Window Tax


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…in England and Wales

From 1696 until 1851 a “window tax” was imposed in England and Wales1. Sort-of a precursor to property taxes like council tax today, it used an estimate of the value of a property as an indicator of the wealth of its occupants: counting the number of windows provided the mechanism for assessment.

Graph showing the burden of window tax in 1696 and 1794. In the former year a flat rate of 1 shiling was charged, doubling for a property when it reached 10 and 20 windows respectively. In the latter year charging began at 10 windows and the price per-window jumped up at 15 at 20 windows. Both approaches result in a "stepped" increase.
The hardest thing about retrospectively graphing the cost of window tax is thinking in “old money”2.
Window tax replaced an earlier hearth tax, following the ascension to the English throne of Mary II and William III of Orange. Hearth tax had come from a similar philosophy: that you can approximate the wealth of a household by some aspect of their home, in this case the number of stoves and fireplaces they had.

(A particular problem with window tax as enacted is that its “stepping”, which was designed to weigh particularly heavily on the rich with their large houses, was that it similarly weighed heavily on large multi-tenant buildings, whose landlord would pass on those disproportionate costs to their tenants!)

1703 woodcut showing King William III and Queen Mary II.
It’d be temping to blame William and Mary for the window tax, but the reality is more-complex and reflects late renaissance British attitudes to the limits of state authority.

Why a window tax? There’s two ways to answer that:

  • A window tax – and a hearth tax, for that matter – can be assessed without the necessity of the taxpayer to disclose their income. Income tax, nowadays the most-significant form of taxation in the UK, was long considered to be too much of an invasion upon personal privacy3.
  • But compared to a hearth tax, it can be validated from outside the property. Counting people in a property in an era before solid recordkeeping is hard. Counting hearths is easier… so long as you can get inside the property. Counting windows is easier still and can be done completely from the outside!
Dan points to a bricked-up first storey window on a stone building used by a funeral services company.
If you’re in Britain, finding older buildings with windows bricked-up to save on tax is pretty easy. I took a break from writing this post, walked for three minutes, and found one.4

…in the Netherlands

I recently got back from a trip to Amsterdam to meet my new work team and get to know them better.

Dan, by a game of table football, throws his arms into the air as if in self-celebration.
There were a few work-related/adjacent activities. But also a table football tournament, among other bits of fun.

One of the things I learned while on this trip was that the Netherlands, too, had a window tax for a time. But there’s an interesting difference.

The Dutch window tax was introduced during the French occupation, under Napoleon, in 1810 – already much later than its equivalent in England – and continued even after he was ousted and well into the late 19th century. And that leads to a really interesting social side-effect.

Dan, with four other men, sit in the back of a covered boat on a canal.
My brief interest in 19th century Dutch tax policy was piqued during my team’s boat tour.

Glass manufacturing technique evolved rapidly during the 19th century. At the start of the century, when England’s window tax law was in full swing, glass panes were typically made using the crown glass process: a bauble of glass would be spun until centrifugal force stretched it out into a wide disk, getting thinner towards its edge.

The very edge pieces of crown glass were cut into triangles for use in leaded glass, with any useless offcuts recycled; the next-innermost pieces were the thinnest and clearest, and fetched the highest price for use as windows. By the time you reached the centre you had a thick, often-swirly piece of glass that couldn’t be sold for a high price: you still sometimes find this kind among the leaded glass in particularly old pub windows5.

Multi-pane window with distinctive crown glass "circles".
They’re getting rarer, but I’ve lived in houses with small original panes of crown glass like these!

As the 19th century wore on, cylinder glass became the norm. This is produced by making an iron cylinder as a mould, blowing glass into it, and then carefully un-rolling the cylinder while the glass is still viscous to form a reasonably-even and flat sheet. Compared to spun glass, this approach makes it possible to make larger window panes. Also: it scales more-easily to industrialisation, reducing the cost of glass.

The Dutch window tax survived into the era of large plate glass, and this lead to an interesting phenomenon: rather than have lots of windows, which would be expensive, late-19th century buildings were constructed with windows that were as large as possible to maximise the ratio of the amount of light they let in to the amount of tax for which they were liable6.

Hotel des Pays-Bas, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 11 (1910 photo), showing large windows.
Look at the size of those windows! If you’re limited in how many you can have, but you’ve got the technology, you’re going to make them as large as you possibly can!

That’s an architectural trend you can still see in Amsterdam (and elsewhere in Holland) today. Even where buildings are renovated or newly-constructed, they tend – or are required by preservation orders – to mirror the buildings they neighbour, which influences architectural decisions.

Pre-WWI Neighbourhood gathering in Amsterdam, with enormous windows (especially on the ground floor) visible.
Notice how each building has only between one and three windows on the ground floor, letting as much light in while minimising the tax burden.

It’s really interesting to see the different architectural choices produced in two different cities as a side-effect of fundamentally the same economic choice, resulting from slightly different starting conditions in each (a half-century gap and a land shortage in one). While Britain got fewer windows, the Netherlands got bigger windows, and you can still see the effects today.

…and social status

But there’s another interesting this about this relatively-recent window tax, and that’s about how people broadcast their social status.

Modern photo, taken from the canal, showing a tall white building in Amsterdam with large windows on the ground floor and also basement level, and an ornamental window above the front door. Photo from Google Street View.
This Google Street Canal (?) View photo shows a house on Keizersgracht, one of the richest parts of Amsterdam. Note the superfluous decorative window above the front door and the basement-level windows for the servants’ quarters.

In some of the traditionally-wealthiest parts of Amsterdam, you’ll find houses with more windows than you’d expect. In the photo above, notice:

  • How the window density of the central white building is about twice that of the similar-width building on the left,
  • That a mostly-decorative window has been installed above the front door, adorned with a decorative leaded glass pattern, and
  • At the bottom of the building, below the front door (up the stairs), that a full set of windows has been provided even for the below-ground servants quarters!

When it was first constructed, this building may have been considered especially ostentatious. Its original owners deliberately requested that it be built in a way that would attract a higher tax bill than would generally have been considered necessary in the city, at the time. The house stood out as a status symbol, like shiny jewellery, fashionable clothes, or a classy car might today.

Cheerful white elderly man listening to music through headphones that are clearly too large for him.
I originally wanted to insert a picture here that represented how one might show status through fashion today. But then I remembered I don’t know anything about fashion7. But somehow my stock image search suggested this photo, and I love it so much I’m using it anyway. You’re welcome.
How did we go wrong? A century and a bit ago the super-wealthy used to demonstrate their status by showing off how much tax they can pay. Nowadays, they generally seem more-preoccupied with getting away with paying as little as possible, or none8.

Can we bring back 19th-century Dutch social status telegraphing, please?9


1 Following the Treaty of Union the window tax was also applied in Scotland, but Scotland’s a whole other legal beast that I’m going to quietly ignore for now because it doesn’t really have any bearing on this story.

2 The second-hardest thing about retrospectively graphing the cost of window tax is finding a reliable source for the rates. I used an archived copy of a guru site about Wolverhampton history.

3 Even relatively-recently, the argument that income tax might be repealed as incompatible with British values shows up in political debate. Towards the end of the 19th century, Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone could be relied upon to agree with one another on almost nothing, but both men spoke at length about their desire to abolish income tax, even setting out plans to phase it out… before having to cancel those plans when some financial emergency showed up. Turns out it’s hard to get rid of.

4 There are, of course, other potential reasons for bricked-up windows – even aesthetic ones – but a bit of a giveaway is if the bricking-up reduces the number of original windows to 6, 9, 14 or 19, which are thesholds at which the savings gained by bricking-up are the greatest.

5 You’ve probably heard about how glass remains partially-liquid forever and how this explains why old windows are often thicker at the bottom. You’ve probably also already had it explained to you that this is complete bullshit. I only mention it here to preempt any discussion in the comments.

6 This is even more-pronounced in cities like Amsterdam where a width/frontage tax forced buildings to be as tall and narrow and as close to their neighbours as possible, further limiting opportunities for access to natural light.

7 Yet I’m willing to learn a surprising amount about Dutch tax law of the 19th century. Go figure.

8 Obligatory Pet Shop Boys video link. Can that be a thing please?

9 But definitely not 17th-century Dutch social status telegraphing, please. That shit was bonkers.

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Automattic Lockdown (days 79 to 206)

Since I accepted a job offer with Automattic last summer I’ve been writing about my experience on a nice, round 128-day schedule. My first post described my application and recruitment process; my second post covered my induction, my initial two weeks working alongside the Happiness team (tech support), and my first month in my role. This is the third post, running through to the end of six and a half months as an Automattician.

Always Be Deploying

One of the things that’s quite striking about working on many of Automattic’s products, compared to places I’ve worked before, is the velocity. Their continuous integration game is pretty spectacular. We’re not talking “move fast and break things” iteration speeds (thank heavens), but we’re still talking fast.

Graph showing Automattic deployments for a typical week. Two of the 144 deployments on Monday were by Dan.
Deployments-per-day in a reasonably typical week. A minor bug slipped through in the first of the deployments I pushed on the Monday shown, so it was swiftly followed by a second deployment (no external end-users were affected: phew!).

My team tackles a constant stream of improvements in two-week sprints, with every third sprint being a cool-down period to focus on refactoring, technical debt, quick wins, and the like. Periodic HACK weeks – where HACK is (since 2018) a backronym for Helpful Acts in Customer Kindness – facilitate focussed efforts on improving our ecosystem and user experiences.

I’m working in a larger immediate team than I had for most of my pre-Automattic career. I’m working alongside nine other developers, typically in groups of two to four depending on the needs of whatever project I’m on. There’s a great deal of individual autonomy: we’re all part of a greater whole and we’re all pushing in the same direction, but outside of the requirements of the strategic goals of our division, the team’s tactical operations are very-much devolved and consensus-driven. We work out as a team how to solve the gnarly (and fun!) problems, how to make best use of our skills, how to share our knowledge, and how to schedule our priorities.

Dan in front of three monitors and a laptop.
My usual workspace looks pretty much exactly like you’re thinking that it does.

This team-level experience echoes the experience of being an individual at Automattic, too. The level of individual responsibility and autonomy we enjoy is similar to that I’ve seen only after accruing a couple of years of experience and authority at most other places I’ve worked. It’s amazing to see that you can give a large group of people so much self-controlled direction… and somehow get order out of the chaos. More than elsewhere, management is more to do with shepherding people into moving in the same direction than it is about dictating how the ultimate strategic goals might be achieved.

Na na na na na na na na VAT MAN!

Somewhere along the way, I somehow became my team’s live-in expert on tax. You know how it is: you solve a bug with VAT calculation in Europe… then you help roll out changes to support registration with the GST in Australia… and then one day you find yourself reading Mexican digital services tax legislation and you can’t remember where the transition was from being a general full-stack developer to having a specialisation in tax.

An Oxford coworking space.
Before the coronavirus lockdown, though, I’d sometimes find a coworking space (or cafe, or pub!) to chill in while I worked. This one was quiet on the day I took the photo.

Tax isn’t a major part of my work. But it’s definitely reached a point at which I’m a go-to figure. A week or so ago when somebody had a question about the application of sales taxes to purchases on the extensions store, their first thought was “I’ll ask Dan!” There’s something I wouldn’t have anticipated, six month ago.

Automattic’s culture lends itself to this kind of selective micro-specialisation. The company actively encourages staff to keep learning new things but mostly without providing a specific direction, and this – along with their tendency to attract folks who, like me, could foster an interest in almost any new topic so long as they’re learning something – means that my colleagues and I always seem to be developing some new skill or other.

Batman, with his costume's logo adapted to be "VAT man".
I ended up posting this picture to my team’s internal workspace, this week, as I looked a VAT-related calculation.

I know off the top of my head who I’d talk to about if I had a question about headless browser automation, or database index performance, or email marketing impact assessment, or queer representation, or getting the best airline fares, or whatever else. And if I didn’t, I could probably find them. None of their job descriptions mention that aspect of their work. They’re just the kind of people who, when they see a problem, try to deepen their understanding of it as a whole rather than just solving it for today.

A lack of pigeonholing, coupled with the kind of information management that comes out of being an entirely-distributed company, means that the specialisation of individuals becomes a Search-Don’t-Sort problem. You don’t necessarily find an internal specialist by their job title: you’re more-likely to find them by looking for previous work on particular topics. That feels pretty dynamic and exciting… although it does necessarily lead to occasional moments of temporary panic when you discover that something important (but short of mission-critical) doesn’t actually have anybody directly responsible for it.

Crisis response

No examination of somebody’s first 6+ months at a new company, covering Spring 2020, would be complete without mention of that company’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Because, let’s face it, that’s what everybody’s talking about everywhere right now.

Dan in a video meeting, in a hammock.
All workplace meetings should be done this way.

In many ways, Automattic is better-placed than most companies to weather the situation. What, we have to work from home now? Hold my beer. Got to shift your hours around childcare and other obligations? Sit down, let us show you how it’s done. Need time off for COVID-related reasons? We already have an open leave policy in place and it’s great, thanks.

As the UK’s lockdown (eventually) took hold I found myself treated within my social circle like some kind of expert on remote working. My inboxes filled up with queries from friends… How do I measure  output? How do I run a productive meeting? How do I maintain morale? I tried to help, but unfortunately some of my answers relied slightly on already having a distributed culture: having the information and resource management and teleworking infrastructure in-place before the crisis. Still, I’m optimistic that companies will come out of the other side of this situation with a better idea about how to plan for and execute remote working strategies.

Laptop screen showing five people videoconferencing.
Social distancing is much easier when you’re almost never in the same room as your colleagues anyway.

I’ve been quite impressed that even though Automattic’s all sorted for how work carries on through this crisis, we’ve gone a step further and tried to organise (remote) events for people who might be feeling more-isolated as a result of the various lockdowns around the world. I’ve seen mention of wine tasting events, toddler groups, guided meditation sessions, yoga clubs, and even a virtual dog park (?), all of which try to leverage the company’s existing distributed infrastructure to support employees who’re affected by the pandemic. That’s pretty cute.

(It might also have provided some inspiration for the murder mystery party I plan to run a week on Saturday…)

Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy, by Matt Mullenweg.
Matt shared this diagram last month, and its strata seem increasingly visible as many companies adapt (with varying levels of success) to remote work.

In summary: Automattic’s still proving to be an adventure, I’m still loving their quirky and chaotic culture and the opportunity to learn something new every week, and while their response to the coronavirus crisis has been as solid as you’d expect from a fully-distributed company I’ve also been impressed by the company’s efforts to support staff (in a huge diversity of situations across many different countries) through it.

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Where does my council tax go?

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Where does my council tax go – a Freedom of Information request to South Somerset District Council (WhatDoTheyKnow)

I have recently recieved my council tax bill and would like to know excatly where my money goes. On the minimal breakdown that is stated on the letter, it states i pay three different council departments i also contribute towards adult social care, may i state i do not use this service and i have no one in social care so why should i pay it. I also have no full time police force, fire service or ambulance service why am i paying for these. I have not used these services therefore why am i not refunded for the services that i do not use. I want to know the excact breakdown of where the £936 pound i give to south somerset district council go. As i feel i am being ripped of and paying for services i do not use. Yours faithfully, james

The following Freedom of Information request was published on What Do They Know?, and it’s glorious:

Dear South Somerset District Council,

I have recently recieved my council tax bill and would like to know excatly where my money goes.

On the minimal breakdown that is stated on the letter, it states i pay three different council departments i also contribute towards adult social care, may i state i do not use this service and i have no one in social care so why should i pay it. I also have no full time police force, fire service or ambulance service why am i paying for these. I have not used these services therefore why am i not refunded for the services that i do not use.

I want to know the excact breakdown of where the £936 pound i give to south somerset district council go. As i feel i am being ripped of and paying for services i do not use.

Yours faithfully,


Dear James,

Your question is quite broad and more than a little mystifying. To the extent that it’s a Freedom of Information Request, I can tell you that a more thorough breakdown of South Somerset District Council’s (SSDC’s) finances for financial years 2012/13 – 2015/16 are available on this page of our website:

I recommend looking at the Summary of Accounts documents—there is a helpful pie-chart in each. Our Statement and Summary of Accounts for the 2016/17 financial year will be published after the 27th of July.

Please note that SSDC collects Council Tax on behalf of other local authorities, including Somerset County Council and Avon and Somerset Police (these are, I think, the ‘departments’ to which you refer). These authorities will have published similar statements of accounts.

The rest of your questions touch on deeper issues about the philosophy of public service and the extent to which these services should be free at the point of use. The Freedom of Information Act is not the appropriate platform to debate these issues. But I offer the following parable:

In ancient Rome Marcus Crassus became very wealthy by creating the first fire brigade. But his brigade was not publicly funded, nor did they sell fire insurance. When the brigade arrived at a burning building, Crassus would negotiate with the owner a price he considered reasonable to put out the fire. His brigade would let the building burn until a price was agreed. If the owner failed to agree, they would let it burn to the ground.

Whilst you don’t need adult social care now, you may one day. And the people who DO need it now aren’t in a position to agree a reasonable price for it.

Perhaps if you are interested in researching public service, you could use a public library (which is free at the point of use).

Kind regards,

Legal Services
South Somerset District Council

Six Pounds And Eighteen Pence

That’s how much better off I am per month than I was previously. Or, as I see it, three pints.

Thank you, Gordon Brown.