A Hair Raising Tax

on Monday, 13 February 2017. Posted in Archives


The Toilette of the State Prosecutor’s Clerk, c. 1768 by Carle Vernet

Prime Minister William Pitt the younger was under pressure to raise taxation to help pay for the Napoleonic Wars with France, which proved to be very expensive, costing the country £831 million, £49 billion in today’s money. The government had to come up with ever more ingenious ways to pay for the wars, which included taxes on bricks, clocks, watches, hats, medicine, playing cards, soap, newspapers, gloves, perfume, hired horses and hair powder before resorting to Income Tax from 1799.

The Hair Powder Tax was introduced in 1795 by "Independent Whig" William Pitt. The Whig party (no connection to the wearing of wigs) was a political party from 1680’s to the 1850’s and a rival to the Tory party.

Anyone who wished to use hair powder had to obtain an annual certificate from their local Justice of the Peace and to pay a stamp duty of one guinea (£1.05) per annum, which in today’s money is £127!  The use of wigs was in the decline by this stage in favour of more natural hairstyles and this only hastened its demise. In 1812 46,664 people paid the tax, but by 1855 only 997 paid. By the time the tax was repealed in June 1869 it only yielded £1,000 per annum. 

Statutes Public and General, George III, Chapter 49
Statutes Public and General, George III, Chapter 49

There were certain exceptions to paying the tax: - The Royal Family and their servants - Clergymen with an income of under £100 a year - Non-commissioned officers, privates in the army, artillery, militia, mariners, engineers, fencibles (were a type of home guard set up to defend the United Kingdom and the colonies during the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th centuries), subalterns (a British military term for a junior officer), officers in the navy below commander, yeomanry and volunteers. - The master of a household could buy a certificate for a servant which would be valid for their successors within that year. - A father with more than one unmarried daughters could buy two certificates which would be valid for all his daughters. - One payment could be made for a group of servants in one household.

A list of who had paid was sent to the Quarter Session court, with a copy fixed to the door of the parish church. These now form part of the Quarter Session records held by us, with the reference number WSA A1/395. Fines were imposed for those who did not pay the tax.  

The wearing of periwigs – wig for short, became very fashionable during the 17th and 18th Century. But as with a lot fashion, one has to contend with some hardship: nits, plague, robbers and tax!

Samuel Pepys by Robert White, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt line engraving, published 1690 NPG D5505 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Samuel Pepys, the 17th Century diarist made several entries to the wearing of periwigs:

“3rd September 1665: Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of infection? That it had been cut of people dead of the plague.”

There were other hazards to contend with.

He noted:

“27th March 1663: I did go to the Swan; and there sent for Jervas my old periwig-maker and he did bring me a periwig; but it was full of nits, so as I troubled to see it (it being his fault) and did send him to make it clean.

The theft of periwigs in the street was not uncommon during the 18th century. A full wig was very expensive, a man could buy a hat, coat, breeches, shirt and shoes for the same price as a wig. One trick used by robbers would be to carry a small boy on a covered butcher’s tray on the shoulders of a tall man, the wig could be grabbed by the boy and quickly covered up to look like meat on the butcher’s tray.

The Five Orders of Periwigs – William Hogarth 1761

Louis XIII (1601-1643) Henry IV’s son started to go bald at a very young age, because of this he started to wear a long wig. Soon Charles II (1630-1685) of England took to wearing a wig and it wasn’t long before it became fashionable.

The fashion for using hair powder is thought to have started in France by King Henry IV (1553-1610) who used brown powder to cover up his grey hairs.

The most expensive wigs were white, so people took to putting white powder on their wigs to portray the impression of wealth.

Hair powder is made from flour or starch and varied a great deal in quality. The best, being made from refined starch, where the bran, hull and fibre have been removed from the grain. White was the most popular but other colours were used, brown, grey, orange, pink, red, blue and violet.

At The Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre we hold the lists of certificates that were lodged with the Quarter Session court for 1796 and 1797 (WSA A1/395). The lists are arranged by parish and include a date, a list of names and the relationship to the head of the household or role e.g. servant.  These have been transcribed by the Wiltshire Family History Society and are on the open access shelves (Box 16/2). The census records start at 1841, with the Hair Powder Tax lists starting nearly fifty years earlier they can provide help for genealogists to get back a further generation. Obviously they are not as complete as the census records as most people were not of the status to wear wigs, but they are still a useful and interesting mini census.


WSA A1/395

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor


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