Wig, Powder and Windows

Excise men on the lookout for smugglers

When Phoebe Merrick told her audience that she was going to talk about tax, there was a good natured groan from the audience. Who loves taxation? – although we all recognise its necessity for good government, and of course it has a history.

Phoebe worked for most of her career as an excise officer and opened by explaining the difference between customs and excise – customs is the collection of customary duties on imports and exports, whereas excise duty is a later invention which assessed charges against products at the point of manufacture.

Excise duties made their first appearance in England during Cromwell’s government in the 17th century. They were naturally focussed popular products such as alcohol and were unpopular in equal measure. The tax was paid at the point of manufacture and was relatively easy to administer and hard to evade. It is, as Phoebe pointed out, a tax on quantity rather than quality. Even today, a vintage bottle of Mouton Rothschild will attract the same amount of tax as a bottle of cheap plonk.

After some success with new taxes governments extended the range, but not always with good results. A hearth tax, which appeared at first glance to be a reasonable tax on property, was difficult to enforce as inspection required access to the house. It was abandoned and followed by a window tax which only required external inspection. This tax persisted until the 19th century and even today some blocked-up windows are visible reminders of attempts to avoid the tax.

The job of an excise officer in the 17th and 18th centuries could be hazardous. Some citizens were inclined to act violently to the idea of being taxed and the excise officer often had to call for help from the military and later the police. Not least of their issues was the delivery of the money collected, mostly in coin, to safety in London. In an age before bank notes and more sophisticated means of transferring money, revenue officers had to transport the money on slow-moving pack horses on uncertain roads. Attack and potential robbery was always a danger.

The talk was informative and delivered with wit and style. Whether or not any one in the audience will feel better about paying taxes in future is an open question, but one thing is certain, we are all better informed about the history and development of excise taxes.

Excise men raiding an illegal warehouse at London Docks

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