And yet, though Elizabeth Bennet was not impressed by this grand display of ostentation, she was aware, as was Mr. Collins, that windows were an expensive luxury commodity during the Regency since they were essentially taxed twice. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, both the Window Tax and the Glass Excise Tax were the law of the land.
The Window Tax 1696 — 1851
The Window Tax was first levied in the year 1696, during the reign of King William III. The purpose of the tax was to make up the revenue deficiency resulting from the clipping and defacing of silver coins, and to mitigate the financial crisis caused by England’s various wars in Ireland and on the Continent. Parliament briefly flirted with the idea of an income tax, but that idea was met with great public outrage. The tax on windows was believed to be a way to levy a tax fairly, based on the relative prosperity of the taxpayers. The larger the house, the more windows it would have, and thus it was reasoned, the homeowner should be able to pay a higher tax. Even so, the tax was not popular because it was considered to be a tax on "light and air."
When the law was first passed, each building’s tenant was charged a rate of 2 shillings per year, if they had less than 10 windows. Those with 10-20 windows paid 4 shillings, the charge was 8 shillings for those with 20 windows or more. The tax rates were increased six times between 1747, and 1808, but they were decreased slightly in 1823. So, the Window Tax rates were at their highest during the Regency. The Window Tax was finally repealed in July of 1851.
It is commonly accepted that blocked windows in buildings inhabited between the years 1696 and 1851, were an effort to avoid the Window Tax. However, it should be remembered that what are known as "blind" windows, that is false windows, were a common design feature of Georgian architecture. Georgian architecture is the English expression of the Palladian architectural style, for which symmetry is paramount. Such "blind" windows might be used in a building facade to balance a real window opposite in an area, such as a chimney, where a real window would be inappropriate.
The Glass Excise 1745 — 1845
The Glass Excise tax, less well-known than the Window Tax, was first levied by Parliament in 1745. All types of glass were subject to this tax, from window and bottle glass to the very finest flint glass. The introduction of this excise imposed a heavy financial burden and administrative restrictions on the English, and eventually, the Irish glass industry. Initially, the duty was on materials, with flint and white glass, crown and plate charged at the highest rates. Green and other bottle glass was charged at a lower rates.
In 1811, after a determined campaign by the glass manufactures, the excise duty was changed to apply to the finished glass goods, rather than the raw materials. This system remained in place until 1825. During this period, the duty was assessed by the weight of the finished object. But surprisingly, this did not result in only very thin glass pieces being produced during these years. In point of fact, during the Regency, the most fashionable and therefore most profitable, glass was the heavy decorative cut glass for which English glass makers were gaining a reputation across Europe. The plainer goods, though less expensive, appealed to a less affluent consumer and thus were also less profitable. A similar principle seems to have applied to window glass as well. The affluent consumer did not mind paying a premium price because of a high duty on their window glass. So, like Rosings, a grand house might have a great many large windows, which would clearly inform the world that the owner was a man or woman of means. This also meant that only the very wealthy were able to afford forcing or green houses, and to enjoy the specialty produce which could only be grown under the protection of glass.
Additional regulations of the Glass Excise were passed in 1814 and 1819. These primarily dealt with the designations of those who made the glass, though they also exempted certain glass production houses which produced small glass ornaments or other wares from the need to apply for a glass manufacturing license. The regulations of 1819, also allowed the Commissioners of the Treasury to ease the excise for high-quality optical glass, should they deem it necessary to prevent a shortage of this important commodity.
The excise was amended again in 1825, when the new regulations raised the rates, but also added onerous new administrative requirements which seriously inhibited the glass manufactures’ ability to experiment and develop new types of glass to compete with the European glass makers. The 1825 amendment also brought back the charges on raw materials, while still retaining the requirement that every manufactured piece be weighed. In 1835, a commission began an inquiry into the Glass Excise, and in their report recommended that the duty be abolished. But it was not until 1845, that Parliament finally repealed the Glass Excise.
Very little information is to be found online about the Glass Excise. However, there is a very informative chapter on this burdensome duty in a publication of the Antique Collectors Club. The complete citation is: Hajdamach, Charles R., British Glass 1800 – 1914. The Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1991.
The next time you read a novel set in Georgian or Regency England, and the characters visit a great house in London, or a magnificent country manse, with a number of large windows or an elegant glass conservatory, you will know that house, like Lady de Bourgh’s Rosings, is the property of a very wealth personage. Alternately, you will know your author did not take the time to do their research, if they give the home of a family of modest means many large windows or a forcing house in the garden.