Cheque, 1659-60

NatWest Group History 100 object 91: cheque drawn on Morris & Clayton, February 1659/60.

This slender slip of handwritten paper, a simple payment instruction from a customer to his scrivener, is a relic of the very earliest days of British banking. It's a cheque dated 16 February 1659, but in those days the year began on 25 March, so the actual date as we'd understand it is 16 February 1660. It may be a year younger than it looks, but it's still one of the oldest surviving cheques in Britain.

When goldsmiths and scriveners, the 17th century forerunners of bankers, first introduced cheques, it was a striking act of creativity. They were changing the way they did business in order to develop a service - secure and efficient money payment - that their customers needed. In so doing, they moved one major step towards becoming Britain's first fully-fledged bankers.

bankers wanted to make payment processes easier and less risky

Payment slips something like cheques probably existed in the ancient world, but in Britain the story goes back less far, to the birth of London's first banks in the mid-17th century. Those early bankers, mainly goldsmiths and scriveners, wanted to make payment processes easier and less risky. They developed a way for customers to make payments using paper instructions, leaving their gold and silver safely tucked up in the vaults. In so doing, they gave ordinary citizens access to a service previously available only to international merchants through bills of exchange.

The format of the cheque continued to develop as its use grew. The earliest surviving cheque of an English provincial bank was drawn on Samuel Smith & Co of Nottingham in 1705. The first pre-printed cheque form (apart from the Bank of England's) was issued by Vere, Glyn & Hallifax in the 1750s, and in 1811 Commercial Bank of Scotland issued the first cheques pre-printed with the customer's name.

Despite these developments, today's cheques differ very little from this example from 1660. Now, more than 350 years later, they no longer enjoy the central role they once played in financial transactions, but the outcry that met a recent proposal to withdraw cheques in the UK speaks of their continuing popularity and value.