Jane Austen, the Artful Tax Dodger

Janine Barchas inspects the cultural and practical significance of Jane Austen’s humble donkey carriage.

By Janine BarchasDecember 16, 2021

    Jane Austen, the Artful Tax Dodger

    The 16th of December marks another birthday for novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817), whose stories are shot through with monetary specifics, great and small, and feature women who, like herself, are forced to economize in the face of primogeniture and narrowing family circumstances. Hiding in plain sight, one object from Austen’s own household at Chawton, which consisted of four women, reveals the untold trouble taken to also skirt taxes.

    Restored in 1998, the half-size, spindle-back gig shown above is on prominent display at the cottage in Chawton, now a museum known as Jane Austen's House, where Jane Austen resided with her mother, sister, and friend Martha Lloyd from 1809 until 1817. The shafts at the front of this one-seat, two wheeled, two-person vehicle are too small to fit a horse, sitting low and measuring only five feet from end to end. Yet what looks at first glance like a child’s pony trap was used by the adult author, whom we know from a surviving article of clothing, her silk pelisse, to have been between 5’6” and 5’8” tall. The wee rig sits on a raised platform, where it is somewhat grandly identified as “Jane Austen’s Donkey Carriage.” This is how Austen herself half-jokingly referred to her unusual mode of transport in letters to a nephew. Many nephews and nieces were familiar with the sight of their aunts riding back and forth to Alton in the bespoke conveyance that Edward Austen Knight had especially made “soon after” his mother and sisters arrived at Chawton in July of 1809. With this gift, Edward must have hoped to modestly extend their independence beyond the distances the women could walk, whilst sparing boots and petticoats from muddy roads bestrewn with dung. In her novels and letters, Austen uses the term carriage generically to refer to any and all passenger vehicles, so while “Donkey Carriage” is not technically an oxymoron it surely winks at holding the reins of a lowly donkey rather than a proper horse. The Austen family could also delight at how this gig cleverly avoided two standard tax burdens attached to vehicle ownership.

    It was not the dimensions of the pint-sized gig that made it tax exempt. Any passenger vehicle was then doubly taxable as a luxury. First there was a horse tax. I consulted “A SCHEDULE of the Duties payable for all HORSES, MARES, and GELDINGS, kept and used by any Person or Persons for the Purpose of riding, or for the Purpose of drawing any Carriage chargeable with Duty by Schedule (E)” in the House Tax Act for the year 1808. It lists £2.13s.6d. as tax due on the first horse. Although mules are accounted for amongst husbandry animals in Schedule F, donkeys are never mentioned, making them exempt. In addition, all passenger vehicles were subject to the modern equivalent of a road tax. Schedule D shows that any carriage with four wheels demanded an annual payment of £11.5s. — in addition to any duty on the horses needed to pull it. As a disincentive for conspicuous consumption, additional four-wheeled carriages raised the duty owed on each vehicle (e.g., at three, the tax became £13.10s. each). For “Carriages with less than Four Wheels,” which would include Willoughby’s curricle as well as John Thorpe’s gig, the schedule stipulates that the “Number of Horses to be used therewith” would determine the tax bracket. The duty on even two-wheeled carriages started at £5.18s., if “drawn by One Horse, Mare, or Gelding, and no more.” Rigs with two wheels that were unfit for horses thus fell outside of the standard taxable categories. In the first year alone, the donkey carriage amounted to a tax savings of £8.11s.6d. per annum over the most basic horse and gig, safeguarding 1.7 percent of their income of what scholars agree was roughly £500 — which may not seem like much unless you consider how taxes were just one of the hidden costs in securing a mode of transport (e.g., wheels tended to need replacement every three years).

    The law made exceptions for any essential two-wheeled carriages of farmers, tradesmen, and ecclesiastical persons with an income under £100 with a provision about so-called taxed carts, which stipulated one horse. By law, taxed carts were plain and devoid of ornament, springs, or cushions. In the 1808 schedule, vehicles qualified only if they were unadorned and “built and constructed wholly of Wood and Iron, without any Covering other than a tilted Covering, and without any Lining or Springs, whether the same be made of Iron, Wood, Leather, or other Materials, and with a fixed Seat, without Slings or Braces, and without any Ornament whatever, other than Paint of a dark Colour for the Preservation of the Wood or Iron only.” In 1808, the value of a taxed cart could not at any time in its existence exceed £12 and was also not allowed to be hired out. Meeting these requirements would drop the combined duty of horse and cart to £1.6s.6d., the lowest in the schedule for all horse-drawn passenger vehicles.

    In a letter of January 24, 1813, Austen mentions riding in what she calls a “Tax-cart” that belonged to the Clements, a neighboring family: “civility on both sides;


    would rather have walked, & no doubt,


    must have wished I had.” Although the anecdote is tainted by a cold politeness towards Mrs. Clement, it also does not suggest a physically comfortable journey. As biographer David Nokes wryly observes, “she made sure to escape their hospitality on the return journey” by joining Edward’s manservant in what Jane lauds as comparatively “great luxury.” At that time, luxury taxes — or assessed taxes as they were called — included long-standing duties on hair powder, windows, armorial bearings, dogs, and manservants. Such duties had targeted the rich before the introduction of an income tax in 1799 and still continued in 1808; only in 1869 would these be changed into license fees. During the Georgian era, the widespread use of carriages made it a commodity of sustained interest to the government as a source of revenue, so much so that road travel was one of the most comprehensively taxed activities in Britain. Jane Austen’s small donkey carriage cleverly downsizes a standard gig to make it unfit for a full-size horse, thus neatly avoiding even the smallest vehicle duty without the conspicuous meanness of a taxed cart.

    Taxed carts were deliberately made conspicuous with large painted labels, required by law:

    the Words ‘A Taxed Cart,’ and the Owner's Christian and Surname, and Place of Abode, marked or painted on a black Ground in white Letters, or on a white Ground in black Letters, on the Outside of the back Pannel or back Part of such Carriage, in Words at full Length, each of the Letters thereof being at least One Inch in Length, and of a Breadth in Proportion…

    Prominent signage was intended to limit fraudulent use and hold owners accountable. The required lettering surely doubled as a disincentive to request the deduction — as Austen’s own sneer at the Clements’ “Tax-cart” suggests. The Austen women’s quirky donkey gig avoided the need for crass public display of their domestic cost-saving strategies. In her letters, Jane savors visits to relatives that allow her to momentarily “be above Vulgar Economy.” Even without painted lettering, however, the economic motives behind a donkey carriage would have been transparent to any contemporary. In addition to avoiding annual taxes, a donkey was also cheaper to maintain than a horse.

    What about ponies? It was trendy for ladies to hitch specially-designed, low-slung carriages with ponies. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins reports how Miss de Bourgh “often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies.” And Mrs. Gardiner jokes about wanting to tour Pemberley in style after Lizzie and Darcy are married: “A low phæton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing.” Pony carriage sounds decidedly more upmarket than Austen’s donkey carriage, which barely avoids the word cart, and a small enough pony might have been found to fit this same vehicle. But, and there’s the rub, ponies would be covered by “horse” in a statute. Defined as small horses under a certain size (roughly 14 hands high), all ponies were subject to the horse tax. Then as now, ponies were not regarded as a separate taxonomic category (excuse the pun) from horses, unlike mules and donkeys. Therefore, if the same modest, half-size gig was pulled by a fashionable pony rather than a humble donkey, the vehicle plus the animal would have been subject to duty. Parliament did not miss an opportunity to tax even the smallest horses — as the Austens knew.

    The precarious finances of the Austen women have been scrupulously acknowledged and recounted by historians. Even in that sobering financial context, however, their ownership of the donkey carriage has remained peculiarly romanticized. In truth, the donkey rig would have offered an uncomfortable ride amongst the freight and carriage traffic along what was then a busy thoroughfare between London and Winchester. Yet museum founder Tom Carpenter extolls the effortlessness of the donkey carriage as “the simplest and cheapest to run form of transport not needing stables and grooms like a fullsize carriage and horses would.” He approvingly adds a pastoral flourish about how “the donkey was able to graze in the orchard field then beyond the garden,” pulling a quote from a letter by Jane Austen herself about the “luxurious idleness” in winter of their by-then multiple donkeys. This makes such rural circumstances sound free and easy, but even thrifty donkeys need supplemental feed in winter. Entries in the Chawton Estate Account Book for payments “to Mr. Blunden for hay and corn delivered at Mrs. Austen’s Dec. 1809” confirm that Edward also provided fodder for the donkey from his estate.

    In point of fact, there were a host of consumer options in Austen’s day that might keep clear of “stables and grooms.” In Emma’s rural Highbury, rich Mr. Knightley avoids the bother of owning horses altogether, although he keeps a carriage. The implication is that Knightley rents horses when needed, as do the Hursts in Pride and Prejudice while staying at Netherfield. For reasons of starker economy, Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park welcomes the chaperoning of her nieces in the Bertrams’ carriage, as it affords her the convenient opportunity “of mixing in society without having horses to hire.”Carriages, too, and of all sorts, could be hired in even a rural setting. Alternatively, and since even a rogue like Willoughby is willing to gift a girl a horse, you might be wondering why Edward did not just provide his mother and sisters with the unrestricted use of his own horses, stabled down the lane at The Great House. One answer is bad timing: when the women arrived in 1809, Chawton House remained occupied by the Middleton family — who rented it until 1813. After that date, any new arrangement that made the women subject to the availability of Edward’s horses might have felt like a potential restraint.

    With language worthy of advertisement copy, the museum details a “small space for luggage under the seat.” While “luggage” may overreach, the seat does have a hinged wooden lid that allows for items to be tucked underneath. Any shopping placed there would have to withstand much jostle en route. Apparently, the red trim along the edges of the matt black paint of the wooden rig “implied a family of status.” I can hear Jane Austen giggling with her nephews. Donkeys, we are told, move at a “brisk 4 mph,” and that the “journey into Alton for shopping would take about 20 mins.” For comparison, Google calculates the distance to the High Street shops, along the direct route for 1.3 miles, might be traveled on foot in 27 mins. In July of 1816, Jane sets out for “Farringdon” (the one in Hampshire) with Mary Jane Fowle to view “the improvements Mr Woolls is making.” Although Google judges the likely distance at only a mile and a half, rain made them turn back partway. In the time it took them to reach home, they were “wet through.” Donkeys are tireless pack animals able to handle rough terrain, but those virtues might not have shone much in Hampshire. In the age before the Victorians offered donkey rides at beach resorts, the sight of Jane and Cassandra driving a donkey gig would have stood out. But the oddness of it was surely not subject to derision in rural Chawton, amongst the hurly-burly of taxed carts, farm vehicles, freight traffic, animals led to market, and pedestrians in the neighborhood. As single women, the possession of any dedicated conveyance — even a glorified cart pulled by a donkey — set Jane and Cassandra above the vast majority of their peers.

    Janeite historians consistently extoll the donkey carriage as a bargain, explaining how “the most expensive donkey could be had for only £3,” that donkeys could also be saddled for rides, eat “practically anything,” and possess “considerable personal charm.” Only Mrs. Elton, in Emma, waxes more lyrical about donkeys: “I wish we had a donkey. The thing would be for us all to come on donkies, Jane, Miss Bates, and me.” Mrs. Elton is a clergyman’s wife, and her self-aggrandizing perversion of the image of Christ riding to Jerusalem on a humble donkey is a brilliant instance of Austen’s hallmark irony. Nothing however suggests that the author herself thought this mode of transportation “the thing.”

    Instead, in Persuasion, Austen envisions a much more elegant and comfortable vehicle for her heroine, who at novel’s end becomes “mistress of a very pretty landaulette” — a two-wheeled, stylish, one-seater marketed to ladies — bestowed by her husband Captain Wentworth as a mark of his trust and esteem. In real life, Austen had only the occasional taste of such luxuries. Four months after sharing that tax cart with the Clements, she visits London and briefly rides solo in a posh barouche: “and the driving about, the carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, and was ready to laugh all the time at my being where I was. I could not but feel that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a barouche.” At home in Chawton awaited the donkey carriage.

    The mini-gig was uncomfortable and cumbersome enough for Austen to stop using it as soon as her health deteriorated. She declines a December invitation because “the walk is beyond my strength,” reassuring a nephew “I am otherwise very well,” and blames the weather: “this is not a Season for Donkey Carriages.” Come Springtime, however, she found herself unable to manage the donkey and gig and only then imagined riding the animal instead: “It will be more independent & less troublesome than the use of the Carriage.” She optimistically reports to niece Caroline that the scheme proved a success: “I have taken one ride on the donkey & like it very much.” She adds “& you must try to get me quiet, mild days, that I may be able to go out pretty constantly.” There could not have been many such outings, for by mid-April she took to her bed and agreed to submit to a doctor’s care in Winchester, where she died on July 18, 1817.

    In sum, and in spite of the delights of Mrs. Elton and others, there is nothing romantic, speedy, easy, or comfy about driving a donkey in a low-riding, rattling mini-gig. But it was a completely tax-free ride that allowed a modicum of dignity in a rural neighborhood such as Chawton. In London, a donkey carriage would have been another matter — a worse crime than having an uncle in Cheapside. The choice of both vehicle and motive power cunningly eliminated annual taxes, reducing recurring costs for the household at the cottage. Unlike Willoughby, Edward made sure not to burden the women he loved with a gift that would raise their taxes and cause additional expense with the maintenance of a horse. He also arranged for supplemental feed in winter.

    Janine Barchas holds the Chancellor’s Council Centennial Professorship in the Book Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, the prize-winning Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, and The Lost Books of Jane Austen.  She is the creator behind What Jane Saw and has written short essays for The Washington Post and The New York Times.

    LARB Contributor

    Janine Barchas holds the Chancellor’s Council Centennial Professorship in the Book Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (see LARB review, Jan 27, 2013) and the prize-winning Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel.  She is the creator behind What Jane Saw and has written short essays for The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her book about the value of unsung and cheap reprintings, The Lost Books of Jane Austen, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.


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