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The British Stamping Office and Taxation: Revenue Duties from 1671 to the Great Reform of 1853
IntroductionOver the years the government of the country has invented numerous ways of putting its hand into the pockets of its citizens in order to fund its activities. In Britain the first tax in a form we would recognise today was Stamp Duty. It was a tax on legal documents and no such document was enforceable at law unless Stamp Duty had first been paid. The duty was payable during the period May 1671 to 30th April 1680 but no stamp was used. Embossed stamps were introduced for a four year period from 28th June 1694 in order to fund William III's war against the French. It was extended at the end of four years and still exists today.
Most taxes were collected through the relevant document (Newspaper, Almanac, Playing Card Wrapper, Hat Lining, Bank Note, Receipt, Licence etc) needing to be stamped or printed at the Stamping Office(s). Even the documents for the abortive tax intended to be levied on the North American Colonies in 1765 were supplied by the Stamping Office in London. This complex and laborious process led to situations where the cost of collecting a tax was hardly covered by the duty received and attempts to evade taxes multiplied despite the severe penalties for such evasion. The pattern throughout this period was of an expanding number of items that were taxed and a steady increase in the rates of duty payable. By the end of the 18th century, the range of articles that had been taxed at one time or another included Newspapers and Almanacs, Playing Cards, commodities such as Hair Powder, Gloves and Hats, manufactured products such as Paper, financial instruments from Bills of Exchange, Drafts and Bank Notes to Receipts.
With the huge increase in the wealth of Britain following the industrial revolution and with the growth of the British Empire as the 19th century progressed, the Stamping Offices were becoming overwhelmed by the volume of work. The British public were also becoming restive at the taxes, in particular the taxes on Newspapers. These "Taxes on Knowledge" as they were characterised, were increased to 4d in 1815 on a news-sheet that would otherwise have sold for 1d. In the 1830s widespread civil disobedience developed to the payment of these taxes in a similar way that the pressure grew for reform of the postal system. In fact the first major reduction in "postal" rates came into effect on 15th September 1836, when Newspaper Tax was reduced from 4d to 1d and, not only did the 1d pay the tax charge, but it allowed the newspaper to pass free through the post.
Further major reform of the collection of revenue duties took longer to come about than the equivalent reform of postal charges. However, on 10th October 1853, many of the commonest commercial duties were reduced and no longer needed documents to be sent to the Stamping Offices for stamping. Rather than a duty charged being based on the value of the transaction, a lower fee, and often a fixed fee, was paid through the use of adhesive stamps. A receipt for transaction value between £100 and £200 cost 2s6d prior to the Act and from 10th October 1853 the cost was 1d. Thus were born the first of the adhesive revenue stamps.
This exhibit covers the evolution of duties fro the second half of the 17th century to the great revenue reform of 1853 using some of the more interesting, rare, and attractive documents and stamps to illustrate the story. Within a particular subject matter the material is generally arranged chronologically.