THE PLATE LICENSE
Judging from their action the Inland Revenue authorities at Somerset House are anxious to bring the plate license into disfavour, and make its incidence as irksome as possible. It will be remembered that about two years ago a raid was made by persons in the employ of the Inland Revenue, upon respectable jewellers who held what is called a lower rate license, which would empower them to sell articles of gold to two ounces in weight. An idea prevailed in the trade that in such matters as gold chains the license would cover a chain of any weight which did not contain more than two ounces of pure gold. It was the practice of the informer to purchase such a chain, and a prosecution was immediately instituted by the Inland Revenue. No warning whatever was given or notice issued with a view of making clear the meaning of the Legislature as to the question of pure gold or alloy; nor was only a single case taken up with the object of settling the point authoritatively. The whole proceeding appeared to be actuated by a design to harass and annoy shopkeepers of repute and good name. In some instances, the tradesman having no chains in stock over the limited weight, was induced by the informer to procure one. No effort was made to reach the many dishonest traders, who purposely cheat the Revenue by dealing without any license at all in this sudden burst of official energy, which, either in deference to strongly expressed public opinion, or because no more terrible criminals could be found, appeared to have subsided. But the same spirit still animates the Inland Revenue, as an occurrence within a few days of writing will show.
A watchmaker and jeweller who had for many years carried on business in Dewsbury, holding a higher rate license, took a shop in Huddersfield. Anxious to conform to the law, he sent to the Excise, asking if the license granted to the former occupier of the Huddersfield shop would be recognized, or if he had better take out another? The reply was the old license would be accepted. But this assumption of a desire to do right was too much for Somerset House. Forthwith an emissary was despatched, who selected the only chain in the shop over two ounces, one brought over, in the hurry of stocking the new shop, from Dewsbury, where, it will be remembered, it could have been legally sold. Having completed his purchase, the representative of official virtue blandly tells the seller to prepare for a prosecution. We think it might be fairly asked that cognizance should be taken of the many delinquents who have no license, before taking action, without warning, where there is obviously every desire to conform to the law.
Then, again, is the difficulty of knowing what is actually required by the law. A locket, sold with a chain, may be detached, and therefore would not reckon in the weight. A watch can also be detached from the case; and it therefore appears reasonable the movement would not be subject to duty. Last month a watchmaker of Mansfield, had, however, some misgiving. Knowing how the meaning of an enactment is often twisted to suit particular ends, he determined to be on the right side, and accordingly, in his innocence, he wrote to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, asking which grade of license would be necessary if he sold a gold watch, the case whereof weighed less than two ounces, but altogether was over that weight.
The following is the reply of Mr. William C. Mitchell, assistant secretary :—
"Somerset House, London, W.C.
"17th June, 1879.
"Sir,—In reply to your communication, dated the 10th instant, I am desired by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to inform you that a plate-dealer's license at the higher rate is required, if the article sold be composed wholly or in part of gold, and weigh two ounces or upwards."
Of course, this does not assist the inquirer; it tells him neither one thing nor the other. As he remarks, a gilded door-knocker would appear to come under this definition of gold.
But what would he? The carrying on of a watchmaker's business is not yet sufficiently burdensome; let him prepare for a prosecution!
Source: The Horological Journal - July 1879