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Obscure taxes

Whilst the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is one of the most expert in the art of relieving us of our money unnoticed, other Chancellors have been more obvious in their efforts. For example in 1662 the Hearth Tax was introduced at the rate of two shillings for every hearth in a house. With the help of a builder it could of course be avoided but the consequences for comfort were a sufficient disincentive. The Window Tax which replaced it in 1662 was imposed at the rate of 2s for houses of up to 9 windows, 4s for those of 10 to 20 and 8s for mansions with more than 20 windows. Blocked-up windows in houses of the period from then until 1851 are clear evidence of a reluctance to pay up.

Scholars have recently unearthed details of an earlier tax along similar lines, targeted at musicians. The tax was levied on musical instruments at a rate of 6d per hole or string. The rationale was that amateur musicians clearly had plenty of money if they could afford viols, whilst buskers and itinerant wind players needed to be discouraged. The consequences were predictable: many recorders were replaced by three-hole pipes, the theorbo suddenly became a luxury few could afford, whilst the fretted blasthorn, having both strings and holes, became extinct overnight. The recorder, which had originally been known as la flûte à neuf trous on account of having alternative holes for left- and right-handed players (one of which was blocked with wax), was hastily renamed flûte à bec lest it incur even more tax. There were court cases which established, amongst other things, that topologically the natural trumpet was equivalent to a doughnut, and therefore only had one hole. Fortunately the modern practice of having finger holes to aid in tuning had not then been introduced, so it became the most economical of instruments.

At a time when music-making was one of the cheapest amusements available, this badly conceived tax was exceptionally unpopular. It was repealed on the 1st of April 1603 after a series of Hole Tax riots caused massive disruption in London and other major cities.

D George Arrowsmith

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