How to Read a Financial Document

Financial documents can often seem intimidating or confusing to many, especially those without experience of this type of historical source. This brief guide will provide information on how to go about reading and using financial documents, in hopes of showing that it is possible for anyone to use, and enjoy using, financial records.

The most common type of financial document for St. David’s are account books. Account books are rather bulky, but all of those located in the ‘D’ section of the St. David’s catalogue are of good condition. Although a few records are somewhat fragile, this is largely confined to the outer binding, the pages inside are mostly all intact and written in legible handwriting.

 As you can see, by this example image of an account book pictured below, the general format is that of a ‘double entry’ form.

LAC/99/D1 Source: Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

Source: Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

The left page of the book is for receipts and the right payments, meaning you can track both expenditure and incoming capital on a month by month basis. The amount of detail within the records varies greatly, and is often dependent on who is filling in the book. Some years will offer an extremely detailed account of finances, whereas others will sometimes be a little vague. Regardless of detail, the account books all tend to take this general format. 

Along the top row of the table are headings for things such as the date, to or from whom paid, and other changeable factors. Column titles can be replaced or even crossed out, and blank column titles are filled in with whatever may be needed.

The Society of Archivists have developed a wonderful book which provides excellent examples of various financial records, as well as detailed analysis of how best to read and use them. They argue that there are three main purposes of recording finances:

1. Planning – to assess finances and plan for future actions,

2. Decision making, such as whether to move resources from one use to another or evaluating whether a particular project can be Feasible

3. Control – monitoring the general performance of people, places and products. All of these functions would have been considered important to the Church and although the motive behind recording finances is unknown, it can be safe to assume it was indeed one of these three functions. 

Due to the consistent layout within account books, it is easy to take a quantitative method of research, whereby you can utilise statistics, graphs and tables to present the data and analyse any ongoing trends. However, the consistent layout also means that isolated entries are easily recognisable, with changes in fees or large expenses easily recognisable. 

The main thing to remember with financial records is not to be afraid to get stuck in. Big books of numbers can seem such a daunting task, but the potential they offer as a historical source really is astounding. Not only can quantitative methods be used for data analysis, but there are also instances of extremely interesting handwritten notes, or snippets of information, which one would never expect to find within a financial document. Why not take a look at our page talking about the benefits of the St. David’s financial records. 


The majority of these records are using old time money. One should always remember that the value of money has changed greatly over time and the amount paid in todays money may not be the equivalent in old time money, especially when taking into account inflation. The National Archives offers a wonderful online currency converter, which considers inflation. It can be found by following this link: Online Currency Converter. 

This is Money, financial website, also offers a brilliant currency converter, as well as an inflation calculator to show how the value of money has changed between 1900 and 2012. It can be found here: Inflation Calculator. 

We have also created an activity for children utilising old style money, which can be found here.

For useful books concerning financial records and quantitative history, see the financial section in the Select Bibliography.


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