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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 ($).

Electricity Rates
The first public lighting using electricity commenced in London in 1877 and notable electric firsts include:

w 1879 the reading room of the British Library had electric light, and a house in Portchester Gardens, London was also lit this way.
w Sir Joseph Swan’s house in Gateshead, Northumberland had electric light in 1880.
w The House of Commons used a mixture of electric and gas lighting by 1881.
w Godalming, Surrey claims the first electric street lighting in 1881.
w Electric vacuum cleaners arrived in England in 1908.
w Washing machines powered by electricity were introduced about 1917.
w Electrical refrigerators were available here from 1918.

Private companies could apply to the Board of Trade to supply electricity from 1878 but local authorities gradually took these over, with co-ordination by region from 1919 and nationally in 1926. Thus early records might be payments to private companies, but local authorities soon took over the service and added an electricity component to the rates.

Library Service
Private circulating (lending) libraries had been in existence since the early 18th century but Parliament didn’t authorize the provision of free public libraries until 1850. However, some local authorities did not respond until the 1890s so this is not reflected in the rates until such time as libraries were provided in each district.

Gas Service
At first private companies provided gas, beginning with the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company in 1812 in Westminster, Middlesex. By 1815 there were 4,000 gas lights in London, and by 1819, 51,000. London had seven gasworks by 1822 and by 1819 there was gas lighting in Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cheltenham, Chester, Exeter, Kidderminster, Leeds, Liverpool, Macclesfield, Manchester, Nottingham, Preston and Sheffield. Richardson gives a list of some of the many gas companies.

Each company was given a charter to provide gas for a certain area, but there were frequently three or four gas companies supplying the same street, each with its own main pipes beneath the pavement (sidewalk). In 1847 the Gasworks Clauses Act provided legislation covering construction and profits, but the system was inefficient and intense competition meant profits were low. Later the major companies reached an agreement to divide up London so that each area was served by just one company; this was approved by the Metropolis Gas Act of 1860 which also imposed illumination standards. Municipalities became involved in gas supply in some areas, and regional boards were set up by statute later.

Family papers may provide information about the company supplying gas and its costs, for example my parents bought their house in early 1939 and had the gas meter read before they took possession, as shown below .

Chart : Gas Meter Reading 1939
From the personal collection of Dr. Penelope Christensen

It can therefore be seen that the rates for different places at different times incorporate charges for a variety of services.

General Rates 1925-1990
A major change occurred in 1925 when the Rating and Valuation Act brought in the general rate making county boroughs, boroughs etc. both the rating unit (instead of the parish) and the rating authority (replacing the overseer). The general rate now included all the previous local charges. Domestic (but not business) rates were replaced by the community charge or poll tax in 1990-1993.

Using Rate Books
Early records may give details for each separate rate and be on loose sheets of parchment or paper, or entered in amongst other parish documents. Later, plain or lined booklets were used, and by the end of the 18th century books printed with columns came into general use. The County Rate Act of 1739 allowed one general rate to be levied instead of a number of miscellaneous payments, but it was only at the end of the 19th century that consolidation of all the different rates into one rate was common.

Typically the records show:

w Name of householder and/or owner
w Assessment of the value of the property
w Amount to be collected.

But some have addresses, occupations and sundry helpful notes such as gone away; poor; house barn and garden; house puld down and so forth.

Normally, the collectors had the householders listed street by street even before roads were named or numbered. This list was annotated with any additions, corrections or deletions and copied the following year. Hence it is simple to compare annual listings to ascertain who has moved, died, inherited, etc. This is particularly useful before about 1840 when trade directories were not arranged by streets, only alphabetically, and of-course earlier directories only listed tradesmen and more prominent citizens. It is smart to use the two together, as the directory addresses of tradesmen and gentry can form points of reference for use with the rates books. In addition, rates books were annual, whereas directories tended to be published more infrequently except in the large cities. With patience one can reconstruct your ancestor’s environment, showing where he is likely to have worked, shopped and spent what little recreation time he had.

Rate books are the most accurate source for establishing the age of a property, and by comparing the rateable values from year to year one can note which houses have been renovated, enlarged or pulled down. It is also possible to track changes in street names and numbering, as in the example by Darlington where she shows that #72 Queen Anne Street became #75, then #37, and later #37 Foley Street. By following the rate collector’s route the development of blocks of terraces and villas can be seen, facts not obvious from a single contemporary map.
When trying to establish which house was (or stands on the site of) the actual residence of an ancestor it is wise to look at successive lists for at least three properties either side. It is normally sufficient to do a search for every fifth year and then fill in missing years at either end of the residence period to find the first and last years of taxation. Always be alert to renaming and renumbering of streets taking place, for example they may have been at #3 in the 1861 census, #43 in the 1871, yet #72 in the 1881, but have lived in the same house all the time. By checking the neighbours, three each side, in the rate books it will be possible to prove this.

Some problems that can be encountered in using rate books include:

House numbers may not be given in the rate books, in which case use the assessment amounts instead.
 A large fluctuation in the assessed rate will indicate either major alterations or rebuilding, or an incorrect identification.
 Corner houses may be numbered or listed in one street in one year’s rate books and in another the next year.
 Two houses may have been combined, or alternatively one house split into two or more dwellings.
 Sometimes the rate collectors or the rate book compilers altered their routes, for example by listing in reverse order, or by adding new streets.
 Suburbs were split into divisions as they grew, so a street may appear in a new division in a later year.

Records of Poor Rates would have been kept in the parish chest and these will now normally be found in county archives. They are different from the lists of voluntary contributors to the poor which occur in churchwardens’ accounts. Corporate towns (boroughs) may have kept their own rates records and these may be in a borough archive, if one exists, or have been deposited in the county archives. In both cases many have been filmed. Union Rates records were not created by parishes but by the Unions and are hence more likely to have been kept with the Union Workhouse records which are now usually in the county or borough archives.

There are few finding aids for rate books, and they can be huge, and sometimes mixed in with other records such as tithe payments. Sometimes there are street indexes, which are helpful especially when a long one is recorded in parts of different collectors’ routes. Few nominal indexes have yet been made but as they are so comprehensive persistence with the original documents will be rewarded.

A comparison of rates paid by three of my relatives living in Crayford, Kent gives a good idea of their relative standards of living at this time, including the fact that the poorest was in a group of three families who couldn’t fully pay their rates.

Privacy laws restrict the researcher’s access to rate records prior to 30 years, and central government records such as Inland Revenue may be closed for 100 years.

Chart : Crayford Rates 8 Nov 1882
Book titled ‘Crayford Poor Rate Book’ still in use after change to Union Rates
Occupier William Bawcutt Thomas Bawcutt James Jupp
Owner Geo Swaisland Miss Alcock Mrs. Audsley
Description of Property House & garden Cottage & garden Cottage & garden
Situation London Road High Street Church Street
Gross estimated rental £30..0..0 £9..0..0 £3..0..0
Rateable value £22.10.0 £6.15..0 £2..5..0
Rate at 1/6d in the £ £1.13..9 10/ ½d 3/4½d
Payments by owner for group of dwellings None £3..3..0 for 6 dwellings 13/8d for 3 dwellings
Total to be collected £1.13..9 -- 16/1½d
Amount actually collected £1.13..9 -- 11/3d
Amount uncollected --- -- 4/10½d

Thousands of rate books were used for salvage (recycled paper) during two world wars; others have been discarded as useless junk even after WWII. Thus the survival of rate books varies enormously by place and year but Camp (2000) advises checking any that are extant as they invariably give a better picture of the householders than printed trade directories. There are considerable gaps in survival of rural rate books (Short) but as the data was copied from them into the Valuation Office Records the latter can be used as a substitute.

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.