Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

A Letter from a Teenage Accounting Clerk in 1846: A Hidden Voice in a Micro-History of Modern Public Accountancy

Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

A Letter from a Teenage Accounting Clerk in 1846: A Hidden Voice in a Micro-History of Modern Public Accountancy

Article excerpt

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate use of archival material to access a hidden voice in accounting history and provide social context in the form of a biographical micro-history of public accountancy. The archival material is a letter written in 1846 by a Scottish teenage public accountancy clerk. An analysis of the letter gives insight to the employment and social life of the clerk in mid-19th century Scotland and also identifies a notorious character in Scottish public accountancy. The paper reveals the importance of social connections, religion, communication, and transport to middle-class Victorian Scots and, more generally, reminds accounting historians of the value of hidden voices and micro-histories.


This paper has several unusual features as a study of accounting history. It reports a biographical story associated with two genres identified by contemporary historians--hidden voices of ordinary rather than elite individuals in history [e.g., Weick, 2000; Xinran, 2002; Trevino and Francaviglia, 2007] and micro-histories that examine the past on a small and focused scale [e.g., Ginzburg, 1980; Bodanis, 2000; Kurlansky, 2004; Spence, 2007].

The rationale underlying the hidden voices genre is making visible the existence, contribution, and value of men and women who lack the historical characteristics of significant social influence and status. (1) Hidden voices reflect the lives of the majority of a population, and the genre rejects research focused on elite members of that population [Brecher, 1997]. Non-accounting studies, for example, typically deal with subjects such as women, the working class, and under-developed communities. In contrast in accounting history, biographical studies mainly relate to elite individuals, what Sy and Tinker [2005, p. 49] describe as "a revivalist preoccupation with 'The Great Men' of Accounting." (2) Despite this bias, there are recent accounting history studies explicitly associated with hidden voices--e.g., Walker [1998], in relation to domestic household accounting, and Walker [2003, p. 609], with respect to female bookkeepers as "hidden investments" in commerce. (3) There are also recent biographical studies that provide a mix of great men and hidden voices in relation to the founders of modern public accountancy associations (Lee, 2006a) and early chartered accountancy immigrants (Lee, 2006b).

Micro-histories ignore the broad sweep of general histories and concentrate instead on specific events or fragments of history. They constitute focused investigations of apparently unimportant historical subjects and are argued to appeal to the general public, be closer to reality, convey personal experience directly, and provide a route to generalization in history [Sziarto, 2002]. In accounting history, with the exception of biographies [Flesher and Flesher, 2003], there are few micro-histories as accounting researchers appear to prefer macro observations of the past. Recent examples of micro-histories in accounting arguably include Lee [1994], Carmona and Gutierrez [2005], and Zeff [2007].

In the case of the current paper, the hidden voice and subject of the micro-history is at the beginning of a professional career before his professional influence had yet to take place. He is Alexander Thomas Niven (ATN) (1830-1918), a 16-year-old public accountancy apprentice clerk from the small market town of Balfron in Stirlingshire. In 1846, he was working in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, and eight years later in 1854, he became the youngest founding member of the first modern professional association of public accountants, the Society of Accountants in Edinburgh (SAE).

A further unusual feature of the paper is its archival dependence on a single primary source that is used deliberately as a gateway to explore other archival and secondary sources. Typically in accounting history, a biographical study is informed by a complex mixture and layering of archival sources. …

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