How did Dickens practise shorthand?

'we had a sort of private Parliament in Buckingham street...' (David Copperfield, chapter 38)
Illustration of David taking down notes in shorthand as Tommy Traddles speaks, observed by David's Aunt Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick, from the first bound edition of David Copperfield. Hover over the image to explore some of the details.

To get into the character-building mindset, Dickens needed practice in listening to speech and writing it down. This would first be done by dictation – a process memorably performed by Tommy Traddles in David Copperfield.

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read an extract from the scene in which Traddles helps David improve his shorthand dictation skills.

I resorted to Traddles for advice; who suggested that he should dictate speeches to me, at a pace, and with occasional stoppages, adapted to my weakness. Very grateful for this friendly aid, I accepted the proposal; and night after night, almost every night, for a long time, we had a sort of Private Parliament in Buckingham Street […] I should like to see such a Parliament anywhere else! My aunt and Mr. Dick represented the Government or the Opposition (as the case might be), and Traddles, with the assistance of Enfield’s Speakers, or a volume of parliamentary orations, thundered astonishing invectives against them. Standing by the table, with his finger in the page to keep the place, and his right arm flourishing above his head, Traddles, as Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox, Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Burke, Lord Castlereagh, Viscount Sidmouth, or Mr. Canning, would work himself into the most violent heats, and deliver the most withering denunciations of the profligacy and corruption of my aunt and Mr. Dick; while I used to sit, at a little distance, with my notebook on my knee, fagging after him with all my might and main.[1]

If David’s description of the process is accurate, one can imagine that friends or family members dictated to young Charles around the kitchen table in Norfolk Street, reading out passages or improvising speeches while trying to make it as entertaining as possible.

As well as getting himself up to a reasonable speed at home, Dickens would also have had to put his stenographic skills to the test in a real courtroom situation. This was more serious, involving, as he put it, ‘walking miles every day to practice it in the courts of law’, where he would sit, listen and try to take down what was said.[2] By attending the courts for practice, he could also make his face known to the proctors and become familiar with the speed of the speakers and the kind of legal phraseology that he would be required to transcribe. By 1829, after about a year of learning and practice, his shorthand was good enough for him to be able to make the step up to reporting as a profession.

A black and white graphic map with two coloured route lines. A thick line indicates the River Thames curving across the right hand corner. Black images of ravens mark Norfolk Street in the top left and the Houses of Parliament in the bottom centre next to the Thames. In the top right of the map, ravens mark Furnival's Inn, the Old Bailey, Bell Yard and Doctors' Commons. A red dotted line marks a route from Norfolk Street to the Old Bailey and Doctors Commons. A blue dotted line marks a route from Furnival's Inn to the Houses of Parliament.

'walking miles every day...' (Letter to Miss Burdett Coutts, 14 January 1854)
A map showing Dickens's routes of travel from two of his early residences in Norfolk Street and Furnival's Inn to three locations associated with his early shorthand career: Doctors' Commons, the Old Bailey, and the Houses of Parliament.


[1] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 552.

[2] ‘To Miss Burdett Coutts, 14 January 1854’, in The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Seven, 1853-1855, edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 245.

Section One: Learning Shorthand
How did Dickens practise shorthand?