Twentieth Century: Carlton & Co.

The earliest known attempt to decode Dickens’s shorthand dates from the late nineteenth century. For a Strand Magazine article on Dickens’s manuscripts, John Holt Schooling (1859-1927) applied to Messrs Gurney and Sons, Westminster, for a transcription of one of Dickens’s copied letters to Bentley. The firm, at this time still providing shorthand reporting services using the Gurney method, were able to decipher the shorthand successfully. However, Schooling’s correspondent suggested that this was not without difficulty:

Although evidently written by an expert, there are a few idiosyncrasies in the shorthand. It does not strictly follow the Gurney system.[1]

Renowned stenographer, collector, and Dickensian, William Carlton, was next to tackle the tricky task of deciphering the 'devil’s handwriting'. In 1926, Carlton had published Charles Dickens, Shorthand Writer – essentially a biography of the author’s early career focused on his shorthand reporting. In his introduction, Carlton noted that the topic had been neglected, in part because ‘the materials for such an investigation are […] not readily accessible’, and because material was only then coming to light.[2] The Dickens Museum’s Carlton Papers chart his efforts to decode the shorthand that was available to him in the 1960s, with the help of Frank Higenbottam and William Stower Hewett – also expert stenographers. The letters they exchanged show a process of collective problem-solving – ‘social stenography’ – at work, and capture the thrill and frustration of shorthand transcription:

I quite agree with you that the letter from Forster to Bentley is indeed a tough nut. One of the difficulties is that Dickens (like so many of us) has a habit of distorting the Gurney characters […] some of the characters are similar in appearance as written by Dickens, but totally different in meaning.[3]

A brown sheet of tracing paper with holes punched down the left side. The outline of a smaller page torn from a notebook, also with holes punched down the left side, can be seen through the tracing paper. Written in black at the top is 'Dickens's Shorthand' and the date. 11 lines of shorthand characters in black ink are visible through the tracing paper. On top, written on the tracing paper layer, are potential transcriptions.

Traced shorthand letter with partial solution. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

As Higenbottam reflected, somewhat ruefully, sometimes the only way forward was to consider every possibility.

No doubt I shall be reduced to writing possible alternative readings for each consonant and then trying out different combinations until the correct word is arrived at. This is rather slow work, so I may be some time before I can report progress. I don’t know what sort of a deadline you have in mind.[4]

One method used to try out different guesses was to copy the shorthand characters and lay tracing paper over the top. While often time-consuming, Carlton, Higenbottam, and Stower Hewett’s approach produced some excellent results, resulting in the transcription of several of Dickens’s copied letters, in part or in full.


[1] J. Holt Schooling, ‘Charles Dickens’s Manuscripts’, Strand Magazine (January 1896): 29-40, 34.

[2] William J. Carlton, Charles Dickens, Shorthand Writer: The ‘Prentice Days of a Master Craftsman (London: Cecil Palmer, 1926), 12.

[3] ‘To W. J. Carlton from Frank Higenbottam’, 7 August 1962, Carlton Papers, Charles Dickens Museum [C233/D02/003/0001].

[4] Ibid.

Section Six: Decoding Attempts
Twentieth Century: Carlton & Co.