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Hospital refuses to pay rates

In these days of debate and complaint about local taxes it is interesting to discover that resistance to payment is nothing new. In fact some very eminent citizens of Oxford, the Board of Management of the Warneford Hospital (then called the Radcliffe Asylum), were complaining about the unfair nature of local taxation 150 years ago.

At that time responsibility for the care of the poor was in the hands of the Overseers of the Poor, who were parish officials. They levied a local rate to pay for poor relief. The disputes which arose between the parish of Headington and the Asylum are represented in the hospital archives from the hospital’s point of view and inevitably tend to represent the parish officials as the villains of the piece. It is tempting to imagine the hard pressed Overseers looking at a large building in spacious grounds in their parish and wondering how much could be made from it. . . . .

The poor rate was levied eight times a year and in 1828 the Director of the Asylum, Mr. Moore, was paying 5/- a time, two of the receipts for this year surviving. A tenant of the Asylum paid his own rates on the land he rented. The Committee of Management of the Asylum were quite happy with the situation until early 1833 when they received a somewhat larger bill; they had dispensed with their tenant and the Parish had immediately transferred the full amount to them. The Committee held that the land was now all in use for the purposes of the Charity and determined to stand firm on the legal judgement given on York Asylum in 1832, which held that although a Charity could be rated, this was only applicable if it made profits. The Parish applied for a summons in July and at least one summons survives which was served in December on the Director, by this time Mr. Frederick Wintle. However, little more seems to have been done and a later report refers to an ‘amicable arrangement’ whereby 14/4d per rate was paid for the land and a cottage occupied by an employee, but nothing for the actual Asylum buildings.

Warneford Hospital 1832

In 1839 the Committee announced in the Annual Report that they had resolved to build a Chapel at the Asylum. However, the following year’s report states that they have been unable to begin the project (which was eventually commenced the following year) and the accounts make the reason clear, for £118 18s had been spent on ‘Expenses of Appeal against Poors’ Rates’. After seven years at a rateable value of £19, they were suddenly valued at £180 and faced a charge of £6 per rate. This would amount to £48 per year, a rise of £42 5s 4d, so it is not surprising that the Committee took exception to this unexpected demand.

It transpired that the Parish officials were basing their case on the very legal judgement which the Committee had used to defend themselves – had they been biding their time for seven years? They argued that the York case of 1832 allowed rating if the Charity was making profits and that the Radcliffe Asylum was doing just that because it accepted payments from patients, thus becoming liable for rates as ‘beneficial holders of a tenement’ and so liable to rates.

The Radcliffe Asylum was founded for the benefit of the middle classes and the poor who were not actually paupers, and it had always accepted patients who were able to contribute to the cost of their care on a sliding scale. The Parish argued that these payments, when considered with the subscriptions and other Asylum funds constituted profits. The Committee, on the other hand argued that they did not cover the cost of a patient’s care and so amounted to losses.

The Committee of the Asylum were sufficiently sure of themselves to take the matter to Quarter Sessions in October, where they were horrified when the Court decided in favour of the Parish. However, the Committee did not intend to leave it there and applied for the right to take the matter to a higher Court, which was duly granted. Meanwhile, they did not pay the rate demanded, as can be seen from the summons addressed to ‘The Trustees of the Radcliffe Lunatic Asylum’ and dated 22 August 1840. But the case was never brought to the higher court of Queen’s Bench for, unknown to the Governors, even as they defended themselves over the summer of 1840 another Court was hearing a similar case and that judge decided that any money received by such a charity as an asylum should count as profit and therefore create a liability for rates.

The Committee abandoned their active campaign with regret and the annual reports of the next few years contain regular complaints about the unfairness of it all. An example can be found in the report of 1842 when they ‘feel it to be their duty’ to point out that money ‘has been withdrawn from the free-will offerings which benevolence intended to dedicate exclusively to the relief of sufferers under disordered intellect’ and instead has ‘been appropriated to the relief of the land-owners and occupiers of the parish in which your Asylum is situated’ (those who paid the rates). There are also regular statements of their intent to present a petition to Parliament and a draft of such a petition does survive. Two petitions were eventually presented to the House of Lords in 1845.

Members of the Committee were somewhat distracted by the decision of Samuel Warneford to settle estates worth over £1300 per annum on the Asylum. The reports of 1843 and 1844 are taken up with the decision to rename it the Warneford Asylum and to commission a statue in recognition of the benefactor. However, they did not forget the question of local taxes and by 1846 they are complaining about the ‘Poor’s Rate, Church Rate, Highway Rate, Constable’s and County Rates’, not to mention Window Tax at £45 3s 6d. It seems that the local authorities won by default, as the accounts show that the rates and taxes continued to be paid.

Last updated: 28 August, 2018