The Brachygraphy system

Dickens gives us a vivid description of the difficulties of learning shorthand in chapter 38 of David Copperfield.

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read from chapter 38 of David Copperfield, which describes David's difficulties with Brachygraphy.

An age-marked page from a book. In the top centre of the page, ornamental illustrated writing reads 'David Copperfield by Charles Dickens'. A black and white illustration below shows a moody, billowing cloudy sky over a choppy sea. Seagulls fly above it. On the shore a large upturned wooden boat is topped with a washing line of clothes blowing in the wind and a smoking chimney. The boat is surrounded by scattered nets, crates, fishing pots and barrels. A young girl sits in the foreground by a pile of pots, ropes, sheets and such. She is barefoot and wearing a simple dress. Her hair is tousled by the wind. She rests one hand in her lap and the other flat on the ground. At the bottom of the page in small plain print are the details of the publisher.

Vignette title page featuring Little Emily by her boat home on the Yarmouth shore from the first bound edition of David Copperfield.

I bought an approved scheme of the noble art and mystery of stenography (which cost me ten and sixpence); and plunged into a sea of perplexity that brought me, in a few weeks, to the confines of distraction. The changes that were rung upon dots, which in such a position meant such a thing, and in such another position something else, entirely different; the wonderful vagaries that were played by circles; the unaccountable consequences that resulted from marks like flies’ legs; the tremendous effects of a curve in a wrong place; not only troubled my waking hours, but reappeared before me in my sleep. When I had groped my way, blindly, through these difficulties, and had mastered the alphabet, which was an Egyptian Temple in itself, there then appeared a procession of new horrors, called arbitrary characters; the most despotic characters I have ever known; who insisted, for instance, that a thing like the beginning of a cobweb, meant expectation, and that a pen-and-ink sky-rocket, stood for disadvantageous. When I had fixed these wretches in my mind, I found that they had driven everything else out of it; then, beginning again, I forgot them; while I was picking them up, I dropped the other fragments of the system; in short, it was almost heart-breaking.[1]

The 1825 edition of Gurney’s Brachygraphy that he probably used was quite an investment. David Copperfield’s manual cost him ten and sixpence, the equivalent of about £47 (approximately $60) at today’s prices.[2] The system itself, devised by Thomas Gurney (1705-1770) in the eighteenth century and continued by his son and grandson, borrowed a great deal from the stenographer William Mason (fl. 1672-1709),[3] but was advertised by the Gurneys as their own family brand and by the start of the nineteenth century had managed to corner the market for parliamentary and law reporting.

Brachygraphy pre-dated Stenographic Soundhand, a popular phonographic system devised by Isaac Pitman (1813-1897), which was published in 1837. In the course of the nineteenth century, Pitman’s system rose to prominence in a very crowded market because it was much easier to learn. Dickens, however, remained faithful to Gurney throughout his life and taught it to his shorthand pupils until the 1860s, even though it was out of fashion by then and extremely difficult to learn.


[1] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 551.

[2] The National Archives’ ‘Currency Converter: 1270-2017’ indicates that 10s. 6d. in 1830 was worth £35.60 in 2017 (the closest available date). This was the equivalent of two day’s wages for a skilled tradesman. <>. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, on the other hand, £1 in 1830 is equivalent to £94 now. So, 10s. 6d. would amount to approximately £47 today. <>.

[3] William Mason’s system, published in 1707, was named La Plume Volante. His method, which was much admired by his contemporaries, was used to record sermons and to translate the Bible in the years following the Reformation.

Section One: Learning Shorthand
The Brachygraphy system