2001), The diocesan population returns for 1563 and 1603 (Oxford)
  • Fenwick, C. ed. (1998), The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381: Bedfordshire and Leicestershire (Oxford)
  • Glascock, R. E. (1975), ed. (1975), The Lay Subsidy of 1334, Records in Social and Economic History, N.S. ii (British Academy)
  • Husbands, C. (1987), 'Regional Change in a pre-industrial economy: wealth and population in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries', Journal of Historical Geography 13, 345-59
  • Husbands, C. (1992), 'Hearths, wealth and occupations: an exploration of the Hearth Tax in the later seventeenth century', in Schurer, K. and T. Arkell, eds. (1992), Surveying the people: the interpretation and use of document sources for the study of population in the later seventeenth century (Oxford), 65-77
  • Schofield, R. (1965), 'The geographical distribution of wealth in England, 1334-1649', Economic History Review 18, 483-510
  • Sheil J. (1968), 'The regional distribution of wealth in England as indicated by the 1524/5 Lay Subsidy Returns', PhD London
  • Spufford, M. (1962) 'The significance of the Cambridgeshire hearth tax', Proceedings of the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society, 55
  • van Zanden J. L. (2002), ‘Taking the measure of the early modern economy: historical national accounts for Holland in 1510/14', European Review of Economic History 6, 131-163