Tally Sticks: The Hidden Dangers
1834 AD


The practice of making marks on, or cutting notches into, things to represent numbers has survived to the present day, especially among school children making tally marks on their desks to signify the days of their captivity (see also Carving notches into bones).

In the not-so-distant past, storekeepers, who often could not read or write, used a similar technique to keep track of their customer's debts. For example, a baker might make cuts across a stick of wood equal to the number of loaves in the shopper's basket. This stick was then split lengthwise, with the baker and the customer keeping half each, so that both could remember how many loaves were owed and neither of them could cheat.

Similarly, the British government used wooden tally sticks until the early 1780s. These sticks had notches cut into them to record financial transactions and to act as receipts. Over the course of time these tally sticks were replaced by paper records, leaving the cellars of the Houses of Parliament full to the brim with pieces of old wood.

Rising to the challenge with the inertia common to governments around the world, Parliament dithered around until 1834 before finally getting around to ordering the destruction of the tally sticks. There was some discussion about donating the sticks to the poor as firewood, but wiser heads prevailed, pointing out that the sticks actually represented "top secret" government transactions.

The fact that the majority of the poor couldn't read or write and often couldn't count was obviously of no great significance, and it was finally decreed that the sticks should be burned in the courtyard of the Houses of Parliament. However, fate is usually more than willing to enter the stage with a pointed jape -- gusting winds caused the fire to break out of control and burn the House of Commons to the ground (although they did manage to save the foundations)!