Each examination of the hearth tax stands on its own as a study of the later seventeenth-century social and economic history of the county in question, but at the same time it also forms a vital piece in the jigsaw of seeing a national picture of households and population and their relationship with complex issues of wealth and social status.
Today we are well used to centrally administered taxation, with its regulations for implementation and exemption closely drafted and enforced. This had still not been achieved in seventeenth-century England. A hearth tax return like this one for Essex may appear outwardly uniform, especially where copied by one clerk, but that masks the fact that it is actually a composite of many collectors’ returns; some were conscientious, some not, some compiled new lists, others copied old ones and the muddled regulations for exemption may have been interpreted in differing ways. A county approach can might give the illusion that the administrative boundary also acted as an economic or social boundary. But other factors, like the terrain and topography, could extend over a wider area and even within a county there could be a lack of uniformity.
For Essex, there were a variety of economic experiences within the county, including the area now considered to be part of greater London, where the growth of the suburbs had already begun by the later Stuart period. In the hundreds nearest the capital, wealthy London tradesmen and merchants were building second homes which reflected their increasing affluence. In this respect that part of Essex bears an interesting comparison with some areas of Kent which were also feeling the impact of the expansion of London south of the Thames, particularly Blackheath. It is also interesting to see how those hundreds and parishes of Middlesex adjoining Essex bear comparison with this county.
- Catherine Ferguson, Preface to the Essex volume [PDF 73KB]