December 16, 2022

Lights out: the history of the Candle Tax

Lights out: the history of the Candle Tax

The candle tax was introduced in 1709 to help finance the War of the Spanish Succession, in which Britain unsuccessfully supported the Austrian candidate for the Spanish throne. Although the war ended in 1714 the tax wasn’t abolished until 1831.

As a result of the tax the price of candles rose sharply, going up by at least 50% by the 1740s. To prevent ordinary citizens getting around the tax by producing their own candles, the making of candles at home was actually banned.

Candle-making at home was banned to increase government revenue.

Many took up rushlights instead, an old-fashioned method of lighting using animal fat. To create extra light rushes were sometimes lit at both ends, the origin of the saying ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ Rushes smelled bad and created a filthy smoky unhealthy atmosphere.

Many poor people couldn't use rushlights because they didn’t have enough fatty meat in their diets from which they could make the rushlights. If a poor family could afford a little bacon they would eat the drippings smeared over bread rather than use it for rushlights.

For many poor families candles were a major part of the family budget. A common consequence of the high price of candles was to have to go to bed early. Often, they would draw lines on their candles to separate them into 7 segments, one for each night of the week.

Data relating to candles shows that the tax's effect was to reduce candle consumption significantly. From 1711 to the 1750s it stayed flat while per capita income increased by 20% and population by 10%. Together with the window tax, the candle tax ushered in a new dark age.

New taxes were not appreciated by the public

Although the candle tax lasted over 120 years its futility and harmful effects eventually became apparent even to politicians. On February 16, 1831 Lord Althorp for the government announced the abolition of the tax.

"Labourers, and small farmers, and other persons so disposed, might, should this tax be abolished, make their own candles without any restriction. The reduction in the price of the article, would be a great benefit to the poor,” he admitted.

The removal of the tax spurred candle use and scientific development in production techniques. By 1840 the firm Price's Candles was able to produce a harder, whiter candle wax called stearine that burned brighter and longer and smelled much less.

Candles could now be bought at affordable prices.

Prices fell sharply, per capita candle consumption grew strongly and the bulk of the population could afford to have light inside their houses at night.

This case of the candle tax shows just how difficult it is to get rid of harmful taxes, because politicians rely on the revenue they raise. If an Institute for Fiscal Studies had existed in the 1830s no doubt it would have argued against an ‘unfunded’ cut in the candle tax.