Monday, 11 April 2011

Light taxation

I've got to go back to Portland tomorrow, to pick up the stone that I selected last week, but I will be by-passing Corfe Castle this time on the more direct route to Weymouth and the Bill. I could have taken it away with me the last time, except that I didn't have the trailer attached to the back of the Volvo which I will be taking this time - stupid really, but I was expecting to be buying more than the 3/4ths of a ton that I did, so I am doing the trip all over again.

When I first started going to this quarry, the area shown above was called 'The Graveyard', and the prices of material from this pile reflected their attitude toward the value of it. I used to drive away lorries with about 3 tons on the back, and pay about £100. If they were half-way through a cutting job and noticed the tiniest of chips or cracks in the stone, it would have been rejected and relegated to this area, then vultures like me would turn up with 7.5 ton trucks and take it away for peanuts - not the £70 per cubic foot that the perfect stuff cost.

I mentioned 'The Graveyard' to one of the younger quarry-workers last week, and he looked at me in such a way that I realised that he didn't know what I was talking about. These days, with new management taking over in times of financial crisis, a process of re-education has taken place, and attitudes have radically changed. As one mason told me years ago, "There is no such thing as 'scrap' - what you are talking about is 'off-cuts".

The value of things is - of course - governed by how much people want or need them, and the effort in getting them to supply the demand is reflected in the price. Like I have said, 'Portland Roach' has been virtually thrown away for years, but is now in high demand.

A cubic foot of stone embedded within it's surroundings and lying 200 feet under the ground where it has been since dinosaurs walked the earth, is worth nothing to humans.

When it is cut away from it's bed and brought to the surface, it is worth about £1. When it is roughly squared up and placed on a pallet it is worth £10. When it is cut neatly into a cube with sharp edges, it is worth £100. After I have finished with it, it is worth £1000 (or at least, that's what I tell my customers). Just think what Damien Hirst's diamond skull is worth now...

If you walk around Bath and look at the sides of the Georgian stone domestic buildings, you will notice quite a few filled-in windows, and some of them are painted black with fake glazing bars in white where the real things would have been. They actually found it cheaper in the long run to put more stone in the wall than to leave it out for a real window. There is a reason for this.

The 18th century government of the time was strapped for cash (sound familiar?) so started looking for more ways to extract it from the population who they were supposed to represent (still sound familiar?). They noticed that more and more households were making their own candles, so they made that illegal in order to extract taxes from licensed candle-makers.

The candle-makers became so rich that they started looking for ways to invest the huge profits made from their trade, and some of them became speculative builders. There is a row of buildings here in Bath called 'Ainslie's Belvedere' - Ainlsie made his money from candles.

Then the government realised that they were missing out on tax revenue from something else that everyone was obliged to have - housing. The easiest way (so they thought) to assess the taxable value of a house from the outside was to count the number of windows in the building, and set the taxable value that way, so the builders started either filling in existing windows with stone, or building new structures with blank windows already built in where the wood and glass were supposed to be. It became known as 'The Light Tax'.

When William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister, he invented 'income tax'. He promised that it would only be a temporary measure, introduced for a short period to help the country get out of the mess caused by the 'South Sea Bubble' banking investment crash, and the hugely expensive wars with France etc. ...


  1. Fascinating read, Tom! What do you do with the stone? Are you builder? What kind of stone is it? Interesting. Your interjection of political situations is right-on as I am listening to the news right now too. Discouraging!

  2. Tom - your comments on my blog usually make me laugh out loud - today's was no exception. Do I detect a touch of anarchy?

  3. In the 18th century, homes in Philadelphia, PA were taxed by their width, so owners kept building up rather that wide(called Trinity Houses because they were 3 floors). They could also build onto the back so these homes were very narrow, high and depending on the size of your family, deep. While touring these homes a few years ago I felt very claustrophobic. I am not sure if they taxed by the window here, but they might have.

    If they could tax us on the number of fingers and toes we had, they would.

  4. Im a stone-carver, Donna, I make all sorts of things and this particular kind is a fine Oolitic limestone.

    Glad I made you laugh, Weaver - that was the hope (rather than upset anyone). The anarchy has long gone and been replaced with what appears to be righter wing to young people and embittered pragmatism to everyone else - I hope.

    That's interesting, Starting - maybe that's how sky-scrapers started? If they could tax the air we breathe, I'm sure they would - in fact I'm sure they will, once they have the hearts and minds of all the Stepford Wives behind them.