Sir Howard Kingsley Wood was a Conservative politician who steered the British economy during much of World War 2. He is perhaps best known for introducing pay as you earn (PAYE), the system of tax on income that’s still in use today.
Howard Kingsley Wood was born in Hull on 19 August 1881. He was the eldest of 3 children born to the Reverend Arthur Wood, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, and Harriett Siddons Howard.
When his father was appointed as minister of a Finsbury chapel in north London, the young Wood began his academic life at a nearby Wesleyan school.
In 1903, Wood qualified as an articled solicitor. In 1905, he set up a law firm in the City of London that specialised in industrial insurance. He first appeared in The London Gazette on 27 October 1905, representing L Norman and Co Limited at his offices at 15 Walbrook (Gazette issue 27848).
In 1911, Wood made his first foray into politics and was elected as a member of the London County Council. He was involved in a number of industrial insurance bodies that brought businesses into the national insurance plan. In 1918, he was knighted for his work (Gazette issue 30607).
Wood was soon elected as Conservative MP for Woolwich in the ‘khaki election’ of December 1918, a seat that he represented, uninterrupted, until his death in 1943. As a talented MP during a period of Conservative dominance, he rose quickly through the ranks, and by November 1931, was appointed to the position of postmaster general (Gazette issue 33771).
While in charge of the General Post Office (GPO), Wood attempted to make the organisation more financially effective. He negotiated a new financial arrangement with the Treasury that fixed the sum that the GPO contributed to the national finances, and allowed it to keep any profits above that figure for reinvestment. He also built up the telephone section of the GPO.
By 1935, Wood had earned himself a place in the cabinet and was promoted to the position of minister of health (Gazette issue 34169). In this new role, he pushed for improvements in public health and housing standards. However, when Anthony Eden resigned from Chamberlain’s government in March 1938, Wood was moved to the position of secretary of state for air.
Before Wood took up the position, the UK was producing 80 new warplanes a month. Within 2 years under Wood, this figure had risen to 546 a month. By the outbreak of WW2 in September 1939, Britain was producing as many new warplanes as Germany. An order was also published in The Gazette authorising air force officers to issue requisitions of emergency (Belfast Gazette issue 950).
In May 1940, with Britain defeated in Norway, Wood played an influential role in convincing Chamberlain to resign and encouraging Winston Churchill to run for office. Following Churchill’s appointment on Friday 10 May 1940, Wood was appointed chancellor of the exchequer (Gazette issue 34854).
Wood was chancellor for 40 key months of WW2. He presented 4 budgets to parliament, including the budget of 1941, which introduced an income tax rate that enabled an extra 2 million workers to contribute to the country’s coffers. However, perhaps the most lasting legacy of Wood’s tenure was the introduction of PAYE, a system of income tax that’s deducted from current pay, rather than collected retrospectively.
Unfortunately, Wood did not live long enough to see PAYE come into effect – he died suddenly on the morning of 21 September, the day he was due to announce it in the House of Commons. Speaking in tribute on the following day, Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, MP for Norwich, said: “The Conservative Party has lost a great party leader, the nation has lost a great administrator, and many of us have lost a personal friend.”