Lifestyle

Thursday 21 August 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.

However, while they were supposed to pay the chimney tax on the labourers' cottages, rectories and other properties on their lands, they used their clout to tweak the law to make their tenants liable.

Householders caught trying to get around the hearth tax by blocking up their chimneys were punished with a demand for double the original amount.

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.

Introduced in 1712, a tax on patterned wallpaper lasted 120 years, despite the fact that Ireland's upwardly mobile DIY types got around it by buying untaxed blank wallpaper and stencilling it themselves.

Having abolished hearth tax in England, William Of Orange replaced it with a window tax.

Ireland was spared this tax until the aftermath of the disastrous 1798 rebellion, when once again it was used as a punishment.

The old Irish Parliament building on Dublin's College Green was built with hollows where the windows had been meant to go once the tax was scrapped. Three centuries on, there are still no windows.

For the 30 years before window tax was abolished in 1851, buildings with seven or fewer windows were exempted. Accordingly, many big houses surviving from the time have exactly seven windows.

Today the rustic half-door is considered a quaint and charming feature of old Irish buildings. But the half-door was another means of beating the window tax by letting in plenty of light while, for revenue purposes, not being a window.

The Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae recently suggested that for revenue purposes a family dwelling set in the middle of a busy working farm is hardly worth bothering about.

Tom Crosse, the former head of Ireland's auctioneers and valuers' body, IPAV, said many farmhouses could be "seriously discounted in their market value" for revenue purposes. He calculated: "If a stand-alone house was worth €200,000, our members would be putting a valuation of €100,000 on the equivalent farmhouse, maybe less."

Dwellings valued below €100,000 will attract the lowest tax rate of just €45 when the new regime is imposed. It's a safe bet that this one will still be running, in some form, 200 years from now.

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