July 16, 2010 / 3:20 PM / 9 years ago

Victorian Britain: a nation of coffee-lovers

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Victorian Britain was a nation of coffee-drinkers who paid few taxes, whose economy relied on trade and where defense spending swallowed a huge slice of income, statistics from 170 years ago reveal.

Queen Victoria and family in a painting by Frans Xaver Winterhalter. REUTERS/Files

The figures, released by government statisticians for the first time, offer a glimpse of Britain from when economic records began.

They run from 1840, a year when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was introduced, through to 1853 when the population topped 18 million.

It was a time when welfare handouts were non existent, divorce was still illegal, social issues were given short shrift and staple commodities like eggs were imported by the shipload.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS), which compiles an annual abstract, released the figures to show how markedly the British economy and society has changed.

In those days, at the height of empire, the government collected a mere 47.5 million pounds in taxes and close to two-thirds of that came via trade in the form of excise duty.

Last year the government collected 453 billion pounds in tax, with the majority derived from income tax.

“There was some element of personal taxation, because of course, income tax was introduced to fight the Napoleonic wars and that continued but the bulk of revenue was from goods,” said Ian Macrory, editor of the ONS’ 2010 annual abstract.

“You were importing and exporting the wealth of an empire. The East Indies (India) was Britain’s largest market followed by Europe and North America.” Trade with Prussia, Hanover, the Hanse towns and Holland was also significant.

To protect trade routes and the sprawling empire, defense spending was huge by today’s standards.

In 1840, the “army, navy and ordnance” cost a total of 14.1 million pounds, 28.7 percent of treasury expenditure.

Last year defense spending cost the country 38.6 billion pounds — around 6.8 percent of the public purse.

Victorians cared little for the welfare of the population despite a ballooning underclass which was to peak as the industrial revolution reached its climax.

The report shows there were close to one million paupers receiving basic help from local parishes, though it is not clear whether payments were made in food or cash.

“Social protection consisted of two tables then. Now we have a chapter on social protection that runs to 24 tables covering hundreds and hundreds of different items,” said Macrory

And Britons were really a nation of coffee lovers, not tea drinkers as popular myth has led us to believe. In 1840, Britain imported 28 million lbs of tea, compared with 70 million lbs of coffee.

By 1853 the trend had reversed as the plantations in India soaked the island in tea.

Editing by Steve Addison

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