Revenge of the Tallysticks

The Revenge of The Tally Sticks Tales of History and Imagination

This week I’m starting with a quick anecdote. Please bear with me, this is not going to be a regular thing. Nor is the general tone of this Tale regular. I thought I was making something short and a little strange, to give me extra time on the last couple of episodes for 2022 – a bit of a firebreak I guess. This episode took off on me as I laid pen to paper – taking on complexities I didn’t foresee. 

Anyway, I ask you give me time to set the scene on this one, and suspend disbelief on occasion. If this tale is not for you, no worries – we’ll be back to regular programming in two weeks’ time if you want to skip it. That said… 

I’m no animist, but there’s a dream I had years ago. Apparently it’s a dream that I can still clearly recall. In 2007 I worked for a call centre by day, as a kind of in-house investigator. By night I was a guitarist in a rock band that had a level of local buzz and a local following. The band never really broke through – and eventually split – later taking up other creative endeavours- like podcasting. In 2007 we were self funding an extended EP, and when money ran short – I took to hiring myself out as a studio player for our producer for more studio time. This was a fair piece of barter; I got to redo all the guitars on one track, our producer got to finish an EP she was working on. On having arrived home one night from a mix-down session that ran to 2 am, I fell into a deep sleep… to dream of, well, musical instruments. 

Ishtar playing The Studio 2004 - I’m somewhere to the left of the photo.
Ishtar at the Studio, 2004. Simone to the left, Mel middle, Jamie right…Dave somewhere in the background.

I was in a studio we’d borrowed for a day that was full of esoteric percussion and orchestral instruments. Amid their collection, a rather beat-up old cello with a string missing. At the session I picked the instrument up, and had a play – before deciding it wouldn’t add anything to the song. A scratch track on the instrument was subsequently cut. In my dream I picked the cello up, took a seat, and plucked at the strings till something musical came out. “Cello, it’s been a long day” I said. 

“It’s been a long life” The cello replied. “Once I was majestic, the tallest Maple on the block. When it rained, elk sheltered beneath my canopy. When the sun was out, robins perched upon me and sang like angels.”

“We had our own song too, you know? When the wind blew, we sang – and what a song it was!” 

Simone playing the Dog’s Bollix bar with a couple of acoustics and a mandolin.
Simone onstage with a mandolin at The Dog’s Bollix bar.

Three and a half hours later an alarm sounded, and I trundled off to work. “Funny dream” I thought. I recalled the last thing I’d read that week was an account of the Emperor Charlemagne and his vendetta against a tree, the Irminsul. Yeah, that’d be it – exhaustion plus Charlemagne equals dreams of talking cellos?   

In that spirit I invite you to suspend disbelief with me, and take a boat ride down the River Thames, England. The year is 43 AD, and we’re cruising the river in search of a suitable place for a fortress. Everywhere we look there are trees – a heavy covering of Weeping Willows rising up from the wetlands, then bowing down again to kiss the water. As day-trippers in modern times we appreciate the Acadian beauty of the scene. To a boatload of Roman Legionnaires sailing into parts unknown where – as far as they know – they could meet the same end as Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg forest (we’ll come back to that tale, eventually) – it must’ve been terrifying? This is not the tale of those Romans – They establish London, well, Londinium to use the name they did – and do many other things – we’re interested in those willow trees. We’ll return to London – and eventually those trees – in a minute. 

But first we need to discuss money.

In the episode on Martial Bourdin I stated time itself is a very real phenomenon, but how we measure it is nothing more than a standardised set of measures agreed upon by all. We do this in part because of precedence, and in part because it’s in the interests of those in power to do so. Sometimes it’ll be in the interests of society as a whole. We call this a noble myth, or a noble lie. Though the origins of money are somewhat murky, we can fairly safely say in it’s every iteration it has been a noble myth.

On to that origin story – nobody ever recorded the why’s and wherefores. There’s a tale that states money came about from necessity, as the earlier system of barter reached it’s limits. Once all our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the advent of the ice age pushed many of the animals they hunted towards places sure to still have food – fertile river valleys. Humans, still hunter-gatherers, followed their prey. Once in these enclaves, as land elsewhere became barren, our ancestors became territorial, claiming ownership over the land. From 10,000 years ago we began to domesticate certain animals as pets or beasts of burden. Many humans learned to farm the land for food and other supplies.

Around 4,000 years ago, at several places all at once, we invented the plough – creating massive surpluses, and freeing up 5/6 of the workforce to diversify. The working theory is that this diversification led to greater choice in how one swapped their surplus goods for other things – but it proved terribly inefficient. 

Say you made arrows and needed grain, but none of the hunters who use your arrows grew crops – and none of the farmers who have the grain need arrows anymore – then what do you do? Without a double coincidence of wants between the parties, it was hypothesised, barter failed. There a standardised proxy for goods seems sensible, right? Something quite rare, and durable enough to withhold being passed from one person to the next many times.  

Where this theory falls down, is there is some proof of barter in some places – but no proof found yet of a community who bartered, then ditched the practice for a system of money – let alone giving any reason for doing so for posterity. 

Somewhere along the line though, the idea of money of account – a token of standardised value – grew . Early methods included cowrie shells, and beads. The Mesopotamians (of modern day Iraq) invented the shekel somewhere around 2,150 BC. A silver coin which borrowed it’s name from a measurement of barley – approximately a weight of 11 grams – one can guess what it originally stood in proxy of. The shekel was used throughout much of the near east. Money was truly standardised, however by the Lydians (of modern day Turkey) around 1,000 BC. They had different coins, worth differing amounts. Their rulers even put their faces on the coins for the first time. In the late sixth century BC, their King Croesus, a man with a great love of his ample fortune, became a person of interest in Greece – as did those coins which bore his image. Croesus love of money, his meeting with the Athenian lawmaker Solon, and later run in with the Persians is of interest – but let’s shelve that too for another day – we’ve got too much ground to cover. From Lydia to Greece, to Rome and beyond you can sketch more or less unbroken lines to modern coinage.

Back in England, those Roman soldiers sailing down the Thames settled. They, of course were paid in coins. Over the course of the first century they brought destruction, conquering as far as what later became Hadrian’s wall (the wall itself built from 122AD) in the North of England. They also brought vast building and infrastructure projects – roads and canals, public buildings – built in stone and sometimes clad in marble. Groves of willow trees were felled to make way for a walled city which held 50,000 at it’s Roman era peak. There’s no word if the weeping willows wept at such carnage (stick with the plot device, it’ll make sense in the end). 

Weeping Willows on the Thames
Weeping Willows on the Thames

A section of the English public, then a pre-literate society, learned to read, write and count. The Roman presence opened up lines of trade with the empire in Europe, and as such, opportunity for some. They also brought money to a people completely unaccustomed to the concept. For a small percentage of elite Britons, the Roman presence brought great wealth, prestige, and nice things like costly villas to live in. For perhaps as much as 99% of Britons, however, life was a similar daily grind to before – where one mostly subsisted, and occasionally starved – but at least they had roads to travel along, and slightly nicer pottery?

Of course the Romans also brought a time of peace. With as many as 50,000 legionnaires along Hadrian’s wall alone, elite Britons slept well in their villas at night – assured no Picts, Scots, Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Angles or Swabians could arrive and steal all their precious money. But this peace wouldn’t last forever. Rome disintegrated throughout the Fourth Century for numerous reasons, both within and without the kingdom. The supply of shiny new silver coins everyone had become accustomed to slowed to a trickle, as the Empire struggled to keep the lights on. Many of those soldiers England’s peace depended on were stationed to other parts of the empire, where trouble brewed for Rome. 

Londinium in the 2nd Century
Londinium in the 2nd Century

The English, knowing money didn’t grow on trees (not yet anyway), started to ‘clip’ their coins to make the money go further – cutting chunks of silver off existing coins to mint new ones. In 409 AD, England, feeling Rome had abdicated all their responsibility to them – Brexited from the Romans in a successful rebellion. Having ‘taken back their sovereignty’, the cashflow stopped completely. What’s more, without garrisons of troops to protect them, the Picts of the North descended with a vengeance upon them. 

Thriving cities and expensive villas were abandoned. Many wealthy Britons buried their beloved – though now dog-eared coinage in hoards. The land descended into an anarchy that would take hundreds of years to recover from. The willow trees took back much of London. When the wind blew, they sang a song of victory. When it rained, the red deer took shelter. When the moon was full, the wolves howled ominously. 

I am looking to plough too big a field if I described everything that happened in England in the following years. The chronicler the Venerable Bede stated attacks from the Picts and Scots worsened. An English warlord named Vortigern hired a mercenary army of Saxons from the north of modern day Germany to help them fight back. Unfortunately for Vortigern, the Saxons liked England so much, they returned with friends and took over the country. This could contain some truth – Britons were not allowed to use weapons under Roman occupation, so most lacked the skills to repel a professional army. We know the Saxons, Angles and Jutes established several kingdoms in England from the early 440s – and that some kind of widespread slaughter of Britons did take place. Barbarians rolled many other Roman colonies, and they subsequently adopted many Roman ways – but Germanic invaders in England took on around 30 Romano-Britonic words, and nothing else. Virtually everything else was allowed to disintegrate around them. 

This suggests several possible scenarios – none of which are pleasant for the original inhabitants of the land. Like the origin of money, the history of this time is incredibly murky, so we’ll move on.  

Vikings first showed up in 789, and made a big splash in 793, when they wrecked the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Anglo-Saxon England was divided up into at least a dozen kingdoms – at times dozens – ruled by all kinds – but we’re now straying a long way from the money, and the trees – so back to the topic.

Londinium was slowly re-populated, just shy of two centuries after it was abandoned. It would become Londonwik before it became known as London. Shepherds ventured out to the area now called Covent Garden. It seemed a nice place to keep sheep. Over time others would come, and the city would rebound – but to the willows this time must’ve seemed like paradise. Shepherds sheltered under them in the rain. When the stars shone bright, young lovers sung of love and longing like Chaucer’s Absolum to an unattainable Alisoun. One presumes the trees provided swelling harmonies. 

Coins returned to England under Offa, King of Mercia (his reign 757 – 796). The man brought back the silver penny. His coins were remarkable in some ways – often of a higher quality than anything being minted in mainland Europe at the time. Some carried Arabic writing on one side. Some carried the image of his wife, Cynethrith – making her the only Anglo-Saxon queen represented on money. An empire builder intent on bringing England under just one ruler, coinage was a kind of propaganda to the king – a way of big-noting himself and letting everyone know he was the new boss. Offa embraced that aspect of money. As did every subsequent king or queen after him. By the time of the Normans in the 11th Century, coins were well established – but wealth had gravitated upwards into the hands of a small, elite class.

A general shortage of ready cash among the populace, to pay taxes with, often proved troublesome to these English royals. Take Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror. On his father’s death he had to buy his own fiefdom in Normandy off his older brothers. In 1091 he was deposed of that kingdom by his brother Robert, and had to fight a costly war with him. By 1100 he was king of England, and Normandy – but was broke and facing multiple challenges to his crown. He desperately needed tax revenue… If only money grew on trees.

Well, it did, but not in the way you’re thinking – let’s put China and paper money to one side for now. The royals came up with a plan that, if those willows had emotions, they would have been shaking in terror over it.

Whole groves of weeping willows were press-ganged into finance. Henceforth their song would become less lullaby of the leaves, more a dull clatter as they banged up against one another. 

Henry I came up with an interesting way to keep receipts on taxes paid. Tax would be recorded on a Tally Stick, as you had an annual tax bill, but typically paid it in halves, twice a year. A tally stick was a piece of wood, usually willow, that was split in two – both parts marked with identical notches to denote just how much tax the person had paid. The payer kept the longer piece, known as the stock (where we get the word stocks from). The exchequer kept the shorter piece, known as the foil. Willow trees were perfect for use as tally sticks as their distinctive grain pattern meant you couldn’t easily substitute one stock with another foil. When it came time to confirm who had paid their taxes, both parts were joined back together. 

People realised if they were in need of money, they could often trade in their stocks for close to that sum of money – the new stockholder knew it was as good as guaranteed money come tax time. Jewellers often got into the business of buying tally sticks off the hard up, creating a secondary market. Henry II realised this also meant he could sell stocks to people for their future taxes at a slight discount, allowing for quick cash injections if money was needed to go fight a war. The stockholder could then sell the stock at a profit too on the secondary market. These tokens often spread far and wide in the kingdom – many times a long way away from the original taxpayer. 

On occasion however; a king, such as Charles II, might game the system. 

Having been restored to the throne in 1660 (his father Charles I having lost his head, with the Cromwells taking the reins for the interregnum), Charles agreed he would allow parliament to pay him a wage drawn from taxes – granting them the power to dole out his money and set taxes. Unfortunately for the monarch, a cluster of unfortunate things happened. First parliament were stingy, paying him less than expected, while keeping taxes static. Second, The Crown were limited in the printing of new money, due to a lack of bullion entering the country at the time. The Great Plague, followed by the Great Fire of London wiped out the King’s cash reserves, leading to him making deals with France (one publicly known, to send soldiers to help in their fight against the Dutch. The other a secret pact to expose he was actually Catholic, theoretically forcing the nation back to the old faith – which he did only on his deathbed). 

But this still wasn’t enough. 

In 1671, Charles was heavily in arrears on his payments to his army, navy, and debtors. He flooded the market, the jewellers particularly, with far cheaper tallies than usual. A buying frenzy on the secondary market, incredibly, pushed the value of the sticks up until their profit exceeded 10%. The debt came due a year later, and the stock holders came to the crown to collect their profits. The king couldn’t repay the debt – but he had a way out. Any debt agreement at the time with annual interest in excess of 6% was considered predatory lending. The usury laws then stated any such debt were null and void and to be promptly ignored by debtors. On these grounds, Charles refused to pay, crashing the value of tally sticks overnight. Many a jeweller went bankrupt, ending up in debtors prisons. 

Charles II
Charles II

So it is unsurprising Tally Sticks fell out of favour, as useful as they had once been. As a form of alternate currency, they limped on till 1826. I couldn’t tell you what their song was in those days but I imagine it was not terribly festive or uplifting. Certainly they no longer provided shelter, financially or otherwise to anyone. Brought no-one solace, or comfort. Increasingly they took up basement space in the Government’s treasury and collected dust. On 16th October 1834 it was decided our wooden heroes would be immolated. Rather than do something civic-minded, like have a large public bonfire – or kind, like giving the old tally sticks away to people to use as firewood in the coming winter – the palace’s clerk of works decided the sticks should be fed into two ovens beneath the House of Lords. Throughout the day, two full cartloads of sticks were gradually fed into the furnace. 

As the workday came to an end, with the basement floor actually hot to the touch, the workmen doused the flames and packed up for home. An hour later, the flames reignited. The wife of the doorkeeper rushed to the deputy housekeeper to advise the fire had not just re-animated – it was burning the entire building down, and threatened to spread to the rest of the palace. As the buildings went up in flame, renowned artists like J.M.W Turner crowded around outside, paint and easel at the ready. Turner painted several canvases of the ‘Great Fire of 1834’.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament ?1834-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36235

As I said at the beginning, I’m no animist – I don’t believe plants and trees, rocks, stones or the great eternal blue sky (sorry Genghis Khan) have feelings, souls or sentience… but isn’t it a little fun to suspend disbelief for a second and imagine those sticks – once majestic and content down by the riverside. They sang in the breeze, till someone robbed them of their essential being. Press-ganged into service, they lost their voice. Used and abused by a man, who, quite frankly should have hugged every single tree he ever came into contact with (For a second time, I WILL come back to that story), they were branded villainous and untrustworthy. Left in a basement to moulder for years – they were ultimately robbed of a final chance to be of service to others. Don’t you just want to allow them one final act of revenge? As the painters captured the billowing smoke, and firemen fought a losing battle to contain the damage –
Well, I couldn’t tell you their final song – but it brought the house down.

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