In 1821 Parliament went to extraordinary lengths to raise its direct taxes with the Land Tax Commissioners’ Act
As most adults in the UK know all too well, Her Majesty’s Government goes to great lengths to raise its direct taxes – from income tax through corporation tax to inheritance tax.
But in the eighteenthand early nineteenth-centuries it was the government’s indirect taxes – such as excise duty on essentials like beer, soaps, candles, leather as well as luxury items – that accounted for most of the government’s revenue. The only direct tax was the Land Tax, which was paid by the owners of land or property according to the size of their landholdings.
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It was a convention that had been in place since 1692, but in 1821 Parliament went to extraordinary lengths to secure this income stream with the 1821 Land Tax Commissioners’ Act, a piece of legislation that was so detailed, it still holds the record as physically the longest law Parliament has ever passed.
At 348 metres long and made from 757 pieces of parchment (animal skin), this unique object spans more than the length of three football fields or almost a quarter of a mile.
Its impressive length was necessary to capture the names of the 65,000 Commissioners who would collect the money taxed on land, property and personal property, a practice that was in operation until 1963.
These men (no women) included local gentry, doctors, lawyers, merchants and a few shopkeepers who took on the role for Parliament after being nominated by MPs in each county in England, Scotland and Wales. Surprisingly they were not paid for the work they did.
To mark its 200th birthday the physically unique piece of legislation is now on display at People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester until 5 December 2021, thanks to a UK Parliamentary Archives loan.
The 1821 Bill appointing the nation’s hardy Land Tax Commissioners received its first reading in the House of Commons on March 19 and MPs began to nominate people who might do the important if unpopular job of collecting from the wealthy – such as the owners of great estates, as well as individuals like tradesmen, shopkeepers and innkeepers.
The Land Tax Commissioners then visited all the cities, towns and parishes of their counties with each of them meticulously listed on the parchment by Parliamentary scribes in 1821.
It’s important to note that land ownership at this time gave the right to vote in parliamentary elections with Clerks of the Peace in each county keeping parish assessments, which were then used to make up the poll books for the elections to Parliament. For historians today they are a fascinating source of information from the dawn of the reform period.
But apart from offering another valuable addition to the social histories and hierarchies to be found in the parish and township records, the Land Tax Commissioner’s Act of 1821 is a reminder that, in an increasingly digital world, parliament in the 1800s went to extraordinary lengths to raise its revenue.
“It reminds us what a detailed process the work and undertakings of Parliament are and that how differently this work is recorded in the modern world,” says Jenny Mabbott, Head of Collections & Engagement for People’s History Museum.
“It’s a wonderful artefact and we are thrilled that visitors to People’s History Museum will be able to see it.
“It feels very special for a treasure like the Longest Act to be displayed at the national museum of democracy the first time it has been exhibited outside of Parliament, and for this to be on its 200th birthday.”
People's History Museum
Manchester, Greater Manchester
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