Hearth Tax Digital opens up 17th century family history records online
Genealogist David Annal reports on a free new website that aims to open up a remarkable 17th century resource to researchers all around the world
Hearth Tax Digital is the work of the Centre for Hearth Tax Research at the University of Roehampton, in close collaboration with staff from the University of Graz (Austria). The long-term objective of the project is to make all the surviving records of the Hearth Tax freely available online, both as digital images and as a fully searchable database. Other partners in the project include The British Academy, the British Record Society and the University of the Third Age (U3A).
The Hearth Tax was first levied in England and Wales by King Charles II shortly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1662 and continued to be collected in one form or another up until 1689. The surviving records list the names of those who were liable to pay the tax (charged at the rate of one shilling per hearth, twice yearly) and many also include the names of those who were exempt – people who didn’t pay the poor rate or who had limited personal assets were not required to pay the tax.
Most of the original records are held by The National Archives at Kew (in record series E179) but many are also to be found in local county record offices, often among records of the quarter sessions. Where the survival rate is good (particularly between 1662-1666 and 1669-1674 when the collection of the tax was administered centrally) the returns can almost equate to a national census, although it’s important to note that only the names of heads of households will appear on the lists.
Occupations are occasionally found in the records as well as titles such as ‘Sir’ and ‘Esquire’, which give us an idea of social status. The number of hearths (and stoves or ovens) listed next to the names also provides an indication of relative wealth while the word ‘Pauper’ or the letter ‘P’ next to a name on the exempt lists gives us clues about those at the other end of the social scale.
Searching the database
Searching the records on Hearth Tax Digital couldn’t be easier; the database allows you to search by name and/or place and you have the option of using wildcards. You can quickly move from the results list to a transcript of the returns themselves. There’s also an option to select individual records and add them to your ‘databasket’ so that you can sort and compare your own sub-set of records.
The website (pictured) was officially launched at the British Academy on 2 July in an event featuring short talks, including by Andrew Wareham, Director of the Centre for Hearth Tax Research, and Georg Vogeler from the University of Graz. Professor Vogeler explained the complexities of the data capture process while Dr Wareham presented a brief summary of the project to date.
There’s a long way to go, but the Hearth Tax Digital website currently provides access to returns from parts of Yorkshire, Durham, Middlesex, Westminster and the City of London. Returns for Essex, Sussex and Westmorland are in the pipeline and the team is looking at introducing mapping features – so watch out for updates.
The website can be found here.
David Annal has been involved in the family history world for more than 30 years and is a former principal family history specialist at The National Archives. He is an experienced lecturer and the author of a number of best-selling family history books, including ‘Easy Family History’ and (with Peter Christian) ‘Census: The Family Historian’s Guide’. David now runs his own family history research business, Lifelines Research. He is tutor for the free Family Tree Academy running through every issue on Family Tree in 2019.