St Bride Fleet Street and the 1666 Hearth Tax

In 2014 the British Hearth Tax Project published the 1666 hearth tax return for London and Middlesex. My PhD studies are focused on plague and the poor in early modern London and this volume has proved invaluable in establishing the social character of a number of suburban parishes I have been researching. One of these parishes is St Bride Fleet Street, located immediately to the west of the city walls. The parish experienced accelerated population growth through the first half of the seventeenth century, marked changes to the built environment, and a host of derived social ills; overcrowding, poverty and plague. The parish buried 2,111 of plague in 1665 and was largely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

The total number of households returned for St Bride’s in the 1666 hearth tax return was 1,613, with seventy-nine houses noted as empty, quite possibly due to fall out from the plague epidemic in 1665. Total hearths across the parish numbered 6,003, the average number per house 3.7. This crude measure of wealth distribution shows St Bride certainly not the richest of parishes, but also not the poorest. Andrew Wareham explores the unpopularity of the hearth tax and identifies fifty-three householders paying the tax and 1,481 not in 1666. This might say something about the inability of many households to pay, but also reflects the impact of the Great Fire making it impossible to collect and pay the tax, due to the fact the Lady Day collection was still in progress when the Fire struck.

Going beyond the average hearth figure and considering average numbers in different areas of the parish, reveals a more accurate picture of the geographical distribution of wealth and social character. Of the total number of houses, 337 contained just one hearth and 525 one to two, around a third of the parish then meeting the average hearth number for a poor parish like St Botolph Aldgate on the eastern fringe of the city walls. The maze of courts and alleys running off Fleet Street and Shoe Lane were home to the poorer elements of the parochial community. Girder Alley contained just nine households with an average of one hearth per house, whilst Harp Alley contained seventy-seven households, averaging 2.5 hearths each. Green Rents and Black Horse Alley fared only slightly better, averaging 3.4 hearths, thirty-eight and sixty-six households respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum just 238, or 15% of houses, contained six or more hearths. Those at the upper end of this scale were few and far between and mainly confined to the exclusive Salisbury Court, home to most of the parishes titled residents, including the Earl of Dorset and Lord Mansfield with 28 and 26 hearths respectively. Sir John Massume lived in the court with nine hearths, and Sir Thomas Twisdon 11. The average number of hearths for the court was 8.2 across a total of just thirty-nine households, two of these though, William Gibbs and the widow Thornton, having just one hearth each. The houses lining Fleet Street averaged 5.6 hearths, reflective of the middling sort resident along this commercial thoroughfare.

The socio-economic hierarchy of locations is obvious with decreasing averages from streets though courts to alleys and yards. No one location could be identified as typical of the parish. There was an element of social segregation at play, mainly pertaining to the poorest of the poor. The north-south artery of Shoe Lane would represent more a cross section of parishioners, the average hearth number 4.3. One household contained 14 hearths, the other 106 between one and nine, and no tendency towards any particular number in between.

Whilst an average of hearths per parish provides means by which to compare the relative wealth distribution across Restoration London, it does not reveal the whole picture, particularly in the large suburban parishes. Using the hearth tax to drill down to the street level of St Bride Fleet Street, shows a handful of wealthy, a number middling, the abject poverty that many members of the parochial community were living in, and the great proportion of the parish neither rich nor poor, although poverty never more than a change in circumstance away.

Aaron Columbus

The 1666 hearth tax return for London and Middlesex is also available on British History Online – and will be available on the new Hearth Tax Online website (with a searchable data base) from January 2019.

Aaron is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Research Officer for the British Hearth Tax Project. His research is focused on plague and the poor in the suburban environs of early modern London. He also co-runs a blog about death in early modern London –


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Bristol volume in the Hearth Tax Series is launched

The latest volume in the Hearth Tax Series, compiled by the Hearth Tax Research Centre, and covering Bristol during the late 17th century, was launched at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol on October 17th.  This is the eleventh edition in the Hearth Tax series produced by the Hearth Tax Centre in partnership with the British Academy and the British Record Society.

The hearth tax, sometimes known as chimney money, was a property tax introduced in England, Wales and Ireland in 1662. It was the first progressive tax designed to raise money fairly; wealthier people would have had larger houses, which would have required more hearths to provide sufficient heat.  In theory, seventeenth-century lists of householders that include the number of hearths are a valuable census-type tool for historians, but in practice their accuracy is variable.

This volume, Bristol Hearth Tax 1662-1673, covers the period when Bristol’s population grew by a quarter in just 20 years, and reveals a new understanding of what was becoming England’s second-largest city. The city was described in June 1668 by Pepys, en route with his wife and his servant ‘Deb’ Willett to inspect a warship being built there and to see Willett’s uncle, the merchant William Willett (his house in Baldwin Street recorded in the hearth tax lists for 1662–73). Pepys ‘walked with [his] wife and people through the city, which is in every respect another London’, and saw ‘the quay, which is a most large and noble place’. In Bristol, as in London, this was a time of much new building and rebuilding.

Bristol is fortunate because its Chimney Book brings together a series of hearth tax returns in a single manuscript and is unique in the surviving hearth tax records for Britain and Ireland. With its extensive information in householders and streets, it has been used to identify the locations of the houses, giving insight into both the buildings and people residing in these newly established areas. This will be of interest to all early modern histories, urban histories, economic and social histories and members of the general public interested in the historic environment.

Using supporting documentary and physical evidence, the Bristol hearth tax team has brought together expertise in the Restoration hearth tax, architectural history, vernacular architecture, social history and cultural history, to produce a series of new discoveries. One such discovery has been to deepen our understanding of the new suburb which was put up in the footprint of the castle and Royal Fort which had been demolished in 1655 on the orders of Cromwell.

Dr Andrew Wareham says ‘Combining hearth tax records in The National Archives of Kew, with the remarkable evidence in the Chimney Book has added a new and unparalleled dimension to the study of the Restoration hearth tax. This work develops our understanding of Restoration life and the growth of Bristol as a city.’ Dr Wareham goes on to say that ‘as a result of the work undertaken in this edition, it is possible for the first time to peer into every household in this burgeoning city, as it began to overtake Norwich as the second city of England, and to consider the wealth of these households and how they responded to the demands to pay the hearth tax.’

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City of London U3A-Hearth Tax Centre Shared Learning Project

This month we feature a guest blog from Peter Cox, one of the group leaders of the volunteers undertaking a Shared Learning Project between the University of the Third Age (U3A) and the Hearth Tax Centre. Peter’s team have been delving into a fascinating set of records showing London society on the eve of the Great Fire in 1666.

We’re nearly halfway through the Hearth Tax project, and it’s time for the City group to take stock. We’re looking at the occupants of particular City parishes, eight of the 21 whose 1666 Hearth Tax Returns, for some reason yet unknown, tell us the occupation of each householder. This gives us an unrivalled opportunity to track individuals – if there are many Nicholas Smiths about, it’s impossible to distinguish between them unless you know that yours was a Salter.

The Hearth Tax was invented in 1662 by Parliament to help fund the restored monarchy, which was calculated to need £1.2m each year. It was levied on each householder, who would pay one shilling twice a year, on Lady Day and at Michaelmas, 25 March and 28 September, for each Hearth in his or her dwelling. The team at Roehampton University, for whom we’re working, are going steadily through transcribing those Returns that still exist.

Their project doesn’t allow for any investigation beyond the transcriptions, and that’s where we come in, as unpaid but energetic researchers. Our remit is broad: ‘find out what you can, and follow what interests you’. Thus Lisa Vine, already researching stationers and booksellers, is looking at a group who settled in Little Britain, a street in the large parish of St Botolph Aldersgate that she’s sharing with Aelwyn Taylor and Jane Harrington, who has only recently joined the team. This parish differs from all the others, being more like a small town clustered along Aldersgate Street, with many more households and a wider range of occupations.

It didn’t suffer as badly as the others did in the Great Fire that swept through the City in early September, starting in Pudding Lane in the parish of St Margaret New Fish Street, which is being researched by Barbara Sanders, who is currently wading through its original churchwardens’ accounts and vestry minutes. Its church was burnt down – one of the 83 churches destroyed – as was St Magnus the Martyr, the abutting parish which incorporated all the houses on old London Bridge. Wren rebuilt it, but St Margaret was one of several not replaced, and its parishioners worshipped in St Magnus instead. Of our other parishes, the churches in St Gabriel Fenchurch and St Benet Sherehog, both of which served fewer than 100 households, were destroyed and not rebuilt, the latter becoming part of St Stephen Walbrook. Their church was also burnt down and was another rebuilt by Wren in the 1670s. The Walbrook was an ancient stream, by then covered over, which ran south to the Thames, and Walbrook, a street that runs parallel to it, contains an unusual number of skinners and druggists. St Benet and St Stephen are being investigated by Cheryl Bailey; St Gabriel’s researcher has just had to drop out, so we’re looking for a replacement.

One parish church that survived the fire was our most easterly, being tackled by SLP veteran Joan Hardinge, is Allhallows Staining (meaning stone, to distinguish it from other Allhallows churches which were made of wood.) But it collapsed in 1671 and was rebuilt in 1674. The church of St Katherine Coleman no longer exists, but it did survive the fire. It’s being researched by Pauline Brown and Maryke Koomans.

Researching City parish records and how they were governed is complicated by the fact that the City was divided into 23 administrative districts known as wards, which each covered several parishes. St Magnus the Martyr, which I took over when a researcher dropped out, is in the ward of London Bridge Within. A rare set of books survive for the Ward, itemising every inhabitant and Ward officer – such as constables and ‘scavengers’, and grand and petty jury members – from 1627-88. I’ve set myself the task of using the lists, an intriguing annual census, to look at how the ward was governed from the years before the Plague and Fire of 1665 and 1666 to a few years after it. London had perhaps the most comprehensive and effective form of local government of any European city of the period.

The years 1665 and 1666 were pivotal in London’s history. A fifth of Londoners died in the plague summer of ‘65, and many fled the city. Few are recorded as dying in the Fire, but many were permanently or temporarily displaced. So the project is an opportunity to see what happened to some of its inhabitants and their homes. The ‘Fire Court’ was set up in late 1666 to hear disputes over occupancy and rebuilding, usually between landowners and their tenants. It dealt unusually swiftly and flexibly with the cases, and its pages – thankfully already transcribed and printed – give an insight into how the City got back on its feet, house by house. We now have thirteen weeks left to find out all we can.

Peter Cox. 31st March 2018.

(Image above: Great Fire Map of London, 1667. British Library, Maps.Crace.Port.1.50. Copyright The British Libary)


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University of the Third Age and the Hearth Tax

Our collaborative project with the University of the Third Age is now underway with three groups of volunteers working on Hearth Tax documents.

On 9th January in London and 13th January in Birmingham we held training days for our U3A groups. As well as plenty of practical tips on researching seventeenth-century local history, the sessions gave everyone a chance to get to know each other.

U3A members are using Hearth Tax returns from the City of London, Greenwich and the West Midlands to uncover hidden histories. With the returns as a starting point, they’ll be using other documents to trace the stories of people, buildings and localities mentioned in the Hearth Tax.

Centre Director Andrew Wareham and General Editor Catherine Ferguson from the Centre for Hearth Tax Research as well as specialists from the University of Roehampton, Birkbeck College and the Society of Genealogists were on hand to help the groups. Training sessions covered paleography, accessing archives and the documentary sources available for seventeenth-century history.

We’re very excited to see what the U3A members find; the volunteer groups are free to follow their own interests and explore the full range of the possibilities suggested by the Hearth Tax returns.

Watch this space over the coming months for blog posts from the U3A groups about the progress of their research.

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Hearth Tax Instagram

The Hearth Tax Centre now has an Instagram account. Follow us to see hearths and the historic buildings and landscapes they’re part of. We’ll also show you what we’re up to, including our exciting project with U3A members.

Remember that you can follow us on Twitter as well for the latest news about the Centre.

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Updates from the Hearth Tax Centre

As 2017 draws to a close, there have been a number of exciting changes here at the Hearth Tax Centre.

New Research Officer

We have welcomed Charlie Berry to the Centre as Research Officer, taking over from John Price who moved on earlier this year. Alongside her work on the Hearth Tax Project, Charlie is in the finishing stages of a PhD at the Institute of Historical Research. Her research focuses on neighbourhoods on the fringes of London in the fifteenth century and social marginality in the city.

Hearth tax local history project with U3A

We’re also undertaking a new project in partnership with the University of the Third Age (U3A). From January 2018, three groups of U3A members in the West Midlands and London will be investigating hearth tax returns in their area with an aim to connect the hearth tax with other records and uncover hidden local histories. We’re still looking for participants for the West Midlands and South-East London groups. See this poster for the project for further details if you would like to be involved.

Hearth Tax Online

After a ransomware attack in the summer, Hearth Tax Online continues to be down. We’re currently working on restoring the service: watch this space for an exciting announcement about the future of the web site coming soon.

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A fond farewell

After more than 12 years as Project Manager and Research Officer for the Centre for Hearth Tax Research, it is with something of a heavy heart that I write my very last blog post for the project.

I started with the Project way back in 2004, working with the late Professor Margaret Spufford and, at that time, I had no idea the hearth tax would become such an enduring part of my working life. Since then, I have completed a BA, a PhD and gone on to become a senior lecturer in modern British history, but throughout all that time and all those changes, working for the Project has been a hugely enjoyable and rewarding occupation.

In many ways, working for the Project has given me much stability and security over the years which has allowed me to develop and grow in other areas of my career. It has also brought me into contact with a wide and varied range of different people, which has been extremely rewarding and from whom I have learned a great deal. I have also learned a lot about a fascinating topic and one which I would probably not otherwise have strayed into as my research interests generally lie in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Working for the Project has, over the years, given me another string to my bow and that has also been very stimulating and useful.

The Project today is rather different to the one I started with back in 2004 but what has stayed consistent is the attention to detail, the drive to collect and produce the best possible research and the desire to disseminate that research to the widest possible audience and through the highest quality of publications. The Project was, essentially, built upon the work of a team of volunteer transcribers and some of my earliest experiences with the Project were working closely with them coordinating the valuable and painstaking transcription work that they undertook for us. Much of the transcribed material the Project is currently working with is derived from the work undertaken by the volunteers and the value of their contribution, right back at the beginning when we were finding out feet, cannot be overstated.

In my time with the Project, we have worked with the British Record Society to produce seven hearth tax volumes, all of which have taken us into new territories and challenged us in new ways which have then gone on to make the Project bigger and better. Exemption certificates now play a much more central part in our volumes and we have moved more towards working with the best available selection of records (rather than a single document) where needs be. What has become clear over the years is that the hearth tax is so much more complicated than we first imagined, but so much more rewarding and useful to work with as a result of that. There are many more volumes in the pipeline and I am very proud to have done my part in getting those volumes ready and undertaking various levels of analysis upon the material within them. As a subscriber to the British Record Society I know I will have the immense pleasure of continuing to receive each new volume as it emerges from the Project; something I am very much looking forward to.

Looking back on my years with the Project, there is, of course, much sadness for the people who we have lost. My time working with Margaret Spufford was very important to me and she was one of the people who opened my eyes to what academia could offer and gave me the belief and confidence that it was an arena I could inhabit and, in my own ways, be successful in. I also have extremely fond memories of working with David Hey and, again, he did a great deal to inspire me in terms of the power of knowledge and the importance of both education and curiosity. Early on in my time with the Project, we lost Mike Power, whose work on the London hearth tax would go on to form such a touchstone for us when we came to tackle the capital. Sadly, there have been numerous other introducers, transcribers and collaborators that we have lost along the way, but I know their work will live on in the Project’s publications.

If I think of my high points, a few different things come to mind. The first would be the completion of the London and Middlesex Hearth Tax Project and the two-volume publication that resulted from it. The London project represented both the largest volume of material we had (and have) ever analysed and the most complex collection of material we had (and have) ever analysed. The challenges were steep, but it was hugely satisfying to overcome them and to work on such a fascinating piece of London history which captured one of the city’s landmark events. Another highlight would be the conferences we staged and, in particular, the 2009 ‘Charity and Community’ conference which was one of the first major events I ever organised. Again, it was an immense amount of hugely stressful work, but the end result was a brilliant conference, that was thoroughly enjoyed by all, and one that I am still very proud to have organised.

The overriding highlight, though, must really be the people who I have worked closely with during my time in the Project and who have become friends as well as colleagues. This is not the appropriate platform to mention them by name, but they will know who they are and I will so miss working with them. The Hearth Tax Project has always relied upon a large degree of goodwill and everyone involved, whether paid or unpaid, always goes out of their way to go over and beyond what is expected of them; it seems to be a topic that attracts that sort of interest! For me, the hearth tax project has always been about the people; be it the people in the documents, the people who established the project or the people who have worked so hard (and continue to work so hard) to support it and to keep it going. It is the people that I will miss the most.

For the last seven years of my time at the Hearth Tax Project I have also been working part-time as a lecturer and then senior lecturer in modern British history at Goldsmiths, University of London. I have worked very hard to grow and develop my role at Goldsmiths during that time, always with the goal that I might work my way up to a full-time post there; something which has now become a reality. My new role at Goldsmiths will undoubtedly be very challenging but I am very much looking forward to it. They say that as one door closes another one opens and that is so much so in this case. I don’t imagine that I will ever completely close the door on the hearth tax, nor would I want to, but the time has come to step through another door and fully embrace the brave new world that lies within.

John Price, Project Manager and Research Officer (2004-2017)

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