The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (August 2012) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The window tax was a property tax based on the number of windows in a house. It was a significant social, cultural, and architectural force in England, France, Ireland and Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. To avoid the tax some houses from the period can be seen to have bricked-up window-spaces (ready to be glazed or reglazed at a later date). In England and Wales it was introduced in 1696 and was repealed in 1851, 156 years after first being introduced. France (established 1798, repealed 1926) and Scotland both had window taxes for similar reasons.
The tax was introduced in England and Wales in 1696 under King William III and was designed to impose tax relative to the prosperity of the taxpayer, but without the controversy that then surrounded the idea of income tax.
At that time, many people in Britain opposed income tax, on principle, because the disclosure of personal income represented an unacceptable governmental intrusion into private matters, and a potential threat to personal liberty. In fact the first permanent British income tax was not introduced until 1842, and the issue remained intensely controversial well into the 20th century.
When the window tax was introduced, it consisted of two parts: a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings per house (equivalent to £13.63 in 2018), and a variable tax for the number of windows above ten in the house. Properties with between ten and twenty windows paid an extra four shillings (equivalent to £27.26 in 2018), and those above twenty windows paid an extra eight shillings (equivalent to £54.52 in 2018).
In 1709 with the union of England and Scotland, taxes were harmonised and a new top rate of 20s total was introduced for houses with 30 or more windows. In 1747 the 2s flat rate was detached from the window tax as a tax in its own right and the way the window tax was calculated was altered. 6d was charged for each window in a house with 10-14, 9d for each window in a house with 15-19, 1s for every window in a house with 20 or more. In 1758 the flat rate charge was increased to 3s. The number of windows that incurred tax was changed to seven in 1766 and eight in 1825.
The flat-rate tax was changed to a variable rate, dependent on the property value, in 1778. People who were exempt from paying church or poor rates, for reasons of poverty, were exempt from the window tax. Window tax was relatively unintrusive and easy to assess. Manchester Royal Infirmary had to pay a tax of 1/9d per window on the windows of the rooms occupied by staff of the infirmary in 1841--a total of £1 9/9d. Certain rooms, particularly dairies, cheeserooms and milkhouses, were exempt providing they were clearly labelled, and it is not uncommon to find the name of such rooms carved on the lintel. The bigger the house, the more windows it was likely to have, and the more tax the occupants would pay. Nevertheless, the tax was unpopular, because it was seen by some as a tax on "light and air".
In Scotland, a window tax was imposed after 1748. A house had to have at least seven windows or a rent of at least £5 to be taxed. A similar tax also existed in France from 1798 to 1926.
There was a strong agitation in England in favour of the abolition of the tax during the winter of 1850-51, and it was accordingly repealed on 24 July 1851, and a tax on inhabited houses substituted. The Scottish window tax was also abolished at the same time.