Friday 31 October 2014

No smoke without ire – the year they taxed the chimney . . .

Damian Corless

You think the current protests about property taxes are new? Think again. As far back as 1778, Benjamin Franklin sent a message of support to the Irish people on behalf of the breakaway American Congress.

In a letter that could have been penned today, he extended America's sympathy to the Irish who, he said, were being made to fund "oppressive pensions", jobs for the boys on "large salaries" and being subjected to "the arbitrary extraction of public money".

For the latter, read "property taxes".

Ireland's British rulers didn't appreciate Franklin's attempts at stirring it and before long they slapped another property tax on Ireland aimed at hurting the uppity Americans.

The brick tax of 1784 was imposed to help pay the bill for Britain's losing war to keep hold of the American colonies.

For those buying into the property boom that was Georgian Dublin, brick tax was the extortionate stamp duty of its day.

A levy of four shillings on every thousand bricks hit the manufacturers first. As ever, they passed on the levy to the householder.

When the manufacturers briefly got around the tax by simply making fewer but bigger bricks, the government set a maximum legal brick size.

So householders boycotted bricks and timber and weatherboarding enjoyed a big revival until the brick tax was scrapped in 1850 as a block to enterprise.

Dubliners were also singled out for a street-lighting tax to pay for oil lamp posts, for a sewer tax to drain their waste into the Liffey, and a piped water tax to take clean fluid in the opposite direction.

They were also subject to a watch tax to pay for policemen to watch the streets and a coal tax to fund "wide and convenient streets".

The hearth tax, or chimney tax, was supposed to be a progressive property tax that would hit the rich hardest. The rich, needless to say, didn't take this lying down.

Under duress they paid the annual levy on the multiple fireplaces and stoves in their mansions.

When William of Orange became King of England in 1689, part of his signing-on deal with the propertied class was that the hearth tax would be ditched.

This came five years after four people had died in a fire caused by a baker trying to evade the tax by concealing his oven.

As a punishment on the Irish who had defied William at the Battle of the Boyne, the hearth tax was kept on here.

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