Object 25: Account passbook, 1817-23

Account passbook of the Reverend John Peel, customer of Dorrien, Magens & Co, 1817-23

Account passbook of the Reverend John Peel, customer of Dorrien, Magens & Co, 1817-23

This little booklet is about the size of a modern passport. And like a well-travelled person's passport, it tells a story; not of the countries its owner has visited, but of how money has passed through his bank account. It's a simple idea, but its introduction marked a big change in the way bankers and their customers dealt with each other.

Account passbooks first appeared during the 18th century. They put into the customer's hands what the banker had previously kept only in his own; a complete, official record of all the account-holder's deposits and withdrawals. In so doing, they gave customers more power to manage their own financial affairs, and to ensure that their bankers were following their instructions to the letter.

Before the introduction of the pass book, the only record of each customer's transactions would be kept in huge leather-bound ledgers in the bank. Each customer would occasionally be invited to examine and approve his or her pages in the ledger. 

The passbook, in contrast, ensured that each customer had their own record of transactions, going back as far as they chose to keep it. It was called a 'passbook' because it regularly passed between the bank and the account holder for updating.

they gave customers more power to manage their own financial affairs

This particular passbook belonged to the Reverend John Peel (1798-1875), later Dean of Worcester. He was a customer of the London bank Dorrien, Magens & Co, a past constituent of RBS. Although successful in his own career, he is much less famous these days than his elder brother, Sir Robert Peel, British Prime Minister and founder of the Metropolitan Police Force. This passbook contains references to various payments between members of the Peel family, including between John and Robert.

From the 1930s onwards, the mechanisation of banking led to the gradual decline of passbooks, as they were replaced by regular printed statements sent direct to the customer at home. Although many building societies still use them today, passbooks had more or less disappeared from banks by the late 1970s. More recently, technological developments have further advanced the principle of easy customer access to account records. Today, customers can access their transaction histories at ATMs, by phone or on the internet, often using mobile devices much smaller than the Reverend Peel's pocket-sized passbook.