Little Berkhamsted - its Place in History

Historic Documents - The Hearth Tax

Little Berkhamsted - or Berkhamsted Parva, as it was known at the time - has been very fortunate in that the Hearth Tax Returns have survived for four quarters:

These provide a unique record of the individual dwellings in the village, on those dates: the names of the occupiers and the number of hearths, fireplaces or chimneys, which could then be taken to indicate the number of rooms large enough to justify a fireplace and therefore the size of their family and their wealth and status within the local community.

The information in those Returns has revealed facts of which otherwise we wouldn’t have been aware, in particular, the sizes and the owners or occupiers of the two largest houses in the village:

The Brewhouse

The house with 16 hearths, the largest house on all the Returns, must have been “The Brewhouse”, which was from 1622 to 1703 the “Mansion House”, the residence of the Lords of the Manor, as the 1673 Lady Day Return shows it to be owned or occupied by “Mr Nevill”.

George Nevill, Gent., had purchased the Manor, with other lands, for £3,600, in 1655, when he gave his address as Staple Inn, London. No house with more than 6 Hearths appears on the 1662 Lady Day Return, so “The Brewhouse” was probably vacant at that time but it would appear that at the time of the other earlier Returns the house had been let to Jeremiah Elwes Esq., who appears on the 1662 Michaelmas and 1663 Michaelmas Returns.

Jeremiah Elwes and his wife, Frances, appear to have lived in the village for at least 8 years but probably no more than 12 years: they had a son, Jeremy, christened in Little Berkhamsted, on 31 July 1661, and a daughter, Katharine, who was born on 26 January 1669 but died on 30 May, just 4 months and 4 days later and is buried under a white floor slab inside the Church: it appears the family probably left the village not very long after, as the 1673 Lady Day return shows Mr Nevill, the Lord of the Manor, in occupation and no further records of either births or deaths of the Elwes family.

This Jeremiah Elwes Esq. is said to have been a descendant of Sir Francis Drake and his father an ancestor of both Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and of the present Queen, Elizabeth II.

It has now been established that “The Brewhouse” stood close to where the Garden Cottage stands now, by the very large old horse chestnut tree.

“Gay’s” (now known as “The Gage”)

The second largest house, with 8 hearths, was originally named after Samuel Gay, the Occupier and/or Owner in the 1662 Michaelmas Return.

There had been no house with as many as 8 hearths recorded on the first Return, Lady Day 1662, which could perhaps give a date for the building of the house, between 25 April and 29 September 1662, which would seem not unreasonable bearing in mind the return of optimism with the Restoration of the King, Charles II, in 1660.

However, Samuel Gay appears on only the 1662 Michaelmas Return and a year later, a Mr Skinner appears on the 1663 Michaelmas Return and, ten years later, a Mr Marbury is shown on the 1673 Lady Day Return, yet the name “Gay’s” continued up to John Stratton’s time, a century later and even - albeit morphed into “The Gage”, up to the present day, which could possibly indicate that Mr Gay had acquired or built it for letting, rather than for his own home.

There must be, however, many other possible explanations.

The Old Manor

In the 1970’s a small group of enthusiastic people, living in or close to the village, took part in a class researching local history, run by the Hertfordshire County Council. The class tutor, Gerald Millington, subsequently put much of the results of this research into the form of a booklet, which was published towards the end of 1981: “LITTLE BERKHAMSTED (A History of a Hertfordshire Village)”, known as “the Blue Book” and, from time to time, on sale at the Village shop.

In this booklet, it was said that for many years, what is now known as “The Old Manor”, had for centuries been called “Welds”, although that seems now to have been replaced by the names of the more recent or current owners, such as “the Orr-Ewings or the Reynolds”.

The earlier name, “Welds” presumably, came for Sir Humfrey Weld, who had acquired the Manor from Sir John Say in 1600, and his son, Sir John Weld, who succeed him as Lord of the Manor on his father’s death in 1610.

Sir John himself died on February 7th 1623 but in the previous year he had added to the Manorial Estate a “messuage, garden and 2 acres of land bought in 1622 of Nicholas and William Hooker and others (Wm Hutton in Sir John’s Inquisition Post Mortem)”, which must have been the house known as “The Brewhouse”.

Both Sir Humphry and his son Sir John, had been, like most if not all of their predecessors as Lords of the Manor, “absentee” Lords, with quite substantial houses elsewhere. Certainly Sir Humfrey, who had been Lord Mayor of London in 1608, had as his main residence the very imposing Weld House in the Covent Garden area in Central London, with the present day Wild Street exactly following the line of the house - many years later, in 1694, and after amalgamation with another house, and a fire, it was said to have 33 rooms.

Sir John’s main residence was a very much smaller house, in Southgate, in the Parish of Edmonton and the County of Middlesex, called Arnold’s or Arnold’s Court, which had been his father’s “Summer Residence”, the name Arnold’s later “evolving” into the present Arnos Grove.

Sir John referred, in his Last Will and Testament, to Arnold’s as being very small, “my Mansion house is very small” – certainly in relation to his father’s Weld House in London - and he must have had a very similar opinion of the “Old Manor”, in Berkhamstead Parva, judging by its present appearance.

Therefore the reason for his purchase of The Brewhouse was quite probably not only to have made it the Mansion House for the Manor of Berkhamstead Parva, but also, to have made it, with its 16 rooms, his main residence, which would have replaced Arnold’s Court in Southgate, had he not died so soon after as February 7 in the following year, 1623.

Although displaced as the “The Mansion House” for the Manor, the Old Manor remained part of the Manor and, although it is mentioned in a Private Act of Parliament of 1703, as one of “two very good Houses upon the said Mannor the One called or knowne by the name of the Mannor House”, unfortunately, no record of the name of the occupier/s has yet has been found to identify it in the Hearth Tax Returns.

More detailed accounts of the histories of the Brewhouse (and its “reincarnation” as Stratton’s Tower) and Gay’s (now known as The Gage) are included in separate articles, under “Historic Houses”.

The original Hearth Tax documents can be seen at the Hertfordshire Record Office and the information has been extracted and is presented here in three Tables, to show:

  1. Order as entered on the original Returns
  2. Re-ordered from the original Returns to show largest first
  3. Alphabetical order

Some detail of the background of the operation of the Hearth Tax has been extracted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and an edited version is reproduced below.

The Hearth Tax was a property tax in certain countries during the medieval and early modern period, levied on each hearth, thus by proxy on each family unit. It was calculated based on the number of hearths, or fireplaces, within a municipal area.

The great advantage of the system, from the point of view of the authorities, in a time when a large proportion of the population was illiterate, was the simplicity of assessment. Also, it was not essential for the assessor to make any contact with the property holder, in practice, he only had to see the dwelling and count the number of chimneys.

Hearth Tax was levied in the Byzantine Empire from the 9th century, France and England from the 14th century, and finally in England, Scotland and Ireland in the 17th century.

England - Stuart period

In England, Hearth Tax, also known as hearth money, chimney tax, or chimney money, was a tax imposed by Parliament in 1662, to support the Royal Household of King Charles II. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Parliament calculated that the Royal Household needed an annual income of £1,200,000. The Hearth Tax was a supplemental tax to make up the shortfall. It was considered easier to establish the number of hearths than the number of heads, hearths forming a more stationary subject for taxation than people. This form of taxation was new to England, but had precedents abroad. It generated considerable debate, but was supported by the economist Sir William Petty (1623-1687), said to be the man who invented Economics. The bill received Royal Assent on 19 May 1662, with the first payment due on 29 September 1662, Michaelmas.

One shilling was liable to be paid for every firehearth or stove, in all dwellings, houses, edifices or lodgings, and was payable at Michaelmas, 29 September and on Lady Day, 25 March. The tax thus amounted to two shillings per hearth or stove per year. The original bill contained a practical shortcoming in that it did not distinguish between owners and occupiers and was potentially a major burden on the poor as there were no exemptions. The bill was subsequently amended so that the tax was paid by the occupier. Further amendments introduced a range of exemptions that ensured that a substantial proportion of the poorer people did not have to pay the tax.

Exemption included occupiers:

Exemption certificates had to be signed by a minister, a churchwarden, or an overseer of the poor and two Justices of the Peace. From 1664, everybody whose home had more than two hearths was liable to pay the tax, even if otherwise exempt, and changes were made to reduce the scope for tax avoidance.
Revenue generated in the first year was less than expected, so from 1663, the names and number of hearths were required to be listed even if non-liable.
This additional detail has made the relevant Hearth Tax documents particularly useful to modern historians and other researchers. However, details of householders who were not liable to pay the tax were not recorded for all years of its operation, as they were not needed for audit purposes when the right to collect the tax was "farmed" for collection by contractors in return for their payment of a fixed premium.

The arrangements for collecting the Hearth Tax varied during its lifetime:

The tax fell most heavily on those who occupied the houses with the greatest number of hearths. For instance, in 1673-4 the Earl of Exeter had to pay for 70 hearths at Burghley House whereas, most householders who were liable to pay tax had only one or two hearths and a significant proportion of householders were not liable to pay at all.

The Hearth Tax was much resented because it sometimes entailed inspection of the interior of dwellings by the sub-collectors and petty constables, who had legal authority to enter every property to check on the number of hearths. Some people stopped up their chimneys so that the tax was not due on them, but where this was discovered by the assessors the tax was doubled. On 31 July 1684, a fire in Churchill, Oxfordshire, destroyed 20 houses and many other buildings, and killed four people. It was apparently caused by a baker who, to avoid chimney tax, had knocked through the wall from her oven to her neighbour's chimney.

After the Glorious Revolution, the Hearth Tax was repealed by the newly empowered English Parliament and agreed to by the newly installed William and Mary in 1689, as not only a great oppression to the poorer sort, but a badge of slavery upon the whole people, exposing every man’s house to be entered into, and searched at pleasure, by persons unknown to him.

At the end of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, William and Mary also agreed to and signed the English Bill of Rights 1689 marking a new level co-operation and power sharing between the Parliament and the English monarchs.

The cancellation of the Hearth Tax and the signing of the Bill of Rights, etc. lead to a greater measure of legal protection for life, liberty, and property in England that encouraged and empowered the middle class at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

This action both signalled the end of several centuries of tension and conflict between the crown and parliament, and the end of the idea that English kings had any divine rights and that England would be restored to Roman Catholicism. The new King William III and his wife Mary II were Protestant leaders from the Dutch Republic who were invited by Parliament to rule England. To make up for the loss of tax revenue, due to the cancellation of the Hearth Tax, uniform property taxes were imposed with few exclusions.

The Hearth Tax was abolished in England in 1689, although it was continued in Ireland until the early 19th century.