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The Tally Stick: The First Internal Control?

The Tally Stick: The First Internal Control?

By Nicholas Apostolou and D. Larry Crumble

The Forensic Examiner (Spring, 2008)

Excerpt: Unsplit tally sticks started as mathematical objects serving as mnemonic aids to counting, but they eventually found another use as commerce developed. Because so few people could read and write, tallies provided the earliest form of bookkeeping for recording both physical quantities and money. By the medieval period, tallies had really come into their own as the English equivalent of today’s credit card and as an instrument of internal control. King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, assumed the throne of England in 1100 AD, and in an effort to enhance his power, invented a unique money system called the tally stick system.

Tally sticks were made of polished hazel or willow wood, and transactions were recorded by notches carved into the square tally with a knife. The size of the notch indicated the denomination. A tally was officially described as follows:

The distance between the tip of the forefinger and the thumb when fully extended . . . The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower than a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.

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