The idea of a dog tax was first raised in the 1730s and eventually became law in 1796. The aim of the tax was to deter pet-keeping and reduce the dog population. Unfortunately, the tax had a disproportionate effect on the poor than the wealthy who could afford to pay. Worse still, the tax overlooked two things: firstly, the poor often kept working dogs, and secondly their canine companions provided precious comfort in a comfortless world.
Why a Tax on Dogs?
Imagine being constantly hungry, and worse, your children going to bed with empty stomachs. And the shelves are bare, and you lack the money to buy even a simple loaf of bread. In the 18th century, life “below the breadline” was a fact for around one-in-ten people, and when the harvests failed (which happened frequently) this rose to one-in-five. Support for the starving was largely charitable, with the poor required to provide proof of residency in the parish in which they claimed the relief. If they couldn’t do so, the options were to move back to their place of birth, marriage, or apprenticeship; or enter one of the newly established workhouses where the conditions were grim indeed. [ * ]
Lack of employment, poor harvests, ill health, or disability were all outside the control of the poor. Yet, there was a pervading attitude in society that being poor was a self-inflicted injury, and that sloth or laziness was the cause of their distress. It is against this background that a dog tax was introduced. But what if you couldn’t pay: surrender your pet or be thrown into debtor’s jail, not much of a choice.
With widespread food shortages and rampant inflation, feeding a pet potentially deprived a person of food. “The costly chicken is ordered for the cat or dog, by her who never thinks of giving a morsel of bread to relieve the hunger of man” [ # ]
In the 18th century, if you were a poverty-stricken dog owner you could expect little sympathy. In addition to the dog tax, there was an argument in favor of denying parish poor relief to those that kept dogs. In 1774 the parishioners of Eccles made a unanimous decision to turn away dog-owning paupers. Their justification being that feeding a useless animal was evidence of fecklessness (the food given to the dog could have been given to more useful animals such as a pig) and so they were undeserving of support.
“No person should keep dogs who cannot afford to feed them or who have no use for them. At present, there are certainly too great a number of these animals.”
So what of the wealthy and their dogs? They could afford to pay the tax, and the image of a lady’s over-indulged lapdog frequently appeared in popular cartons, to symbolize hypocrisy and crass wealth. Indeed, not everyone was oblivious to the irony that an aristocrat could afford to keep a pack of hunting dogs on food that would have maintained the starving families on his estate. John Dent, MP, cited a gentlemen spending £400-800 on dogs, with the upkeep of pack of foxhounds around £1,000 – 2,000. In the face of protest (the wealthy that set the laws also had the power to veto them), Dent suggested a higher tax rate for those that kept more than five dogs.
William King argued that some dogs should be exempt from taxation, such as working dogs belonging to tanners, curriers, fellmongers, butchers, and the like. Others argued it wasn’t the type of dog but the number was a problem, and that a single dog should be taxed at a mere shilling, and each additional dog at four times that amount.
But before we depart this subject, it’s worth remembering other taxable ‘luxuries’ in the 18th century included windows, hats, horses, and hair powder; as the saying goes “Three things in life are certain: birth, death, and taxes.” And finally, in the 18th century, rabies was present and a very real problem in Great Britain. This was in part fed by packs of wild dogs. It is intriguing to wonder if the government might have fanned the flames of this hideous disease, by causing those people unable to afford the dog tax releasing their beloved companion into the wild.
[ * ] Poverty in Georgian Britain. The British Library
[ # ] Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in 18th Century Britain. Ingrid H Tague. Penn State Press