A Proposed 18th Century Tax Bill Targets 27-Year-Old Spinsters…And Their Cats!

‘As the supply alluded to is to be levied upon all old maids, beyond a certain age, and intitled to certain yearly or other income; I make no doubt but both Houses of Parliament will speedily manifest their hearty concurrence thereto.’
The London Magazine, 1777.

A Visit to Grandmother by John Raphael Smith after Thomas James Northcote, 1785.(Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium)

A Visit to Grandmother by John Raphael Smith after Thomas James Northcote, 1785.
(Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium)

The 1777 edition of the London Magazine includes an interesting letter to the editor in which a gentleman—who signs himself as ‘A Friend to the Community’—has appended a proposed bill to levy a tax of ‘6d. in the pound’ on old maids. He claims that this tax will generate revenues of nearly £300,000 per annum, a sum which could then be used to help fund the British war against the American colonies. The proposed bill begins by stating:

‘That all maids, intitled to a clear yearly income of 100, or 1000l. in the whole, and so in proportion to any fortune above that sum, do at the age of 27 years (being the time limited for the commencement of their old maidship) register themselves in the books of the lord lieutenant of the county they live in, and then and there give in a true and particular inventory or schedule of all their real and personal estate…’

The bill goes on to state that any old maids of twenty-seven years or older who failed to register with the lord lieutenant of their county and give an inventory of their property would be penalized by having ‘a fourth of their fortune forfeited for the first offence’ and ‘double that sum for every other the like omission.’

Virgo - Unmatched Enjoyment by George Cruikshank, undated.(Yale Center for British Art)

Virgo – Unmatched Enjoyment by George Cruikshank, undated.
(Yale Center for British Art)

The bulk of the author’s ire seems to be directed at ladies who were old maids by choice—those women who refused offers of marriage in order to remain independent or to keep control of their own money and property. For women who remained unmarried simply because no man had ever asked them for their hand, he is much more sympathetic. In fact, he exempts these ladies from the proposed tax altogether, writing:

‘And be it further enacted, by the advice and authority aforesaid, that this act, nor any matter, clause, or thing therein contained, shall not extend, or be deemed to extend to such old maids, as never had a true, genuine, or serious proposal of marriage made to them, nor to any person on their account, for ten years preceding their old maidship, any clause, matter, or thing contained to the contrary notwithstanding.’

According to a further provision, those ladies of 27 years of age or older who wished to avoid the onerous spinster tax by getting married had only a limited number of years in which to do so. The author of the bill gives women what amounts to an expiration date—an age after which they are prohibited from entering into marriage. He writes:

‘And be it further enacted, that after the age of 35 years, no old maid shall be allowed, or permitted to enter into the holy state of matrimony; as at that period they shall be deemed incapable of performing any of the necessary functions incident to such happy state.’

An Old Maid Treating a Favorite Cat to a Duck and Green Peas by Richard Newton, 1777–1798.(Yale Center for British Art)

An Old Maid Treating a Favorite Cat to a Duck and Green Peas by Richard Newton, 1777–1798.
(Yale Center for British Art)

Adding insult to injury, the bill concludes by stating that ‘all legacies, given by old maids to favourite cats, lap-dogs, or to other animals, shall be void.’ Money that would have otherwise gone toward the care and support of an old maid’s pets after her death, would instead be appropriated by the government and used to defray the cost of the ‘present American war.’ As the final paragraph of the bill proclaims:

‘…and when and so soon as a peace shall be effected, or take place with the American colonies, that such sums be appropriated towards the support and maintenance of the Magdalene hospital.’

Magdalene hospitals, also known as Magdalene laundries, were 18th and 19th century institutions which housed unwed mothers and other ‘fallen’ women, often in conditions which were more brutal than a workhouse or a prison. The idea of taxing old maids to pay for the maintenance of such grim establishments seems a bit odd.  One would think it made more sense to tax the gentlemen responsible for the condition of the unwed mothers. Unfortunately, the author of the bill makes no mention of any taxes on men except for a lone postscript which states, quite clearly:

‘No old bachelor is to be concerned in raising this tax upon any pretence whatever.’

Cat Like Courtship by Thomas Rowlandson, undated.(Yale Center for British Art)

Cat Like Courtship by Thomas Rowlandson, undated.
(Yale Center for British Art)

I suspect that the proposed bill written by ‘A Friend to the Community’ was meant purely as masculine humor.  Stories about old maids and their pets were a source of great amusement in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nevertheless, there is something vaguely unsettling about the tone of this proposed bill.  It makes one wonder, just what type of man was this ‘Friend to the Community’?  And what in the world did an old maid ever do to him?

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 


The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Vol. XLVI. London: R. Baldwin, 1777.

© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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28 thoughts on “A Proposed 18th Century Tax Bill Targets 27-Year-Old Spinsters…And Their Cats!

  1. knotrune says:

    What a misogynist! I expect he had proposed marriage to various ladies who turned him down, probably because they could tell he was a brute. Maybe he was responsible for some of the fallen women, because he had ‘needs’ that could not be satisfied within marriage because no decent woman would have him, so he blamed them for that because it couldn’t possibly be his fault.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I think you have it right about him possibly being a man who had proposed to someone (or multiple someones!) and been rejected. He really seemed to have a personal ax to grind in writing that bill.


  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    Sounds as though he was one of those men no woman in her right mind would accept a proposal from. I agree wholeheartedly with Knotrune.
    In the light of the later and later marriages these days, his proposed banning of marriages over 35 is a bit off and suggests that he was a bit of a paedo too… even in the Regency era, it was not unknown for marriage as late as forty to be fruitful [I use this to give Miss Bates both a husband and a child in my Jane, Bow Street Consultant series] and many spinsters prevented from marrying because of duties caring for an elderly or sick parent did in fact marry in later life, often to widowers who either wanted companionship [and maybe a free housekeeper] or a mother-figure to their orphaned offspring, when the fertility of a new wife was less a matter of concern than that she be prepared to bring love to a family. I did a bit of research into this when I was considering marrying Miss Bates off, though I did blink a little at the chap who was on his fourth wife at 73, and she a ‘mere chit of a girl’ to his ‘solid years’ at forty….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Good points as always, Sarah. His provision about women not being allowed to marry after the age of 35 indicates that he was a man who likely knew very little about relations with women. Probably the reason for so much bitterness!


  3. josephine1837 says:

    Thanks for that lovely piece of research. It gives me an uncomfortable laugh, and I really hope this ‘friend of the community’ was not being serious. But looking at the state of women’s rights in his time, I’m afraid he might have found it a pretty good idea. Otherwise, what were unmarried women good for? Urgh!

    I agree with the other repliers that this person might not have been the best candidate for marriage himself. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Josephine 🙂 I do think he was trying to be funny (for men at the expense of women), but it struck me that there was an underlying maliciousness to what he wrote. Then again, in light of the current political climate, it’s hard for me to laugh at any bill that begins with a registry and ends with robbing people of their fundamental rights.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Machiel van Veen says:

        I don’t think he was trying to be funny. As man I feel the sentiments after his writings. And these are not funny sentiments. Nothing to joke about in my eyes.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Elizabeth Bailey says:

    I must say I think it has to be a joke. Not very funny to us, but perhaps at the time there were connotations that are not clear in this day and age. Old maids being encourage to get married? Women with property ought to be marrying some man who needed the income? I expect the gentlemen found it funny even if the old maids did not.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Diana Belchase says:

    Reblogged this on Book Smart TV and commented:
    Author Mimi Matthews astounds us once again today, not only with her encyclopedic knowledge of history, but with this delightful piece about a proposition to tax old maids of twenty-seven! I know you’ll enjoy.

    Now, here’s Mimi Matthews:

    Liked by 1 person

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