Nineteen lines of Brachygraphy shorthand characters written in pencil fill the page of a notebook with 'The Two Brothers' written in longhand at the top. In the top right corner is the number six, indicating the page number.

'The Two Brothers', one of the shorthand manuscripts deciphered by the Dickens Decoders for the first time in 2022. Find out more in Section Six of the exhibition. Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

On his death in 1870, the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-1870), left a legacy of shorthand manuscripts which slowly dispersed into libraries, archives and private collections around the world. Not all of them were deciphered and they have remained the only known manuscripts written by Dickens which have never been read. At least until now.

The Dickens Code project (2021-2023) was set up with the aim of decoding Dickens’s undeciphered shorthand writing. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UKRI, the project involved collaboration with members of the public known as the ‘Dickens Decoders’ and an interdisciplinary network of academics with expertise in writing systems, forensic linguistics, digital humanities, informatics and Dickens studies. This research was made possible through partnerships with international museums and libraries holding fascinating collections related to Dickens’s shorthand – the Charles Dickens Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Research Institute and Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York – as well as the Dickens Project Consortium.

Thanks to the efforts of all involved, eight previously undeciphered pieces from the shorthand notebooks at the Free Library of Philadelphia and a shorthand letter at the Morgan Library have been transcribed for the first time in more than 150 years. You can find out more and access the transcripts here.

We have also gained a better understanding of how Dickens used shorthand and its part in his life and work. Our online exhibition, hosted by the University of Leicester’s Special Collections department, explores this essential but little-known aspect of Dickens’s career.