March 18, 1816 The Property tax is ended

Britain was a country ruled by the property owning classes. Property was a mark of esteem and social privilege and those who had it were very aware of the urgent and permanent need to hold on to it- which made the government’s attempt to hold on the Property tax ( essentially a tax levied on proceeds from land ownership) even more remarkable. The Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and the foreign minister Castlereagh knew how desperate the financial situation was. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nicholas Vansittart, came to the House of Commons with a confident proposition. He would half the rate of tax to 5% and he would protect small farmers. He regretted not being able to expire it-“expire” rather than “abolish” it making it clear that it was a time limited expedient. He promised cuts in expenditure from 30million pa to 20million.

However, this was not good enough for the property owning members of the House. The Honourable Sir W Curtis said this was a war tax, and where was the war? The family had made a fortune manufacturing see biscuits for the Navy and would have made a fortune with the expansion of the Royal Navy during the war, but now he was looking forward to 90,000 sailors being demobbed in 1816, as promised by Castlereagh. Vansittart argued in vain that more indirection taxation on expenditure would hit the poor hard. For many of the Members of Parliament, the fact that there would be government bureaucrats enquiring about their income was the last straw. The vote was lost by 40; the debate was ended by William Wilberforce, the man who led the campaign for the abolition of the Slave Trade who suggested that the government simply cut its budget faster and more savagely. The Scottish doctor Thomas Lucas made this entry on March 1st

“Numerous petitions from most parts of England and a few from Scotland presented to the House of Commons against the continuation of the income tax, but it seems little attention will be paid to them. The necessities of the country are however very great and urgent. If useless places and tensions were abolished there would not be any occasion for such an odious tax.”

The only remaining way of raising the money needed was by increasing taxes on spending. This indirect taxation pushed up the price of tea, tobacco, sugar and beer. Much of the money raised from the poor would be used to pay interest on the loans given mostly by the wealthy, who had just opted out of making a contribution themselves by allowing the Property tax to expire.

In the same budget, the Chancellor announced that the Lottery had made a £200,000 contribution to government funds. The only good cause it was assigned to was to repay the debt held by the rich. The poor were truly the “white slaves of England” although this was not the sentiment of those who kept diaries or owned property.

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