The Hearth Tax Rolls

17th Century Hearth

The hearth tax, also known as hearth money, chimney tax, or chimney money, was a tax imposed by Parliament in 1662, to support the Royal Household of King Charles II. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Parliament calculated that the Royal Household needed an annual income of £1,200,000. The hearth tax was a supplemental tax to make up the shortfall. It was considered easier to establish the number of hearths than the number of heads, hearths forming a more stationary subject for taxation than people. It generated considerable debate in parliament, but was supported by the economist Sir William Petty, and carried through the Commons by the influential West Country member Sir Courtenay Pole, whose enemies nicknamed him "Sir Chimney Poll" as a result. The bill received Royal Assent on 19 May 1662, with the first payment due on 29 September 1662, Michaelmas.

For centuries, the hearth was considered an integral part of a home, often its central or most important feature. For many of the poorest families in the land, this was another hardship put upon them by a government far removed from their every day lives, but a tax which had to be paid and was taken by one means or another. One shilling was liable to be paid for every fire, hearth or stove, in all dwellings, houses, edifices or lodgings, and was payable at Michaelmas, 29 September and on Lady Day, 25 March. The tax thus amounted to two shillings per hearth or stove per year. The original bill contained a practical shortcoming in that it did not distinguish between owners and occupiers and was potentially a major burden on the poor as there were no exemptions. The bill was subsequently amended so that the tax was paid by the occupier. Further amendments introduced a range of exemptions that ensured that a substantial proportion of the poorer people did not have to pay the tax.

Exemptions from the Hearth Tax were:
Not paying Poor or Church Rates
Inhabiting a house, tenement or land worth less than 20 shillings (£1) rent per annum
Assets worth less than £10
Private ovens, furnaces, kilns and blowing houses
Hospitals and almshouses where revenue was less than £100 per annum

Exemption certificates had to be signed by a minister, a churchwarden, or an overseer of the poor and two Justices of the Peace. From 1664, everybody whose home had more than two hearths was liable to pay the tax, even if otherwise exempt, and changes were made to reduce the scope for tax avoidance.

Revenue generated in the first year was less than expected, so from 1663, the names and number of hearths were required to be listed even if non-liable. This additional detail has made the relevant hearth tax documents particularly useful to modern historians and other researchers. However, details of householders who were not liable to pay the tax were not recorded for all years of its operation, as they were not needed for audit purposes when the right to collect the tax was "farmed" for collection by contractors in return for their payment of a fixed premium.

The arrangements for collecting the hearth tax varied during its lifetime:
1662 to 1664: The tax was collected by petty constables, with supervision and administration through the existing machinery of local government.
1664 to 1665: Receivers (commonly known as "chimney-men") were appointed specifically to collect the tax.
1666 to 1669: The right to collect the tax was leased or "farmed out" to three City of London merchants, in exchange for a premium.
1669 to 1674: A central government office called "Agents for the Hearth Tax" supervised collection by directly employed receivers.
1674 to 1684: The tax was again farmed out.
1684 to 1689: A special government commission collected both the excise and hearth tax.

The tax fell most heavily on those who occupied the houses with the greatest number of hearths. For instance, in 1673-4 the Earl of Exeter had to pay for 70 hearths at Burghley House. In contrast, most householders who were liable to pay tax had only one or two hearths and a significant proportion of householders were not liable to pay at all.

Hearth TaxThe hearth tax was much resented because it often entailed inspection of the interior of dwellings by the sub-collectors and petty constables, who had legal authority to enter every property to check on the number of hearths. Some people stopped up their chimneys so that the tax was not due on them, but where this was discovered by the assessors the tax was doubled. On 31 July 1684, a fire in Churchill, Oxfordshire, destroyed 20 houses and many other buildings, and killed four people. It was apparently caused by a baker who, to avoid chimney tax, had knocked through the wall from her oven to her neighbour's chimney. Sir Courtenay Pole, its principal author, was attacked for having devised 'the most vexatious tax on the people that ever was known.'

After the Glorious Revolution, the hearth tax was repealed by the newly empowered English Parliament and agreed to by the newly installed William III and Mary II in 1689, as not only a great oppression to the poorer sort, but a badge of slavery upon the whole people, exposing every man's house to be entered into, and searched at pleasure, by persons unknown to him. At the end of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, William III and Mary II also agreed to and signed the English Bill of Rights 1689 marking a new level of co-operation and power sharing between the Parliament and the English monarchs. The cancellation of the hearth tax and the signing of the Bill of Rights, etc. led to a greater measure of legal protection for life, liberty, and property in England that encouraged and empowered the middle class at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This action both signalled the end of several centuries of tension and conflict between the crown and parliament, and the end of the idea that English kings had any divine rights and that England would be restored to Roman Catholicism. The new King William III and his wife Mary II were Protestant leaders from the Dutch Republic who were invited by Parliament to rule England. To make up for the loss of tax revenue, due to the cancellation of the hearth tax, uniform property taxes were imposed with few exclusions.

Unlike in England, which abolished the Hearth Tax in 1689, it continued in the Kingdom of Ireland till the early 19th century although it underwent major reform at end of the 18th century. It was levied half yearly by the Sheriff of each county on the basis of lists of the names of householders compiled by local Justices of the Peace. The list of the households required to pay the Hearth Tax became known as the Hearth Money Rolls, which were arranged by county, barony, parish, and townland. The tax was sometimes collected over an area known as a 'walk', which was based on both the town and a large rural area outside the town. Several attempts were made in Parliament to abolish or at least limit the proportion of households obliged to pay the tax in Ireland, which was widely regarded as "a shameful infliction upon the poor peasant, to whom even two or three shillings in the year for such a tax was a burden and a wrong". The chief proposers of a radical change were Thomas Conolly and John O'Neill. In 1788, for example, they argued that for a substantial portion of those having to pay the tax, the yearly cash demand was an unreasonable burden. Henry Grattan developed the same point: "I am convinced, that the man who has but five pounds in the world, and pays thirty shillings for his house, ought not to pay hearth-money; the strongest argument for his relief is the bare statement of his condition. The wretchedness of their living, and the misery of their consumption, is the reason why they scarcely pay any tax but the hearth-money, and is likewise a reason why they should not even pay hearth-money.

Hearth TaxMajor reform of the hearth tax was finally carried out in 1793 whereby one-hearth households with less than £10 in personal property, or with houses and land worth £5 or less, were henceforth deemed exempt from the tax. The measure was apparently a consequence of parliamentary pressure in the previous session; the modification of the Window Tax in Britain giving total relief to poorer householders had led to calls in the Irish Parliament for similar "liberality" in the light of Ireland's healthy finances. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (William Pitt) had refused, but a parliamentary committee was established under the de facto chairmanship of Mr G.P. Bushe who successfully proposed that one-hearth householders should be divided into two groups: those above and those below £5 in annual valuation. Subsequently, in 1795, freedom from hearth tax was extended to all one-hearth householders, as the opposition had earlier demanded; at the same time the tax on multiple-hearth houses was raised. The number of persons exempted from the hearth tax was estimated at between a million and a half to two million.

The original Hearth Money Rolls are not extant. The records were housed in the Four Courts in Dublin, the repository for the Public Records Office, but during the Irish Civil War in 1922 the building was destroyed by fire, which also destroyed the Rolls (along with the Ireland census records for 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851), but copies of some of the Rolls have survived.

You can see the Hearth Tax returns for Lurgan and District for the year 1664, HERE.

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