Seven Appeals and an Acquittal: the Singer Family and Their Tax Cases

Rarely are sewing machines, sex and tax ever mentioned in the same context, but John Avery Jones managed to weave these apparently unconnected topics together in a fascinating and entertaining talk entitled “Seven appeals and an acquittal”.

The subject of his talk was the Singer family and their tax cases. There were eight cases in total, five of which were appealed to the Court of Appeal and two to the House of Lords. The best known cases is Williams v Singer (1920) 7 TC 387, in which the family was described as one “which has done much to elucidate the law of Income Tax in England by its struggles to pay no more than the amount that it justly ought to pay”. In the course of the evening John managed to give an outline of the tax system in the UK between 1911 and 1920 and an overview of the cases (most of which the taxpayers won on technicalities), as well as an introduction to the main protagonists and consideration of why a family that was so incredibly wealthy might have taken so many tax cases.

The cases themselves were interesting, as was John’s potted history of the Singer family and, in particular, the background of the taxpayers involved. Isaac Singer, the inventor of the Singer sewing machine, was not only extremely wealthy as a result of his invention, but also had a complicated private life, leaving on his death 22 surviving children. It was four children of his second marriage, Mortimer, Washington, Winaretta and Paris, who were the main characters in the cases. They were all interesting individuals. Mortimer and Washington were philanthropists, landowners and racehorse breeders. Paris was also a philanthropist, had an affair with Isadora Duncan and, as a reaction to the Revenue’s litigation, emigrated to the US. Winaretta was probably the most colourful; as Princesse de Polignac she was a noted patron of the arts, and also a key figure in the tax litigation.

What is fascinating is why the siblings entered into lengthy and expensive tax litigation. John’s view was that the size of the assessments, coupled with the deteriorating tax landscape at the time, meant that they were unlikely to accept a situation where they felt that the Inland Revenue were being unreasonable. It also has to be remembered that for the family the cost of taking the cases were little more than petty cash. More detail on these cases can be found in John’s article “Seven appeals and an acquittal: the Singer family and their tax cases” [2008] BTR 56.

Caroline Turnbull-Hall

October 2013