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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


For the family historian any kind of nominal list is useful and where there’s a tax there’ll be a list! However, not all taxes required the submission of a detailed list of individual taxpayers, and not all have survived. Clergy were taxed separately from lay people until the mid-17th century hence two series of documents exist; clerical and lay taxes. Some writers have compared tax records with census returns, however, no tax record can be used as a total census substitute as there were always many exempted persons, as well as some evaders. But whether he paid his tax, dodged it or got fined for not paying it, there’s a good chance you’ll find him in tax lists.

Methods of government taxation changed over time, thus there are variations to the generalities outlined below. David Hey, in an excellent article, has discussed the concept that the efficiency of any tax system decays over time as taxpayers learn to conceal their assets, thus the government is forever inventing new types of taxes. He distinguishes the four types of tax bases:

w Capital assets including personalty.
w Rental value of land, which are the easiest to administer as land is hard to hide!
w Income.
w Consumption of goods and services.

Any tax or rent could be known colloquially as a cess (from the word assessment). The authorizing body for any tax would specify details such as:

w The income threshold below which individuals would not have to pay the tax.
w Any exemptions.
w Rates of tax payable.
w Number of installments or collections in which the tax was to be paid.
w Dates on which they were to be collected.

Richardson (The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia, 2003) defines a large number of other terms for taxes, services, rents, rates and dues payable to national, county, local or ecclesiastical authorities. With a few exceptions these were solely English taxes until 1536 when Wales entered the system under the Act of Union. Mullins’ Texts and Calendars (1957 and 1982 editions) list and describe printed transcripts of tax and other lists published by local societies, and post-1982 references can be found at TNA website. Many of these documents and transcripts are on the FHLC.

The following are the conventional definitions, however when using records they can be very confusing because the terms have not been used consistently throughout history, for example some duties were called taxes, and many taxes have been lumped together as subsidies or as aids. Pragmatically, for the genealogist the label really doesn’t matter—it is more important to know what kinds of lists may be available for a specific range of dates and what information they are likely to contain.

v Taxes are contributions levied by parliament upon a person, property or business for support of government administration and services.

v Rates are assessments levied by local authorities upon the occupiers of land and buildings for local social services and utilities.

v Duties are payments to public revenue levied on articles or transactions such as:
w Import, export, manufacture, or sale of goods
e.g. customs & excise duties.
w Transfer of property e.g. death, probate, succession and stamp duties.
w Licences
w Legal recognition of documents.

Our ancestors were subjected to a variety of taxes to support their administrative infrastructure and services, just as we are today. In early times the established church (Roman Catholic until the 1530s and during the brief reign of Queen Mary 1st 1553-1558, otherwise Anglican) conducted much of the administration from the parish level upwards through archdeaconries, bishops’ dioceses and archbishops’ provinces. This central ecclesiastical control of everyday life was gradually taken over by civil authorities, some examples include:

w Commutation of tithe payments from 19th century and particularly 1836-1854, and eventual cessation of tithes in 1996. (See English: Land & Property Records Including Manorial Documents & Maps).
w 1834 New Poor Law, discussed in English: Poor Law & Parish Chest Records.
w 1835 Act for maintenance of highways.
w 1839 first county police constabularies formed.
w 1853 Civil Charity Commissioners took charge of most almshouses.
w 1858 Ecclesiastical courts dissolved and replaced by civil administration of probate, divorce and other family matters.
w 1871 central government administers poor relief and public health.
w 1888 Establishment of County Councils and County Boroughs.
w 1908 Old Age Pensions introduced.
w 1909 Labour Exchanges formed to assist the unemployed to find work.
w 1911 Unemployment and health insurance introduced.

Private philanthropy was evidenced from early times, particularly in the fields of education, health and relief for the poor, much influenced by the church’s teachings but some undoubtedly being genuinely altruistic. This was gradually supplemented by taxation during the 19th and 20th centuries but still plays an important part in these areas. It will also be noted that the responsibilities for different services have been variously centralized and decentralized over the course of history. Tax returns are not census documents; with a few exceptions they list heads of households only—and not the poor, dependent children or resident servants. The threshold for poverty differed from tax to tax and year to year, and we must expect that most people would evade as much taxation as possible. The actual sums assessed should therefore be taken only as a relative and not actual estimation of wealth. Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local & Family History, 1996) has a discussion on this topic.


Governments would not function without taxation to finance public expenditures. Wars figure prominently in the reasons for early taxes but some, especially duties (or tariffs), have been used to protect domestic industries, and in the 20th century taxation has been used as an instrument for the redistribution of money. In England there has also been a tradition of locally administered taxes at both town and regional (e.g. diocese or county) levels. In early times taxation involved transfer of (typically agricultural) produce, or provision of services. The Romans, in Britain from 43-410, introduced the taxation of consumption and trade (customs duties) and forms of poll (tributum) as well as using land taxation. In the Middle Ages (1000-1400, or in the wider sense 600-1500) these taxes were superseded by the monarch arbitrarily levying taxes through direct service obligations and gifts and tributes called aids (or regular assessments).

Fees for holding markets and transit duties continued. During the Georgian period (1714-1830), financing of the many wars involved a series of short-lived indirect taxes. Indirect taxation in England has traditionally been on the capital or rental value of land (the rates), or levied at death (death duties).
Export taxes had been introduced on hides and wool in 1275, but as overseas trade developed new forms of taxation were developed on trade. Naturally these were resented in the colonies, a notable example being the reaction to the tea duty in North America in the early 1770s.

Until the 19th century levies on capital or income had not been considered a normal means of financing government, other than in exceptional circumstances. Prime Minister Pitt the Younger introduced income tax in 1799-1802, originally as a temporary measure for financing the Napoleonic Wars. It was re-introduced in 1803 and became a permanent feature of British life from 1842-1990.

Some of the earliest tax records that will be encountered, but which are unlikely to be of much use to the average genealogist because few nominal lists survive, and most of us won’t get back that far anyway, are:

v The Saxon fumage based on the number of chimneys in a house.
v Scutage (shield money) was a feudal payment in lieu of knight service amounting to 20 shillings per Knight’s Fee. Abandoned by 1340 but similar levies in lieu of military obligation, called benevolences, were used from 1474-1639.
v Geld was the Anglo-Saxon land tax. [The word means money in Germanic tongues].
v Danegeld was the name of the tax (or tribute) collected to buy off the marauding Danes and discourage their frequent visits. It was in effect from at least 991 until 1051 and based on the amount of land in each shire.
v King Cnut’s Heregeld was similarly raised to maintain the standing army.
v A Food Rent was an Old English obligation to provide for the king and his household for one day, but had been commuted to a money payment by 1066.
v William I levied a tax on land at several times, and it can be argued that Domesday Book itself, with its references to earlier assessments, is the oldest tax record in TNA.
v There were levies in 1166 and 1185 in England but little is known about them except that they were of about 3%.
v The Saladin Tithe of 1188 was the first of the lay subsidies, a 10% tax exacted on a lay person’s movable items in order to finance the third crusade. A similar tax was imposed by King John in 1207 for one thirteenth of the value of movable property, thus establishing the system of lay subsidies which continued until 1623.
v From 1194-1224 carucage was levied on each carucate of land as recorded in the Domesday Book. In areas where the alternate term hide was used the tax was called hideage or hidegeld. Joukowski et al. have an illustration of a carucage of 1200.
v Tallage was a tax levied up to 1312 by the king upon the tenants of his own demesne land and the royal boroughs; by feudal lords on their villeins; and by boroughs on their burgesses. Joukowski et al. illustrate a 1227 tallage.
v Salt Tax was levied in the Middle Ages as an easy source of government revenue as salt was needed to preserve foods.



Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.