Tally sticks were once essential for recording government and commercial transactions. Kings used them to help collect taxes. Individuals and businesses used them provide a tangible record of debts and investments.
Tally sticks were usually made of wood, but could also be made of bone, ivory or stone. The Ishango Bone tally was made from the thigh bone of a baboon and dates from around 18000-20000 BC.
Tally sticks were introduced into England in about 1100 and continued to be used by Exchequer until 1827. In 1834 someone decided to dispose of the remaining sticks and succeeded in setting fire to the Houses of Parliament link.
Single tallies were usually used as a memory aid. Split tallies had a much wider range of applications. They were used to acknowledge receipt of goods, payment of taxes or a fine. Or, like the example below, provide proof of a debt. They formed part of a primitive but essential accounting system in medieval times.
Few tally sticks have survived [they made good firewood], so I made the one below to illustrate their features.
The stick is just under 12 inches long [about 30cm] and made of a wood with a clear grain. It records that AB owes CD five British pounds [£5], six shillings [6s] and three pence [3d]. Before decimalisation a pound was divided into twenty shillings and each shilling was divided into twelve pence. AB is the debtor [who owes the money] and CD is the creditor [who is owed]. It also shows when the debt is due. In the example repayment is due when CD demands it.
NN means non negotiable. CD cannot sell or give the debt to anyone else. AB will only repay CD. You can see the point of that. If CD sold the debt to an enemy of AB the enemy could bide their time and then present the tally when they knew AB was overstretched.
The notches in the top edge indicate value. There were different notches for pounds [and thousands of pounds], shillings and pence.
Sticks were made of woods that split easily so the one part of the split tally could be kept by the creditor and the other part taken by the debtor.
The creditor’s [CD] part was called the ‘stock’ and was longer than the ‘foil’ which was taken by AB. This is why we refer to someone getting the ‘short end of the stick’ when they have the worst part of a deal.
If someone lent money to the recently established Bank of England they would get a stock [from which we get the ‘stock’ in ‘stocks and shares’] recording the transaction. The Bank would keep the foil.
When we pay someone by cheque we send the cheque to our creditor but we keep a record of the payment on a ‘counterfoil’ in our cheque book.
Tally sticks had a number of anti-forgery features.
- The notches on a stock and a foil had to match exactly when payment was demanded.
- The grain had to match. If you look at the first photograph you can see that the grain clearly continues from the foil to the stock.
- Details of the debt was written on both the stock and the foil.
The two photographs below show another tally stick. I made this to resemble one that was used in Switzerland until the end of the 19th century and is now in a museum. The same anti-forgery features are present. The holes in each part were presumably drilled so that the tallies could be strung on a string and not mislaid or used as firewood by a housemaid. Thoughtless housemaids were a real danger. A maid burned Thomas Carlyle’s only copy of his book, the ‘The French Revolution: A History’, after mistaking it for waste paper and using it to kindle a fire.