The conservation and preservation of wooden tally sticks

Lara Artemis ACR, Collection Care Manager, Parliamentary Archives

Fig 1. E 402/2-Thirteenth century tally sticks. ©The National Archives, Kew.

Following on from Victoria Steven’s article on the conservation of account books in Oxford and her mention of tally sticks, the Collection Care team at the Parliamentary Archives have this month been working on a couple of broken thirteenth-century tallies that had suffered environmental damage, including light and pollution, after being displayed for a number of years in the corridor of the House of Commons, Houses of Parliament, UK.

Tally sticks were a form of receipt for government income, which originated in the middle ages. However, their use is described much earlier by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), and were also found to be made from bone in the Upper Palaeolithic period (40-10,000 years ago). Wooden sticks were used in the middle ages and notches were cut (‘talea’ in Latin) indicating a sum owed to the Exchequer by sheriffs and other officials due to collect taxes and other money for the crown, and details written down each side. The stick was then sliced in two with the debtor being given the larger part (the foil) and the Exchequer keeping the smaller (known as the counterfoil). When the debt was repaid to the Exchequer, the two unique parts were married up to prove that the sum had been handed over. With this in mind, it may be that the small shavings/slips of wood found in the gutters of the account bindings by Victoria and her team are from the shaved pieces of notching on tally sticks, and it may be that the book held a third account of the transaction?

The early custodial history of the tally sticks held at Parliament is unknown. The Curator’s Office at Parliament holds a file including photographs taken by the Department of the Environment at Parliament on the tally stick collection in 1971 (Curator file ref: AA 3397/10). This shows eleven tally sticks on display on a wall in a corridor on the ground floor of the House of Commons. During the 1980s or 1990s they were placed in a smaller display case opposite the Terrace Cafeteria, alongside Parliament’s Medal Collection, by which time there were only eight tally sticks.

In 2009 it was agreed with the Curator’s Office, House of Commons’ Library and the Parliamentary Estates Directorate that the Parliamentary Archives should assume ownership. The display case was refurbished in October 2009, at which point three sticks were left on display and the rest transferred to the Archives. However, during the transfer we realised that two tallies were broken, both with the following transcriptions:

‘From Solomon, son of Isaac, of the tallage of 20,000 marks’, in Latin and Hebrew characters, with the amount ‘¾’, dated 1293-94 (Fig.9)

‘From Cecil de Muxegros of the farm of 49 acres of assart in “Grenewey” Gloucestershire’, dated around 1293-94 (Fig.8)

It was important to conserve them both but it was ‘From Solomon, Son of Isaac…’, that was of particular immediate interest, as it is understood to be the first known evidence of Jewish documentation in Britain to exist or have survived the expulsion of the Jews in England by Edward I in 1290.  It was for these reasons that Lord Janner of Braunstone was particularly keen to have this conserved and displayed again.

Fig 2. Image of a broken tally

Tallies are normally made from easily accessible soft woods, such as hazel or box wood, and were usually inscribed with iron gall ink.  Late tallies were much bigger in size, some the size of a table leg (an example of this can be seen in the ‘Enlightenment Gallery’ at the British Museum) than earlier tallies which were normally about 6 inches in length.  The survival of original tallies is generally rare in that they would have been used as fire wood if they were believed to not be of value anymore.  Tallies play a significant role in Parliament’s own history, when the burning of excess tallies in the furnaces under the House of Lords’ Chamber caused the fire which destroyed the old Houses of Parliament in 1834.

Fig 3. The Destruction of the Houses of Lords and Commons by Fire on the 16th of October 1834, William Heath, 1834. © Parliamentary copyright

Before embarking on this project, it was soon realised that we had a useful on-site resource in the person of Dr. Caroline Shenton, our head of the Archive (Clerk of the Records), who also happens to have been cataloguing the tallies at the National Archives, Kew.  In her article, Victoria has given the URL to the quick catalogue description; however, the TNA also holds a more descriptive hardcopy by Dr. Shenton, on the revealing history of tally sticks, which can be found in the TNA reading rooms.  In addition to providing some useful background information, Dr. Shenton’s palaeographical expertise proved invaluable when double-checking that we had correctly matched the pieces before reconnecting them, by transcribing at the script.

Figure 4. Dr. Caroline Shenton using an optivisor headband magnifier to identify broken pieces and ensure the palaeography matches throughout the tally so that the pieces can be adhered together correctly.

We managed to have the Parliamentary joiners cut some small pieces of soft wood to practice adhering broken or spilt wood.  I had not conserved a tally stick since my TNA days a number of years ago, so practising on the pieces of wood the joiners had made was very useful.

In the meantime, there was some consultation with Dr. Barry Knight at the British Library, to discuss adhesives for tallies with iron gall ink script.  There were a number of options, including rabbit skin glue (protein adhesive), Cascamite wood glue (a hardened resin with Formaldehyde), or an acrylic polymer adhesive, such as Paraloid B72.  After a few discussions with Dr. Knight, and further research, including conversations with a wood conservator, Mike Corfield ACR, the decision was to use HMG Restorative adhesive, a Paraloid B72 based adhesive to adhere the pieces together.   Once confident practising the method of adhesion, Lord Janner was invited to come and see conservation in action on the real things (Fig.10).

The Jewish tally in particular had suffered damage from insects (woolly bear) which had created powdery cavities in the stick. Consequently the decision was to use 6% Paraloid B72 suspended in acetone to consolidate the powdery residue which had been left by insects, allowing it to dry and creating a firm base for the HMG Restorative adhesive to bond the broken pieces of wood. The bigger holes/losses were filled with frayed hemp (Fig.6) that had been soaked in the 6% acrylic polymer suspension before the pieces were put back together (Fig.7).

Figure 6 Filling in the collapsed and powdery cavities with frayed hemp and polymer adhesive

The stereomicroscope was used to view closely the breakages and connection points, and fine tweezers and a micro-spatula were used to apply adhesive droplets into the areas that required keying together.  The tallies were too fragile to use any kind of clamping system, hence the reliance was on gentle hand pressure to help fuse the pieces together.  This proved very successful, and once dried a little spittle was used to remove any debris that may have been obscuring the script, and a very light surface wipe of linseed oil to bring back some of the wood lustre.  All information on the tally conservation has been recorded.

Figure 7. Adhering the two pieces together with HMG Restorative adhesive.

Even though they do now seem a little healthier in their appearance, we are presently in consultation with the display teams about whether the tallies can be successfully displayed without further harm.    Overall this project has helped our case for preservation, as it is a good tool to use to prove the problems of permanent displays in uncontrolled environments. Nonetheless, we have not forgotten that our focus is also public access, and with this in mind we are offering practical solutions, such as collection mapping, and assisting on case specifications for the preservation needs of the collections in our care.

Fig 8. A conserved tally stick

Fig 9. The conserved Jewish tally stick

The Parliamentary Archive collection holds a multitude of archive formats including paper based collections, parchment rolls, bindings, audio and some objects relating to the history of Parliament. As a paper and book conservator, normally I would not advocate stepping into another conservation specialism; however as a book conservator on occasion you do conserve wooden book boards. With this in mind, and previous experience in the conservation of tally sticks, it was a challenge that could not be refused, and fortunately it was successful in its preservation impact. The long-term preservation needs have been specified as follows: Environment- no UV; is stored or displayed in low temperature and low LUX (50)-for both the preservation of the wood and script; and RH should sit at 40%; and it needs to be continually monitored and assessed both visually and scientifically for any adverse changes.

Figure 10. Lord Janner visits Collection Care, and expresses his joy to Lara at the prospect of the tally being conserved, and preserved for future generations.

The most interesting and probably ironic element of this project was the fact that we were focusing on preserving these small yet valuable accounting records for future generations, as opposed to destroying them to make fire wood because many years ago they were deemed as obsolete and superfluous.

A thank you goes to all those mentioned in this article.

Lara Artemis ACR (British Library Contractor) | Parliamentary Archives | Houses of Parliament. London SW1A 0PW. UK | +44(0)207 219 1719

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