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Understanding Common Record Types: Accounts

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

Introduction to accounts

Financial records containing figures relating to the income and expenditure of an organisation or individual.

Why they were created

Created for accountability purposes, and to document the financial position and spending of an organisation or individual.

Who might have created them

Created by the treasurer of an organisation, their accountant, a private individual, or a personal accountant or estate agent employed by a private individual.

Where you might find them

Usually found with other financial, property or estate papers, or, in the case of an organisation, often with annual reports or treasurers' files. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Charities
  • Societies
  • Schools and universities
  • Businesses
  • Hospitals and asylums
  • Childrens homes
  • Estates
  • Landed families

Period from which they most commonly survive

Appear in large volumes from the 19th century, but examples exist from the medieval period onwards.

Key features

Physical features

  • Paper and ink
  • Manuscript or typescript, with annual accounts of organisations often printed
  • Formats include single loose sheets, multi-leaf items stitched or fastened together, bound volumes into which entries are made
  • Information entered in columns with headings indicating what information is being recorded

Informational content

  • Entries of individual sums of money received
  • Totals of money recieved in a given period
  • Entries of individual sums of money spent
  • Totals of money spent in a given period
  • Brief notes of where money received has come from
  • Brief notes of where money spent has gone to

U DDFA5/9/3

Account of monies paid out by Henry Varley Etherington, John Hughes, Thomas Harrison and Thomas Brown in their capacity as Byelawmen for the East Riding of Yorkshire, 1881

U DDSY4/5/59

Account book of Reverend Mark Sykes, showing monies received and payments made, Aug 1767-Oct 1781

U DDSY/102/2

Extract from the diary of Richard Sykes showing an account of staff wages due on given dates, 1756

U DDBA/4/175

Account of tithes to be collected by the vicarage of South Cave yearly at Easter, as laid out in the Glebe Terrier, n.d.

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Statistical data can be manipulated, by inclusion or omission, we might need to be conscious of this when making evaluations based on accounts, and look to other sources to corroborate the evidence
  • Standards of measurement and currency have changed over the centuries, as have values associated with particular measures, we should be aware of this when making comparisons across time
  • When comparing monetary values over time, we cannot make direct comparisons based on values recorded in documents, but must rely on conversion calculators to take into account the effects of inflation and the switch from the Imperial to the Metric system of measurement
  • It is common to encounter gaps in the record, i.e. individual years missing, coverage under one individual and not under their predecessor or successor, etc., which can make it hard to trace trends so we might need to consider alternative research methodologies such as sampling

Potential research uses

Accounts can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Financial position of an individual or organisation
  • Business activities of a given individual or organisation
  • Economic viability of a particular activity or industry in a given period
  • Financial impact of a specific local, regional, national or international event on a particular organisation or individual
  • Changing costs of particular commodities and services
  • Rents and wages in a given period, or trends in the same over time
  • Household spending

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Secretary script - early modern accounts are commonly written in Secretary, or a mixed Secretary/Italic hand
  • Roman numerals - medieval and early modern accounts often record numbers as Roman characters, rather than as the Arabic characters with which we are now familiar
  • Latin - medieval and some early modern accounts are written in Latin, or include Latin elements
  • Imperial system of weights and measures - pre mid-20th century, currency will appear as pounds, shillings, and pence, whilst weights and measures will be recorded using the Imperial rather than the modern decimal system

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of accounts using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as accounts, account book, financial statement, balance sheet, treasurers report, etc.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of accounts held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.

Further help

The following secondary literature provides critical examples of how others have used historical accounts in their research, as well as an overview of historical weights and measures that might be used in historical financial records: