The lost art of cheque writing, a treasure trove for researchers | Library and Archives

The art of writing a cheque is somewhat of a lost one these days, what with direct debits and online transfers revolutionising the way in which we pay our bills. However discovering a box of cheque book stubs within the remnants of the Tring Correspondence (in the Natural History Museum Archives) has given me a vital source of evidence for tracing the history and finances of the Natural History Museum at Tring.

A selection of cashbooks, cheque books and maps laid out on a table by the author during her visit to the public Library and Archives reading room. On the left are two piles (unknown quantity), sitting inside an archive box with the lid removed. To the right are approximately 16 others loosely distributed on the table. All relate to Walter Rothschild and Tring Museum, and come from the Natural History Museum Archives collection. Reference number TM3/1. The authors phone, pencil, readers pass, pencil pot and 'reading room requirements' place mat can also be seen on the table
A selection of cashbooks, cheque books and maps relating to Walter Rothschild and Tring Museum (NHM Archives TM3/1)

Within the box there are surviving cheque stubs for the years 1895 through to 1897, a key period in the museums history. Lord Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) had begun to employ staff, furnish and expand his museum and of course, buy large existing collections of specimens from other private collectors and smaller ones from natural history dealers and suppliers, in order to enhance his own rapidly growing collection of zoological specimens.

Giving only a name and figure of payment, at first glance these small slips of paper may seem insignificant and of little useful information. However, a year into my research, these names have now begun to mean something to me – R. Ward meaning Rowland Ward, a renowned taxidermist; T.E. Cleere being the colourist for the illustrative plates of the museum’s journal, Novitates Zoologicae; and Watkins & Doncaster a dealer in natural history specimens and equipment, specifically entomology. Having now gone through and looked at each stub and recorded the information it gives, I have been able to piece together how much Rothschild and his curators were paying to whom and for what.

A cheque book stub open, with the author's finger holding it in place on the left hand side. The left page is blank. In a mixture of print and ink handwriting the right hand page reads 'No. 23, 5 day of Feb. 1895. To W. Caspari, Lepidoptera, £35.00. The stub is struck through in red pencil diagonally from bottom left to top right with what looks like CB 8
Example page from Walter Rothschild’s cheque book stub (NHM Archives TM3/1/13).

Moreover, armed with this information I have also now been able to visit the Rothschild Archive and examine Walter’s personal ledgers, where I found similar names and payments to those in the cheque books, and matching up this information to letters within the Tring correspondence at the Natural History Museum Archives, I found surviving bills which detail exactly what was being paid for.

The subject of money was always going to be a central theme in my research but until the discovery of these cheque book stubs, I hadn’t expected to give the level of the detail and to draw the conclusions that I will now be able too. For example, looking only at the cheque books, I can conclude that from January 1895 to June 1897, Walter Rothschild spent a minimum of £16,000 on his Museum, which, when adjusted for inflation, equates to around £1.9 million today.

A cheque book stub open. The left page is blank. In a mixture of print and ink handwriting the right hand page reads 'No. 125, 1 day of July 1895. To Henry Seebohm, for bird skins, £52 19 shillings and 6 pence. The stub is struck through in blue pencil diagonally from bottom left to right with the number 40
Example page from Walter Rothschild’s cheque book stub (NHM Archives TM3/1/3), 1 July 1895.

What this means is that once I have combined all the information I have gathered over the last few months, I will be able to do some further analysis and draw some rather important conclusions for my overall thesis argument in terms of the money Rothschild was spending on his collection. Who’d have thought that such a major research lead could come from a few hundred, small slips of paper, the result of the lost art of cheque writing?

Written by Elle Larsson

PhD Student at Kings College London and the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Elle and her fellow KCL PhD students have established The Animal History Group (@AnimalHistories on Twitter), a London-based research network open to scholars whose work engages with animals within history.