Introduction Our group found a number of references to Sunderland Corporation lobbying Parliament on public health related matters, and one of these was the Window Tax. The entry, from February 1850, is illustrated above.
This tax was first imposed in England in 1696. It was intended to be a progressive tax in that houses with a smaller number of windows, initially ten, were subject to a 2 shilling house tax but exempt from the window tax. Houses with more than ten windows were liable for additional taxes which increased in line with the number of windows. The poorest, who were more likely to live in houses with fewer windows, were therefore in theory taxed less. This principle generally worked when applied to the rural poor, but failed to alleviate the tax burden on the urban poor. In towns and cities it was unusual for the working classes to live in individual homes. They would usually live in large tenement buildings which, however they had been subdivided, where considered to be one dwelling house under the terms of the tax, and therefore subject to heavy window tax assessments.
As it was the landlord, as the property owner, who was subject to the tax, windows in tenement buildings were often boarded up, and new buildings were constructed without sufficient window accommodation. The interpretation of the tax was also very strict. No definition of a window was included in the legislation, and it tended to be interpreted in such a way as to include the smallest of openings in any wall. In some cases even perforated grates in larders were charged as if they were a large window. Not only did tenants suffer as a result of inadequate ventilation in their living quarters, invariably the costs of the window tax that were imposed were passed on to the residents in heavier rents. The impact of the tax can be seen in the fact that, in 1766, when the tax was extended to include houses with seven or more windows, the number of houses in England and Wales with exactly seven windows reduced by nearly two-thirds.
The negative impact of the tax on health was well known from the early eighteenth century and was written about in pamphlets and popular ballads. Those living in accommodation without sufficient light and ventilation were more subject to epidemics of typhus, smallpox and cholera. According to Dr D B Reid’s report on the sanitary report of Sunderland, published in 1845, the local Health Committee have ‘...witnessed the very evil effect and operation of the window tax; and they do not hesitate to declare that it is their unanimous opinion that the blocking up of the numerous windows caused by the anxiety of their owners to escape the payment of the tax, has, in very many instances, greatly aggravated, and has even...in some cases been the primary cause of much sickness and mortality.’
Although deeply unpopular, the tax survived until the mid nineteenth century. The negative effects of the lack of adequate light and ventilation were becoming so well documented that a popular campaign against the tax began to gain strength. A motion to repeal of the tax failed by three votes in April 1850. A national campaign against the tax followed throughout 1850 and 1851, and it is against this background that Sunderland’s petition should be seen. The tax was repealed in 1851.