Part One: When Accountants Were Wizards
Written: June 27, 2014
Technology streamlines industries. Traditions, processes, practices, roles, jobs, whole sectors of an industry – All fall before Progress’ relentless march. And Information Technology in particular marches at a ferocious pace. When Accountants Were Wizards is the first in a series of articles about the death of written systems and the birth of widespread computing.
The mid 1980s, and the brown and crumbling industrial heap of North Staffordshire. I had just turned 17 and something like my first real job – something more than standing in a line – was on a government scheme, as a Junior at the branch office of a long-established practice of chartered accountants. I worked at the partnership for five and a half years – from Junior to almost-Senior – during the period when computerised bookkeeping systems began to replace their manual counterparts.
A Family Affair
The blue chip clients of provincial accounting were smaller, limited companies (traditionally, family businesses). At that time they operated paper (manual) bookkeeping systems: Full blown ledger systems or card systems like Kalamazoo and the eponymous rolodex. The receipts and supporting documentation would be carefully numbered and filed in metal cabinets – four or five shelves each – groaning under the weight of lever-arch files, themselves under strain.
Supporting documentation, the raw material of an auditor’s labour – Ticking this to that.
Auditing – the independent verification of the validity of the records of a limited company – is the accounting-role that changed least when computers replaced paper. Ticking this to that is still a mainstay of auditing work. Otherwise, as the old computing saying goes: Rubbish In – Rubbish Out.
However, for provincial accounting firms – those small one or two office practices, located outside of the big cities – auditing was only part of the annual work for a limited company client. And one of the fundamental tasks in the latter stages of that annual work would disappear and take with it one of the symbols of the world of provincial accounting, before the computer-revolution took hold.
As well as the verification and auditing tasks, work for a limited company client included the maintenance of a General Ledger. Each company had its own ledger – large, thick, usually old and scruffy, hardcover books – held at our branch office. Ledgers of current clients were stored in two fireproof cabinets in the main office, with the Company Number and abbreviated name taped to the spine.
Every account in a company’s chart of accounts would have one or more pages in the ledger. At the end of each financial period, appropriate transactions for each account would be entered by hand. Smaller businesses, with fewer transactions, might have a ledger that had been in use for a decade and more. Ledgers were detailed, ongoing records of the activities of companies, and also large, mystical books that only an accountant might understand.
I remember a related – but odd – ceremony taking place, not long after I had joined. The one and only time I opened a new ledger for a client, we drank a cup of tea to celebrate. My boss’ boss assured me that this happened every time, for every firm. Yes, now it does seem vanishingly unlikely, but back then I was sure I was part of a centuries-old tea drinking ritual, first observed for this client in 1771, the same year old butcher Dewhirst – seven-times great grandfather of the current butcher Dewhirst – had purchased the shoppe still in use to that day.
A room with a view
The top floor of the office-building housed the room in which the old ledgers were kept – Archiving, we were to call it in front of clients. However, our room was no where near as neat and tidy as the one you see pictured to the right.
Those ledgers not standing on shelves were lying on tables, or piled on the floor; those that weren’t stacked had fallen there (or been thrown in, from the door?!). Some with spines bent, arched page-edges curling, holding covers off the floor; others lying face-up and open, pages creased, dirtied and torn. Ledgers in piles, ledgers in boxes and ledgers in plastic shopping bags.
For all practical purposes, the old books were never required and so the state they were kept in did not really matter. But – and feeling a wuss for thinking it – I felt sorry for the previous clerks who would have kept them so … meticulously … when it had been their turn.
Occasionally, on Friday afternoons, I would be on my own in the office and would sometimes go to the attic room, and – sitting in the light (and in the draught) from the two small, recessed windows – leaf through some of the old journals.
The branch office had opened just after the turn of the century and so the room was crammed with the ledgers and papers of pottery firms; mining companies; haulage contractors and engineering concerns – All long since gone. The room smelled old, as a room full of old books should.
One of the most … touching … things about the ledgers was the handwriting. Sometimes there were marked differences from year to year, other times long runs of years in the same hand. People who had filled in exactly the same information as me – sometimes, but rarely, for the same company – thirty, forty, fifty years before. I would feel ashamed at my own blocky style, sullying the current ledgers.
A series of three ledgers detailed the operation of a long-defunct canal boat company. It hauled bulk freight – coal, ore – to the Potteries, on a fleet of long narrow barges. On my way to work I crossed the canal – Overgrown and rubbish strewn, it was difficult to believe a rowing boat could navigate it, let alone a heavily-laden, thirty-foot coal barge.
Gone in a blink
While auditing remains a prominent feature of business life, computer systems removed many of the more traditional – predictably, the more human – aspects of provincial accounting. The large, old books filled in by generations passed. The rows and rows of box files, hiding mysterious information from view. Shelves full of reference books, written in a form of English only accountants could understand.
Today, the rooms used to store archived-data are squeaky-clean and have air-conditioning; not ill-fitting windows and books littering the floor. Provincial accountancy lost its old-worldliness, its mystique, its tradition. Wizards no more.