Tally Sticks and Townhouses: The Exchequer of Receipt at St Stephen's

Created on Monday 13th July 2020 by:
Kirsty Wright

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer is an important government office, yet the title is merely honorific. The present Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is a member of the Treasury Board and does not have an Exchequer to oversee. The Exchequer was abolished in 1834, ending its centuries of financial management for the crown and state. Its management of government finance granted it a pivotal role in everyday government and enacting policy. Money mattered, and so did its management.
The Exchequer forms a chapter in St Stephen’s history from 1572 when its officers acquired the former college buildings as their official residence, to 1794 when the buildings were passed on to the Speaker of the House of Commons. My colleagues’ work has examined the colourful history of the site as a space for kings, canons and Parliament. The place of administrative officials in this may seem like a dowdy interlude, but the Exchequer officials were not bumbling bureaucrats. They were vibrant characters who occupied positions of power, often holding their Exchequer positions at the same time as parliamentary seats and other government offices. Although the Exchequer was eclipsed over time by the Treasury and its offices became sinecures, devoid of real responsibility but still salaried positions, these officials kept hold of St Stephen's and their status. This post explains what the Exchequer was, its relationship to St Stephen’s and why these things matter.

The chequered tablecloth in the Court of Exchequer, 1808. Image from Pyne and Combe's Microcosm of London.

The Exchequer was an institution named after a tablecloth. It was responsible for managing royal revenue and did so through its division into two sub-departments, which operated out of parallel offices on either side of Westminster Hall - the Exchequer of Receipt, or Lower Exchequer, and the Upper Exchequer. The Receipt handled cash, managing all incoming and outgoing revenue while the Upper Exchequer was a court that enforced payments and settled disputes. My research concentrates on the Receipt. It was the senior officers of this department who acquired living space at St Stephen’s, the Auditor of the Receipt and the four Tellers. The buildings occupied the site at the heart of the Palace of Westminster adjacent to the House of Commons in the college chapel. The Auditor and Tellers divided the former college cloister, bell tower and range of vicars’ houses between themselves to fashion townhouses and offices. Conveniently these buildings were an enviable five-minute commute to the Exchequer chambers. The Auditor and Tellers worked in the Receipt and performed part of the Exchequer’s notoriously complicated accounting procedure. The Auditor was responsible for overseeing much of the everyday activity in the department while the four Tellers received and issued the money. Their place in Exchequer proceedings is best explained by following the steps in the process. 

Tally sticks used in the Exchequer. Image from Winchester City Council Museums

So if you were a tax collector who came to Westminster in 1600 to pay money into the Receipt what would you do? On arrival you might take a turn around Westminster Hall to view the stalls and then would make your way to the north end of the Hall and take a right turn up the stairs to enter the chambers of the Receipt. There you would begin the formal process of account. The first person you would deal with would be one of the four Tellers who would take your payment and record the sum and your personal details onto a slip of parchment, known as a Teller’s bill, which they then passed down to the Tally Court. You would head back downstairs to follow the bill into the court where a wooden tally stick would be made up for you. The tally was carefully carved by the Tally Cutter with notches of different widths to represent the sum paid in. In the court you would look on while the tally was repeatedly examined, first by the Auditor of the Receipt who copied the words of the bill onto both sides of the tally and recorded it in a book and second by the Clerk of the Pells who recorded the details in his book. The tally was then split in half. One part, the foil, was locked away in a chest in the Receipt and the other part, the stock, would be given to you as evidence of your payment, much like receiving a receipt today. Clutching this stick you would then proceed to the Upper Exchequer to finish your account. There before the Barons of the Exchequer, around the table draped in a chequered cloth (the aforesaid tablecloth), you would await the retrieval of the tally foil by the Deputy Chamberlains who would then join it with the stock in your possession. If the pieces fit the tally could then be delivered to the Pipe Office where the Clerk of the Pipe would record the details of the payment and grant you your quietus est, or discharge, enabling you to finally leave the Exchequer offices free to go about the rest of your business. 

This multi-step process was undeniably convoluted and confusing. The use of tallies, multiple records and checks was designed to provide successive security checks to prevent fraud and catch out officers’ attempts to fiddle their accounts. Much work on the Receipt has concentrated on tracing the development of this procedure and the success or failings of its execution. However, there’s more to the Exchequer than its formal process. What interests me about the proceedings described above is the sheer number of interactions between people and their movement. The importance of place and personalities has been little studied. As an institution contingent on the actions and interactions of individuals it makes sense to study its officers. Studying them within their physical context, their homes and offices at St Stephen’s, provides evidence of their activity beyond the formal Exchequer chambers and procedure. As the senior officers in the Receipt the activities of the Auditor and Tellers provides a valuable window into the realities of administrative life that were not contained in formal institutional spaces. Study of the way that these officers adapted the St Stephen’s buildings and used the space will enable better understanding of the Receipt’s place in government in the tumultuous seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. St Stephen’s intersected with the corridors of power throughout its history but the administrative officials who roamed those corridors are yet to be fully explored. Future posts will look at some of the characters and events that unfurled at St Stephen's under the Exchequer.