The first traveller’s cheques, in the form of a ‘circular note’ issued by a bank, went on sale in London.
Devised by the Scottish banker Robert Herries, circular notes were an immediate hit with young British aristocrats who needed to obtain foreign currency while exploring Europe on the Grand Tour. They needed an easy way to access to their British-based wealth, and Herries’ creation provided it.
Having secured the cooperation of a number of continental banks, Herries was able to ensure that his customers could withdraw local currency in more than 80 European cities. The notes were issued against the payment of cash to the bank in London, meaning that the customer was freed from the burden of travelling with gold. Since the notes had to be countersigned by the recipient they also provided much greater security. Any unused notes could be returned to the issuing bank in London and the cash refunded.
A century later, and just two years after the first round-the-world tour, the British company Thomas Cook began issuing their own circular notes to help customers manage the constant change of currencies. This idea was developed further by American Express, who launched the first branded Travelers Cheque in 1891. It is said that the system was developed by American Express employee Marcellus Flemming Berry after the company’s founder, J. C. Fargo, experienced problems obtaining funds on a European trip.
The popularity of traveller’s cheques has declined in recent years due to the creation of pre-paid currency cards alongside debit and credit cards. Yet their fundamental aim remains that same as the circular notes introduced by Robert Herries in 1772. They all allow travellers to access funds while away from home.