17 Pages

Directions for the Conduct of a Merchant's Counting House, 1766 EDITED BY JACOB M. PRICE

Despite our increased understanding of the expansion and direction of British overseas trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the inner life and procedures of merchant firms participating in that expansion remain largely unexplored. To be sure, the work of historians of accounting has established that from the late middle ages English merchants were becoming increasingly interested in adopting the more sophisticated double-entry bookkeeping procedures developed in Italy. This interest was sufficiently widespread by the mid-sixteenth century to make it worthwhile to publish English adaptations of continental text­ books of Italian-style accountancy. Publication of such adaptations and more original indigenous manuals became more frequent in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in both England and Scotland.1 W e do not know, however, how carefully the average - or even the larger-than-average - firm followed the prescriptions of the textbooks or manuals. Only rarely does a complete set of a firm’s books survive (wastebook, journal, ledger, etc.) and isolated volumes that do survive are often far from textbook perfect. If we know too little about account­ ing procedures, we know even less about the organisational and social character of the counting house in which this bookkeeping took place. How was work and responsiblity divided there? How was discipline main­ tained? Given our ignorance in these areas, it is of no little interest that a perhaps unique document has recently come to light spelling out in some detail the internal organisation and procedures established in 1766 for the counting house of Herries & Company of Jeffreys Square, London, a m erchant firm trading primarily to the western M editerranean.