Nearly all creatures need salt, and it has great value as a food preservative, which is why that essential commodity has been taxed since ancient times. And Regency Britain was no exception, in large part, courtesy of the need to defend against the predations across Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte. And, as with any commodity which is heavily taxed, there were those who were willing to flout the law and provide it, untaxed, where it was wanted. Salt during the Regency was not the inexpensive, readily-available commodity which we take for granted today.
That salt tax through the Regency . . .
Fortunately, salt appears naturally in many forms all over our planet, so in most areas, prehistoric man was usually able to acquire what was needed to survive. Salt continued to be an important commodity for all people through ancient times right up to the present day. In ancient times, the Egyptians, the Hebrews, the Greeks and the Romans all controlled the production and/or consumption of salt and all levied some form of tax on salt as a reliable means to raise funds. Following the model of the early Romans, governments in the Middle Ages were also able to generate revenue by the taxation of salt.
In England, during the Commonwealth period, Oliver Cromwell and his Parliament heavily taxed salt and salt-making in order to support the government. However, the tax on salt was abolished by King Charles II when he returned to the British throne after the Restoration. There was no tax on salt throughout the reign of Charles II. But in 1688, once William and Mary had taken power after the Glorious Revolution, they found their treasury was very short of funds. At that time, Parliament instituted a number of taxes, including a tax on salt. A few years later, the tax on English-made salt was significantly reduced, but the tax on salt imported from the Continent was increased to compensate.
That tax on salt was completely repealed in 1730, when the case was made that it was a great hardship for most people, particularly the poor. Salt was not used solely for seasoning and food preservation. It was regularly used in the curing and dressing of leather and was a necessary ingredient in the manufacture of glass bottles. It was also crucial for the British fishing industry, particularly for preserving herring. But the largest consumer of salt in Britain was probably the farming industry. Salt is an important component in fertilizer for certain types of soils. The tax on salt put British fishermen at a disadvantage in their efforts to compete with the Dutch fishing industry, and increased farming costs for many farmers, which were the main reasons the salt tax was repealed. But just two years later, Sir Robert Walpole introduced a bill in Parliament to re-instate the salt tax for three years, with all of the proceeds to be granted to the royal family. In return, he proposed that the land tax should be reduced at the same time, which resulted in the passage of a new tax on salt in 1732.
Through the rest of the eighteenth century, the tax on salt came before Parliament for consideration on many occasions. Though the rates were raised or lowered numerous times, depending upon the government’s need for revenue, the salt tax was never again completely repealed. Typically, the tax on salt was raised to its highest levels when Britain was engaged in a war. By 1798, the tax on salt was ten shillings per bushel. Late in 1802, a committee formed by the House of Commons reconsidered the tax on salt, with the intention of repealing this very unpopular tax. But the following year, the Peace of Amiens failed and Britain found herself once again at war with France. The salt tax remained in force to generate funds to support the war effort. The miliary situation became more dire when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France and its conquered lands. Therefore, in his budget for 1805, William Pitt raised the tax on British-made salt to fifteen shillings per bushel. That rate was thirty times the actual price of salt, but it generated nearly a million pounds in revenue. The duty on imported salt was raised even higher.
This excessively high tax on salt remained in place through the first half of the Regency, as the Napoleonic Wars dragged on. By 1815, the salt tax was generating revenue of at least £1,600,000 per year. Though Napoleon had finally been defeated at Waterloo, in June of 1815, the residual war debt discouraged Parliament with regard to the reduction of any taxes, including the salt tax. Therefore, despite repeated efforts by a number of reformers, the tax on British-made salt remained at the rate of fifteen shillings per bushel for the entire Regency period. The tax on imported salt was even higher. It was not until 1822, when everyone in and out of government were demanding relief from exorbitant taxes, that any changes to the tax rates were actually made. That year, the tax on salt was reduced from fifteen to two shillings per bushel, with a loss of revenue estimated at £1,400,000. The salt tax was finally repealed completely in 1825.
So, Dear Regency Authors, you can see that though salt was relatively inexpensive to produce, the price of "legal" salt during our favorite decade was exorbitant. Many people kept their salt under lock and key to protect this valuable commodity from pilferage or theft. Salt was also popular with a number of smugglers. It was non-perishable and easy to transport. The nexus of salt smuggling appears to have been the county of Cheshire in the northwest of England. Cheshire county had been the center of salt production in England since the Roman invasion. At least some of the salt producers in Cheshire may have had standing arrangements with smugglers to surreptitiously take some of their product on the side and sell it to customers who preferred not to pay the heavy tax on salt. Unlike smugglers trading in French silks and wines, salt could be smuggled on either land or sea, since its primary source was within Britain itself. There were those who would have considered paying the high tax on salt their patriotic duty, but there were others who found the financial burden of a high salt tax crushing. It was this second group who typically resorted to the purchase of smuggled salt. Farmers, fishermen, glass-makers and leather tanners are all possible customers for smuggled salt, since they needed it in fairly large quantities. How might the salt tax feature in one of your Regency stories?