Daylight Robbery: William III and his Greedy Tax

26 Sep 13
Visiting London

Daylight Robbery: William III and his Greedy Tax

26 Sep 13

Meandering around Berkeley Square on my bicycle the other day, I happened to notice this building:




This is not the most aesthetically pleasing example of Mayfair architecture. I would even go so far as to say it almost lets its environs down. But the reason I stopped my bicycle to take a look and a photograph was because, at last, I was vindicated. I had spent a disheartening hour a few evenings ago telling anyone who would listen about the origin of the phrase ‘daylight robbery’, which, rather than the gasps of delight such a revelation deserved, had met only with incredulity and hardness of heart. And alas, the hoped-for polemic remained unprovoked, which was a great shame, considering the conversation was nose-diving.

As you can see, the windows on the side of this building have been plastered over. These windows are very much shut.

Here, right before your very eyes, you are witnessing daylight robbery. Let me explain.

In 1690, short of money, and having exhausted most of the existing taxes, William III decided to levy a new one on windows. Quite ingenious really, and reminds me forcibly of H.E Bates’ hero Pop Larkin, when holidaying in France, being charged the same amount for the air breathed while eating his steak as for the steak itself (‘What’s this, ‘taux de respiration ?’’ – ‘Oh, well that’s just the breathing charge, darling’).

Window tax was levied on all windows or window-like openings of a property. The details were much amended over time, but the tax was levied originally on every single dwelling except cottages. Understandably, this was a much-despised tax, and most people, except those with the means to afford as much daylight as they wished, ended up blocking out their windows in order to avoid it. Thus, their daylight was robbed, and presumably their moonlight too, though I imagine this was probably less missed by most (although I assume those who had the leisure to bask in moonlight also had the luxury to pay for it, so this wouldn’t have been such a problem. Anyway, isn’t moonlight robbery just plain robbery?).

So next time you are strolling around the capital, keep an eye out, and spread the word…

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