If you happened to be standing on the corner of William Street and Lonsdale Street in Melbourne where the Supreme Court building is situated, on any business day from the 1940s to 1990s, you might have seen an occasional parade of extremely focused women or men – it became more commonly women – waiting at the traffic lights and then dashing with gusto across the two sets of lights into Birkdale House, diagonally opposite the Victorian Supreme Court.
These were the Victorian Government Reporting Service shorthand writers engaged on their “turn” in a same-day transcription service. I was one of those who, from time to time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, serviced the court. We comprised a team of four, each taking verbatim evidence in shorthand for 10 to 15 minutes, sitting next to a judge in the Supreme Court at the various trials, criminal or civil, that occurred daily in that magnificent classic Renaissance revival-style building, which opened in 1884.
As acoustics were not exactly brilliant, we would ensure that our places, right next to the judge and the witness box, provided a clear vista of the court room. Birkdale House was our headquarters, where our team of high-speed typists sat patiently awaiting our reports. We would dictate our shorthand notes to them and, if time permitted, check for accuracy, before dashing back across the street for our next take in the trial. No matter the weather, we were charged with the task of providing accurate transcripts under all circumstances. Hectic times indeed.
The history of high-speed professional shorthand writing in Melbourne is fascinating indeed. It all began in 1854 when the Government Shorthand Writers Office was established to cater for Royal Commissions, parliamentary committees, boards of inquiry and so on. The Victorian Shorthand Writers Association had also formed. It was decided that an established set of high-speed shorthand writers was needed to cater for the growing demand for transcripts in courts and tribunals, although the courts did not adopt a formal system of taking evidence in trials until the 1920s. In the 1960s, the Victorian Institute of Licensed Shorthand Writers was established and began publishing a newsletter each month, its motto: “Accuracy, Integrity, Permanence.”
From 1891, to qualify as a high-speed shorthand reporter in the state of Victoria – of which Melbourne is the capital – one needed to pass the Licensed Shorthand Writers (LSW) examination, conducted twice yearly, which was considered to be the hardest such examination in the southern hemisphere. The exam was in two parts. The first comprised five minutes of dictation to be transcribed in longhand within 30 minutes. If successful, candidates were then eligible to undertake the second test: shorthand notes of a 10-minute question and answer session, which had to be read back to the panel of examiners within 20 minutes.
For many years, most candidates were Pitman shorthand writers; later, a good number were stenotypists. Other systems less commonly used were Dacomb, an Australian invention, Gregg, and Gurney’s, an early English style used by Charles Dickens. In the early days, most shorthand writers were male but, after the Second World War, more and more women, increasingly keen to earn their own living, were attracted to the profession and the above-average salaries on offer.
For many years, I worked at the Government Shorthand Writers Office (GSWO), which later merged with the Victorian Government Reporting Service. Its centenary was celebrated in 1954 with a telegram from London reading:
“Best wishes to shorthand writers of the Victorian Government for the next 200 years. Fine record of past 100 years – matter for sincere congratulations and earnest wishes for continuing success
– I. J. Pitman, Chairman, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons.”
In the office’s earliest days, clerks prepared a hand-written transcript from the reporters’ dictated notes. It was not until 1882 that typewriters were first used. In 1921, experimental reporting of trials in the Supreme Court proved such a success in speeding up the work of the courts that a permanent staff of reporters was formed with the transfer of a few from the GSWO.
Some shorthand writers over the years displayed exceptional abilities, one being a Mr George Brown, who even wrote a book on shortcuts in shorthand – I have a copy. One of his notable feats was accomplished when recording evidence in a trial in 1923. He wrote in Pitman’s shorthand for two and-a-half hours and then, without any faltering, read back his report – 8,640 words – within half an hour, at an average speed of 288 words a minute.
I am happily the repository for the entire library of the Victorian Institute of Licensed Shorthand Writers, which consists of many books on shorthand, as well as the newsletters and other material. Some humorous stories from reporters have emerged in the newsletter. One such story recounts how a young constable giving his evidence at a tremendous rate was asked by the judge why he spoke so quickly. He replied, “I was only trying to keep pace with the shorthand writer, your Honour.”
Another recalls a conspiracy trial where it was alleged that one greyhound had been swapped for another. Identification of the dog was important. It was placed on a table in the courtroom while an expert described its markings, referring to a large chart. After a while, the court reporter said to the judge, “Would your Honour please ask the witness to refer to the legs as ‘front’ and ‘rear’?” The judge was tired after a difficult day. “You will have to do the best you can” he snapped. “I am sorry, your Honour” said the reporter, “but ‘four legs’ and ‘forelegs’ sound just the same to me.”
I myself remember a Greek witness giving evidence with a strong accent. The barristers all said they could not understand a word, but the judge said, “Don’t worry, the shorthand writer will have it.”
I have been conducting my own successful business now for nearly 30 years, but look back on my court reporting service days from time to time with a sense of satisfaction.
Adrian Kelly is a Licensed Shorthand Writer (under the Supreme Court of Victoria Evidence Act). He has been the managing director of his own company, Transcripts Plus, which operates out of Melbourne, Australia, for 28 years.
Victorian Institute of Licensed Shorthand Writers Newsletter, Volume 2, August 1965.
Victorian Institute of Licensed Shorthand Writers Newsletter, Volume 2, February 1966.