A bankers’ clearing house is an organization that transfers money between member banks, originally to clear checks. For more than a century, this service has been expanded to include several other banking services now done electronically.
In England, cheques were used through the 17th century. Up until around 1770, an informal exchange of cheques took place between London banks. Clerks of each bank visited all of the other banks to exchange cheques, whilst keeping a tally of balances between them until they settled with each other. Daily cheque clearings began around 1770 when the bank clerks met at the Five Bells, a tavern in Lombard Street in the City of London, to exchange all their cheques in one place and settle the balances in cash.
The first organization for clearing cheques was the “Bankers’ Clearing House,” established in London in the early 19th century. It was founded by Lubbock’s Bank on Lombard Street in a single room where clerks for London banks met each day to exchange cheques and settle accounts. In 1832 Charles Babbage, who was a friend of a founder of the Clearing House, published a book on mass production, The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, in which Babbage described how the Clearing House operated:
“In a large room in Lombard Street, about 30 clerks from the several London bankers take their stations, in alphabetical order, at desks placed round the room; each having a small open box by his side, and the name of the firm to which he belongs in large characters on the wall above his head. From time to time other clerks from every [banking] house enter the room, and passing along, drop into the box the cheques due by that firm to the house from which this distributor is sent.”
Beginning at 5 pm, a clerk for each debtor bank was called to go to a rostrum to pay in cash to the Inspector of the Clearing House the amount their bank owed to other banks on that day. After all of the debtor clerks had paid the Inspector, each clerk for the banks that were owed money went to the rostrum to collect the money owed to their bank. The total cash paid by the debtor banks equaled the total cash collected by the creditor banks. On the rare occasions when the total paid did not equal the total collected, other clerks working for the Inspector would examine the paper trail of documents so that the numerical errors could be found and corrected.
The United States improved on the British check clearing system and opened a bankers’ clearing house in the Bank of New York on Wall Street, New York in 1853. Instead of the slow London procedure in which each bank clerk, one at a time, stepped up to an Inspector’s rostrum, in the New York procedure two bank clerks from each bank all worked simultaneously. One clerk from each bank sat inside a 70 foot long oval table, while the second clerk from each bank stood outside the table facing the other clerk from the same bank. Each of the outside clerks carried a file box. When the manager signaled, all of the outside clerks stepped one position to the left, to face the next seated clerks. If a seated clerk represented a bank to which money was owed or from which money was receivable, the net amount of cash would change hands, along with checks and paper documents.
Thus several such transactions could be conducted simultaneously, across the oval table. When the manager signaled again, this procedure was repeated, so that after about six minutes, the clerks had completed all their assigned transactions and were back to their starting locations, and holding exactly the amount of cash their papers said they should be holding. Clerks were fined if they made errors and the amount of the fine increased rapidly as time passed.
- ^Nevin and Davis, The London Clearing Banks, (1970) pp.40-41
- ^Campbell-Kelly, page 20
- ^Matthews, Philip W (1921). Bankers’ clearing house: what it is and what it does. Banker’s Library. Pitman.
- ^ Jump up to:ab Campbell-Kelly, page 21
- ^Campbell-Kelly, Martin (October 2010). “Victorian Data Processing”. Communications of the ACM. 53 (10): 19–21. doi:10.1145/1831407.1831417.