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!

Cheapest price in the UK here

Available in the USA


Thanks for reading






The Regency View of the Poor. How much has changed?

There was no concern at all in Regency Britain about people being poor; it was considered a natural state. Poverty encouraged social order – it was believed that people could escape the worst of their condition by sobriety, obedience and constant hard work. People could be as poor as they could bear, and they were obliged by God to bear it. It only became a problem when the people became indigent – unable to survive without help.  The key question was, and perhaps is; how do we help the poor, and who gets that help?

The first principle in the Regency  was the simple, brutal, and  universally held belief that the lower orders in their natural state were idle, would not work at all if they could get away with it, and would do something far worse if they had the spare time. William Hutton, a dissenting bookseller from Birmingham and no particular enemy of the poor, put this comment in his diary (1795): If a man can support his family with 3 days of labour, he will not work six … “If the body is unemployed, it becomes a nursery of disease. If the mind is unemployed, a languor commences, and a man becomes a burthen to himself “.
All attempts to alleviate the poor had this idea in the forefront. Idleness was far more dangerous than poverty. That’s why it was though the a cure for poverty was to encourage the poor to save. During the Regency period there was a rush of new saving banks for the poor, usually run by the rich charitable gentry of the town. This may seem to us to be a paradox; one strong definition of poverty is that it involves having no money. So how could they save?
We need a Regency view of the poor to answer this question. The second principle was to avoid giving the poor money; they would waste it. A correspondent to Stamford Mercury in 1816, says no to “ pecuniary aid”


The legal claim of the poor  to support from the parish was an encouragement to bad habits. These bad habits that lead to poverty. Poor habits are further encouraged by the certainty of aid and the poor become unthankful. It is, therefore, the bad habits that are the root of poverty, and the poor continuing to drink, smoke and try to live a life while poor is a moral weakness. The correspondent is correct that the number of people on poor relief had reached a crisis level in 1816, but the real roots of poverty are ignored- high bread prices due to protectionist trade policies, a fall in government spending after the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of income tax for higher earners and the imposition of austerity to pay the £800million  national debt.
So the root causes of poverty were moral weakness; not just gin and beer but the belief that the poor were naturally idle; and only the danger of starvation kept them working.
The role of the savings bank was to encourage “industry, economy and sobriety” and allow the surplus created by good habits  to be banked. In times of good employment, money should be saved for the bad times to come. Most workers, it suggested, could save 2 shillings a week if they behaved better. A Manchester weaver would be earning 10 shillings a week, so even a paragon of virtue would be unlikely to achieve this.
A new Act was passed in 1816 to promote savings banks and therefore keep people away from the Poor Law. All the MPs seem to have an anecdote about a poor person they knew who had the necessary good habits. One MP said this;


Many of the banks set up would include the word “INDUSTRIOUS “ in the title and appeal to young unmarried men; many opened on Saturday night, or the normal day of payment of wages, to stop the money being spent in the public house. Another real advantage of the savings banks is that the proceeds were held in Bank of England notes and other securities, while the poor who had savings were likely to hoard £1 or £2 notes from their local bank. If these went broke, their hard-earned savings became worthless pieces of paper.
Many of the establishment tried to dissuade the poor from joining Friendly Societies, which seem at first glance to do the same as the Savings Banks-but the charitable gentlemen found unsettling differences. Firstly, the Friendly Societies often had some imput from the poor themselves; they would often meet in public houses. Some Friendly Societies members drank too much beer; and the fact that some societies had rules about how many drinks you could have “ proved” that they were irresponsible, although exactly the opposite case could be made.
Friendly societies also had a fixed subscription that could not be altered upward if the poor person was doing well and wanted to save more -the savings bank was a vehicle for individual advancement while the Societies were a collective help organisation, so much so that many the of the ruling class( rightly) thought that they were really Trade Unions. Savings banks were not designed to solve the general problem of poverty; they were designed to solve the problems of the deserving individual.

The Friendly Society would support people who were out of employment, thus, the words of the Stamford Mercury correspondent “the discharged workmen had been enabled in nearly all cases to carry out their unjustifiable demands”.

Some of the comments about the Societies were reasonable; unlike the payment of interest, the payment of benefits for unemployment, illness and death were not predictable and could lead to the bankruptcy of the organisation- but his was due to the precariousness of the life of the poor when faced with economic changes that nobody could influence. This was this cause of poverty that the rich refused to acknowledge.
One form of moral weakness was the “improvident marriage” (literally a marriage that had not been adequately provided for). This moral weakness becomes financial when children  were produced. You were meant to save before marriage; newspaper correspondents suggested that if you save from the age of 10 ( the start of the working life in the Regency) you might be able to marry around 25. The real average of first marriage for a man was a little higher than this (about 28)and was done without the unrealistic level of savings suggested by well healed men writing to newspapers.
Some things have not changed in 200 years. We still seem fixated on solving poverty for the individual “deserving poor”; we blame poverty on morality, not economics; and we do not deal with the causes because we still (mostly) believe that poverty is still a natural state……

More like this in my new book-all different material. but with the same philosophy!



If you live in the UK or Ireland, could you please recommend the book to your library? I am just as interested in lots of people reading it as buying it…..




Introducing “The Dark Days of Georgian Britain”

The blog contains different material to the book; if you like the blog you will like the book.

This is how the book came about. In 2014 I retired from teaching History at the relatively young age of 55 and wanted to continue my interest. In the autumn of that year I attended a WEA ( Workers’ Educational Association)  course on great law cases in British History. This was the work of a remarkable tutor called Peter Blood who made it look effortless. One week the subject was Crim. Con.( adultery)  cases from late Georgian England. The era of the Regency attracted me immensely I was hooked. Although always a history enthusiast, the late Georgian period had passed me by- until that point.

I started a blog on WordPress ( hi!)  and regarded it as a  lovely hobby, with a bit of third-party validation as people read my blog.  Two of the blogs-adultery and bodysnatching felt like they were chapters of a social history of Regency England. I did nothing for a year, except read about the Regency and write about it. After that year, my wife reminded me that somebody famous once said that only a fool writes for free and suggested that I send my work to a publisher.

Much to my surprise it was accepted.  I had found one of those elusive gaps in the market that people look for when they are trying to make a success of any venture.I am just sorry I waited a year. If you are in the same situation as me and you are wavering; I suggest that you do it. What can you lose?

The blog contains different material to the book; if you like the blog you will like the book. If you want a copy of the book, try here.

The book is biased in favour of the poor, and is an attempt to seek out their stories. This is difficult; newspapers are by definition “establishment”. However, there is a radical press at the time of the Regency and there is the skill of “reading between the lines” of the more traditional media.  You cannot talk about the poor without referencing the rich, so their selfish behaviour runs through the book. Here are the main chapters


Chapter 1- The Darkness Years

This is an overview of the problems of the period 1811-1820. It was a time of austerity, climate change and poverty, with all the major institutions of the government being rotten and in need of reform. Sound familiar?

Chapter 2- The Poor Weavers

This chapter looks at examples of real people – Thomas Holden of Bolton, the Luddites and their refusal to accept that they should starve to death as industrialisation and the new attitudes of employers made their life miserable. Sound familiar ?

Chapter 3- Making Life Worse

The Tory government made life worse for the poor after 1815 because of their political beliefs. This chapter deals with the rich avoiding income tax, high prices for bread and scandalous National Lottery which took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. We meet MP William ” Billy Biscuit” Curtis, who made a fortune for himself but tried to cut benefits for the poor. Thank heavens that kind of thing doesn’t happen now!

Chapter 4-Why People Rioted

This deals with the rioting of 1816. Some of it was old style rioting that had been common for centuries…but there were new developments.

Chapter 5- Bread and Potatoes

Three thousand words on bread and potatoes? Remember that was a large proportion of the diet of the poor…and it is an interesting story. You will be amazed at how much bread people ate, and how many ways you could justify other people not eating much.

Chapter 6-The Poor Law

The British had a quite a generous benefit system before the Poor Law was made harsher in 1834- that’s the Poor Law people study at school. The system is explained here, with lots of examples of the poor suffering. One family are evicted by having their roof removed and their house flooded with excrement…and yes, the landlord did get away with it!

Chapter 7- Cold Charity

The rich loved to help the poor…but with huge strings attached. I remain unimpressed throughout this chapter.. hence the title ! You will see William Wilberforce in a new light when you read what he thought was acceptable treatment of Britain’s war heroes.

Chapter 8- Old Corruption- The General Election, 1818

The 1818 General Election is covered in some detail the corruption the collusion, the rioting, the bribery and the intimidation.  And it was regarded at the time as a better than average election.

Chapter 9- All About The Money

This chapter shows that in order to achieve anything in the  Regency you needed money. Most things were for sale- parishes, army ranks, seats in parliament, everything. You will met a lot of rich people who took taxpayers money for imaginary jobs.

Chapter 10- The Disgusting Prince Regent?

What were the main personal failings of the Prince Regent? Its all in this chapter, which therefore has to be quite long . He also represented a rotten system. He did not know the meaning of money, as it all came from the poor taxpayer. When he died in 1830, they found £10,000 hidden in pockets and notebooks, money that he had simply forgotten about. That’s the same amount of money Mr Darcy had for a year, and he was a rich man!

Chapter 11- Arthur Thistlewood- The Gentlemen Revolutionary

Arthur was born a minor gentlemen  and ended up being hanged for trying to assassinate the cabinet. This chapter tells the story of him and his revolutionary friends in the Regency. He may have planned to parade the streets of London with the Home Secretary’s ‘s head in a bag, but you may still like him, albeit  as a very flawed human being.

Chapter 12- The New Revolt of the Peasants

In 1817, the poor tried new ways of overthrowing their oppressors, that scared the establishment more because they were “political” riots. So the punishments were more severe.

Chapter 13-Who Killed Joseph Lees?

Joseph Lees died after being beaten up at the mass meeting at St Peter’s Field ( Peterloo). However the government were able to prove “otherwise”. This chapter looks at the victims of Peterloo, how they were treated by the government that was not going to take responsibility for the poor or the actions of their own soldiers.

Chapter 14-The Women of Peterloo

What’s more frightening that a radical? A women radical! Despite the difficulty in finding evidence, here we have the story of Alice Kitchen,  Nancy Prestwick and Mary Fildes and others This is my favourite chapter of the book.

Chapter 15- The Freeborn Englishmen?

Britain was freer than most, but in the Regency that was put under great strain. People were imprisoned without trial. We meet William Ogden , 74, manacled in goal without charge for months with a 30 pound weight. His crime- wanting a reform of Parliament.

Chapter 16-The Punishment Didn’t Fit the Crime

This is a well-known regency topic. In my version, real people suffer at the hands of a floundering system that was at the end of its time. Reform did come- just not then. We meet Horace Cotton, who worked at Newgate with those condemned to die. He was a real charmer.

Chapter 17- Retribution

Fancy a trip to Newgate or a Prison hulk? We meet the poor in prison, including one man in gaol for stealing a cucumber.

Chapter 18- Child Labour

Traditionally, this is mostly about textile factories, but there were other, possibly worse jobs. Chimney Sweeping for example, and coal mining. However, people’s attitudes to child labour may surprise you.

Chapter 19- Currency Crisis

The Regency government did little to help people, but when the money and coinage went into crisis, they were happy to get things done. Never have banknotes and old coins been made so interesting!

Chapter 20- Adultery

If your wife  had sex with another man, you could go to court and claim compensation. The amount of money depended on how posh you were and how many salacious details you could provide. The newspapers loved it, and so will you.

Chapter 21- Regency Body Snatchers

It was not against the law to steal dead bodies from their graves, as long as you left behind their shroud and personal belongings. That’s why its called body snatching, not grave robbery. Lots of people made a living from it, and some of the best examples are in this chapter.

Chapter 22- Being Irish

The Irish were treated as second class citizens both in Britain and in Ireland. There are lots of examples here, and the prejudice has not gone away. The chapter features the famous brewery flood of 1814, when the press lied about the behaviour and hardly any money was raised for the victims, but the government reimbursed the brewery for their loss…

Chapter 23- A Rash and Melancholy Act?

This is about suicide- how traditional harsh attitudes to suicide where changing into something more humane, but it was still more sympathetic to the rich than the poor.


That’s it.




Dying with “perfect resignation” in the Regency


When famous deists  and atheists died in the past, the vultures would circle in the hope of seeing an undignified death. This would prove to their satisfaction that the prospect of death could not be countenanced with the consolation of Christianity.
Jesuits claimed that Voltaire died fearfully; Dr Johnson went to visit the atheist David Hume with the incorrect belief that an atheist could not die without falling apart at the prospect of his imminent extinction. When Thomas Paine, a radical and deist who rejected formal religion and its constructs, was regaled by Christians during his last days. When, a few days before he died, a member of the New Jerusalemites knocked on his door and told Paine that the sect has rediscovered the keys to the true faith that had been lost for 4000 years, Paine replied that “they must be very rusty”.
Regency Obituary pages are formulaic, but the choice of formula tells you a great deal. When people died in great pain and suffering, there is a real hierarchy of phrase. In nearly every case, there is ” resignation” and on occasions there is “perfect resignation”. There difference is unclear; it may just be the ability to pay for an extra word. “Composure” is much more common than “calmness”-perhaps the former contains more acceptance, and implies preparing for death. These words were very powerful- even Thomas Paine uses them. His own last will and testament says that he dies “in perfect and resignation to the will of my creator God”
There are few references to heaven or immortality in Regency obituaries-perhaps this was too obvious or a little presumptuous? Many people declared their obedience to the will of the Creator- especially if they had suffered before their death. It was not death that they resigned themselves to, but suffering as God’s will. Mrs Pascoe (wife of Mr Pascoe, Surgeon) died in Tregoney, Cornwall aged 59 of a “protracted and severe affliction”. She was happy to attribute this to divine will without bitterness. “Throughout the whole time she evinced perfect composure and resignation. It was also made clear that during this time she maintained “benevolence”.
Six other people’s deaths are recorded in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on the same day. Thomas Parry was 102 and rose early until the day of his death. He was a poor labourer who would not have made it into the paper if he had died at 51. Eleanor Litcher was 76- a devoted servant. James Pinney and Thomas Hornblower’s death was regretted by the friends. There were trophies for all in this case.
Sometimes you needed a lot of patient resignation. Mrs Amos of Deal has been suffering with an affliction- not named- for 7 years before her calm death aged 73. Perfect resignation seemed to be more about the quality of life rather than the age of death.
Sir William Rule died with perfect resignation in December 1815- as he was our first man, we have his full name. About 50% of women mentioned in Regency obituaries are given a first name. He was a former surveyor of the British Navy and there is no mention of the cause of death, or that it was long and lingering. That is the only one I can find
Elizabeth Carrick of Bristol died with resignation and fortitude, as “befitted her worth and unaffected piety”- she was modest in her acceptance of her painful illness. Although acceptance of the divine will was not mentioned in this case, it is clear that it was not considered appropriate to try to fight the illness- perhaps the exact opposite of our attitude today. Sarah Dew died in the same newspaper after a long illness also.
Not everybody died with perfect resignation if they died of something horrible. In Hull, December 1816, Mrs Nesfeld of Scarborough died aged 26 without resignation and William Tootal of Wakefield aged 28 died “with”

Sometimes illnesses are often described as “hopeless”, presumably to emphasize the degree of achievement in dying well. This is Mrs Bulwer of Norfolk had 21 lines in the Norfolk Chronicle in 1810. It is not clear at what point that she discovered Christian patience, but we can be charitable and assume it was at the beginning. Here are some of her virtues;


Most prolonged illnesses seemed to be measured in months or years. But Sarah Yeatman of Bristol had been ill for only six days before she died in July 1812, and she did it with perfect resignation. Most of those who died with perfect resignation were relatively old for their time; there are fewer young people who died with resignation, but are some, Mary Colmar of Hotwells was 15 and died a lingering death, and she managed resignation, but there was no suggestion that this was enhanced because of her age. Causes of death never seem to be mentioned
Dying vicars had a higher bar. They had to continue their role as examples to others even to the death-bed. Henry Crowe, Rector of Wolferton, Norfolk (and two other parishes; clearly he was less accomplished in the greed department) died “the death of the righteous”- this was clearly a set of things that he did, a process, not merely a righteous person dying. Another rector in Norfolk was said to have “taught his parishioners how to die”

Perfect resignation was not about death; it was about accepting fate, even when they involved immense suffering before death. The other group of people who were said to “evince perfect resignation” were criminals about to be executed. Indeed this was a more widespread use of the expression than in obituaries. Criminals had not suffered pain or illness, so it was not that experience they resigned themselves to; it was the will of God.

More about perfect resignation amongst those about to be hanged here

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