Why did Dickens learn shorthand?

A painted miniature in the oval aperture of a decorative frame. The head and shoulders of a fresh faced young man with dark curly hair neatly side parted. His left shoulder is turned away. His head is angled to present his full face. He is dressed in dark clothes to the chin excepting a golden buttoned waistcoat showing between the lapels of his overcoat.

A painted miniature of Charles Dickens aged eighteen by his aunt Janet Barrow. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

In 1827, shortly after he left school as a ‘bright, clever-looking youth’ of 15 years old,[1] Charles Dickens started to learn shorthand. He had been working as a clerk to the solicitor Ellis and Blackmore, but finding it ‘a very little world, and a very dull one’ he made the decision to learn shorthand with a view to becoming a reporter.[2]

Dickens's aspirations were clearly influenced by his family. His father, John Dickens (1785-1851), had also learned shorthand and had worked for the British Press newspaper until 1827.

More importantly, his maternal uncle John Henry Barrow (1796-1858) had just set up The Mirror of Parliament, a weekly paper that aimed to rival Hansard, a publication which had been set up in the early nineteenth century to provide a verbatim record of parliamentary debates. With the vague ambition of ‘trying what I could do as a reporter […] in our Ecclesiastical Courts’,[3] Dickens purchased a copy of Brachygraphy – the shorthand system which all aspiring parliamentary reporters were required to use – and set to work teaching himself ‘a very difficult art’.[4]


[1] These are the words of Edward Blackmore, Dickens’s former employer. Quoted in John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, edited by J. W. T. Ley (London: Cecil Palmer, 1928), 46.

[2] ‘To J. H. Kuenzel, [?July 1838]’, in The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume One, 1820-1839, edited by Madeline House and Graham Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 423.

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘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
Why did Dickens learn shorthand?