[The following material is based on the author's book Lewis Carroll in His Own Account published by Jabberwock Press, London. ISBN 0954941608. Readers might wish to look at her website, which also contains Ms. Woolf's Lewis Carroll blog.]


decorated capital 'V'ictorian bank material is only just becoming available now. In Great Britain, a bank account is considered to be in the public domain if an account-holder died a hundred years ago or more, so many bank accounts of well known Victorian figures have only become available for study quite recently. Even twenty years ago, material like Charles Dodgson's account would not have been accessible. However, access to an historic bank account can never be guaranteed. Many documents vanished during the ravages of two world wars, and there is no certainty that records will have saved at all, as individual banks had different policies where it came to saving outdated material. However, most banks make an effort to keep hold of their history, and have archive departments.

As for which bank owns which records, local business directories may give clues as to which modern banks have swallowed up historic ones, especially if a bank has stayed on the same site under different names, as happened on the Old Bank site.

The Victorian System of Bank Ledgers

The accounts at Parsons Thomson, held at Barclays' Bank archives, were kept in a way that was typical of Victorian banks. Enormous leather bound ledgers, several inches thick, were bound in leather and stamped in gold. Their pages were covered in lines of copperplate writing in various hands, some legible, some less so.

This ledger system is only one of the ways in which Victorian banks operated quite differently from modern ones. At any one time the bank would be running several account ledgers, each of which contained details of individuals whose surnames began with the same group of letters in the alphabet. (Dodgson's account was usually contained in a ledger marked A-D).

The accounts themselves were not in alphabetical order in the ledger, but each page was numbered and the names of account holders were indexed in each volume. When an individual's ledger page ran out of space, a note was made in the ledger to direct the reader to the next page of the ledger where the account could be found. This was often many pages away. When a ledger eventually ran out of empty pages, it was put away and a new ledger was opened.

Transactions were not usually entered directly into the ledgers. Usually, a daybook was kept in which the day's transactions were recorded. The banks closed to customers a couple of hours before the staff went home, in order to make time to write up the day's transactions. After the doors shut to the public, the notes in the daybook were transferred to the individual account pages in the ledgers. This was often done by one clerk reading the day's business aloud, and another clerk or clerks listening and writing up the ledgers accordingly:. This means of transferring information was a common practice at the time in all kinds of offices. (In his memoir "A Cab at the Door", the writer V.S Pritchett gives a particularly vivid description of such a scene in the office of the leather business where he worked as a youth.)

Changes in Banking Practice

It should also be remembered that there were considerable changes in banking practice during the Victorian era, and there have also been very many changes between the Victorian era and the present. These should be taken into account when considering the implications of some of the material in Victorian bank accounts.

For example, there was no proper national cheque clearing system in the 1850s, but Coutts' Bank and a few others operated inter-bank agencies to enable money to be transferred between subscribing banks. In the case of Dodgson, regular sums of money deposited to his Old Bank account via Coutts between 1856 and 1860 were actually being sent from the family home in Yorkshire, as family letters confirm.

Victorian Currency

Victorian accounts are all in Imperial currency. One pound (1) consisted of twenty shillings (20s. or 20/-) and a shilling consisted of twelve pence (12d.) In writing, shillings and pence are frequently divided by a stroke, as "10/6". . Adding and subtracting pounds, shillings and pence can be a little complicated at first, since some thought will show how 11 + 2 in the pence column equals 1 (carry one); but 11 + 2 in the shilling column equals 13. However, 18 + 4 in the shilling column equals 2 (carry 1). And so on.

It is also helpful to have some idea of relative buying powers between the nineteenth century and now. As a very approximate rule of thumb, one Victorian pound may be taken as having equivalent buying power to fifty modern British pounds in the early twenty-first century. It is not possible to make exact comparisons, though, since there was a greater gap between rich and poor than there is now. Then, human labour was relatively cheap, as were many necessities of life, such as housing. By contrast, luxuries, novelties and non-necessities were expensive by comparison with the present day.

Related Materials

Victorian Web Overview Economics

Last modified 8 August 2008