Tax return from the 1980s Copyrighted image Credit: BBC

Bettany Hughes
If you are planning a production of Amadeus or a fancy dress party perhaps, this is where you could come for your wigs. Now, I now they look theatrical, but they were actually widely worn by the rich and their servants in the late 1700s. You might have been the height of fashion, but you'd certainly had to pay for the privilege. One of the most bizarre taxes to be passed through the parliament of William Pitt the younger was a tax on wig powder.From 1795, if you powdered, you paid. If you were wearing this wig, for example, in 1815, the tax on it would have been about a guinea, that's around £30 in today's money. Tax records show that the net result was a marked decline in wig-wearing. It's a great example of how original documents can help explain why things change.

The tax on wig powder was, in fact, short-lived. Some of history's other bizarre taxes lasted a lot longer. The famous window tax, for example. For over 150 years, all but the poorest had to make an annual payment to the Exchequer for the privilege of being able to see out of their homes. But window tax was just the tip of the tax iceberg.

By the 1790s, the list of taxes on manufactured goods was huge. Taxable items included candles, glass, bricks, stone, slate, tiles, soap, leather goods, gloves and hats, playing cards, paper, adverts. And then if you added to that domestic taxes, taxes on male and female servants, on dogs, on watches and clocks, you can see that the situation was getting ridiculous. Not least because high taxation on some goods created profitable opportunities for smugglers. I'm on my way to Hastings, once the centre of smuggling on the south coast. We've asked customs officers, Priscilla Burton and Nigel Knott, to investigate a smuggling tale from the 1700s. The murder of one of their predecessors, Thomas Carswell who was killed by smugglers near Hastings in 1740.

Bettany
Where do you think we should kick off?

Priscilla Burton
I think perhaps Castle Hill, which was a look-out point.

Bettany
So how long have you both been working in customs?

Priscilla
20 years.

Nigel Knott
34 years.

Bettany
So, with over 50 years of experience between them, they should be able to track the smugglers down. But first, the trip to enemy territory. The gang that killed Carswell were smuggling that famously illicit substance, tea, which at the time was heavily taxed and, therefore, very profitable on the black market.

Nigel
What you see here is one of the tricks they would have used. In fact it's the original t-shirt you might say. What they're doing is carrying 30 pounds of tea in a shirt, hidden under their jacket.

Bettany
The most famous smugglers in the area were the Hawkehurst Gang.

Priscilla
I think this is the Gang that was involved in the murder of customs officer, the Hawkehurst Gang.

Bettany
So how are you going to find out more about them?

Priscilla
Well, the surveyor general of customers riding officers lived actually at Hastings, John Collier. He was also the mayor and there was a lot of correspondence between him and other customs officials and also traders.

Bettany
We'll be back later to see how they get on. The murdering smugglers of the 1700s are perhaps an extreme kind of tax evasion. But the truth is whatever governments have done in any century, we always try to avoid payment. Taxes on goods were never going to make a government rich because they failed to tax the real wealth of individuals.

That was William the Conqueror's aim when he ordered his Domesday survey in the 1080s. It proved a highly effective way of measuring the wealth of his barons but they resented the intrusion and throughout the middle ages they continued to resist the idea that they should reveal their wealth.

North Walsham Market Cross Creative commons image Credit: Janet Tench under CC-BY-SA licence
North Walsham market cross

300 years after Domesday, the Crown's answer was to try another tax. One that required hardly any information. I'm now on my way to North Walsham in Norfolk, to the scene of a mass revolt caused by this new tax in the late 1300s.

This cross marks the spot of a decisive battle. In 1381 the country was gripped by the peasants' revolt, the greatest popular uprising in English history. In June of that year, hoards of rebels from Norfolk were defeated here by the Bishop of Norwich's forces. The revolt was ignited by opposition to a new contentious tax, a poll tax levered from everyone in the country. The chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, writes a vivid account of the battle.

”There a great crowd of commoners assembled under the leadership of a Norwich dyer, called Lister. They began to act exactly like the commoners in other areas. Virtually no place could be safe from commoners who had unanimously conspired to pursue their evil aims."

To find out more about the Norfolk rebel leader, Geoffrey Lister, East Anglia's answer to Watt Tyler, I've come to the Public Record Office in London. Andrew Prescott has tracked Lister through documents created at the time.

Dr Andrew Prescott
British Library

We can actually start finding him within the records of the 1379 poll tax which is where we first come across him. We've got the original returns made by the local tax collectors here. We can see this is his home village, Felmingham, listed here and as we roll down, there's his name, Geoffrey Lister, that's dyer, and he's shown as paying 6 pence.

Bettany
And what's happened between 1379, when Lister's paying his poll tax happily and 1381 when he's become a rebel?

Andrew
Well, we don't necessarily know by any means that he was paying it happily in 1379 but he decided to pay. What seems to have really been the spark in 1380 is the very heavy-handed methods used to try and enforce payment.

Bettany
The legal records of the commission set up to suppress the rebellion in Norfolk and Suffolk revealed that Lister and the other rebels attacked tax collectors, destroyed tax documents and even made public proclamations against the king. But if Lister stood up and proclaimed publicly against the king, in the mid-1300s that's an incredibly serious crime.

Andrew
He paid the inevitable price in the end, as we can see as we move on through these indictments. We find that Geoffrey Lister of Felmingham burnt charters and munimenta, the records, of the Prioress of Carrow and it says later it's been added in here above Geoffrey Lister's name, mortuous peripiscufum, dead by the bishop. Lister had been caught up with by the war-like Bishop of Norwich and after a last stand at North Walsham, had been killed by the Bishop.

Bettany
But the curt little note isn't the end of Lister's story. This huge document, a record of one year in the Exchequer of Richard II, shows how the tax man pursued Lister's widow and a friend to settle his debts.

Andrew
In this particular record here, we can see Henry Betts of Felmingham and Agnes, sometime wife of Geoffrey Lister, to respond and satisfy to the king for goods and chattels of the same Geoffrey Lister, and they give the value here, I think you can just make out those numbers there, 33 shillings and nine pence.

Bettany
The mediaeval state liked poll taxes because they seemed so straightforward. A fixed charge per poll or head. Simple. But of course the people disliked them because they were harsh on the poor. Margaret Thatcher was the last leader to institute one and she should have paid more attention to her history books because her attempt sparked off a revolt too.

Mind you, it is difficult to imagine devising a universally fair or popular tax. Taxing people according to their means requires detailed information about their private affairs. The Domesday survey was the first great attempt to know everything about the populace and no one dared attempt anything on that scale again until 1522, over 400 years later, when the bullish King Henry VIII had another go.

Bettany
Henry ordered his chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to devise a survey that would discover people's wealth without alarming them.

Professor Patrick K O'Brian
London School of Economics

What Wolsey was trying to do was find out for Henry VIII what the value of his fiscal base actually was. Henry had aspirations to be a great European monarch and to engage in great power politics.He was all the time hampered by the fiscal constraints on what he could do. His father had left him with great reserves which he very quickly spent, and he wanted to tax his kingdom at a proper rate and he wanted this taxation to be acceptable, he did not want it to provoke riots or rebellions as taxes frequently do.

Bettany
I wanted to know how Henry and Wolsey went about trying to re-value the kingdom without provoking a rebellion. Apparently, a clue to their scheme lies in a little known letter that is now kept in the British Library. Historian, David Grummett, told me that the letter shows Henry and Wolsey engaged in a subterfuge.

Dr David Grummitt
University of Oxford

This is a set of instructions which was sent out by the royal government to the commissioners in each of the counties for the purposes of making the military survey of 1522.

Bettany
And this would be sent out as a letter?

David
Yes, that's right. As you can see here at the top, it's signed by Henry himself.

Bettany
And what does Henry want to find out about his country at this time?

David
He makes the ostensible purpose of the survey very clear at the beginning. The instructions say that it's for mustering and putting the king's subjects in readiness for the wars. But then there's another side to this survey and that's mentioned very early on here, that the king wants to know the very true and whole extent of the rents and revenues so the value of their land, and also the value and substance of their goods.

Bettany
So they're saying it's a military survey but actually they're going to use this information to raise a tax.

David
There's a fiscal reason behind it, that's right.

Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire Creative commons image Credit: Linda Bailey under CC-BY-SA licence
Berkeley Castle

Bettany
After all that deviousness, I wondered how people reacted when the surveyors turned up on their doorsteps in 1522. To find out, I drove down to Berkeley in Gloucestershire. One of the very few surviving returns of Henry's survey is held here in the great mediaeval fortress of Berkeley Castle.

Shakespeare wrote it was a wild and rough journey down to Berkeley and you can imagine it on a day like this. I certainly don't envy a Tudor tax official travelling around here on a secret mission from the king. I've arranged to meet the keeper of Berkeley's impressive records, David Smith.

So this is one of the few returns that actually survive from Henry's original commission. Beautiful document, isn't it?

David
Yes. So crisp that the ink is actually black, it's not even brown. It could have been written yesterday except, of course, for the Latin and the awkward handwriting.

Bettany
Why is it laid out in this way?

David
You've got the names of the people concerned in the left-hand column. You've got how much their lands were worth, how much their goods were worth, and then you've got their arms and armour which is written as harness.

Bettany
This kind of 'A' in the margin. What's that?

David
Well, it often occurs and everybody believes that it meant a man was fit to fight.

Bettany
And so who is this man who's got an 'A' by him?

David
Would you like to try and read his name?

Bettany
I can try. William Dolby is it?

David
Well, it looks like that but it's actually that 'lb' form is a W so I think he's William Dewy and he has in lands, 40 shillings, and in goods, £80, and he has a coat and a bill and a bow and arrows.

Bettany
And where's the evidence in this document that they did use it to raise money?

David
You can see that from these curious little ciphers at the bottom of the page which are financial totals. I know they just look like dots and dashes but you can decode them and you can find out that that adds up to the amount of wealth indicated on this particular page.

And there's one on every page, so you can see that it was used at central level as an accounting document and not just a survey as was stated. This was a trick, a deliberate con, and it was something people didn't expect and they were very shocked. They were shocked to the core that the government would play a trick on them like this

Bettany
But you can only play a trick like that once. From the people's point of view, they weren't yet prepared to let state intrude into their private affairs and tax their true wealth.

Bettany
Meanwhile, Priscilla and Nigel's search for information on the murder of fellow customs officer, Thomas Carswell, has brought them to the West Sussex Record Office. And they seem to have struck gold. They've found a description of the crime in a statement by one of the smugglers involved.

Priscilla
This all took place on the night of December 26th, in the morning of Boxing Day.

Nigel
Clearly, when they think we're distracted, is when they start to get busy, isn't it.

Priscilla
It was Christmas Day so there won't be any customs riding officers around.And this is the interesting bit. They landed the tea some time in the evening of the 25th of December, 1740, at the shore between Hastings and Bulverhythe, in said county of Sussex, and carried the same on about 13 or 14 horses to a barn near Hurst Green. They then retired for the night. They went to the public houses in Hurst Green and refreshed themselves with whatever and went to bed. They see the officers and soldiers pass by them at the public houses and as they imagined, the officers and soldiers by the light of the moon would track their horses to the barn where the tea was lodged.

Nigel
Graphic, isn't it, when you think about it. That they went to the fact of just describing how light it was and the fact it was moonlight.

Priscilla
You can almost see this, can't you, and the fact that it was Christmas as well.

Bettany
The customs officers seized back the tea and set off with it, unaware that the smugglers had seen them.

Priscilla
The smugglers actually stripped themselves to their shirts to pursue the customs men. Mounted their horses and went in pursuit of the said officers and soldiers in order to rescue the goods they had taken.

Bettany
Priscilla and Nigel have now to find out exactly what happened when the smugglers caught up with the revenue men. We'll come back to the story a bit later.

Governments throughout history have constantly tried to tax individuals on their possessions and they've always been on the lookout for fresh indicators of wealth. In Charles II's reign, they struck at the very heart of the home.

The National Archives [Image: Electropod under CC-BY-NC-ND licence] Creative commons image Credit: Electropod via Flickr
The National Archives in Kew

In 1662, parliament introduced a new tax. A hearth tax, sometimes called the chimney tax. Almost every hearth in the country, including this one in Penshurst Place in Kent, was taxed at the rate of one shilling. The scheme was simplicity itself. What could possibly go wrong? Elizabeth Parkinson is an expert on the hearth tax. I met up with her at the Public Record Office.

Elizabeth Parkinson
University of Surrey at Roehampton

You can see here the numbers of chimneys that are there so you can see why they were trying to tax hearths.

Bettany
This is presumably pre-the Fire of London.

Elizabeth
That's right.

Bettany
And the Public Record Office has good records of those documents.

Elizabeth
Wonderful records, unlike the window tax, of which there's very little. There's a lot.This is just a record for one county of Cornwall and they record the tax payer there and the number of hearths on which they had to pay, and of course they had to pay a shilling twice yearly, at Michelmas and at Lady Day.

Bettany
So that's autumn and spring?

Elizabeth
That's right. Now I'll just mark one point, place for you here. This is 1664 but it's actually an amendment of a 1662 list, so that's what's interesting because that tells you the changes between the two collections and you've got some lovely little pieces in here. No such person nor house to be found. And the next one, the house fallen down. Or if we try one of these comments up here, which says stopped up too. And this means that they didn't really want, they stopped up the chimney and therefore the hearth wasn't going to be used and therefore they wouldn't have to pay the two shillings. And in fact all sorts of people stopped them up.

Bettany
But was there a punishment if you didn't pay?

Elizabeth
Yes. They could distrain goods, which is rather like the modern bailiff, going in and taking some of your property which would be the value of the tax. There's another document here. Can I give you that top bit to hold. They curl up all the time.

Bettany
But presumably these are rolled up because they were much easier to transport.

Elizabeth
Oh yes. This is somebody who didn't pay. A Robert Aubrey and he was assessed for two hearths and refusing to pay the duty, distress was taken and he violently did oppose the constable and officer and did take away the distress. So the officer and the constable went to collect the money and he wouldn't give it, so they probably took a pewter plate or something, something that was equivalent to that value and then he'd go, no, I'm not going to give up my pewter plate, so he obviously hit them, I would think from this.

Bettany
So was it quite an unpopular tax?

Elizabeth
Oh yes, because every house had to be entered. And it's rather like the gas meter man coming in and saying I want to see in every room. We wouldn't like it now so they didn't like it then.

Croxall Hall Creative commons image Credit: Chris Eaton under CC-BY-SA licence
Croxall Hall - tax records show this building had to pay heavily for its sixteen hearths in 1662

Bettany
Off to Cornwall now. The hearth tax lists don't give addresses but some Cornish enthusiasts have managed to connect the records with particular properties. I've arranged a rendezvous with one of them, Tom Arkell. We met at Pendine House which has been owned by the Borlais family since the 1630s.

Tom Arkell
This is the hearth tax list for 1662 and 1664 for St Just Parish. And the first name you find is John Borlais, or Burlase as it's written here. Seven hearths.

Bettany
And that would have meant that he'd have been taxed quite heavily then if you've got seven hearths.

Tom
Well, seven hearths at one shilling a hearth, twice a year, is 14 shillings which is a substantial sum of money, but he was a rich man. He made his money initially from tin mining and that's why he was able to buy this house.

Bettany
The records show that John Borlais paid his tax. But, as we know, some people went to great lengths to avoid it. Tom found an example of this at Bray Farm, now the home of Sutton Sailor and Michael Shepherd.

Bettany
So, Tom, do you know who owned this house in the 1660s?

Tom
Yes, we do, it was John Ellis and his name is down here on the copy of the hearth tax list. There, you see, John Ellis, six hearths, stopped up, two.

Bettany
I have to say this one looks pretty open to me. How do you know that this was one of the ones that was stopped up?

Michael Sheppard
Well, it's just a plain wall but it was damp and we were exploring the damp patch and discovered, firstly the surround and then the centre of the hearth was completely blocked with granite.

Bettany
That's extraordinary. So you'll have been the first people for 330 years to have seen it. You didn't realise you had an important bit of fiscal history in your bedroom.

One thing that had impressed me about the hearth tax was the theory seemed fair. Rich people had more hearths and so would pay more. But the last stop in Cornwall questioned that. In 1662, Treen Farm was the home of James Carra. It had one hearth. James' sister, Marie, lived in the cottage next door. Also a one-hearth home.

And presumably Marie would have been unmarried which is why she came to be living here.

Tom
Yes, she was. She was the sister of James next door.

Bettany
Well, she might have only had one hearth, but it's pretty impressive, isn't it.

Tom
It is, it's a big hearth for a small house.

Bettany
Despite the size of the hearth, Marie was very poor. Tom showed me a document that proved this.

Bettany
And so this has got a list of all the goods that Marie owned when she died. Was that one old suit of clothes? One small spit.

Tom
Worth five pence, which would have been here in this fireplace.

Bettany
And one bowl worth tuppence.And this is the brother, so you know exactly what he owned as well. He's doing much better, isn't he.

Tom
There's the total, £146.

Bettany
James has got a lot of goods. Marie has hardly got any. They've both got one hearth so they could be taxed the same amount. I mean that doesn't feel to me like a fair tax.

Tom
It isn't at this level. In Cornwall three out of every four houses only had one hearth.

Bettany
So why do you think it was abolished after 27 years?

Tom
Well, I think it's clear. William and Mary had just come to the throne and they were after popularity. It's a measure of cheap popularity for them.

Bettany
Whether it was a castle or a cottage, people didn't like having their homes entered. The state needed new solutions.

Back in Sussex, Priscilla and Nigel have finished their work in the records. They now know the name of Thomas Carswell's murderer. He was called Richard Double. Priscilla has also found the lane in Hurst Green where the pitch battle took place.

Priscilla
So he would have come down here, pulled up the wagon here and Thomas Carswell was on his horse, here, pinned between the wagon and the horse pond and ditch and the smugglers came round that corner up there, firing, and Richard Double, the murderer, would have been somewhere in the front of it.He came up and as soon as he got within close firing distance, he fired at Thomas Carswell and killed him and he fell from his horse about here.

Nigel
The romantic image of smuggling is actually brought home to reality when you realise that one of our own effectively has been killed by them.

Priscilla
That's right, and on this very spot.

Bettany
Carswell's death illustrated how unsatisfactory the system of high taxation on popular goods was. The tax on tea was eventually reduced and, surprise, surprise, the smuggling came to an end. In a funny sort of way, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who gave the British government a chance to sort out the tax problem. After five years of war with France, the national debt was rising and taxes simply weren't delivering enough cash. So would the country accept a tax on income?

Professor Patrick K O'Brian
London School of Economics

In order to have an income tax, of course you have to know people's incomes, which means they have to make returns of their incomes and these things have to be checked up on, and this is one thing the English have successfully resisted all the way from William the Conqueror onwards.

Bettany
The Prime Minister, William Pitt, was convinced that the British people would agree to reveal their incomes if it was in the national interest. In 1798, Pitt pulled his grand coup and he persuaded parliament to introduce the first national income tax.

Patrick
He decided that the only way to fund the war against France, which he then perceived would probably go on for a very long time, was to make people pay an income tax. So it was at that moment of crisis, of real danger, the danger of invasion from France, that he was able to get that through the House of Commons and persuade people that they should reveal their income in a particular way to their peers.

Bettany
So, the people agreed to have their wealth assessed. And, apart from an interval in the early 1800s, we've had income tax ever since. Today, we regard income tax as the norm. The best way of providing the services we want. Yet a centuries long struggle over the state enquiring into and keeping records of our wealth has left its mark on the system we know.

This massive warehouse is the Inland Revenue's sorting office at Kew. Every week, thousands of tax forms pass through here containing minute and intimate details of our personal financial lives.I'd always thought that tax records were kept indefinitely and that they'd hound me beyond the grave if it turned out I'd underpaid. But apparently that's not true. After 12 years, most records are destroyed and partly for practical reasons, but it does also represent a political compromise. Historians of the future won't be able to find out about you and me through tax records because the evidence won't survive. We simply don't want it to.

This is a full transcript from an episode of Breaking The Seal