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Introduction to Cheque Collecting


Introduction to Cheque Collecting

Roger Outing
Created 05-06-2012


Cheques have been in use for the whole 350 years of British banking history.  The history of the cheque is the story of British banking.  Perhaps no other single document tells the story so well and so comprehensively.  During the last 350 years there have been approximaitely 1,800 or so separate banks.  Some of these banks will have consisted of a single branch whilst others will have had thousands of branches.  Some will have had a lifespan of less than a decade whilst others will have a history that is measured, quite literally, in centuries. Every one of these banks and their branches is very likely to have made use of cheques.

With such a vast potential collecting area it is essential to have some framework to act as a guide to starting and developing a cheque collection.  A basic appreciation of the historical development of the English banking system will provide context and the background knowledge necessary to support the systematic development of a cheque collection. This is not as daunting as it might first sound and the appreciation of a few basics concepts and an awareness of the overall chronological sequencing is all that is needed to get started.

Most cheque collectors make use of the distinctions between Private Banks; Joint Stock Bank; the ‘Big Five’ Banks and the Bank of England.

Private Banks
By Private Bank is meant a small partnership (maximum of 6 in England) who conducted a local banking business, usually from a single branch.  Private Banks originated in London from the 1650’s onwards and began to appear in provincial towns from about 1750 onwards.  Earlier Private Banks, e.g. before 1790, may well have been run in conjunction with some other business, with specialisation solely on banking being a gradual and later development.

By the 1820’s there were many hundreds of private banks throughout England and Wales.  They usually issued their own banknotes (a separate story) and will have made use of current accounts and cheques. After the 1830’s private banks commenced a long and gradual decline as the first Joint Stock Banks (see below) came into being and slowly came to dominate the banking world.  By the 1920’s the private banks had virtually disappeared.

The cheques of the private banks are popular and highly collectable.  They are a natural starting point for collectors of cheques  A distinction is often made between London Private Banks and Provincial Private Banks, with many cheque collections consisting of one or the other.  The availability of cheques varies tremendously from one bank to another.  There are some private banks where 19 th century cheques are more readily available, and these include: Backhouse & Co of Darlington; Barclay & Co of London; Gurneys & Co of Norwich; and Hall, West & Co of Brighton.  For such banks it is possible to consider creating a specialist collection – and sometimes cheque catalogues are available to assist. (MORE). Cheques from other private banks have yet to be seen at all!  It is not at all uncommon for some private banks to be represented by just one or two known surviving cheque types.  Naturally there is competition amongst collectors for these cheques.  

Joint Stock Banks.
A joint stock bank is one that has shareholders – or proprietors as they were sometimes first known. All our modern High Street banks are joint stock institutions. The joint stock structure was not available prior to 1826 which is why private banks (see above) predominated until then.  From 1826 changes in legislation resulted in the joint stock structure being available for the first time.  Many of the early joint stock banks were no bigger than many of the private banks and their cheques are increasingly being recognised and rare and desirable.  The Joint Stock Banks did, after several decades of development, begin to establish branch networks and become regional, and sometimes, national banks.

Early joint stock banks did not have limited liability. Limited liability means that a shareholder is only liable for the full value of the shares that they hold if the company collapses. Without limited liability shareholders could potentially be liable to the full extent of their personal assets in order to meet the liabilities of a bank that had collapsed. The important development of limited liability was not taken up by the banks until the 1880’s and this final and important development set the stage for the ‘Big Five’ as described below. The addition of ‘Limited’ to a bank title may appear to be a small design feature but it was, in fact, a development of great and vital importance.

The ‘Big Five’ Banks
Once limited liability was adopted by banks in the 1880’s a process of merger and amalgamation was initiated whereby the principal joint stock banks took over, firstly, the private banks and then the other smaller joint stock banks. This process went on for 30 years or so with the number of joint stocks banks decreasing whilst the number of their branches was increasing. By the 1920’s this process had resulted in the creation of the ‘Big Five’ e.g. Barclays, Lloyds, Midland, National Provincial and Westminster.  In the 1920’s these were amongst the largest banks in the world and their national networks of thousands of branches which covered the whole country were an exemplar of their kind.

It is entirely possible to collect cheques which chart the progression and growth of a bank from private bank to small joint stock to one of the ‘Big Five’.  Particular attention should be given to cheques with old bank titles that have been overprinted with new bank titles.  Such pieces were only in use for short periods and mark important development points in the history of the bank concerned.  If you select one of the ‘Big Five’ and then collect all the cheques including the particular historical family you will have a collecting project of real significance – and one that is likely to take several years to become truly comprehensive.

In 1968 Westminster and National Provincial merged to creat National Westminster Bank Ltd and so the ‘Big Five’ became the ‘Big Four’. In 2000 the Midland Bank became HSBC.  Recently Lloyds Bank combined with the Trustee Savings Bank to become LloydsTSB. And so the story continues to develop and progress.  And it can all be recorded in the cheques used by these banks.

Bank of England.
The Bank of England was established in 1694 and made use of cheques from the outset.  The earliest known cheque in private hands is dated 1737 – lucky you if you can get something from this period.  Later cheques, from the mid-1800’s are much more readily available to collectors.  A selection of Bank of England cheques can also be obtained from the 1900’s onwards, although somewhat perversely, the availability of cheques for dates after the 1970’s is very restricted.  

From 1826 the Bank of England opened several branches in different cities across England and these functioned as branches offering a full banking service until they were finally closed in 1991.  Cheques from the different regional branches of the Bank of England are sought after.  The Bank also had two branches in London, e.g. Law Courts Branch and Burlington Gardens Branch, and cheques from these locations are also popular.

There is an extensive series of post-1960 Bank of England specimen of and proof cheques that has been catalogued in considerable detail.  These are known as Bank of England "Library Cheques" because they originate from the Cheque Library that the Bank used to maintain.  This Cheque Library was discontinued circa 2000 with the cheques being largely destroyed.  Fortunately, a limited selection of cheques have survived and found their way into cheque collections.

What to Choose
Popular collector themes for cheque collectors include London Private Banks; any one of the Big Five Banks – with or without their family of amalgamated banks; or banks of a particular region or a principal city. Cheques of the Bank of England is a specialist area that appears popular with collectors of Bank of England bank notes.

It is probably best to avoid being too specific in defining your collecting area, e.g. cheques of mytown before 1900, as it is not likely that there will be enough surviving cheques to maintain interest over a period of time. Whilst there are, in general terms, plenty of cheques available to collect it is much more difficult to find a cheque from a specific bank for a particular time period. Unless you are just very lucky that is just not how cheque collecting works!

Availability of Cheques
Cheques were never produced for collectors.  They were only obtained from banks and used by account holders for the purpose of genuine financial transactions. When stamp duty was payable (before 1971) they actually cost the account holder money to acquire them. Until the 1940’s married women had to have permission of their husbands before acquiring a cheque book!  In the past there was nothing casual or informal about acquiring a cheque book.  In past years the possession of a cheque book was restricted to the professions, business people and the wealthy.  Only after 1960 did the holding of a cheque account become a more common and general occurence.  Of all the many 100’s of millions of cheques that have been produced in the past then 99.9% are likely to have been destroyed.  Collectors are seeking to acquire and preserve just the 0.01% that survive.  

This survival is random.   A part-used cheque book is put away with legal papers and re-discovered years later.  A batch of used cheques (the banks used to return cheques to account holders) is stored in the loft and then forgotten.  These are the cheques that turn up to-day.  There is no predictable replacement supply and with every cache of old cheques that is discovered then so the supply of new material is thereby reduced.

It is a feature of cheque collecting that when a new cache of cheques is discovered then that particular cheque will be readily available and reasonably priced.  Once these cheques are absorbed into collections the supply dries up and finding that cheque becomes more difficult – and potentially more expensive.  Cheque collectors quickly look out for ‘first appearances’ and, when appropriate, buy them at the earliest opportunity.  Of course to do this sensibly it helps if you have some knowledge of the historical background of the bank and their cheques.

Cheque Catalogues  
Comprehensive cataloguing of all known cheques is a task that awaits completion. Part of the challenge and fun of cheque collecting, at the present time, is that you are very often sailing in uncharted waters.  Enjoy the journey.

Market Values
If you browse through our listings of cheque for sale (via cheques in the main menu) you will hopefully gain some insight into the current market for cheques.  Having a good look is usually more important than making a quick purchase!


"Most collectors make use of the distinction between Private Banks, Joint Stock Banks, the 'Big Five' Banks and the Bank

Preston Banking Co Ltd, Lancaster, Cheque

"The important development of limited liability was not taken up by the banks until the 1880’s..."

Westminster Bank, Wells, Cheque

"In 1968 Westminster and National Provincial merged to creat National Westminster Bank Ltd....."

Bank of England, Plymouth

"Of all the many 100’s of millions of cheques that have been produced in the past then 99.9% are likely to have been destroyed".  

A few specialist cheque listings have been produced and details of these can be these can be found at CATALOGUES.


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