Shorthand in the Regency

Though few people today are aware if it, shorthand has a long and rather tangled history which dates back to ancient times. That includes the early nineteenth century. However, the modern versions of shorthand systems, which are still in use today, were not known in Regency England. Nevertheless, there were quite a few versions of shorthand which were in use in Britain during our favorite decade. The details associated with those special forms of speed writing might provide Regency authors with some interesting plot points in an upcoming story.

A short bit on shorthand, from Ancient Rome to Regency England . . .

Not long after man developed writing, that is, a method of recording his thoughts with a set of symbols, he found he needed a way to record some thoughts more quickly or in a smaller space. Thus was born an abbreviated method of writing, which, in the late sixteenth century, came to be known as stenography, a combination of the Greek stenos, meaning "narrow" and graphein, meaning "to write." These various abbreviated writing techniques have been given other names over the years, depending upon whether or not their primary purpose was writing quickly, or writing to fit in a small space. Since the cursive form of writing, in English, was known as longhand, this abbreviated form of writing soon came to be known as shorthand.

The first known example of stenography, or shorthand, dates to the mid-fourth century BC. It is a marble slab found in the Parthenon which is covered with a writing system based mainly on vowels, the consonants are indicated by simple symbols rather than full letters. Though no known examples are extant, it is highly likely that such abbreviated forms of writing existed even earlier in Ancient Greece. In the first century BC, in Ancient Rome, a former slave, Marcus Tullius Tiro, developed his own form of shorthand. Known as the Tironian notes, Tiro used it to more accurately record the speeches of his former master, Cicero. During the Middle Ages, records in Tironian notes were discovered in the libraries of several monasteries. This form of quick and concise writing was adapted by some orders monks, though none of those adaptations ever seem to have been disseminated beyond those discrete academic groups.

Timothie Bright, a clergyman and physician of the Elizabethan era, has gone down in the annals of history as the inventor of modern shorthand in England. But this is based on what is essentially a technicality. In 1588, Dr. Bright published Characterie. An Arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing by character. Bright published his book as a guide for those who wanted a method by which to record the spoken word verbatim. His intent was to enable people to capture religious sermons. Bright’s system was to provide a set of over 500 symbols which represented words which were likely to be found in any sermon of the day. Of course, anyone who wished to record a sermon would first have to memorize the 500 symbols, along the the word the symbol was intended to represent. However, Bright’s Characterie was of little use to those who wished to record other instances of spoken speech. Other books offering other forms of speed writing were published in Britain through the end of the sixteenth century, but all were intended for recording spoken sermons and none offered an alphabet of simple symbols which would enable a proficient to record any spoken remarks.

Not long after the turn of the seventeenth century, John Willis, a clergyman and occassional inventor, inspired by Bright’s Characterie, provided people with a more efficient system of speed writing. In 1602, the Reverend John Willis published The Art of Stenographie:   teaching the way of compendious writing. Though his purpose in publishing his work was similar to Bright’s, instead of providing a large number of symbols linked to specific words, Willis developed a system of simple symbols, each of which was to be used as a substitute to one of the letters of the alphabet. Rev. Willis’ system had the advantage that it was easier to learn because there were fewer symbols to memorize, and each represented a single letter of the alphabet. Therefore, though it was not his intention, once someone had learned the writing system that Willis had developed, they could capture any spoken speech, not just sermons. In particular, taking down court and other significant legal proceedings, as well as the speeches, debates and other important proceedings in Parliament, began to be recorded more fully and accurately by using shorthand. Nevertheless, the majority of people who used Willis’ writing system in the early seventeenth century did use it to record religious texts. In fact, the University College in London has a copy of the full Bible, dated 1622, which was completely written using John Willis’ stenography system. (For more details on the abbreviated writing system developed by John Willis, along with images of some of the pages of his book, and a chart of his characters, visit this post at the blog To Labor Less and Accomplish More.)

Though the abbreviated writing system developed by John Willis was an improvement over that introduced by Timothie Bright, it had its own drawbacks. His symbols were very geometric in design and did not lend themselves easily to being written with ligatures, or links, between them. Because most of the symbols had to be written as standalone characters, they could not readily be written in a flowing manner, which tended to reduce the speed of the writer. The fewer times the pen had to be lifted from the paper, the faster the words could be committed to it. Over the course of the next two centuries, many other people in Britain developed their own abbreviated or speed writing systems, all of which came to be known as shorthand. In fact, according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, nearly two hundred different books on shorthand systems were published between 1602 and 1837. Samuel Pepys is known to have used one of these later shorthand systems to keep his famous diaries, and Sir Isaac Newton used shorthand to keep some of his scientific notes. It must be noted, however, that there were some people though the decades who distrusted those known as "shorthand men." Those who recorded events verbatim were sometimes feared or hated by the persons who featured in their records, usually because those persons would have preferred their speech and actions go unrecorded. Others felt that it was not possible to record speech using those strange marks. Many of those people could not read shorthand and therefore did not trust those who could write it. They would have preferred that all records be made in longhand, which they could read for themselves.

By the eighteenth century, most of these shorthand instruction books were published by subscription. The professions of the subscribers suggest the primary categories of people who were interested in learning and using shorthand. Though some clergymen and other religious people continued to use shorthand, the bulk of the subscribers to these later shorthand books were from secular walks of life. Though attorneys and other men of law made up the majority of the subscribers, quite a number of copies were also sold to government officials and clerks, men of business, and even a few journalists and authors. The ability to read and write shorthand had become an important skill for many young men seeking any type of professional employment which involved a great deal of writing. Another group of people who wanted to learn shorthand were private individuals who felt the need to be able to record their personal thoughts as quickly as they came to mind. These people were not even willing to take the extra time required to record their inner thoughts in longhand, they wanted the speed offered by shorthand.

In addition to those who published books which provided instruction on their method of shorthand, there were quite a few others who preferred to keep their systems private. Those who published instruction books got their primary income from the sale of their books. However, those who kept their systems private got most of their income from the lessons they gave to individual paying students. It is believed that some of those who developed a proprietary shorthand system initially kept it private, to ensure a steady income for themselves by teaching students. If the numbers of their students dropped off, or, if they wished to reduce their workload, they might then choose to publish an instruction book for their system. Some of these developers of shorthand systems patented or copyrighted their system, thus helping to ensure they would have all the income from their work for the period in which the patent or copyright was in force.

By the mid-eighteenth century, whether a shorthand developer offered private lessons or published an instruction book, and whether under patent or copyright protection or not, they would almost certainly be guaranteed a steady income. The ability to write and read shorthand had become an essential skill for young men who were interested in careers such as commercial, government, court or legal clerks, so there were many aspiring professionals who needed to learn shorthand. It had also become a valuable tool for academics, allowing them to take notes more quickly, not to mention using less paper. Even some scientists found it convenient to learn shorthand in order to more quickly record the details of their observations and experiments. A few authors and playwrights also took up shorthand in order to reduce the time it took them to produce early drafts of their work, and, so that they could save money by using less paper. They only took the time to make a fair copy in longhand when their work was ready for the publisher. And, as had been the case for many years, for people who liked to keep journals of their thoughts and ideas, shorthand not only allowed them to record their thoughts quickly, using less paper, it also provided them with some measure of security against others reading their private writings.

One of the more prolific writers on shorthand during the Regency was James Henry Lewis, a teacher of skills for business, including book-keeping and short-hand. He maintained his Royal Systematic Writing and Short-hand Academy in London, at 104, High Holborn, during the Regency. His first known work was his own book of instruction on the shorthand method he had developed, The Art of Writing with the Velocity of Speech: a system of short hand made use of by all the law and parliamentary reporters, published anonymously in 1812. Two years later, in 1814, Lewis published The Ready Writer, or, Ne Plus Ultra of Short Hand, an updated and expanded work on his shorthand system, this time under his own name. This book opened with an effusive dedication to the Prince Regent, and after the Introducton, he included remarks to stenography students "On the baneful effects of Spurious Systems." Lewis followed that book up a year later, when, in 1816, he published An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Short Hand, etc. In addition to being a teacher, Lewis was a collector of books on shorthand. In this book, he provided a history of the development of shorthand over the centuries. Not only does it include a history of shorthand from ancient times, Lewis provided numerous charts which compare the various shorthand symbols used by each system. Of course, Lewis included his own shorthand system in his history, and in the Advertisements section at the back of the book, he included an offer to buy any " . . . Short-hand books, Manuscript Systems, or any Curiosities in the Art." This was followed by another advertisement in which he offered his services as a copyist for any documents "correctly taken in short-hand" and as a shorthand teacher.

New versions and systems for shorthand continued to be introduced after the Regency and well into the nineteenth century. One of the best known shorthand systems was introduced by Sir Isaac Pitman, in 1837. Pitman’s shorthand was different than those which had gone before, since he did not base his system on the letters of the alphabet. Instead, he introduced a completely new system, which was based on phonetic principles. Pitmam was a committed spelling reformer, and decided to develop a shorthand system in which the symbols were associated with sounds rather than letters. He was of the opinion that this system would allow anyone to record any words spoken, based solely on how they sounded, with no consideration of how they should be spelled. The Pitman Shorthand method became the dominant shorthand method in Great Britain. About a half century later, in 1888, John Robert Gregg introduced another phonographic method of shorthand in the United States. His system was influenced by a system which had been introduced in Europe and which would enable the shorthand writer to record any language with the same set of symbols, all based on sound. Gregg Shorthand became the dominant system in the United States. However, both of these systems were unknown during the Regency.

Even before the Regency began, the proceedings of Parliament were often recorded by those who could write shorthand. And though Parliament acknowledged the accuracy and cost-savings realized by the use of shorthand in note-taking and record-keeping as early as 1803, it was not until 18 May 1813, that the House of Commons officially approved a resolution instructing the Clerk of the House to " . . . appoint a Shorthand-writer, who shall, by himself or sufficient deputy, attend when called upon to take minutes of evidence at the bar of this House or in Committees of the same." The record went on to outline other instances when a Shorthand-writer might be called to attend, and which party in a meeting was to pay for his services. The rate of pay for the Shorthand-writer was specified at two guineas a day, whenever he attended a session. That same record noted that the Shorthand-writer was also to receive one shilling per sheet of paper in the transcript, with a requirement which specified that each sheet was to contain at least seventy-two words. Apparently, in most cases, the Parliamentary Shorthand-writer was expected to produce fair copy transcripts of any proceedings he recorded, in longhand, by the end of the same day in which the notes were taken.

Dear Regency Authors, might shorthand add some new and interesting aspects to an upcoming romance novel? Could it be that the heroine’s father was one of those who developed a shorthand system and made his living teaching his system to private students. When he passes away, in order to help support her younger siblings, with the heroine write a book on her father’s shorthand system, publishing it under his name in order to hide the fact that it was actually written by a woman? Will she be found out, and will it be by the hero or someone else? Or, perhaps the heroine’s brother is the sole support for himself and his sister. He is a law clerk who works hard transcribing all kinds of legal proceedings each day. But his workload is so heavy that some days that he brings work home, since his sister also knows shorthand and can write very clearly in longhand. She helps him to make fair copies of all the shorthand transcriptions he brings home. Will she learn something from one of those documents, or, might her work be found out by someone who notices that not all the fair copies made by her brother are in the same hand? How might that play out in the story? Then again, a heroine who is something of a blue-stocking might have learned shorthand and uses it to take notes at many of the academic lectures which she attends. Will that attract the attention of the hero? On the other hand, the heroine, or the hero, might keep a journal or diary in shorthand, assuming no one else will be able to read it. What will happen if the other one, or some other character, is able to read all or part of that journal? Are there other ways in which shorthand might serve the purpose of a plot in an upcoming Regency novel?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Shorthand in the Regency

  1. Absolutely fascinating. As a high school student, I elected to take Gregg shorthand and it has sustained me through my entire lifetime. I could have chosen the “machine” but decided not to have to carry the heavy machine and stand with me and had no desire to become a court reporter, not to mention making sure there was enough paper for the “machine”. Had no idea of the history of stenograph….thank you.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      So I am not the only one who studied shorthand in their youth! I took Gregg shorthand classes in college and used it to take notes in my other classes. However, once I graduated, I did not keep it up and I can no longer remember it. From what I understand, many journalism students still take shorthand even today, so it is not dead yet! 😉

      I am glad you enjoyed the article. Perhaps one day, you might let a character in one of your stories write in shorthand, too.



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