Define: Writer Of The Tallies

Writer Of The Tallies
Writer Of The Tallies
Quick Summary of Writer Of The Tallies

In English law, a writer of tallies is an officer of the Exchequer who uses sticks called tallies to record financial transactions. These tallies have notches that represent the amount of money owed between a debtor and creditor. The longer part of the stick, known as the stock, is given to the person making the payment, while the shorter part, called the foil, is given to the other party. If there is a dispute over the sum, the two pieces can be fitted together to check for a match. Tallies were commonly used to keep track of accounts and were even utilised by the Bank of England for recording loans. Interestingly, the burning of old tallies resulted in the destruction of the old Houses of Parliament.

What is the dictionary definition of Writer Of The Tallies?
Dictionary Definition of Writer Of The Tallies

In English law, a writer of tallies is an officer of the Exchequer whose duty is to inscribe the letters of tellers’ bills onto the tallies. A tally is a stick that is cut into two parts and marked with notches to indicate the amount owed between a debtor and a creditor. For instance, if someone owed money to another person, they would use a tally to keep track of the amount owed. The stick would be marked with notches to represent the amount received. Once the notches were cut, the stick was split lengthwise into two unequal pieces. The longer piece, which contained a stump or handle and was known as the stock, was given to the person making the payment, while the shorter, a flat strip called the foil, was given to the other party. If the sum involved was disputed, the two pieces could be fitted together to see if they would tally. This terminology has had a lasting impact on our language. If you lent money to the Bank of England, tallies were cut for the amount, and the Bank kept the foil while you received the stock. This meant that you held bank stock for the recorded amount. When the form of the cheque was adopted, it was not referred to as a foil, but the part retained by the payer is still known as the counterfoil. The word cheque itself ultimately goes back to the same root as exchequer. Tallies were used in the Exchequer from early times until 1826. The burning of a large quantity of old tallies resulted in the burning down of the old Houses of Parliament. Overall, a writer of tallies is a crucial officer in English law who helps to keep track of debts and payments using a tally system.

Full Definition Of Writer Of The Tallies

The office of the Writer of the Tallies played a significant role within the English Exchequer from the mediaeval period until its abolition in the 19th century. This office was intrinsically linked to the system of tallies, a method of recording financial transactions that was both practical and symbolically important in the administration of the realm. This legal overview examines the historical context, functions, and legal implications of the office, providing a comprehensive understanding of its role in English legal and financial history.

Historical Context

The tally system in England can be traced back to the early medieval period, possibly as early as the reign of King Henry I in the early 12th century. Tallies were essentially wooden sticks that were notched to record the amount of a transaction. The stick was then split lengthwise, creating two corresponding pieces: one kept by the debtor and the other by the creditor. This system was widely used for the collection of taxes and other revenues.

The office of the Writer of the Tallies emerged as part of the broader administrative apparatus of the Exchequer, the medieval and early modern financial institution responsible for managing royal revenue. The Exchequer itself was divided into two main branches: the Upper Exchequer, which dealt with financial policy and oversight, and the Lower Exchequer, which handled the day-to-day management of funds, including the issuance and recording of tallies.

Functions of the Writer of the Tallies

The primary function of the Writer of the Tallies was to prepare the tallies used in financial transactions. This involved several specific duties:

  1. Notching and Splitting Tallies: The Writer of the Tallies was responsible for marking the wooden sticks with notches corresponding to the amount of money involved in a transaction. This process required precision, as the notches needed to be accurate to ensure the tally could be split correctly and later verified.
  2. Recording Transactions: Each tally represented a specific financial transaction, such as the payment of taxes, loans to the Crown, or other revenue-generating activities. The Writer of the Tallies meticulously recorded these transactions, ensuring that the Exchequer’s records were accurate and up-to-date.
  3. Verification and Auditing: The tallies served as a primary means of verification during audits. The two halves of the tally, kept separately by the parties involved, could be compared to ensure that no discrepancies existed. The Writer of the Tallies played a crucial role in this auditing process, helping to maintain the integrity of the financial system.
  4. Issuance of Tallies: As the official responsible for creating the tallies, the Writer of the Tallies also issued them to relevant parties. This included government officials, tax collectors, and other agents involved in the financial operations of the kingdom.

Legal Implications

The office of the Writer of the Tallies was embedded within the legal framework of the English financial system. Several legal aspects are particularly noteworthy:

  1. Legal Authority and Oversight: The Writer of the Tallies operated under the authority of the Exchequer, which itself was governed by a combination of royal decrees, statutes, and customary law. The legal oversight ensured that the processes and records were maintained according to the highest standards, reducing the risk of fraud and error.
  2. Role in Dispute Resolution: The tallies served as legal evidence in disputes over financial transactions. In cases where discrepancies or disagreements arose, the tallies could be used in court to resolve the issue. The Writer of the tales, therefore, played an indirect role in the legal resolution of financial disputes.
  3. Accountability and Record-Keeping: The meticulous records maintained by the Writer of the Tallies were essential for accountability within the financial system. The Exchequer’s ability to track revenues and expenditures relied heavily on the accuracy of these records. Legal accountability was thus enforced through the proper management of tallies.
  4. Transition to Modern Accounting: The tally system and the role of the Writer of the Tallies gradually became obsolete with the advent of more sophisticated accounting practices and technologies. The legal transition from tallies to written records and later to modern bookkeeping systems marked a significant evolution in financial administration. The legal framework adapted to incorporate these changes, phasing out the tally system by the early 19th century.

Abolition and Legacy

The use of tallies and the office of the Writer of the Tallies officially ended in 1826, when an act of Parliament abolished the tally system. The legacy of this office, however, persisted in various forms:

  1. Symbolic Importance: The tally system and the office of the Writer of the Tallies are often cited as symbols of mediaeval financial administration. They represent an era of English history where simplicity and practicality governed financial record-keeping.
  2. Influence on Modern Practices: The principles of accountability, verification, and record-keeping embodied by the tally system have continued to influence modern financial practices. While the methods have evolved, the underlying concepts remain relevant.
  3. Historical Records: The records created by the Writers of the Tallies provide valuable historical insights into the economic and administrative history of England. These records are preserved in various archives and continue to be a subject of scholarly research.

Legal Framework and Statutes

The legal framework governing the office of the Writer of the Tallies and the use of tallies was established through a combination of royal decrees, statutes, and customary practices. Key statutes and legal provisions include:

  1. Assize of Weights and Measures (c. 1196): This statute, issued by King Richard I, standardised weights and measures across the kingdom. It indirectly impacted the tally system by ensuring consistency in the notching and splitting of tallies.
  2. Statute of the Exchequer (1276): Under the reign of Edward I, this statute codified various aspects of the Exchequer’s operations, including the use of tallies. It reinforced the legal authority of the Writer of the Tallies and established procedures for recording and verifying financial transactions.
  3. The Statute of Tallies (1531): During the reign of Henry VIII, this statute further regulated the use of tallies in financial transactions. It addressed issues of fraud and mismanagement, imposing stricter controls on the creation and use of tallies.
  4. Abolition of the Tally System (1826): The final act of Parliament that abolished the tally system marked the end of the office of the Writer of the Tallies. This legislative change reflected the broader transition to modern accounting practices and the need for more sophisticated financial administration.

Case Studies and Historical Examples

Several notable historical examples highlight the significance of the Writer of the Tallies and the tally system:

  1. The Winchester Scandal (1260s): During the reign of Henry III, a scandal involving the mismanagement of tallies by local officials in Winchester underscored the importance of accurate record-keeping. The Writer of the Tallies played a crucial role in investigating and resolving the discrepancies, demonstrating the office’s role in maintaining financial integrity.
  2. Tallies and the Peasants’ Revolt (1381): The widespread use of tallies for tax collection contributed to the grievances that led to the Peasants’ Revolt. The revolt highlighted the tensions between the Crown and taxpayers, with the tally system symbolising the financial demands imposed on the populace. The Writer of the Tallies’ records from this period provide valuable insights into the economic conditions and administrative challenges of the time.
  3. The Great Fire of London (1666): The destruction caused by the Great Fire included the burning of many Exchequer records, including tallies. The loss of these records prompted a reevaluation of the tally system and contributed to the gradual shift towards more resilient record-keeping methods.


The office of the Writer of the Tallies and the associated tally system played a pivotal role in the financial administration of mediaeval and early modern England. Through meticulous record-keeping, verification processes, and legal oversight, the Writer of the Tallies ensured the accuracy and integrity of financial transactions. The legal framework governing this office evolved over centuries, reflecting changes in administrative practices and the transition to modern accounting methods.

While the tally system was eventually abolished, its legacy endures in the principles of accountability and transparency that continue to underpin financial administration today. The historical records created by the Writers of the Tallies provide a rich source of information for understanding the economic and legal history of England, illustrating the enduring impact of this once-essential office.

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This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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