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Barouches, curricles, gigs and wagons: taxing travel in Georgian England

In this new chapter, Professor Chantal Stebbings shows how road travel was one of the most highly and comprehensively taxed activities in Britain throughout the Georgian era. Not only were all vehicles kept for personal travel subjected to the assessed taxes – horses, carriages of all descriptions, carts and wagons – but all vehicles used for public hire were liable to both the assessed taxes and, almost invariably, to an Excise licence, a mileage duty and a tax on their personnel. These duties reveal a regime of taxation that went well beyond the raising of public revenue and incorporated a substantial element of trade regulation. The combined forces of technical advancements in road building and vehicle design, a growth in population and commerce creating a demand for road travel, and the motive forces of avoidance and evasion, resulted in a tax code of bewildering detail and theoretical ambiguity. As such, it marked the zenith of the traditional taxation methods that had dominated the fiscal system for a century. That, and the weight and breadth of the taxes on animal-powered road travel, made it entirely unable to compete against the new steam-powered railways, and constituted a material factor in its dramatic decline.

‘The Taxation of Road Travel: Revenue and Regulation in Georgian Britain’ is published in P. Harris and D. de Cogan (eds) Studies in the History of Tax Law: vol. 9 (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2019) pp.159-180