Wednesday 28 October 2015

History Like It Wasn't

Lucy Worsley has been tripping lightly and brightly on our TV screens for several years now.  Like an engaging, concerned but rather bossy elder sister she has fronted a few programmes to do with history, her chosen and professional special trade, see her Wikipedia page and other net information.

The trouble is that on TV there has been a relentless shift in many programmes, including documentaries to lard them with features that are entertainment, personal interest or sensational.  It has become clear that Lucy has moved with the times.

Her latest threesome, that is programmes, has been about Romance with a hint of sex since 1700.  Heavily skewed to the upper classes and their literature along with the high fashion and the rest, the peasants were off camera and not to be seen or heard of.

In programmes like this often the detail of history becomes an option and one not taken, along with all the complications that were in the life of those times. Sometimes the result is not only misleading but the reverse of the truth.

In the third and last of her romantic journey through time, Lucy told us that because before the 20th the aristocracy did not pay income tax or inheritance tax they just raked in the rents and spent them, the implication being that they did not pay tax at all.

This is simply not merely an error but an untruth.  The history of British taxation is very complicated and because of the difficulties usually avoided by historians.  There is only so much time and the history of tax needs a very great deal.

So it is not going to be attempted here.  As well as central government taxes and duties, excise and customs duties there were a raft of local taxes and obligations, effectively a charge.  In the 19th Century and before a great deal of what is now central was local including the then "welfare" costs of the time.

There is also the complication of religion.  The aristocracy had many obligations and charges related to the Church of England.  Now we do not regard that as a tax more as an option.  But then it was regarded as tax to help fund the state church.

When Lloyd George came along after 1908, a dissenting congregation Liberal out to dish the Tories by destroying one of their financial bases, he targeted the landowners and aristo's.  Income taxes were made more specific and racked up and a hefty Inheritance tax imposed.

This followed major changes in local taxation arising from the extensive reforms of local government and essential utilities.  It was understandable that the landowners objected strongly, it was in effect to them a "double whammy" given the range of outgoings already in place.

Then World War One in 1914 with its huge costs and subsequent expansion of central government in the 1920's and later meant there was going to be no relief to the landowners already trapped in economic decline with the depression in agriculture.

One complication which the expert historians do take account of is that the key income from land was rents.  But these had to be negotiated in terms of what the tenant could pay realistically and had to take account of local taxation levels arising.

This effect was not taxation as such but was indirectly affected by what levels of local tax and other obligations were entailed in the tenancies etc.  And for a long period rentals were on the way down.

One image problem of the time and later, the antics of the Prince of Wales set and their hanger's on were taken to be the model of the upper classes when out in the sticks and on the land it was a very different story for most of them.

Perhaps Lucy should try reading some real history rather than romances.


  1. There has always been a strong romantic trend in the versions of history deemed suitable for the masses. For those of us who are interested but are not historians, selecting accurate reading material can be difficult.

    Ms Worsley is merely a presenter who has chosen to ride the trend. If she tried to correct it then no doubt she would disappear from our screens. As happened to David Bellamy when he expressed sceptical views on climate orthodoxy.

  2. I still think many of us would prefer things nearer the truth. However, I know my children and grown up grandchildren have a very vague idea of history and geography which I find appalling. However, they seem to hold down well paid jobs.