London & Middlesex Introductions

The following extracts are taken from introductory essays in the two-volume London and Middlesex Hearth Tax published in 2014 by the British Record Society and available from its website at £60 (plus P+P) for the two-volume set.

Extract from, 'London and Middlesex in the 1660s' by Vanessa Harding

The early modern metropolis first comes into sharp visual focus in the middle of the seventeenth century, for a number of reasons. Most obviously this is the period when Wenceslas Hollar was depicting the capital and its inhabitants, with views of Covent Garden, the Royal Exchange, London women, his great panoramic view from Millbank to Greenwich, and his vignettes of palaces and country-houses in the environs. His oblique birds-eye map-view of Drury Lane and Covent Garden around 1660 offers an extraordinary level of detail of the streetscape and architectural texture of the area, from great mansions to modest cottages, while the map of the burnt city he issued shortly after the Fire of 1666 preserves a record of the medieval street-plan, dotted with churches and public buildings, as well as giving a glimpse of the unburned areas. Although the Fire destroyed most of the historic core of London, the need to rebuild the burnt city generated numerous surveys, plans, and written accounts of individual properties, and stimulated the production of a new and large-scale map of the city in 1676. Late-seventeenth-century maps of London included more of the spreading suburbs, east and west, while outer Middlesex was covered in rather less detail by county maps such as that of 1667, published by Richard Blome.

In addition to the visual representations of mid-seventeenth-century London, a wider range of documentary sources for the city and its people becomes available to the historian. Samuel Pepys recorded the lived experience of the early modern metropolis, connecting people, places, and activities in a virtual stream of consciousness.  Effective vital registration resumed after the interruptions of the Interregnum. John Graunt (1660) recorded and preserved earlier demographic data in his Natural and Political Observations upon the Bills of Mortality (1662), and a regular series of original annual Bills survived to be reprinted in the eighteenth century. The detailed inventories of citizens’ estates produced for the City of London’s Court of Orphans survive from 1660. The destruction caused by the Fire stimulated the creation of written records of rebuilding, replanning, compensation, and the settlement of legal disputes, and the imposition of the hearth tax entailed the first house-to-house survey of the whole metropolis and its suburban and rural hinterland.

An unparalleled source, the surviving pre-Fire returns for the hearth tax published here identify and locate nearly 40,000 householders in London and Middlesex, with an indication of the size and hence the relative value of the dwellings they occupied, and in some cases evidence of their poverty or inability to pay. Named individuals are anchored in time and space, and it is possible to map the social topography of the metropolis on the eve of the Great Fire. In addition, because assessment and collection continued till the 1670s, the records of the hearth tax chart the decimation, destruction and rebuilding of the city centre and the ongoing expansion of the wider metropolis.

Extract from, 'Houses and Society in Restoration London: The 'Great' and 'Middle Sorts'' by Ian Warren

In February 1678 English Parliamentarians debated proposals to tax buildings erected on new foundations around London since 1656. The immediate occasion was the need to raise a million pounds in anticipation of war against France, but the selection of new buildings as a target for taxation was no accident. Since the later Elizabethan period metropolitan expansion had been a subject of controversy and a focus of recurrent official pronouncement and public debate. The historical remains of these discussions are of considerable interest, shedding light on contemporary attitudes to the built environment of the capital and the wider role of the metropolis. While the proposed tax of 1678 was never implemented, the response it provoked both within and beyond Parliament is worthy of consideration in this regard.

Among the most instructive traces left by the 1678 debate is a short anonymous pamphlet which sought to sink the proposed tax on the grounds of its limited yield and potentially harmful side effects. Its interest lies not in the familiar tenor of these objections, but in the manner in which London’s housing was discussed. Specifically, the author grouped the new houses erected in London since 1620 into three broad classes. The first contained ‘the great houses’, examples of which could be found in Covent Garden Piazza, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Great Queen Street, Bloomsbury and St James’s Square. Second came ‘the middle sort of houses’, recent examples of which could be found in the streets surrounding the Piazza, as well as in Long Acre, Clare Market, Old Southampton Buildings, Leicester Fields, Bloomsbury, York Buildings and Essex Buildings. The third category meanwhile contained ‘houses at 4 or 5l. per annum’. These apparently did not require illustration by local example, although the author suggested that their prevalence among houses built since 1656 was ‘much greater’ than had been the case in the preceding thirty-six years.

Extract from, 'Houses in London's Suburbs' by Peter Guillery

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’s entry on the word ‘suburb’ includes a meaning that is instanced from 1668 by a characterisation of London’s outer parts as ‘a place of inferior, debased and especially licentious habits of life.’ But can that usage have been fair? These suburbs housed the great majority of all Londoners. London’s population had doubled between 1600 and the 1660s, and that of the suburbs overtook that of the City early in the century. Outward spread meant that a high proportion of suburban housing was not very old. What was older was generally more central. In northern and eastern districts without the walls more than 20,000 houses were built between the early years of the century and the 1660s when there were about 150,000 chargeable hearths in the suburbs, about 105,000 in the City. Eastern suburbs had grown the fastest and were the most populous, but emphasis on Middlesex obscures the importance of Southwark, ‘a royal city were not London by’ as Defoe put it.

Michael Power used the analysis of hearth tax returns to make some important points about London’s architectural and social topography in the 1660s. His main finding was the striking contrast between most of the City and its inner western suburbs on one hand, and its inner eastern and southern suburbs on the other. The average size of dwellings (not, for the moment, houses or households) in different parts of seventeenth-century London differed greatly. Power concluded that in the late seventeenth century skilled artisans had, on a crude average, about four hearths, semi-skilled workers about three, and professionals and merchants about six. Compared to the rest of the country London was wealthy and its prospering inhabitants, if not its poor, were comfortably housed.

You can also read, in full, the essay 'Immigration, Surnames and the London Hearth Tax' by the late Professor David Hey.