Heritage: Uproar in 16th century Upminster over unfair tax burden on farms

The Clockhouse is all that's left of the Latham family's New Place. Picture: Paul Bennett

The Clockhouse is all that's left of the Latham family's New Place. Picture: Paul Bennett - Credit: Archant

Fat-cats got off lightly when it came to taxation at the end of the 16th century, says Prof Ged Martin

British people don’t like tax avoiders, the can-pay, won’t-pay crowd who dodge paying their fair share of the nation’s budget. Upminster was certainly angry over the issue in 1598.

The 1590s were a tough time in England. Defeating the Spanish Armada had seemed glorious in 1588, but the costly war against Spain dragged on.

A run of poor harvests caused a social crisis.

In 1597, a radical new measure, the Elizabethan Poor Law, made each parish responsible for supporting its own destitute population.

At local level, this involved deciding who should pay, and how much. The standard system was to charge rates on farmland. The more land you farmed, whether you owned it or rented it, the more you paid.

Upminster protested that the new assessment was “to the disadvantage of the meaner sort, who being charged according to the number of acres of ground they occupy are burthened (burdened) at an unjust proportion in respect of others who haply (perhaps) keep fewer acres of ground in their occupation and yet are wealthy men.”

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Farmers paid, fat-cats got off lightly.

Two manors covered most of the parish of Upminster: Gaynes, near Corbets Tey, and Upminster Hall (now a golf club).

In 1543, Ralph Latham, a wealthy London goldsmith, had bought Upminster Hall, later adding Gaynes. His son William briefly sold Gaynes, but re-purchased it in 1593, financing the deal by selling Upminster Hall in 1594 to Roger James, a London merchant who lived in Kent.

The Lathams lived at New Place, a small mansion in St Mary’s Lane. Rebuilt in the 18th century, New Place was demolished in 1924, but its stable block survived as the Clockhouse.

New Place had about fifty acres of land attached to it. Even this may have been let to local farmers, leaving the Lathams to enjoy just the six acres that form today’s public space, Clockhouse Gardens.

Clearly, charging rates on farmland suited Upminster’s two richest men. William Latham occupied little more than a large garden. Roger James collected Upminster rents but didn’t even live in the parish.

In addition, the Lathams almost certainly retained business interests in London. In 1633, William’s fourth son, Charles, was a grocer in the city.

William Latham may have been unpopular for other reasons. Throughout the 1580s, he was regularly summoned to the courts in Chelmsford. Since he never bothered to turn up, we don’t know what charge he faced.

But in 1586, a local jury reported he hadn’t attended church for seven years, although New Place was only a quarter of a mile stroll from St Laurence’s.

Probably, like many other rich Londoners, he was a Puritan, who disliked Anglican ceremonies.

In 1574, he’d called the parson a knave.

When he did show up, in 1600, probably reluctantly, Latham staged a scene by claiming the right to sit in the best pew.

Loadsamoney Latham evidently thought he was above the law.

In 1588, he’d quarrelled with the rector over payment of tithes, the ten per cent levy on all produce that went to the Church. It’s unlikely that he was keen to pay taxes to support the poor.

Upminster’s grumbles reached Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council, forerunner of the modern cabinet.

Her Majesty’s advisers agreed that taxation must be fair: “The rich sort may not shift the burthen from their own shoulders upon those that are of meaner ability.”

Essex magistrates were ordered to investigate.

If Upminster’s rating system was unfair, they could “give orders for redress”.

But if they found “sufficient ground” for the existing assessment, they should explain their reasons frankly, “that the petitioners may be better contented to yield”.

Since the paper trail peters out, the magistrates probably said, “Sorry, folks, if you farm the land, you must pay the rates.”

Latham Place, off Deyncourt Gardens, recalls the family on the modern map.