Shorthand is a funny thing to anybody who cannot read it. Mysterious squiggles – what could they possibly mean? Pitman’s shorthand is made up of thick and thin lines, curves, circles, hooks, ticks, dots and dashes. Outlines can be written above the writing line, on the line or through the line. There are shorthand ways of writing words and phrases. Shorthand writers frequently make up their own shorthand outlines and the possibility of writing outlines incorrectly is rife. Add to that the fact that Pitman’s shorthand has evolved over the years; Gordon Heywood learnt Pitman Shorthand 1893 and I learnt Pitman New Era shorthand in 1973.
I bought Gordon’s diary on eBay on 7 October 2015 for £16. It had come from a house clearance in Cornwall ‘some time ago’ according to the eBay seller. Perhaps not surprising as it recorded Gordon’s life in St Ives, Cornwall. But where had it been lying since Gordon’s death in 1950 in Tasmania? I suppose he had left it in St Ives at the family home when he went to Australia. I know he had received certificates at Hayle Grammar School in August 1895 and that he had passed examinations at the School of Mines in Adelaide, Australia in December 1900. Gordon came back to visit England but most of his life was spent living and mining in Zeehan, Tasmania. I suppose his mother could have kept it, but she died in 1928. Will the mystery ever be solved?
Anyway, to help with deciphering outlines which were different from the ones I had been taught, I bought a copy of A Phonographic and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language by Isaac Pitman, published in 1894. This book with its delightfully fusty smell had been owned by Albert Thomas Pile and he had added ‘Aug 15th 1895 from Father and Mother’. He had written alternative outlines and notes neatly in the margins. An internet search showed that he was a Civil Servant who became a painter, print-maker and illustrator. That book and a smaller one with the title The Phonographic Phrase Book, with the Grammalogues of the Reporting Style of Phonography by Isaac Pitman, published in 1866 were some help. Outlines which varied from those I had learnt included ones for Captain, after, for, he.
Of course, Gordon was still learning how to write shorthand and he sometimes used different outlines for the same word. This added to the challenge. Names were tricky, although people who don’t know shorthand may be surprised to hear that the outline for Hebblethwaite was one of the easiest. Even if a name is deciphered the spelling is another matter; the shorthand outline for the name Pool or Poole is identical, for example.
I have a subscription to an online family history website and there I researched Gordon, his family, and friends. In his diary, Gordon writes of Cissy, which I found from another family tree on the website was the name of Michal Row Harry. She was the daughter of Captain Harry by his first wife. Morwenna was Gordon’s half-sister; her mother was the same as Gordon but her father was Captain Harry. Mamie, described as ‘niece’ on censuses was born in 1883 in Australia. Charlotte, sister to Cissy, is also mentioned in the diary, frequently with her husband, Mr Griffin. Finding out who everybody was and their relationships made transcribing the diary that bit easier.
One outline which proved particularly tricky is transcribed as ‘Not turned in any lessons’. To start with, I couldn’t believe that this could possibly be correct. I asked several shorthand-writers and we all scratched our heads. What did it mean? I trawled through the old phonographic reference books but had to admit that the transcription was correct. Gordon also writes, ‘Turned in History’ and ‘Turned in French grammar’. I think this refers to some sort of punishment, although not the cane, as the entry for Saturday, 7th April 1894 reveals: ‘In the morning drawing. Pool was sent up to Mr Wagner and had 4 hits with the cane. Came home by the train. Got onto it without my ticket. All the others did the same. We got a ticket at St Erth. . . .’
I have been collecting old postcards with messages written in shorthand for about twenty years. The first one I ever discovered, at a postcard fair, included the shorthand for: ‘I am writing this in shorthand because they always read what is on postcards at the post office here’. That was written in 1905. Apart from secrecy, another reason to use shorthand is that more can be written, and more quickly, in a small space.
Perhaps Gordon was writing his diary in shorthand for reasons of secrecy. Perhaps to practise his shorthand. Perhaps because it was quicker than writing in longhand. Perhaps because he enjoyed doing it. Whatever the reasons, surely he couldn’t possibly have foreseen that his schoolboy diary would have been published in 2016 for all to see.
by Kathryn Baird