June 13, 2022

Thick as a brick: the stupidities of the brick tax

Thick as a brick: the stupidities of the brick tax

The brick tax was introduced in Britain in 1784 to pay for the wars in America, which sought unsuccessfully to prevent American independence. It was not repealed until 1850. The tax was originally levied at a rate of four shillings per 1,000 bricks, but was increased in 1794, 1797, and 1805, reaching 5s 10d per thousand bricks.

Manufacturers then sought to reduce the effect of the tax by producing bigger bricks. An extreme case was Joseph Wilkes of Measham, who produced bricks double the normal size (110x110x235mm) known locally as 'Jumbies' or Wilkes' Gobs. The government responded by regulating the size of bricks, decreeing that there should be a maximum brick volume at 150 cubic inches. This was still bigger than previous norm - today the age of houses can be partially judged by the size of bricks used.

Customs and Excise would visit each brick manufacturer, checking every mould to ensure the size was not too big, and then count the number of bricks made. The cost of ensuring compliance with the tax was high and estimated by Customs & Excise to be 20% of the tax take.

The brick tax had of course significant other side effects, beyond those on the size of bricks. Some smaller brick manufacturers were forced out of business and had to sell their stock to meet tax arrears. The bigger effect was on types of house construction. The use of timber and weatherboarding increased in many areas despite the lesser solidity of such construction methods. Despite duties on foreign timber, the tax on bricks made them considerably more expensive.

In the late 1840s pressure grew for the abolition of tax because it acted as an impediment to economic development and was a barrier to the erection of decent housing, especially for the poor. Revenue raised from the tax had declined from £523,379 in 1840 to £456,452 in 1849.

Another argument presented for abolition was the unfair regional impact of the tax, which affected the east of the country much more than the west, where stone was more readily used. The effect on the poor was also highlighted. The noted Radical M.P. Joseph Hume[i],when introducing a motion for the repeal of the tax, stated:

“Up to very lately the condition of the labouring classes had been shamefully neglected, and, above all, by the Government. It appeared from statements received from various quarters that the expense of building cottages for the labouring classes was so much increased by the duties on timber and bricks as to operate in many instances as a positive prohibition to their erection. These duties then operated directly as a positive check on the social comfort and happiness of the labouring classes”.

The repeal of the brick tax in 1850 provided the brick industry with a new impetus which led to a boom in the building industry. New investment poured into the industry, enabling the development of new techniques. Brick production reached new heights, aided by improved mixing and moulding machines and better firing techniques. Bricks were now available in a range of colours, shapes and strengths that would have been unimaginable 100 years earlier. Better quarrying techniques allowed extraction of the deeper clays which produce stronger, denser bricks; critical for civil engineering works such as canals, viaducts sewers and bridges.

This case provides two lessons. First, that getting rid of a tax is ten times harder than introducing one. Second, that what may seem an innocent method of taking in revenue from an industry has a heavy impact on both producers and consumers.

[i] see the Liberal Democrat History Group’s biography of Joseph Hume at: http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=30&item=biography