Wealthy and artful tax dodgers of 18th century revealed in rare book


Ireland’s first official attempt to “name and shame” tax dodgers has come to light.

A rare book published in 1788, which has turned up at Mealy’s auction, contains a list of private sedan chair owners in Georgian Dublin, published to pressure them into paying annual charges.

More than two centuries later, the book reveals that some of the city’s wealthiest residents were “in arrears” and were being carried about without having paid their annual licence fee.

The owners were required to pay an annual levy of 45 shillings – like taxing a car today. The money raised was supposed to be ringfenced by the government to benefit the lying-in hospital at the Rotunda, whose trustees were responsible for collecting the tax.

The trustees needed the cash to fund maternity services and were aware that some of the city’s wealthiest residents had failed to pay the “ trifling” sedan chair levy.

Alarmed at the big shortfall in revenue, the trustees published the names and addresses of all the city’s 258 private sedan chair owners. Among them were: Viscountess Clifden, 26 Arran Quay; the Dowager Countess Inchiquin, 2 Kildare Street; Viscount Wicklow, 4 Rutland Square; The Rt Hon John Foster, 26 Molesworth Street; The Rt Hon Lord Leitrim, 29 Sackville Street, and other prominent members of the aristocracy with addresses mainly in Merrion Square, St Stephen’s Green and Henrietta Street.

However, instead of identifying who had not paid, the trustees decided to appeal to non-payers’ “sense of shame ” rather than have “recourse to the courts” .

The trustees announced that they would republish the list three months later which would “specify the arrear” of each sedan chair owner.

The strategy has since been emulated by the Revenue Commissioners which publishes quarterly lists of tax defaulters.

The threat of public opprobrium seems to have worked. There is no record of the list of “shame” being published – as threatened – three months later.

Auctioneers Mealy’s will sell the “very rare” book on Tuesday next. They have estimated its value to be at least €500.

Sedan chairs were the 18th century equivalent of a chauffeur-driven limousine and were especially popular with ladies who lunched and did not want to walk through Dublin’s dirty and dangerous streets. The portable covered seats – carried on two poles by “chairmen” – were useful for accessing streets and alleys which were too narrow for a horse-drawn carriage.