Coming Soon…, John Chandler


Income Tax is never, perhaps, the most popular topic of conversation, and especially at this time of the year when self-assessments and fixed penalties loom over many of us. It is small consolation to learn that when it was first introduced (in 1799) and also when reintroduced (in 1842) it was regarded as a temporary measure. The intention all along was to abolish income tax in 1860 – we live in hope!

Responsibility for assessing and collecting the early Victorian income tax rested in each division with a body of commissioners, who were invariably local magistrates. The divisions were loosely based on the old administrative units known as hundreds. After the assessments had been made, any disputes settled, and the tax paid, the paperwork was no longer needed and it was the practice of the local officials to burn everything.

Dr. Robert Colley of Aberystwyth, while working on his doctoral thesis about Victorian income tax, discovered that in Devizes this instruction had been ignored, and that among a solicitor’s deposit in the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office the certificates of assessment for private sector taxpayers, 1842-60, have survived. The assessments cover businesses of all sorts, not only in Devizes itself, but also in the hundreds of Potterne and Cannings, and of Swanborough – that is to say, in most of the Pewsey Vale, in the villages around Devizes and in the Lavington area.

The importance of this most interesting material is considerable. Against the background of rapid technological innovation, the spread of the railways and the creation of Victorian society, we can see how the small businesses – pubs, private schools, builders, printers and solicitors – of a country town and its hinterland were prospering or failing, year by year, for nearly two decades. We can see too the earning capacity of different trades and professions, and of many individuals, members of well-known Devizes families, who may now be remembered from their accomplishments in other fields. And at a national level the assessments offer valuable, probably unique, evidence about the administration of tax-collection 150 years ago.

Dr.Colley has edited and indexed the assessments for the Record Society, and I am in the process of typesetting his work. We hope to have everything complete soon after Easter for publication (volume 55 in our series) around the end of May, in time for the Society’s AGM (at which, other engagements permitting, Dr.Colley will be our speaker).