In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the procedure of accounting seems to have been for the Vice-Chancellor at the end of each year of his office to present his accounts to auditors, who were senior members of the University nominated annually for this purpose. The documents produced at this stage were presumably just loose memoranda and receipted bills. When the auditors agreed the accounts, two copies were written on separate sheets of parchment by the University Registrar, one copy for the Vice-Chancellor and one copy for preservation in the University Chest. From about 1626 a third copy of these accounts was entered in book form, but the explanation of this requires another brief digression into University history.
Sir Thomas Bodley's legacy
Queen Mary's benefaction failed in its immediate purposes, and within fifty years the old Schools of Arts had again become ruins and had to be rebuilt on a different plan in the early seventeenth century. Again the University attracted a great benefactor, Sir Thomas Bodley, who in the year 1598 offered to refound the University Library. Sir Thomas had discussed with Sir John Bennet, MP for the University, a project for building new schools and adjoining his library, and Bennet had undertaken to raise money for this purpose from well-wishers to the University.
At his death, Bodley bequeathed his considerable estate to the University and willed that part of it should be devoted to building a third storey on the Schools quadrangle which the University had begun to build in 1613, the year of Bodley's death. The total amount spent on building the Schools quadrangle from 1613 to 1621 was over £10,000, a figure without precedent in University finance.
Throughout this period no detailed accounts appear to have been kept of University expenditure on the building, and there are only two partial accounts made about 1615 by the executors of Sir Thomas Bodley's will. Sir John Bennet, it is interesting to note, not only raised money directly for the University's share of the building, but he was also one of Bodley's executors, and in 1621 he was prosecuted in Parliament for gross bribery in his office as Judge of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. In the course of this prosecution it also appeared that he had defaulted with £750 of Bodley's bequest.
Via parchment scroll to paper books
The scandal which followed on this revelation of Bennet's defalcations had one notable result. In 1624 the University decreed that the Vice-Chancellor should render an annual account of income and expenditure on the Schools account together with his own general account. The first effect of this was the compilation of an account of expenditure on the schools for the three years 1621-24, written on a parchment roll ten and a half feet long. Undeterred by this lengthy piece of accounting, the Registrar then copied out the whole account again into a paper book, and thereafter all future accounts, both Vice-Chancellor's and Proctors', were copied into a series of account books which were maintained without any major change until the late nineteenth century. (Image: Vice-Chancellor's Accounts 1650-52)
All this was one result of the Sir John Bennet scandal, an affair which had lengthy reverberations. In the Bodleian Library accounts the claim against Bennet was carried on the books for a hundred and fifty years, down to 1783. During the whole of that period the accounts contain entries of "unpaid obligations" which include Bennet's defalcations and the sum of £500 which the library lent to Charles I in 1642 but never recovered.
Having made his account book for the current accounts, the Registrar, in 1626, received from the Chest all the earlier extant account rolls, and copied all these, with the exception of the fifteenth-century Proctors' rolls into the new account books, so that these books now contain a more or less complete series of accounts from the mid-sixteenth century. These books did not, however, supersede the use of parchment sheets which were still used, and kept in roll form down to 1727 for the Vice-Chancellor's account and down to 1824 for the Proctors' account.
The transfer to the Registrar and his transcription of all the old account rolls in 1626 was connected with another financial spring-cleaning of the University, for it was in that year that the University found itself gravely in debt; its rents were unpaid and it owed nearly £2,000 to the Bodleian estate. Delegates were appointed to consider what steps could be taken to wipe out these debts, and having adopted various financial expedients, they came to the momentous decision that the:
"moneys expended on Dinners at the time of the Vice-Chancellors and Proctors Accounts may conveniently be spared for a time."
The need for recognised procedures
College statutes show that from the earliest times members of the University clearly understood the value of some recognised procedure for accounting and auditing. The earlier statutes of Merton College, confirmed in 1274, contain elaborate regulations for auditing the accounts of the warden, the bursars and the bailiffs of college properties. The statutes of New College show how early the colleges began to recruit trained bursary clerks, for the statutes of 1400 provide for the appointment of a chapel clerk who should be taught grammar and writing, unless already well grounded in these subjects, and who should be employed on writing out accounts, copying muniments and generally assisting the bursar and treasurer.
But perhaps the most clear-sighted college administrators were those men of Balliol who in their revised statutes of 1507 stipulated the number of treasurers and bursars required for college business and decreed that they should not be sluggish, but should be kept awake by labour.
As the Oxford colleges founded in the Middle Ages were all landowning bodies, members of the college were familiar with the accepted forms of manorial accounting; they were prepared to apply those to the accounts of the University as a whole, and they could call on the services of clerks trained in manorial accounting. The University accounts which survive from the late Middle Ages show the result of this conjuncture. They are normally well written and well set out; they are conservative in form (in fact they remain unchanged in form up to the nineteenth century); but they show rather a philosophic approach to some of the sacrosanct rules of accountancy.
Clerks and amateurs
Oxford may have been a training school for accountant's clerks, but the University, though employing the clerks to good purpose, generally preferred to leave the direction of its accounting and auditing to enlightened amateur financiers chosen from among its own senior members. This sometimes produced a disharmony between the clerk who knew how an account should be presented and the University amateur accountant or auditor who insisted on altering the customary forms to suit his own habit of mind.
In 1278 the bailiff of one of the Merton College estates in Surrey tried to ease his conscience by writing at the foot of his account "non impugatur scrptor ordo rectarum et expensarum in rotulo isto" (the order of the receipts and expenses in this roll is not to be attributed to the writer).
Turning now to the auditing of accounts, there are instances of accounts being audited when in draft and then rewritten in a different form for preservation. In the Bodleian Library is the very detailed and interesting account of the building in 1664-69 of the Sheldonian Theatre, a gift to the University by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury. This account is described as:
"The whole account of the building and beautifying the Theatre at Oxford, stated, audited and allowed,"
by the Archbishop, the Dean of Christ Church (Dr Fell) and the Receiver-General of the diocese of Canterbury. But on the last page is the contemporary memorandum,
"that this account was audited not from the accounts in this book (which are all confused) but from accounts drawn up by Dr Fell's own hand which were exhibited by him at the time of the passing this account".
Auditing and 'clerical errors'
It appears from this and similar examples that it was the custom in the University for accounts to be audited from the original bills and draft accounts, and there may be changes of form and order in the accounts as finally written out for preservation. (Image: Vice-Chancellor's Accounts 1697-8).
Herein lay a possible cause for serious error because in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it appears to have been quite usual for the auditors or for those responsible for the expenditure to check the draft account and the bills but to sign as correct the final fair copy account which may have been written after the draft account had been approved. This was a particularly dangerous practice because the fair copy was not always carefully collated with the original draft.
There is a good instance of the kind of confusion which resulted from this practice in the account for the Ampthill Hospital, a charity administered by a select body of Visitors being representatives of the University. On 24 June 1766 the Visitors of the Hospital entered a memorandum in their account book:
"upon a review of the preceding account it appears that through the negligence of the person employed to transcribe the same at the last audit held November 10 1764, the sum of two hundred and ninety eight pounds 16s 11¼d, was carried over to the debtors side instead of one hundred and ninety eight pounds 16s 11¼d, which mistake therefore we think proper to correct, transferring to the subsequent account balance only of two hundred and eleven pounds 3s 11¼d."
The final form of the accounts for 1764 has been signed by the Vice-Chancellor, the Dean of Christ Church, the Warden of All Souls College and the Regius Professor of Divinity; two years later they very properly decided to correct a mistake which, though it involved a sum amounting to about 30% of the normal income of the charity, had passed unnoticed since it was made after they had agreed the audit but before they signed as auditors. Luckily, the Visitors of the Ampthill Hospital were auditors of their own accounts and were not perturbed by what they considered to be a minor clerical error.
One such incident occurred in 1641-42. At the end of 1641, Dr Samuel Fell, Dean of Christ Church, (who is suspected of being the subject of that well-known ditty:
"I do not like thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell,
But this I know and know right well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.")
wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Prideaux, Rector of Exeter College and now also Bishop of Worcester, to inform him that the delegates of accounts, that is, certain heads of colleges elected as auditors, had taken exception to four items in his accounts, amounting in all to £96 2s 9d. Prideaux replied from Worcester in a letter which was copied into the University's official account book. He pointed out that the four items were expenditure which might well have been borne by colleges or individual members of the University.
But in one case, that of a contribution to a visiting Greek who was recommended to the University by the King and Chancellor, he had paid the sum required on the grounds of policy, and in another case, the mending of the water pipes connected to Carfax Conduit, he had paid for the work in order to avoid undue delays. In each case he pointed out ways in which the University might "disburden" itself of these charges by calling on certain colleges to pay, but he did not feel called upon to return to Oxford to "be the collector". Obviously, Prideaux intended to do no more about it and the auditors, being heads of colleges with ecclesiastical ambitions, could hardly be expected to take drastic action against an accountant who happened to be not only a vice-chancellor but also a bishop.
The human element
There was always a very human element in University accountancy in those happy days before double entry and other complex improvements made their strangely belated appearance in nineteenth-century Oxford.
The entries in the Chest Book, made in running prose and never tabulated are in striking contrast with the annual accounts, they show clearly that University accounting aimed at an annual settlement of official responsibilities and was not intended to provide a statement of the University's over-all financial position. If this had been the intention, the last entry in the Chest Book would have caused the gloomiest forebodings; on 24 April 1756 the sum of £815 was withdrawn from the Chest with the laconic entry "et sis remanet in cista nihil" (and so nothing remains in the Chest).
During the 18th century, the keeping and auditing of the University's accounts illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the administration at that time. The University was not large or rich; numbers declined early in the century, and therefore fees also declined, but benefactions and rents increased. Nor did the accounts cover all the activities. The main accounts were the general and the schools accounts but there were also separate accounts for the proctors, the Press, the Bodleian and the Sheldonian theatre. All these were audited by the delegates of the accounts and kept in the traditional form described above, which was designed to prevent defalcation rather than be informative. Thus the Press's accounts were in a state of confusion for much of the century. However, most delegates and officers were honest and the only Vice-Chancellor known to have misappropriated funds, William Delaune, 1702-06, was forced to repay his theft.