Some Curious Laws and Taxes - Story of Belfast

A GREAT change has taken place in the value of money which it is well for us to understand when we read of what may appear to us now to be a very small sum. In the year 1575, £94 9s. 6d. was equal to £3,000 of our money at the present time. If some kindly friend gave a small boy then a tip of one shilling, it would be quite a fortune, while half-a-crown would be beyond imagination. In the year 1636, chimneys must have been a curious sight, for they were made of straw bound together with hoops. Next, wooden ones were made, but so many fires took place that an order was issued that every chimney was to be built of brick. In 1660, Belfast was a small place with only five streets and five lanes and one hundred and fifty houses, but the town spread out and increased rapidly every year afterwards.

The "hearth money" tax was very old in England, and it was imposed in Ireland by Charles II., in 1666.

The ancient roll of names of those who paid this tax is still in existence, and it is kept in the Record Office in Dublin. It is, of course, in a damaged condition, but the list of names is very interesting.

All the money that was raised by the hearth tax was £28 10s. The very poor were allowed freedom from payment. Lord Donegall had forty hearths, the largest number in any house in Ireland. The Earl of Meath built a house in Dublin which was considered to be a very grand one, and it had twenty-seven chimneys. After Lord Donegall's name there were only two houses in Belfast which had four, nine had three, eighteen had two, and all the others only one each.

In the year 1798, during the rebellion, the town was guarded, all business was suspended and military law was ordered. Six men were brought into Belfast and hanged at the Market House, one on a lamp post, and the heads were placed on poles and left to blacken in the sun. The year 1798 was followed by two of the worst years ever known in Ireland, for there were heavy snowstorms, the most severe being in April, 1799, followed by constant rain and great floods, and the crops were destroyed. There was a proclamation issued that none but brown bread was to be eaten, and rich people were to have no second course at dinner, and the soldiers were forbidden to wear any hair powder. All the money possible was to be given to the poor. A generous collection was made for a soup kitchen, nine tickets were sold for one shilling and a penny, which were to be distributed to the poor. Each ticket allowed one quart of soup and one pennyworth of bread. Card tables were asked to double the sums left for cards. Dances and other amusements were asked for one shilling for each guest. Theatre tickets were sixpence extra, and all the money thus raised was to be used for the benefit of the poor. The soup kitchen was closed in December. The next year was worse, for 1800 was so dry. The ground was parched, and no rain fell. These two years were long remembered as the wet year and the dry one. In 1801, Ireland was in a most miserable condition, for there was no old seed stock for supply.

We may go back a few years, and notice a curious tax which was levied in 1773. Absentee landlords, who were away from their landed property for six months in the year, were ordered to pay a tax of two shillings in every one pound of rent. In 1792, no carter was to travel on Sunday under a fine of twenty shillings, or two hours in the stocks. I expect carters did not often travel on a second Sunday. The year 1800 seemed to be notable for quite a number of new regulations. All wandering swine were to be taken for the use and benefit of the Old Poorhouse. A water tax of forty shillings a year was to be paid on one house. If there was no water supplied for three days, only one fourth was to be paid.

There were no burials to be allowed to take place in St. George's graveyard, under a fine of from five to twenty pounds.

The rates appear to have been very fairly arranged, for houses paying from five to twenty pounds rent, were to pay sixpence in the pound, from twenty to eighty rental, one shilling in the pound, and all over eighty to pay one shilling and fourpence. Houses unoccupied for six months were not to pay any taxes. Churches, Public Charities and Foundations for Education were all declared free of taxation. An act was passed in 1800 for paving, lighting, and for keeping a night watch, and the streets were to be widened, cleaned and improved, but not more than one thousand pounds was to be spent in one year.

Gunpowder was to be kept locked in a separate place, and if not so kept a fine of ten pounds was to be enforced. It was also to be sold only in daylight, under a fine of ten pounds. No fires were allowed on board ships in dock on any pretence whatever, or a fine of five pounds had to be paid.

The street lamps were well protected by law, and very severe punishment was given for injury done to them. The penalty for breaking, extinguishing or injuring a street lamp, was one to six months' imprisonment without bail. Anyone found stealing or carrying away any part of a lamp, might be found guilty of felony, and transported for seven years, or publicly whipped, at the judge's discretion. For training horses on the streets, a fine was imposed of from five to twenty shillings, and there was the same fine also for throwing dust, ashes, or rubbish on the street. Two masons struck work, and were sent to gaol for three months, which seems to have been a very severe way to deal with a strike. In the same year—1800—six shoemakers combined to have their wages raised, and they were at once sent to Carrickfergus Gaol, the judge remarking, "How could trade go on or trade improve if such actions were permitted?"

Beggars were obliged to wear badges, as so many foreign beggars came to Belfast in the year 1806.

Two men were hanged in front of Bank Buildings in 1816, for burglary. Our prison was at that time the House of Correction, which was built in 1803, in Howard Street. It stood then among green fields, and on the stone over the front door was carved this warning—"Within amend, Without beware." Serious offenders were sent to Carrickfergus Gaol, until our County Prison was built on the Crumlin Road. In the early days, one stipendiary Magistrate sat every second day in the Police Court, and there were two constables. The Police Office was in Rosemary Street. The old fashion of carving on the front of a prison was revived recently when the new Bridewell was built in Dublin. It bears across the front this polite apology, "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum," which translated means "Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall."