Window Tax

I work in Edinburgh’s New Town (it’s relatively new, dating only from the late 1700’s. In comparison to the Old Town, which has buildings from the 1400’s, it’s new.). And the beautiful old Georgian buildings have an interesting feature: many of their windows are blocked.

This is because of progressive taxation. The Window Tax, which was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1696, was levied on homeowners in proportion to the number of windows in their houses. A common tax avoidance scheme was to block off a window so that one didn’t have to pay. Some homeowners even painted the blocked-off sections black, with white lines to represent the mullions.

Building with plain blocked-off windows, at the intersection of Dundas Street and Eyre Place. Taken 10 January 2005.

This building’s main windows are blocked off with plain stone, but someone went to the trouble to paint the one over the front door black. Why do one and not the other? I walk by it every day – it’s cattercorner from my office – and I’ve always wondered. Taken 10 January 2005.

Which windows are real and which are fake? The ones with the curtains are genuine windows, of course, but so are many of the others. In fact, only the bottom left window is blocked off and painted. But a casual glance on a sunny day sees no difference. Taken 10 January 2005.

In 1851, the Window Tax was abolished in favor of a flatter taxation system, which allowed the government to extract a greater proportion of its income from the growing middle class. But many of the owners of houses with blocked-up windows must not have wanted to go to the inconvenience and expense of unblocking them. And now, of course, most of the buildings are subject to conservation laws that determine how much they can be changed.