The Accounting Historians Journal Vol. 13, No. 1 Spring 1986
M. J. Mepham
HERIOT-WATT UNIVERSITY, EDINBURGH
ACCOUNTING CONTROL: AN HISTORICAL NOTE
"Comptrol" is sometimes seen as an alternative spelling of 'con-trol' and its use in the Auditor and Comptroller General's official title lends support to the view that it is an archaic spelling of the word. It is natural to suppose, further, that 'comptrol' might be the original form. Philologists tell us that this is a mistake and that comptroller is an erroneous spelling which arose because of con-fusion with the French 'compt'. 'Comptrol' is not the origin of 'control' but the mistake does serve to emphasise the close, and genuine, identification of the term with accounting. This article looks at the origins of financial control and suggests that accountants might benefit from recalling its true roots.
Control is a contraction of 'counter roll'. Just as the counterfoil was originally a parallel record of the 'foil', in the ancient system of recording by means of notches cut into tally sticks, so also the counter roll was a duplicate record serving to validate the entries made on the roll. R C Jarvis says "This system of accountancy and control 'by the counter-roll' (per contrarotulum) was a general medieval practice . . ." (Preface to The Organisation of the English Customs System 1696-1786—E E Hoon, David and Charles, 1968 —p. xiv). The system was imported with the Norman Conquest as an major feature of the procedures of the Court of Exchequer. It was described in some detail by Richard Fitz Nigel in his Dialogue de Scaccario (Dialogue of the Exchequer) which was written about 1179 (a translation of this work is contained in English Historical Documents, Vol II, D C Douglas and G W Greenaway, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1953).
In the accounting system developed by the Exchequer, the counter-roll and the use of tallies were important components of a sophisticated (and complex) set of procedures. Sir Geoffrey Gilbert (1674-1726), a judge and legal writer, described the system as follows:
"When any Man pays in Money into the Exchequer, he pays the Sum to the Teller, and the Teller makes a Bill in Parchment for the