North & South in the 1660s and 1670s: new understanding of the long-run origins of wealth inequality in England

By Andrew Wareham (University of Roehampton)

This blog is part of a series of New Researcher blogs.

Maps of England circa 1670, Darbie 10 of 40. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

New research shows that before the industrial revolution many more houses in south-east England had more fireplaces than houses in the Midlands and northern England. When Mrs Gaskell wrote North and South, she reflected on a theme which was nearly two centuries old and which continues to divide England.

Since the 1960s, historians have wanted to use the Restoration hearth tax to provide a national survey of distributions of population and wealth. But, for technical reasons until now, it has not been possible to move beyond city and county boundaries to make comparisons. 

Hearth Tax Digital, arising from a partnership between the Centre for Hearth Tax Research (Roehampton University, UK) and the Centre for Information Modelling (Graz University, Austria) overcomes these technical barriers. This digital resource provides free access to the tax returns, with full transcription of the records and links to archival shelf marks and location by county and parish. Data on around 188,000 households in London and 15 cities/counties can be searched, with the capacity to download search queries into a databasket, and work on GIS mapping is in development.

In the 1660s and 1670s, after London, the West Riding of Yorkshire and Norfolk stand out as densely populated regions. The early stages of industrialization meant that Leeds, Sheffield, Doncaster and Halifax were overtaking the former leading towns of Hull, Malton and Beverley. But the empty landscapes of north and east Norfolk, enjoyed by holiday makers today, were also densely populated then.

The hearth tax, as a nation-wide levy on domestic fireplaces, was charged against every hearth in each property, and the tax was collected twice a year at Lady Day (March) and Michaelmas (September).  In 1689 after 27 years it was abolished in perpetuity in England and Wales, but it continued to be levied in Ireland until the early nineteenth century and it was levied as a one- off tax in Scotland in 1691. Any property with three hearths and over was liable to pay the tax, and many properties with one or two hearths, such as those occupied by the ordinary poor, were exempt from the tax. (The destitute and those in receipt of poor relief were not included in the tax registers). A family living in a home with one hearth had to use it for all their cooking, heating and leisure purposes, but properties with more than three  hearths had at least one hearth in the kitchen, one in the parlour and one in an upstairs chamber. 

In a  substantial majority of parishes in northern England (County Durham, Westmorland, the East and North Ridings of Yorkshire) less than 20 per cent of households had three hearths and over, and only in the West Riding was there a significant number of parishes where 30 percent and more of households had three hearths and over. But, in southern England, across Middlesex, Surrey, southern Essex, western Kent and a patchwork of parishes across Norfolk, it was common for at least a third of the properties to have three hearths and over. 

There are many local contrasts to explore further. South-east Norfolk and north-east Essex were notably more prosperous than north-west Essex, independent of the influence of London, and the patchwork pattern of wealth distribution in Norfolk around its market towns and prosperous villages is repeated in the Midlands. Nonetheless, the general pattern is clear enough: the distribution of population in the late seventeenth century was quite different from patterns found today, but Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe would have recognized a world in which south-east England abounded with the signs of prosperity and comfort in contrast to the north.

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