Royalists, beards and cowardice: are these the strangest taxes in history?

Rulers and governments of yore have enforced some pretty strange levies, taxing all manner of unlikely commodities and occurrences – as well as the payer's patience. Jonny Wilkes examines some of the oddest for BBC History Revealed

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector
1

Royalists – England

As Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell brought in some pretty restrictive laws, but one of his most tactical was to tax his enemies. Arguing that it was the responsibility of Royalists to pay for the militia, Cromwell levied a 10 per cent income tariff – the ‘decimation tax’ –on known Royalist households. Not only did it bring in some much-needed funds, but was a convenient way to keep his enemies in check.

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2

Urine – Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, human urine was a valuable commodity, used for tanning, laundering – the ammonia apparently made for whiter-than-white togas – and even teeth brushing. It wasn’t long before entrepreneurial types began collecting the waste matter, hoping to make profits from pee, but Emperors Nero and Vespasian noticed. They levied a tax on the acquisition of urine, which led to the popular Latin phrase pecunia non olet, or ‘money does not stink’, a nod to the idea that money is not worth more or less because of where it came from.

3

Soap – England

The fact that the English upper classes tended to think of the lower classes as smelly ingrates might have something to do with the 141-year tax on soap that came into force in 1712, and it out-priced poorer-paid folk. Indeed, it was such a heavy tax that soap makers began to make their product off the books for the black market, after which tax collectors took to locking the lids of the makers’ soap-boiling pans overnight.

4

Beards – Russia and Tudor England

Russian beard tax token
One side of the Russian token bears the words “the beard is a superfluous burden”. (Photo by Alamy)

In a bid to westernise Russian society, in 1698 Tsar Peter the Great slapped a tax on what he deemed to be an old-fashioned fashion choice: the beard. Men had a choice: shave or stump up. Those who opted to retain their face fuzz would be given a token as proof of payment, on one side of which was a rather eerie image of half a face and the words: “The beard is a superfluous burden”.

King Henry VIII levied a similar tax on Tudor England, with the amount depending on the gent’s standing in society. Facial hair, therefore, quickly became a symbol of stature.

5

Cowardice – England

If you were a knight in medieval England, it was a great honour to be called up to war in service of the king, and it was your duty to oblige. But if you didn’t really fancy it, you could pay scutage, popularly known as cowardice tax. Having begun in 1100, the scaredy-cat scutage evolved into a general tax on knights’ land by the 13th century. It morphed then further still into a hefty fine paid in lieu of service before becoming redundant in the 14th century.

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Cooking oil – Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt gave us one of the oldest-known taxes, but it’s a remarkably small-fry levy from the land of gold and jewels: cooking oil. Tax collectors, or scribes, would visit people’s houses to make sure they weren’t re-using their fat, or cooking with cheaper alternatives. The tax was paid to the Pharaoh, who had a vested interest: he also owned the oil itself.

7

Chinese immigrants to Canada – Canada

Head Tax receipt
Those who paid the Canada’s Chinese Head Tax were given a receipt like this (Photo by Alamy)

For nearly 40 years from 1885-1923, Canada imposed a tax on all immigrants from China, introduced to discourage immigrants from the Far East. At a time when no other ethnic group paid anything, the ‘Chinese Head Tax’ required Chinese settlers to hand over $50 (but this rose to $500 by 1903). After settling, they may have earned as little as $1 a day.

8

Hats – England

You may not be able to put a price on style but, in 1784, the English government tried via a tax on men’s hats. The charge levied was dependant the value of the headgear – a simple flat cap costing under four shillings warranted a threepence charge, while more expensive styles – such as early top hats valued at over 12 shillings – demanded a two-shilling duty.

9

Fireplaces – England

For many, winters in 17th-century England were colder than they had to be. This was thanks to a tax on all fireplaces, introduced in 1662 to pay for Charles II’s household. Much like the window tax of 1696, people hastily bricked up their costly chimneys and shivered through the chilly nights to avoid paying. This sometimes led to tragedy: in 1684, an Oxfordshire baker caused a fire that destroyed 20 buildings and killed four people after knocking through a wall from her oven to avoid the hearth tax.

10

Modesty – India

For a short period in the 19th century, lower caste women in the Indian princely state of Travancore were required to pay to cover their breasts in public. This tax, mulakkaram, led to an extraordinary act of rebellion. A woman named Nangeli refused to comply, so cut off her own breasts and handed them to a tax collector on a plantain leaf. She died from her wounds, but the tax was abolished.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed