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.
The 1666 hearth tax return for London and Middlesex is also available on British History Online – www.british-history.ac.uk/london-hearth-tax/london-mddx/1666 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 – https://wehangoutalotincemeteries.wordpress.com/