Lettre d'indication, 1860s

NatWest Group History 100 object 92: lettre d'indication issued to customers of Messrs Drummond for use when travelling abroad, 1860s.

This Victorian document shows how hard bankers worked to make sure their customers could get cash easily wherever they found themselves. Written in French, the language of European diplomacy, this lettre d'indication introduced customers of Messrs Drummond to its 'correspondents' overseas. Once the letter had been dated and a customer's name and signature added, it provided its owner with access to cash at banks and businesses in over 280 towns and cities throughout the world, from Amsterdam and Aleppo to New York and Sydney.

The 18th century was the golden age of the Grand Tour, when wealthy young men spent months or even years travelling Europe, gaining first-hand experience of the continent's cultural treasures and meeting European society in Paris, Geneva, Florence and Rome. Others, too, travelled widely, among them merchants, businessmen and army officers. Yet prior to the 1760s, travellers could only get cash abroad by using bills of exchange or letters of credit. Neither was ideal. A letter of credit, for example, was expensive and required travellers to follow a fixed itinerary so that facilities could be arranged well in advance.

making sure customers could get cash wherever they found themselves

Then, in the 1760s, an innovative young Scots merchant called Robert Herries had the idea of providing fixed-denomination promissory notes, supported by a letter of introduction, which would be instantly accepted at a network of 'correspondents' across Europe. The notes - called 'circular notes' - were purchased prior to departure and could be cashed without charge at the rate of exchange current in London at the time they were presented. The correspondent, which was usually another bank, got a small commission from the note issuer, and the issuer profited from use of the traveller's purchase money until the notes came back to London. It was a brilliant win-win idea, and Herries began to issue his circular notes for the first time in 1769, in partnership with NatWest Group constituent Coutts & Co.

The circular notes proved immensely popular with travellers such as Lord Byron, who used them as he roamed Europe in the early 1820s. It was not long before other banks, among them Messrs Drummond, began to issue circular notes of their own.

Circular notes remained in use for more than a century, only diminishing in importance towards the end of the 19th century as Thomas Cook's new package holidays and currency services began to point towards different ways of facilitating tourism and travel.