A eulogy for the humble cheque

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life and times of the humble cheque.

As with many great stories, the cheque came from humble beginning before going on to dominate the world of international finance.

Our tale begins some 800 years ago. Early 13th century Venice was a place of international trade, which in those days, meant carrying around pocketfuls of gold and silver. It was here that paper cheques first appeared.

Cheques were first referenced in English law as far back as the 14th century, where they were simply known as ‘bills’ and were used solely for international business rather than by individuals.

It didn’t take long for the advantage of bills to spread around the world. They moved from their original handwritten forms in the 18th century, and became known as ‘drawn notes’ before finally becoming cheques (from the term “Exchequer Bills”).

Cheques were particularly popular in the 18th century when the English suppressed the use of bank notes and the Americans promoted their use after the civil war.

The first threat to the dominance of cheques came in the 1970s when new technologies swept through the banking scene and limitations to this popular payment form became obvious. Cheque collection was slow and paid banks had to present the payee bank with the signed paperwork before a payment could be made.

However, cheques were still to see their most memorable hour in the 1990s when the number of cheques paid peaked at an estimated 1 billion in Australia. It was, however, downhill from there. By 2000, this number had dropped to 850 million. In 2012, there were just 252 million cheques paid in Australia.

The cheque reached an important anniversary in 2009, marking the 350th year since the very first recorded handwritten cheque was signed in the UK.

The influence of credit and debit cards has played an integral part in the reduction of cheque use. The rise of the cards is evidenced by the fact that there were 1.6 million in use in 1994, which is up to 5 million in Australia this year.

Cheques have had a long, happy life. It’s been a great innings.

But we have to let go, cut up the old and embrace the new. Cheque book, may you rest in pieces.

What do you still cheques for? Will you miss cheques when they’re finally dead and buried?