Hearth tax records and the Great Fire of London

By Guest, 2 September 2016 - 2:43pm

350 years on from the Great Fire of London, Andrew Wareham reveals what hearth tax records can tell us about the inhabitants of the capital in 1666

Great Fire of London 2016
A 17th-century woodcut depicting the Great Fire of London, which tore through the capital on 2 September 1666 (Credit: Getty Images)

Following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, a gap had to be plugged in raising revenues for the king’s private purse, with the result that hearth tax was introduced by Parliamentary act on 19 May 1662.

It taxed all hearths in England and Wales apart from those excused on grounds of poverty or which were used for charitable and industrial purposes. Chimney stacks were symbols of wealth and status, and fireplaces in parlours and chambers were the focal points of family life and household entertainment. In addition, other hearths (with or without chimney stacks) provided energy for cooking, heating and producing goods in homes and shops.

The hearth tax was collected twice a year, levied at the rate of 1 shilling per hearth, and was due on Lady Day (26 March) and Michaelmas (29 September). In total, 54 collections were made before the hearth tax was abolished in 1689 in the first Parliamentary act of William III and Mary.

Hearth tax lists provide the names and sometimes the professions of the principal occupants/heads of household, together with information on the number of hearths in their properties. The London and Middlesex 1666 hearth tax has particularly good information on professions and occupations.

This hearth tax record for Pudding Lane, London, shows Thomas Farriner – the owner of the bakery where the Great Fire originally started

Wealth and status

The size and wealth of London meant that it should have contributed significant revenues to the Lady Day 1666 collection, but the yield was much reduced because delays arose as a result of the continuing impact of the Great Plague of 1665, the administrative reorganisation of the collection of the tax, and the Great Fire of London. The work had not been completed by the time the Michaelmas 1666 collection began.

The London and Middlesex hearth tax provides data on 98 metropolitan parishes (39,588 properties), and 84 parishes (8,325 properties) in rural Middlesex. For the first time it is now available freely online, thanks to a research project undertaken by the British Academy Hearth Tax Project and the Centre for Hearth Tax Research at the University of Roehampton. It can be accessed through two online resources: British History Online provides access to the data by place and street, while Hearth Tax Online has searchable options by surname and parish. 

The number of hearths in properties helps to establish the wealth, status and rank of householders in London. Householders with one and two hearths typically belonged to the labouring population or the poor, those with between two and five hearths comprised craftsmen, shopkeepers and poorer merchants, and those with between four and 12 hearths belonged to the more prosperous ranks of the middling sort, the professions and military officer ranks.

Finally, dwellings with eight hearths or more were usually occupied by almshouses, hospitals, inns and livery company halls, or belonged to the aristocracy, gentry and skilled professionals. Information provided in the return sheds light on the architectural history of London on the eve of the Great Fire.

Craftsmen typically had between two and five hearths at their businesses according to records (Credit: Getty Images)

London occupations

In some cases, the return provides additional information on occupations in 21 parishes in the City of London. For the most part a wide range of shops and workshops were located next to each other, but areas of commercial specialisation served the wealthy and the middling sort.

In St Botolph Aldersgate parish there were small concentrations of booksellers (Gravel Alley) and goldsmiths (Staining Lane). The transcript for these 21 parishes, in tandem with a glossary of the terms used and other abbreviations which appear in the original text, is available on Hearth Tax Online.

The weakening of the hold of the medieval guilds in early modern London also provided opportunities for women as heads of household. Where occupational data is given, there are details of 113 women including 11 listed as victuallers, nine alehouse keepers, nine chandlers, three brokers, three fruiterers, three wiredrawers, and a couple each of bakers, booksellers, cooks, distillers, goldsmiths, merchants, printers, tailors, tobacconists and vintners.

There are numerous individual references to female occupations including a barber, carver, herbist, farthing maker, midwife, potter, smith, upholsterer and washerwoman. In metropolitan London one in five households was headed by a woman, while in rural Middlesex the figure was one in seven.

Now, for the first time, genealogists can find out a range of facts about their early modern ancestors and the neighbourhoods of London in which they lived.

The Hearth Tax Online website is maintained by researchers based at Roehampton University

Hearth Tax Online

Hearthtax.org.uk is run by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research, based at Roehampton University. It has name lists from nine hearth tax datasets from Kent up to Yorkshire. It also has a searchable database covering the London and Middlesex collection for March 1666. You can search all of the collections at once from the Search tab but results do not currently include occupations.

If you find someone in the London database, then you need to click on the ‘Londoners at work’ option on the right-hand side of the screen and download the PDF called Complete transcripts of books 2, 3, 4, 11 and 16 which record occupations.

Andrew Wareham is Director of the British Academy Hearth Tax Project. A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

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