6 best websites for historical tax records
As we reach the end of the tax year, Jonathan Scott looks at some of the more unusual taxes of the past and how these six sites can help your family history research
The unpopular Window Tax was just one of many historical taxes that may reveal your ancestors (Crecit: Getty Images)
From hearths and horses to hairpowder, the history of the United Kingdom is littered with unpopular and what can seem rather strange forms of taxes, levied on the populace by monarchs and parliaments.
Some sparked unrest and upheaval, and our forebears would often sign up to the tax avoidance schemes of the day: sealing up windows to avoid the window tax, covering hearths to avoid the hearth tax, or using bigger (and thus fewer) bricks to avoid the brick tax.
Significant categories include land tax, building tax, stamp duties, rates, income tax or taxes levied on luxury items. Remember that some taxation (and its non-payment) would lead to paperwork going through the Quarter Sessions, records of which generally survive at county record offices. For example, there’s a set of land tax assessments from about 1780 to 1832 covering all Wiltshire parishes among the Quarter Sessions material held at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre.
1. ScotlandsPlaces (link)
Interesting tax records have been released through the ScotlandsPlaces Project. This is part of a transcription programme by thousands of volunteers, tackling pages of records written in Gaelic, English and Latin, covering land taxation and taxes on clocks, dogs, windows and more.
Better still, you used to need a subscription to access the historical tax records here but they have recently been made free to access. You can explore 88 volumes of poll tax material, while the Historical Tax Rolls page has details of all sorts of strange taxes – from carriage tax rolls to farm horses.
The shop tax rolls (1785-89), for example, contain the names of shopkeepers throughout Scotland, and occasionally the names of the businesses are included as well
as the annual value of the shops.
2. Hearth Tax Online (link)
The hearth tax was levied on householders between 1662 and 1689. The resulting records represent the nearest genealogists have to a kind of census of the period.
The documents recorded the head of household of each property – and, of course, the number of hearths can lead to deductions about wealth.
This site comes from the Centre for Hearth Tax Research (at Roehampton University) and you can keep up
to date via the blog at hearthtax.wordpress.com. Remember that the original records are usually in either The National Archives or at county record offices.
3. The National Archives (link)
Several research guides touch on well-known and obscure forms of taxation. It’s probably easiest to go to the A-Z index where you’ll find the ‘taxation’ and ‘taxes and duties’ categories. These lead to the likes of ‘Medieval customs’ accounts’, ‘Tithes’, ‘Taxation before 1689’, and, of course, the short and sweet ‘Taxation’ guide, which is naturally the best place to start if you’re after an overview.
4. Cynefin (link)
There are several websites where you can explore tithe maps and their schedule books. These describe the landscape, noting use, rentable value, and record the names of owners and occupiers.
Cynefin is the most slick-looking example, a crowdsourcing project that has digitised about 1,200 tithe maps from the National Library of Wales’ collections, while volunteers are transcribing more than 30,000 pages of index documents.
Other sites offering access to tithe material include the West Yorkshire Tithe Maps Project, Historic Maps of Norfolk and the National Archives of Ireland Tithe Applotment Books (1823-37) site.
5. National Records of Scotland (link)
We’ve already touched on some of Scotland’s obscure systems of taxation, but this National Records of Scotland guide details important national collections. These include the valuation rolls – records of property ownership compiled for collecting local taxation, and listing every
house or piece of ground in the country, along with the names/designations of proprietor, tenant and occupier. You can search various sets of valuation rolls via the ScotlandsPeople website.
6. TheGenealogist.co.uk (link)
Chosen by Anthony Adolph, author of In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors
“Tithes were a local tax, usually a tenth of a landholding’s produce, payable to the Church since the Middle Ages. Enclosure Acts of the 17th and 18th centuries converted the payments in some parishes from produce to money, and in 1836, the Tithe Act extended this to all of England and Wales.
The Act generated a vast quantity of records detailing who owned and occupied much of the land in England and Wales in the form of record books and parish maps. These records are found in county archives and The National Archives. They used to be difficult to search, but recently thegenealogist.co.uk completed the first stage of its project to digitise the maps and record books (available through its diamond subscription). Details of the counties covered and what you may expect to find are here.
Using this resource, you can learn a great deal of detail about your ancestors’ landholdings, and see on a map exactly where these were – ideal if you want to explore your ancestors’ lives or if you are planning a trip to see where they lived. The records are fully searchable by name, so from this resource you may also find ancestors living in places you had not expected, prior to the appearance of the first census in 1841.”