The “Dammit! I wish I’d known that” Moment

(A few surviving tally sticks; the original “Stocks”)

It’s something that happens to all of us. After getting an idea, you work hard to put it together in the best possible form, you finish and feel satisfied, and then you stumble across something which – if you’d known about it at the start – could either have made the process much simpler, easier and quicker or enhanced the finished product. For writers it can come with an especially irritating edge, as I’ve recently been reminded of when it happened to me a few days ago.

The project that’s been taking up most of my fiction writing time at the moment is the second title in my Erik Midgard Case Files series The Lost Libraries Archive. I won’t reveal anyway more of the plot here than is eventually going be on the book blurb, but the setting is a futuristic university where a group of history lecturers and their students are using time travel to visit the greatest “lost” libraries in human history; including the Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the library of Xianyang Palace in 1st dynasty China and the Mayan Libraries of the Yucatan. The historians are travelling back to times before these libraries were destroyed and are discreetly using advanced hand-held document scanners to record the contents of all the books, scrolls and codices contained in them. They are then bringing the data back with them to the future, where the collected written knowledge of the world’s early civilisations can be studied at ease and without any danger of causing paradoxes by trying to prevent the libraries upcoming destruction. It’s been a great book to write and I had a great time in the planning stage, indulging my love of history to research the libraries and cultures the cast will visit. But – soon after I’d finished, of course – I’ve learnt about something which I wish I’d known about at the start, or that I’d found during the research, so I could have included it.

It has come from one of the books that’s spent quite a while sitting on my “To read” pile next to my bed, ironically because I’ve been busy writing and revising The Lost Libraries Archive. This is Felix Martin’s excellent Money: The Unauthorised Biography. It’s a complete history of money, both as a historical artefact and a concept and is an absolutely fascinating read. But the first chapter includes a section on the history of the English Exchequer.

“For more than six hundred years, from the twelfth to the late eighteenth century, the operation of public finances of England rested on a simple, but ingenious piece of accounting technology: the Exchequer tally. A tally was a wooden stick – usually harvested from the willows that grew along the Thames near the Palace of Westminster. On the stick were inscribed, always with notches in the wood and sometimes also in writing, details of payments made to and from the Exchequer.”

The notches made in the willow worked to record how much money was being exchanged. “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; then a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.” The sticks were also known as split tallies, because – once the transaction had been recorded on them, they were cut in half lengthways and both sides involved in the transaction would get one half each. “The creditor’s half was called the ‘stock’, and the debtor’s the ‘foil’; hence the English use of the terms ‘stocks’ for Treasury bonds.” The great advantage to using willow for these sticks was that the wood has a distinctive grain so that – when the two halves were reunited – they would match each other perfectly; making it almost impossible for anyone to try to claim money using a fake one.


(An example of an American tally stick using both depth of notches and angles to record details)

The tally stick system worked very well in England for the six hundred years, but it was brought to an end in the 1830s. At the height of the industrial revolution, it was felt by the British government that keeping all their financial records on bits of wood was old fashioned to the point of embarrassing and 1834 (the same year that Charles Babbage first drew a conceptual design for his “Analytical Engine”) was when the last split tally was replaced by a paper bank note. All the split tallies left over in the exchequer – several thousand recording hundreds of years of financial history – were burnt as waste. The ancient system did have the last laugh however, as the fire very quickly got out of control and burnt down both Houses of Parliament. As Charles Dickens later described it:

“They were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others: we are now in the second million of the cost thereof.”

(The outcome – painted by J.M.W. Turner who witnessed the blaze)


The first thing I thought on reading this in Money: The Unauthorised Biography was “Dammit! I wish I’d known that! I could have used it in the The Lost Libraries Archive! It’s perfect! Is there a brick wall around here? I need something to bang my head against.” For all my research into ancient libraries, I forgot completely that libraries do not always have to be buildings full of books. A library is a means of collecting and organising a large amount of information and that can take many other forms than words on paper. The tally sticks, crammed into an unfortunately small stove in the House of Lords, represented a library of British financial history stretching back several centuries. If they had been preserved, they would be an invaluable primary source for historians today and they are exactly the kind of thing that my historians in The Lost Libraries Archive would go back in time to save (though they might have had a difficult time explaining to the locals in 1834 why they were spending so much time in the cellars of the Exchequer examining dusty bits of wood).

I could, of course, go back and rewrite The Lost Libraries Archive to include them, and other similar examples that I’m sure are out there, but the simple fact is I don’t want to. I’m very happy with the book as it currently is. The plot, structure and themes all work very well and I’m not keen to start bolting extra stuff on afterwards. Less is often more when writing fiction and unless I want to go back to the start and seriously restructure the story to make the tally sticks relevant to the plot, adding them now would only make them an interesting piece of extra detail with no real relevance to the story or character arcs. As I think Stephen King phrases it; in writing, it’s sometimes necessary to kill your babies.

I’m hoping to bring The Lost Libraries Archive out on Amazon fairly soon and it will be without the tally sticks. However, while writing has taught me just how irritating the “Dammit! I wish I’d known that” moment can be, it’s also given me the solution. The Lost Libraries Archive is number 2 in a series that is going to be at least four books. I can always revisit the historians and send them back to 1830s London to save the contents of the tally sticks before they get shoved into the stove in a later book. If it’s necessary to kill a baby in one project, or if you learn about it too late for it to be used, it’s always possible to resurrect it for use in a different one.


Money: The Unauthorised Biography. Felix Martin. Brodley Head 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1847922335


Tally Sticks – for Sipu

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