16 February 1659: the first British cheque is issued

Cheques have been around for a long time. The Ancient Romans had them, and cheques survived in the Arab world for several hundred more years, saving traders (and camels) the bother of having to haul great loads of gold and silver across the hot desert sands.

The Venetians and Florentines, ever busy in that part of the world, cottoned on to the system, and brought cheques back to Europe sometime around the 12th century. But it wasn’t until the 17th century that the humble cheque as we know it today crossed the Channel and arrived in England.

(True, bills of exchange had existed in England for longer – at least since the 1300s. But they were used for international payments, so for our purposes, we’re not going to count them.)

The earliest modern British cheque that we know of was made payable to Mr Delboe for the grand sum of £400, or roughly £48,000 in today’s money. It was dated “16th of February 1659” by merchant Nicholas Vanacker, to be drawn on City bankers Messrs Morris and Clayton.

As the Royal Bank of Scotland, in whose collection the cheque resides, points out, the cheque is actually a year younger than it appears to be. “In those days the year began on 25 March, so the actual date as we’d understand it is 16 February 1660.”

What’s even more surprising is that the first paper currency, which is similar to a cheque except that the amount is paid over to the “bearer”, didn’t enter English hands until some 30-odd years later when it was introduced in the English colony of Massachusetts in 1690.

Today, despite the arrival of credit cards and electronic methods of payment, the humble cheque has remained stubbornly popular, with over one billion cheques written in Britain as recently as 2010. Due to the outcry, banks promised to ditch their plans to do away with cheques by 2018. Yet the battle continues.

• Check out my colleague Matthew’s recent review of The War on Cash.

Also on this day

16 February 1957: The ‘Toddlers’ Truce’ comes to an end

On Saturday, 16 February, 1957, the Toddlers’ Truce – a programme-free hour on TV between 6pm and 7pm – was finally broken. Read more here.