In Issue 1/2023

Book review: Taylor, Carmel (2021). With Pencils Poised… A History of Shorthand in Australia. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

With Pencils Poised…, by Carmel Taylor, is a very well researched and well-written book about the beginnings of shorthand in the southern hemisphere, which makes extremely interesting reading. Being something of a self-styled aficionado of pen shorthand (Pitman’s New Era in 1961), I have read many books on the beginning of shorthand as well as, in 2015, visiting the Gallery of Shorthand on Long Island, New York, where exhibits are referenced as going back over 5,000 years. This book is unique, however, in concentrating on shorthand in Australia.

There are many other players in this drama of modern-day shorthand. Taylor goes into the various inventors, and their rivalries, in great depth and detail in her book. With a passing nod in Chapter One to Tiro from ancient Rome, we are swiftly brought into the fairly modern era of the mid-1800s.

We are soon reading about the early settlers in Australia who came from Britain or Ireland, bringing with them “a diverse array of skills”, one of those being shorthand. As early as 1824 an advert is placed in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser seeking a “stenographist”. Seemingly, newspapers had got along quite well since that paper was first published in 1803, but then came a new kid on the block when The Australian was launched, also in 1824. Two years later, The Sydney Monitor came along and the gloves were off. The accuracy of reporting court cases required a stenographist’s skill. We also learn about the shorthand systems of Taylor and Gurney, stenographists who were proficient in their shorthand and were encouraged to teach others.

In 1837, with Queen Victoria coming to the throne in Great Britain, Isaac Pitman was “absorbed in his mission to complete his new system of shorthand”. In this same year, Jacob Pitman, Isaac’s brother, migrated to the colony of South Australia, taking with him copies of Isaac’s book on “stenographic sound hand”. Taylor takes us through Jacob’s voyage and how during its course he taught the system to a fellow passenger, journalist-to-be William Holden, who had an illustrious career until he was almost 90.

In the first half of 19th-century Australia, shorthand classes were advertised as “Shorthand Without Tears” by saying that teachers could learn this “intellectually fascinating pastime.”  Some colleges took the prudent decision to teach both Pitman and Gregg shorthand. A phonographer wrote that the skill was “useful, delightful and a true science.” By 1854, “phonography was entrenched into…a progressive educational syllabus”. Public lectures were an inexpensive and polite entertainment, giving opportunities for networking. Isaac Pitman’s shorthand was the talking point.

Robert Gregg’s struggles with his own system are gone into in some detail and, as Federation occurred (on 1 January 1901) the Gregg Institute was opened in Queensland. The Gold Rush in Australia also had an impact on shorthand writers. In the book, Taylor cites several cases where the skill was used. Later on, Taylor tells us, many more systems were devised, along with Isaac Pitman’s shorthand, including PitmanScript. Even James Hill’s 1968 invention of Teeline crossed to Australia, having its 50th anniversary in 2018 and outliving the many methods written and trialled in the first half of the 20th century. 

Shorthand journals abounded and we are taken through their history and their importance, with an increased use of lithography as it readily presented shorthand as “the coveted art” to be brought to the masses. The ever-circulators – articles written in shorthand – were circulated between friends. One magazine named Coo-e-e, meaning “Come here”, borrowed its title from the Dharug language of the south-western areas of Sydney. By the 1960s, the baby boomers in Australia were taking copies of the UK’s Memo magazine (for Pitman users), as it was now easily obtainable with swift airmail services. 

From early on there were competitions, Eisteddfods and speed development. It seems from Taylor’s research that at one time practically the whole of Australia was writing shorthand either for business, for fun or even as a sport. At one stage it was even suggested that shorthand should replace longhand in schools. 

Changes under the Evidence Act in the colony of Victoria in the early 1890s paved the way for engaging the use of a “Licensed Shorthand Writer” or “LSW”, thus the need to form groups such as The Victorian Shorthand Writers’ Association. As shorthand was taught in so many schools, it seems to me as though everyone from a judge downwards could write it! In fact, it was believed that many judges took their own shorthand notes.

As Taylor points out, the Australian Parliament had its own Hansard report, while New South Wales had recorded proceedings from 1824 onwards. Pitman’s shorthand was in use there until 1987. The majority of the shorthand writers were men: New South Wales did not appoint a woman shorthand writer to its Hansard team until February 1986. Many courts, however, did begin to engage women shorthand writers well before then. During both World Wars women had shown themselves very capable of both shorthand and typewriting, the “twin arts”. The usual claim that “Women might be too weak to cope” was mooted but thankfully overcome.

Elsewhere, in the Second World War one POW, working on the Burma railway, kept a diary written in Pitman’s shorthand. This was a highly dangerous enterprise but a successful one, so that he was later able to use his notes to write a full account of his and others’ experiences as prisoners during that time.

In the book, there are pages and pages of interesting facts, with a real insight into how the skill was taught – and improved – at evening classes. Many shorthand societies were formed, some having links back to Great Britain, such as the Incorporated Phonographic Society (still going today!). Special pens were produced for shorthand in Australia, such as the Waterman, Esterbook, Wahl and Swan fountain pens, the latter named after the swan feathers used to make the earlier quill dip-pens. Prizes of these pens and a testament written in Pitman’s shorthand were awarded to successful candidates in examinations. Runners-up were sometimes given shorthand dictionaries. Prizes of a Remington portable typewriter were also made, as we now had the ”twin arts”. Originally, the typist was known as the “type-writer”, and some associations merged to include typists in their organisations.

Shorthand competitions were used as fund-raisers, gaining mutual benefits. The wireless was used as a means to conduct examinations and it was said that “just as the athlete trains to gain skill and stamina, so the shorthand writer must do the same.” Later still, students were encouraged to practice their speed whilst watching television. The marriage of shorthand and sport was celebrated in 1950 in Milan, when Italy hosted the inaugural “Stenographic Olympics”. In the film world, after the silent era, talkies were checked by shorthand writers to “test the voice” rather than having the ”voice to test the shorthand”, referring to the standard accent required from actors of that time.

Shorthand spread throughout the Australian colonies and then the Federation—including in Tasmania where, in 1894, the Hobart Shorthand Writers’ Association was formed for Pitman writers. Correspondence at various times in newspapers came from people who called themselves “Stenographer”, “Phone”, “Grammalogue” and, when all shorthand indicators were used up “Outsider” to get their viewpoint across. Shorthand was also used in some undercover operations. Though some disputed the ability to take notes standing up, their notes were accepted in evidence in court.

In her conclusion, Taylor references the true dexterity of hand and brain in conjunction and says that “shorthand makes a very significant contribution to the student’s thinking powers.” The art of shorthand is not dying and technology is the galvanising mechanism responsible for it currently thriving globally. Revision classes operate throughout Europe, with similar opportunities available in Australia for those using shorthand as a hobby or brain training through the University of the Third Age. Some may question why people learn and use shorthand. As with painting instead of taking a photograph, for example, shorthand is: “Art for art’s sake”.

To say that Carmel Taylor’s book has been a jolly good read would be something of an understatement. I can’t recommend it highly enough. My brief foray in reviewing this book doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try and obtain a copy to read the full 214 pages for yourself.  As Carmel writes at the end of her conclusion: “In the world of shorthand writers, we are all connected by the outlines.”

Mary C Sorene is a retired writer and instructor of shorthand, having worked, for example, as a verbatim court reporter for more than 40 years. She is Secretary of the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters (BIVR), Treasurer of the Association of Verbatim Speech-to-Text Reporters (AVSTTR) and Chair of the Incorporated Phonographic Society (IPS).

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