Date posted: 15th May 2018

Daylight robbery and bricking up windows

Was the term "daylight robbery" from the days of a window tax?

Evidence of the impact of this tax can still be seen around the United Kingdom on Georgian properties today

The window tax was a property tax based on the number of windows your home. To avoid the tax, homes from the period can be seen to have bricked-up the window apertures. It was introduced in England and Wales 1696 and was finally repealed in 1851 after pressure from doctors and campaigners who argued that lack of light and fresh air was a source of ill health, 156 years after first being introduced.

Charles Dickens stated in 1850 the adage ‘free as air’ has become obsolete by Act of Parliament,” “Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the window tax. We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to all, at so much per window per year and the poor who cannot afford the expense are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.”

A bricked up window with an arched headBy 1718, it was noted that the tax wasn't raising as much money as hoped because people were blocking up their windows, and new houses were being built with fewer windows to avoid the tax.

So the term “daylight robbery” is thought to have originated from the window tax as it was described by some as a “tax on light” Blocking up windows was literally daylight robbery.  However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the phrase was first recorded in 1949, many years after the “window tax”, which places doubt upon the claim. Other sources say the phrase originates from at least 1916, when it was mentioned in the play, Hobson’s Choice.

The tax was introduced in England and Wales under the an Act for granting to His Majesty several Rates or Duties and was designed to impose tax relative to the wealth of the taxpayer, but without the disagreement that then surrounded the idea of income tax.

At that time, many people in Britain opposed income tax, on principle, because the disclosure of personal income represented a governmental intrusion into their private matters, and was a potential threat to personal liberty. The first permanent British income tax was not introduced until 1842, and the issue remained intensely controversial for many years.

The window tax was intended to be a progressive tax in that houses with a smaller number of windows (up to ten windows) were subject to a two shilling house tax but exempt from the window tax.  Houses with more than ten windows were liable for additional taxes which increased in line with the number of windows. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid an extra four shillings and those above twenty windows paid an extra eight shillings. The basic principle being that poorer people were more likely to live in houses with fewer windows, were taxed less.  Many homes from this period still bear the legacy of this tax - bricked up windows.

Modern houses are currently being built with “fake” blocked up windows as an architectural feature, supposedly to add character to modern new build estates. It’s almost funny how through the centuries what was once very unpopular is now an enhancement to the look of a property.