Window Tax: So They Bricked-Up the Windows

Cast your eyes around the architecture of any town or village, and you’ll easily find bricked-up windows, usually on Georgian properties but sometimes on later properties too from the Victorian era.

The reason for this is simple – window tax. Around for a couple of centuries in England, Wales and France, the window tax became roundly detested and was eventually repealed in 1851.

Tax has always been controversial, but this tax profoundly impacted British architecture and the quality of people’s lives.

Window tax bricked up window
A victim of the window tax, You can see this by the different colour bricks that have been used. You will also notice there is a ‘fire mark’ in the middle.


What is Window Tax?

Taxing people is not a new idea, but before the organisation of income and capital that we see today, raking around in someone’s finances was considered an invasion of liberty.

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The only way to calculate wealth was on what was visible, and when it came to houses, size mattered, but windows mattered even more. The window tax was a property tax, and this concept is still in use today as homes are rated by value for council tax and stamp duty.

Window tax receipt, dated 25 March 1755.

The window tax was introduced in England and Wales in 1696 and repealed in 1851. It was a replacement tax for the revenue lost by clipping coinage.

This process shaved off a tiny portion of a metal coin which, when amalgamated, could be melted into bullion or used to make new coins.

The window tax appeared in France in 1798, a century later than in the UK, and continued until 1926. Its life in Scotland was short-lived, since the tax was only levied from 1748 until 1798. It had a significant impact on architectural development.

Why Tax Windows?

Introduced in the reign of William III, the window tax was designed to levy revenue based on the wealth of the individual. Rather than try and evaluate income, considered a private matter, properties were assessed based on the number of windows rather than their size.

window tax
Once you have seen one, you start to see them every where

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This reflects that glass was an expensive and luxurious commodity, and generally, only the very wealthy could afford many windows. Disclosing personal income was considered a threat to an individual’s liberty…what happened?!

How Much was Window Tax?

The window tax was divided into two parts, a flat rate per house of two shillings and a variable amount levied on the number of windows if they exceeded ten.

Because glass was so expensive, having more than ten windows was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid four shillings over and above the flat rate, and those with more than twenty windows paid an extra eight shillings.

Things changed in 1709 when England and Scotland unified, and a new top rate of twenty shillings was introduced for buildings with thirty or more windows.

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In 1747, the flat rate per property altered and became a separate freestanding tax, dependent upon the house’s value. The basis of the remaining calculations for the window tax was also changed.

Each window was charged at 6d in a house with ten or more windows. For a property with between fifteen and nineteen windows, the rate increased to 9d per window.

For homes with twenty or more windows, the rate grew again to one shilling for every window in the house. In 1758, the rate increased from one shilling to three shillings. The threshold also changed and was reduced in 1766 to seven rather than ten windows and then increased to eight in 1825.

Tax Exemptions

People who were exempt from paying poor or church rates because of their poverty were also exempt from the window tax.

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Certain rooms within buildings were also classified as exempt, including dairies, cheese rooms and milkhouses, but they had to be labelled as such. It’s not unusual to find the name of the room carved into the lintel of the window for identification purposes.

The Glory Days of the Georgian Sash Window

Sliding sash windows are considered one of the most timeless window designs. A variation of this style can still be seen in the later architecture of the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Sash window
The oldest surviving examples of sash windows were installed in England in the 1670s. There are ‘blind windows’ on this building as well.

Small panes of glass were the only option, as the Georgians still needed to discover the techniques of making larger panes. Had they known how to do this, they may have opted for fewer large windows to minimise their tax burden.

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The classic Georgian window comprises two sliding sashes, each consisting of six panes or more. The panes are arranged into a regular grid pattern separated by glazing bars.

The panes are portrait, not landscape and the classic style of ‘six over six’ is often referred to as ‘the golden ratio’. The Georgian sash window has survived the test of time and is often used in estate new builds today to create a classic and timeless façade as well as a highly practical window.

How did the Window Tax affect Architecture?

Spaces were often left for additional windows with the apertures bricked up, presumably awaiting repeal of the tax. The idea was that they could be framed and glazed at a later date, so the general symmetry on most Georgian properties is unaffected. Some houses were just built with fewer windows.

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When William Pitt tripled the window tax in 1797, thousands of windows were bricked in or boarded up overnight.

blind windows
“blind windows” this is a great example of the —architectural feature. To keep uniformity within and/or embellish a facade.

The president of the Society of Carpenters reported to Parliament that almost every homeowner on London’s Compton Street had contacted him to reduce the number of windows in their property as a matter of urgency. A new apartment building in Edinburgh was designed with the entire second floor of bedrooms without windows.

Tax Avoidance

Tax is an old idea, and where there is taxation, there will always be tax avoidance.

With such a visible levy like the window tax, it’s hard to avoid, but people tried. In 1718, it was recorded that the revenue from the window tax was declining as people blocked up windows.

Former woollen weavers' cottages in Wardle, Greater Manchester, England.
Former woollen weavers’ cottages in Wardle, Greater Manchester, England.

New houses were built with fewer windows, so much so that in 1851, glass production remained at the same level as in 1810 despite the exponential increase in house building due to the Industrial Revolution, a rapidly growing population, and the arrival of the railways.

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Many houses were designed or altered to meet the tax-efficient totals of nine, fourteen or nineteen windows. Groups of windows separated by twelve inches or less counted as one window, which accounts for some long ranges of windows in the weavers’ houses in the Pennines.

The Demise of Window Tax

Seen as a tax on air and light, the window tax is thought to be the origin of the phrase, ‘daylight robbery’. There were advantages to the tax as it could be assessed without the requirement to enter the property.

. ‘Hollo! Old Fellow, we’re glad to see you here’.

However, it was roundly considered to have a more significant and adverse impact on the poor. The window tax wasn’t as problematic in rural areas as people tended to live in single small dwellings.

However, poor people often resided in large tenements in towns and cities. Even though they may only have had one or two rooms, they were charged according to the total number of windows in the property, which was utterly disproportionate to either their financial position or the accommodation.

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Act of Parliament

The landlord paid the tax, so consequently, the poor ended up living in dark, stuffy and poorly ventilated conditions.

As mass housing increased during the Industrial Revolution, cities became crowded, and experts and medical professionals argued that damp, unlit housing would create disease and health epidemics.

Charles Dickens lent his voice to the debate in 1850, stating, “The adage ‘free as air’ has become obsolete by Act of Parliament. According to him, neither air nor light had been free since the imposition of the window tax:

“We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to us all, at so much per window per year; and the poor who cannot afford the expense are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.”

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During the winter of 1850-1851, there was increasing unrest about the tax, and it was finally repealed in July 1851 and replaced with a different property tax. The repeal was celebrated in Punch magazine with a cartoon depicting a family welcoming the arrival of a smiling sun through their new window.

The Advent of Income Tax

Income tax first appeared in England and Wales in 1799 and was introduced by William Pitt the Younger to pay for the military preparations required before the Napoleonic Wars.

Income tax, as we know it today, appeared in England and Wales in 1842, not long before the demise of the window tax.

What are Blind Windows?

Window tax
Apparently they were pleasing on the eye

Bricked-up windows are sometimes called blind windows, but blind windows existed before the advent of the window tax. It is thought that blind windows were there for practical and aesthetic purposes, to create uniformity of design and pleasing symmetry on a façade.

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In Renaissance Italy, architects used blind windows to vary and enrich both the surface and the appearance of a building’s façade. Sometimes, the look of the building was rated as more important than the provision of light and air.

The blind window had probably originated from shortages of workforce and materials, but eventually, it became a valued classic design element in its own right alongside blind balustrades and blind arcades.

Blind windows offer the opportunity for enrichment and embellishment and are often seen with the addition of statues in classical European architecture.

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