Wearside Echoes: Taxing time for Wearsiders

TAXING TIME: Snow on Tunstall Hills 1925 by David T Robertson - original painting
TAXING TIME: Snow on Tunstall Hills 1925 by David T Robertson - original painting
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THE Hair Powder Tax caused problems for many people in Sunderland during the 18th century. Today we find out why.

POWDERED hair was the height of fashion in 18th century Sunderland – and to be surrounded by powdered servants was a great status symbol too.

The wigs of well-to-do gentlemen demanded a dusting of powder, while it was essential that the well-greased coiffures of women were powdered up too.

Once stiffened and arranged with a decorative topping – perhaps of fruit, feathers or flowers – it could be a considerable time before a lady’s hair was washed again.

Scented powders, available in a variety of shades, helped mask what might have become a rather nasty stench.

Ladies would thrust their heads through a hole in the partition of a small closet, where a servant would squeeze powder through horse hair and a sieve onto their hair.

This is the origin of the phrase ‘powder room.’

However, with an eye to raising extra cash following taxes on shrouds, lights, hearths and windows, Government officials now turned their attention on hair powder.

And so it was, in 1795, that the chancellor, William Pitt, imposed a tax of one guinea per annum on the use of hair powder. It was an extremely unpopular move.

The immediate result was a reduction in the number of powdered servants in large households - Lord Delaval, of Seaton Carew, applied for certificates for just two of his 20 servants to be allowed powder.

Summons against defaulters who failed to pay up were frequently issued too – with many people living in the old Sunderland township receiving one.

Joseph Swan, a butcher from Monkwearmouth, was one of those to fall foul of the law, after being found to have worn “a certain powder without having a certificate.”

He was ordered to forfeit £20 for the crime, which happened between 1795 and 1796, “according to Act of Parliament.”

Thomas Stephenson, a surveyor of taxes for Chester ward, immediately applied for half of the cash as a reward for having caught the offender in the act.

Obviously deeply unhappy at the outcome, Swan then informed on another Sunderland man guilty of the same crime – an inn keeper called Robert Punshon.

Other Sunderland people to be caught out by their vanity included Elizabeth Jameson, wife of master mariner William Jameson of Monkwearmouth, and William Abbs – a lieutenant in the Navy.

Jane Smith of East Herrington was another offender to receive a summons – after ‘omitting to insert her name’ in the household powder tax official records.

Her decision is unlikely to have been accidental, however, for she was Sunderland’s notorious miser, Lady Peat, a woman known for her ‘hilarious and nefarious doings.’

Jane, daughter of Squire Matthew Smith, is said to have walked around the village wearing a cheap shawl, her father’s boots and a huge gold chain around her neck.

The family was reputedly worth £30,000, an enormous sum in the 18th century; but tried to dodge paying bills at toll booths, shops and to the Government.

Jane is said to tried to trick her way through a turnpike gate at West Rainton, for which she was fined £10, and was often caught stealing from shops too.

Her efforts to avoid the Hair Powder Tax landed her with a fine of £40.

Nationally, the Hair Powder Tax brought in around £20,000 a year for the Government in the early years - although clergymen were exempt from payment.

However, its use in most classes soon fell out of favour following the tax, and many of those who persisted in using powder found themselves ridiculed.

Eventually, in 1861, the tax was abolished. The annual revenue had by this time fallen to just £800, and the use of wigs had become almost obsolete.