The wooden tally used in reckoning comes from two primitive notions; that of notching (scoring) a piece of wood for counting, as Robinson Crusoe did, and that of the broken stick shared between two parties to a bargain: the developed tally combines both. Use of this double tally, once prevalent all over Europe, is still frequent in the less advanced countries and not unknown in most. In England, though now nearly obsolete, it was exceedingly common mediaevally and its methods were highly developed; it endured long in certain connections; and its nomenclature survives in many words; to score at cricket (in Pickwick's day "to notch") derives from the single tally, and the verb "to tally" comes obviously from the double one; and other derivatives are many, if not quite so direct.

In England, however, the chief interest of the tally centres in its public use. This is earlier even than the very early "exchequer" organization (see EXCHEQUER); by a date not long after 1100 it was a settled system - a system, moreover, carefully differentiated from any private one and used for money only; and the tally continued to be the recognized form of receipt for payments into the Royal Treasury down to 1826. During this long period, though there were modifications of wording, it changed little outwardly save for a continually increasing length; the original 9in. being extended in one extreme example which still survives at the bank of England to 8ft. 6 inches. This, however, is due solely to the increased number of thousand (notches of the thickness of a man's hand) which the tally might be required to show; and (apart from any difficulty due to the writing) a 13th century clerk could have interpreted it; the revolutionary changes lie, not in the tally's form, but in its employment.

The Assignment System. At a very early date anticipation of the royal revenue became habitual and in this practice the tally was invaluable; nothing was easier than to "levy" a tally for a sum due for payment later and to "assign" this as payment to a royal creditor. Probably, at certain periods, creditors themselves had little objection to a practice which, in an age of difficult transport and clumsy currency, held many advantages. At the same time it might obviously lead to the lowering of royal credit and to endless confusion in accounts. Assignments were, in effect, payments; but tallies were essentially receipts; and, as such, from the 13th century onwards, were all entered on "receipt rolls" and, later, figured in numerous supplementary series of records. Moreover an "assignment" tally frequently went wrong, and the mediaeval administrator could think of no better device than to substitute a fictitious "loan" on the roll, so as to square the account. The roll of "receipts" might thus include actual payments of cash, sums credited long beore they were paid or due, and entries which indicate no payment at all, but rather a debt to be cleared later. The difficulties of the modern historian desiring to use these (exceedingly important) records, with none of the contemporary clerk's expert knowledge, needs no emphasis.

The Last Tally, 1826. By Pepys' time tally-making at Westminster had become a ritual involving numerous officials, much delay and many fees, and from then onwards periodical attempts were made to destroy it. But vested interest successfully withstood reform till the 18th century; and it was not till 1826 that the last tally was levied and a system of "indented cheque receipts" substituted. A few years later (1834) reforming zeal celebrated its triumph by destroying (in the furnaces which heated the House of Lords) the whole accumulation of ancient tallies, with disastrous results; the old Houses of Parliament were burned and, incidentally (till the casual discovery in 1909, in the Chapel of the Pyx, of about 1,300 Exchequer tallies, practically all "stocks" of the 13th century), English historians were left without an essential clue to the understanding of some of the richest record series in the national collections.


Tally by Hilary Jenkinson, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Chicago, 1954, pages 767-768.