I love the serendipity of research, the strange and curious facts and stories that one comes across while looking for something completely different. Not all of them are things I can include in my fiction writing, but I still find them fascinating enough to think that others may enjoy reading about them, too. Hence the idea for “Regency Curiosities,” an occasional series of posts about the odd, amusing, and occasionally even outright shocking tidbits I come across while engrossed in Regency history.
My first Regency Curiosity is a person, one John “Dog” Dent. I came across a brief reference to him, oddly enough, while trying to find out how the actual monies a landed gentleman earned from rents on his estate made their way from his tenants in the countryside to his bankers in London. As part of that search, I found myself engrossed in a copy of The Marygold by Temple Bar, Being a History of the Site now Occupied by No. 1 Fleet Street, The Banking Houses of Messrs. Child & Co. written by Frederick George Hilton Price in 1902. Its listing of the partners at Child & Co., one of the banks commonly employed by the aristocracy in the early nineteenth century, included one John Dent. I would have forgotten Mr. Dent as quickly as the others in the list, if not for the author curious digression:
He was the inventor of the dog tax, according to Lord Brougham—he was of a Westmoreland family. After the tax had been imposed under Pitt, Dent was universally known by the name of “Dog Dent.” He frequently received large hampers, freely garnished with hares’ legs, pheasants’ tails, grouse and partridge wings, etc. but invariably filled with dead dogs. (33)
Dead dogs? Delivered to a respectable partner of a bank that catered to the nobility? Here was a mystery. Why would someone send poor Mr. Dent not only tasty bits of game, but also the remains of man’s best friend? Did it have something to do with this dog tax that author Price mentions in such an offhand way, as if readers in 1902 would of course know what it was?
Instead of reading more about banking, then, I set off on a search for more information on Mr. John Dent and his role in the creation of what would seem to be a rather hated tax.
Mr. Dent, it turns out, was not just a partner in a bank; he was also a parliamentarian from Lancaster, an MP instrumental in the passage of the first tax on dogs implemented in England.* On April 5, 1796, speaking in Parliament on behalf of the tax, Dent estimated that two million dogs currently lived in England, many of them strays. Passing a dog tax would decrease the dog population, because the state would be authorized to seize and destroy any dog whose taxes had not been paid. Cases of hydrophobia (rabies) would decrease sharply, Dent declared, as would dogs’ attacks on sheep herds. And the poor would not be tempted to squander food on useless pets, food that could be used to feed the indigent:
More money was consumed on dogs than the whole produce of the poor rates. The same expense that a dog occasioned would be sufficient to maintain a child. (Festa 39, note 34)
Bad harvests, as well as war with France, had sent food prices soaring; paying to feed a pet was seen as a sentimental indulgence, one only the rich could, and should, afford, Dent and his fellow tax supporters asserted.
Is a dog a sentimental indulgence, a luxury? Or a necessity? These were the grounds upon which heated debates about the proposed tax were voiced. Opponents argued that the government was wrong to view the dog as an unnecessary possession; taking away man’s dog was tantamount to taking away his liberty. In contrast, proponents believed that the poor had chosen an improper object for their affections, and would do better to feed themselves and their progeny than an animal.
Despite protests against the very idea of a dog tax, an “Act for granting to His Majesty Certain Duties on Dogs” (36 Geo. 3, c. 124) was passed by Parliament on May 19, 1796. The bill included three levels of tax: people who paid assessed taxes owed 5 shillings per dog for a hunting dog, or for two or more dogs of any type; similarly, they would pay 3 shillings for a non-hunting dog; the poor, who did not pay any assessed taxes, would only be taxed if they kept a hunting dog, or more than one dog.
The press immediately began to criticize the tax, suggesting that when dogs are taxed, people cannot be far behind. Myriad satiric prints followed, such as James Gillray’s “JOHN-BULL, Baited by the DOGS of EXCISE,” which ironically turns the taxed into the taxers: the parliamentarians are the dogs, feeding upon John Bull (i.e., the English people) who cries “Liberty! Liberty! and no Excise! Huzza!”
John Dent, though, seems to be the only party who was verbally branded for his role in the dog tax debates, perhaps because his parliamentary speeches in support of the tax were “so replete with bitterness against the nuisance of dogs that Windham declared he could almost fancy Actaeon was revived, and revenging his injuries by a ban against the whole canine race” (Festa 34, note 1).
I can’t help but wonder what “Dog” Dent did with those hampers of “delicacies” he received…
*My source for information about John Dent and the dog tax is Lynn Festa’s article, “Person, Animal, Thing: The 1796 Dog Tax and the Right to Superfluous Things.” Eighteenth-Century Life 33.2 (2009): 1-44.