All governments at some point say that they are going to 'simplify' the tax system. This invariably means more red tape and hundreds more pages of legislation which taxpayers' advisers will do the utmost to get round. One of the problems with taxing people is that unless there is a full proof system, they will tend to make themselves invisible and outside the law. The dastardly plan which King Charles II, who had been restored to the throne in 1660, came up with was to impose a tax on something which was much easier to count and immovable - the fireplace !
In 1662 the King passed a law that every house occupier was required to pay a tax of two shillings a year for each hearth or stove within his property - the tax was to be collected half yearly.
Those who were not required to pay were :
- the occupiers of houses or land worth less than £1 a year
- the possessors of property worth less than £10
- those that paid neither church nor poor rate and
- those who received poor relief or were inmates of almshouses or hospitals.
There was some fairness to this tax as the wealthier you were, the more fireplaces you would have. However, what was so disliked was that tax officials were authorised to enter your house unannounced in order to count the number of fireplaces there were in your house. A newspaper report said "the hearth tax was considered one of the most obnoxious and unjust of taxes, as it was both inquisitorial in its action and pressed (by the Collectors of the tax) with undue severity upon the poor in comparison with the rich".
Everyone responded by blocking up their chimneys which effectively made the fireplace obsolete. This enabled them to avoid paying the tax.
The tax didn't last very long and was repealed in 1689.