Austerity in the Regency – taxation


What does a nation state do when faced with years of unavoidable emergency spending leading to an annual government deficit and a massive historic debt to pay off? That’s still a relevant question today!

It’s a question that the British government had to deal with in 1815. The war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France had led to an accumulated debt of £829 million, mostly held in consuls sold by the British government. The rich had bought the debt on interest bearing bonds that had to be paid back. And there was great political pressure to clear the deficit quickly.
What to do? The most important thing that was done was that income tax was abolished . This was not the doing of the government, but the parliament, who refused the Tory request to maintain the tax for a few more years. The government promised to remove it very quickly, but the House of Commons insisted that it happened immediately.
Income tax (called the Property Tax) had been  an emergency measure, introduced as a war tax in 1799. It was only introduced on the understanding that it would end when the war did. Sir William Curtis, an eccentric Tory MP made the point in the House of Commons when his simple argument was “where is the war now”? Sir William had an ideological opposition to income tax; it involved government officials enquiring into their income, property and lifestyle; it eroded the idea about the sanctity of property. It was “Unnecessary, Unconstitutional and Inquisitorial”.


Sir William Curtis MP                                            Billy Biscuit


It was about protecting  private income, in a way, but it was more complicated than that. Sir William was a prime example. He had gained his knighthood by voting as he was told by William Pitt, and had made his fortune by making hard tack food for the British Navy. He was known, behind his back, as “Billy Biscuit” or sometimes, more politely, “Sir W Biscuit”. He personally would have been better off if government expenditure on feeding the Navy continued, but he was having not of it. He was happy to see income tax abolished and two-thirds of the Navy (90,000 people) demolished to reduce his tax burden. He claimed that he would then be in a position to spend more money on charity for those made unemployed by the reduction of government spending.This position made perfect sense to him. Income tax was compulsory, the spending of the money was outside of his control, and nobody was grovelling grateful. Charity was the opposite.

There was no sense during the Regency that the rich should pay a higher proportion of their income to provide funds for services used by the poor. Another example of this  was the last speaker in the Property tax debate. He accepted that the poor would suffer much more than the rich; he demanded savage cuts in expenditure immediately. His name was William Wilberforce, famous for his liberality towards Negro slaves, but not to the British lower orders.
Where was the money to come from? There was the National Lottery, which is mentioned here;

The main difference between the UK state lottery today and the Regency version was that the only good cause the proceeds were used for was paying interest on government debt, which was held mostly by the rich.
Taxes on property were replaced by taxes on consumption, which hurt the poor more. Bread was taxed, in the sense that the Corn Law stopped cheap imports entering the country. Coal attracted duty, as did salt, leather, soap, candles, tea, spirits, windows, houses, carts, toll road.
Lord Byron was angry about austerity. It was clear that this belt- tightening was around some people’s waist, but others had it around their neck. From his poem Don Juan

“ To Wellington
…and I shall be delighted to learn who
Save your and yours , have gained from Waterloo?



For more, new material, try my new book on Georgian Britain

If you are in the UK, please ask your local library to stock a copy. Most regency books are not like this! 3 minute book review here

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Thanks for reading